At the Palm Court restaurant at the Langham Hotel in London, Nisha Paul chats with author Kishwar Desai about her debut novel, Witness the Night
As she walked into the restaurant, journalist and wife of the noted economist, writer and member of the House of Lords, Meghnad Desai, Kishwar Desai looked radiant as ever. Her debut novel, Witness the Night recently won the ‘First Novel Award’ at UK’s prestigious Costa Novel award 2010. A psychological crime thriller, the book is a refreshing take on the hidden world of female infanticide in North India.
Excerpts from the interview
A dark subject
I had thought about this story for 10 years and I wrote it out within 40 days as it was brewing inside me for a long time. Meghnad and I were in our home in Goa and while he was working on his book, I too started writing. We would meet for lunch breaks and dinner but otherwise stay immersed in our tasks.
The story turned into a thriller by accident and given the genre, it wrote itself. You cannot grow up in India and not know and feel about this subject. Journalists and researchers estimate 30 million female foetuses are intentionally missing or killed off over decades of gendercide. I wanted to stir anger and not let it be forgotten as yesterday’s newspaper headline. This happens largely in Rajasthan, Haryana and Punjab and in a lot of cases even before birth; selection is done using the newly available IVF technology. The affluent go abroad and get it done as its illegal in India while the others do it quietly through underground methods. The whole procedure is harmful to maternal health and devalues a woman.
Gender imbalance creates frustration and more rape cases and results in women being imported from other states to North India for sexual gratification. It’s now become an increasingly global problem with India and China, both having increasingly large numbers of the male population.
Shaping the character
Simran Singh is an amalgamation of many women I know. I wanted a liberated emancipated woman, who was not afraid of making a decision. She had to be at an age where she had experienced life and understood the system as that is crucial to the plot. I chose a social worker instead of a journalist because she had to be someone who was keen to fight for people’s rights not just report it as news. Yet she was not infallible and was open to making mistakes. I have had numerous emails from women in Finland, France, Italy and the UK, who all relate to Simran’s character and have enjoyed reading my book. I guess I touched a universal chord with many people.
The impact has been surprisingly good. People liked the format of the novel as it provided a new way of looking at the issue. As it is an engaging thriller it served a dual purpose. When I was at the IFFI (International Film Festival of India), my publisher emailed me with the news that my book had won the award. At the time I was doing a workshop with Boman Irani and as our birthdays are a day apart, we both cut a cake and celebrated together. I felt very blessed.
Next in store...
I am writing two further books with Simran Singh as the central heroine. Depending on the reaction of my readers, the books may get made into a film or television series. I am also working on a huge romantic saga with a ghost in it. And I still have to complete my book on Devika Rani and Himanshu Rai.
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