Welcome to the first of my November interviews. Today I’m happy to be featuring Damyanti Biswas. Damyanti has an impressive resume. She is author of the newly released and gripping crime novel – You Beneath Your Skin, which I just finished reading and will be reviewing next week. Damyanti is also the creator of the We are the World Blogfest – #WATWB, where writers contribute by posting something good going on in the world to deflect from the negativity, on the last Friday of each month. Please read on to learn more about Damyanti and the projects and organizations she supports, which led to the writing of the book.
About the author:
Damyanti Biswas lives in Singapore, and supports Delhi’s underprivileged women and children, volunteering with organisations who work for this cause. Her short stories have been published in magazines in the US, UK, and Asia, and she helps edit the Forge Literary Magazine.
The narrative of Damyanti’s new novel, You Beneath Your Skin (Simon and Schuster) releasing this September, has been shaped by her years of interaction with women and children in these two organisations. Using a framework of a crime thriller, she conjures in this book an authentic portrayal of poverty, misogyny, and political corruption. A woman from Delhi upper classes suffers an acid attack, and this case is investigated amid the backdrop of a crime spree. Unclad bodies of slum women are found stuffed in trash bags, their faces disfigured with acid.
Project WHY’s journey began in 2000 with 40 children who wanted to learn spoken English and a handful of volunteers. Over the years, as the number of children increased, their demands multiplied, new teachers were discovered within tiny jhuggis and lanes, and ad-hoc classrooms found. They started their first after-school support programme at Giri Nagar for children coming from underprivileged homes, and today through seven after-school support centres, they reach out to over 1100 children, 200 women and have created 50 job opportunities for people from the community. Their aim is to bridge the education gap for underprivileged children and improve their learning outcomes in a safe environment, as well as life-skills and all-round development for women.
Stop Acid Attacks (SAA) is a campaign against acid violence. This organisation has been actively campaigning for the cause of acid attack survivors by continuously creating dialogue with the political and legal system, to bring about a social change. The survivor of an acid attack requires immediate medical, financial and psychological support on human grounds. But, the judicial procedures in this country do not assure any such intervention or help to the survivor until a court announces it. It is this loophole in the procedure of justice that they work on, by generating immediate medical and final support for the victims and providing them and their families the needed psychological and legal support. Using the visual medium, and engaging with their supporters worldwide through social media and the internet, they aim to sensitise and educate people about the gruesome nature of this crime, and the oppressive injustice of a gender-biased society.
Damyanti’s dedication to both the causes has led her to ensure that her proceeds from the book You Beneath You Skin go to Project Why and Stop Acid Attacks. Earlier drafts of this novel were long-listed for the Mslexia Novel Competition and the Bath Novel Award, and the writing was helped by a grant from the National Arts Council of Singapore. Damyanti’s short stories have been published in anthologies and journals around the world, including Litro, Griffith Review, Bluestem and others. She’s also one of the editors of the Forge Literary magazine.
Her book was launched at the IIC Delhi on the 17th of September, where she was in conversation with well-known journalist Shutapa Paul.
On the 22nd September she was invited to the Odisha Literary Festival to speak on a panel with Ravi Shankar and Kishwar Desai, about crime novels that tackle social issues. She has also attended a panel with Gita Aravamudan, noted journalist, author and feminist where they discussed about crimes against women.
‘Gripping…crime fiction with a difference. This is a novel full of layers and depth, focusing on class and corruption in India with compassion and complexity.’
LIES. AMBITION. FAMILY.
It’s a dark, smog-choked new Delhi winter. Indian American single mother Anjali Morgan juggles her job as a psychiatrist with caring for her autistic teenage son. She is in a long-standing affair with ambitious police commissioner Jatin Bhatt – an irresistible attraction that could destroy both their lives.
Jatin’s home life is falling apart: his handsome and charming son is not all he appears to be, and his wife has too much on her plate to pay attention to either husband or son. But Jatin refuses to listen to anyone, not even the sister to whom he is deeply attached.
Across the city there is a crime spree: slum women found stuffed in trash bags, faces and bodies disfigured by acid. And as events spiral out of control Anjali is horrifyingly at the centre of it all …
In a sordid world of poverty, misogyny, and political corruption, Jatin must make some hard choices. But what he unearths is only the tip of the iceberg. Together with Anjali he must confront old wounds and uncover long-held secrets before it is too late.
The book has already received a fantastic early praise:
‘Biswas’s masterful You Beneath Your Skin is an intelligent page-turner that mixes a thrilling murder case with a profound psychological and sociological study of contemporary India.’ – David Corbett, award-winning author of The Art of Character
‘You Beneath Your Skin is a gripping tale of murder, corruption and power and their terrifying effects in New Delhi. Highly recommended.’ – Alice Clark-Platts, bestselling author of The Flower Girls
‘Suspenseful and sensitive, with characters negotiating serious issues of society, this crime novel will keep you awake at night!’ – Jo Furniss, bestselling author of All the Little Children and The Trailing Spouse
‘Gripping…crime fiction with a difference. This is a novel full of layers and depth, focusing on class and corruption in India with compassion and complexity.’ – Sanjida Kay, Author of psychological thrillers, Bone by Bone, The Stolen Child, My Mother’s Secret and One Year Later
‘You Beneath Your Skin – beautiful writing, strong characters and a story that will stay with me for a long time. Set in New Delhi, this novel tackles important issues as well as providing a tension-filled read.’- Jacqueline Ward, Bestselling author of Perfect Ten
You Beneath Your Skin is an indubitably disturbing novel. It holds up an ugly mirror to a deeply entrenched misogyny in Indian society that manifests itself all too often in gruesome crimes against women. This decade has been particularly frightening, and 2012 marks a defining moment in it: the heinous gang rape of Jyoti Singh Pandey in a moving bus in Delhi by six men made India sit up and take note.
There was extensive media coverage of the incident and its aftermath (including unprecedented nationwide protests and changes in India’s criminal law); the years that followed also saw a controversial BBC documentary on the subject (India’s Daughter, 2015), and a fine Netflix series in 2019.
The Netflix series – the seven-part Delhi Crime – based on case files, was very much on my mind while reading Damyanti Biswas’s debut novel. For two important reasons: First, at the heart of both is a crime that is particularly savage in its enactment. And second, the police investigation not only unravels a crime but also lays bare the dynamics of a fraught filial relationship – in the series, between a mother and teenage daughter (DCP Vartika Chaturvedi is hell bent on nabbing Pandey’s assailants not only to deliver justice to the victim but also to restore the faith of her own daughter in their city and the law of their country), and in the novel, between a mother and teenage son (psychiatrist Anjali Morgan, an Indian American, settles in Delhi to flee her past in America and has a hard time being a single mother to Nikhil, who has autism).
Mother and son
There is however not one but multiple fraught filial bonds in the novel – between Anjali and Nikhil, between Anjali and Dorothy (her mother), between Jatin and Varun (Anjali’s lover and his son). The most dramatic confrontation scenes are between the latter. But it is Anjali’s relationship with Nikhil that anchors the whole story.
It is difficult not to be moved by it. And by the daily challenge of their lives: The mutual stress, the difficult recalibration of their moods as advised by therapists, the enormous need of one to protect and of the other to be protected, the comparisons with other children that inevitably crop up in parents’ mind, the unpredictable behaviour that the slightest change in routine can provoke in the child… the list is endless. This bond – fierce, all-consuming – established at the very beginning of the novel, falls apart soon after. The rest of novel can be said to be a painful recovery of it.
Too much, too few
Just as there are multiple fractured relationships in the novel, there is also a surfeit of concerns, all radiating from Anjali: A single-mother with a challenged child, having had a traumatic childhood herself, in a long-standing extramarital relationship with a police commissioner (who happens to be both her father’s protégé and her bestie’s brother), sucked into a drug and prostitution dragnet that exposes both the misogyny and corruption of the society she lives in, and the hypocrisies hiding behind social norms. While they are inter-related, each one of these concerns could have had novels unto themselves. Anjali, one can’t help feeling, has just too much to bear!
You Beneath Your Skin is also a novel peopled with many characters and moves fast between different settings (though mostly within Delhi). It is difficult to give space to the exploration of relationships over time in such a scenario – but Biswas does manage to give us effective back stories through deft flashbacks. And for a novel that centres around violence, the most moving scenes, surprisingly, are small intimate moments.
“He hugged her from behind her. She stared at the picture they made, Jatin’s strong arm around her waist, his face on her shoulder, her hair tangled under his chin. She liked that he was so much taller than her five feet nine, and she liked him when he relaxed into her, lost his hard edges.”
‘I like that that you father gave your this love of poetry.’
‘He didn’t give it to me.’ Jatin’s eyes turned wistful. ‘I got it from him. I’m trying to do a better job as a father. Everything he never gave me, I’ll give Varun.’”
Alas, there are too few of these moments.
It is easy for a writer dealing with such an incendiary theme to easily slip into sensationalism, especially while writing in the crime fiction genre – where people expect “action-packed thrillers”, the “thrill” element coming primarily from the peddling of violence and sex. Biswas steers clear of that route with élan – giving us all the necessary details of what it means to be an acid attack victim (from the nature of the chemical through what it does to the skin to the painfully long and complex recovery process), but never allowing it to slide into a “thrill”.
Brutally honest and evolved selves
I really liked the ending of the novel. Both Jatin and Anjali have to own up to themselves and their pasts and cope with their failure as parents – as events spiral out of control and they face the greatest crisis of their lives. It is particularly hard for Jatin, as it is impossible for him to be fair to both his son and his beloved at the same time. He makes a heroic attempt to stand by his principles, but can’t… the residual guilt and sadness gnaws at him even as he tries to start over a new life.
Anjali begins as a vulnerable mother in the novel, but ends as a fiercely honest individual. Accepting life for what it is and embracing her true self.
Biswas manages to be realistic in her ending without giving up on either idealism or hope for the future. That’s a balance hard to achieve – but worth aiming for, both in life and fiction.
Now that you’ve read about some of the spectacular reviews for Damyanti’s new release, let’s delve a little deeper into Damyanti and her writing:
1. Where do your book ideas grow from?
Most of my book ideas grow from characters. You Beneath Your Skin came from Anjali’s character. Who she was, as a professional, as a woman, as a mother, as a daughter, as a friend, a lover. All of that created the rest of the novel—brought the other characters into the picture, made them real for me.
D.G. – As a reader who just finished this book, I can vouch for your making these characters very real!
2. What can you tell us you’ve gained from blogging as an author?
My blog started in 2008 as a way for me to write daily. I kept up the practice, and at the same time, I was fortunate enough to find a community of very supportive bloggers. We visited each other and formed bonds. I took part in challenges, and some of those (like the A to Z Challenge that I helped co-host for a few years) involved writing fiction. I gained readers over the years, and many many good friends. So I really became an author in the process of blogging.
D.G. – That is fascinating, but not surprising, as our blogging community has the most support for our writing.
3. How has writing changed your life?
Writing has made me look inwards. It has taught me reflection, empathy, an appreciation for both the beautiful and not-so-beautiful aspects of life. It gave me the ability to create and inhabit worlds, examine truths, explore various aspects of life, and of course, to try and understand why people do what they do.
D.G. – I couldn’t have said this better myself. 🙂
4. Do you prefer to only read books in your genre?
I read very widely, in many genres. Each kind of book gives different things to its readers. Some provide escape, others provoke thought, yet others provide knowledge. At any given time, I try and keep up with two books, a heavy read and a light one.
D.G. – So funny because I usually do the same – reading 2 books at a time – one heavy and one lighter fare.
5. Do you have any advice you can share for new writers?
This could come across as a bit of a joke, but I’m usually pretty serious when I say this: stay away from writing, get away while there is still a chance!
To those who couldn’t get away and are already consumed by it, there can be no specific advice. We are all different people, coming into writing from different backgrounds. What would be very good advice for me could be bad for you. We can’t all write everyday, or avoid adverbs, or show not tell, or write briefly or elaborately. Each of us have our own voice and must work to find it. We must listen to all advice, but pick what is good for us. The only universal advice for a writer, cliched and futile as it sounds, is to read a lot, write a lot, and trust their own voice.
D.G. – Sound advice indeed!
Damyanti is generously sharing an excerpt of her book:
Anjali Morgan wanted to get hold of Nikhil and smack him. He could have hurt himself jumping out of the moving car.
I told you he’ll be the death of you one day, Mom’s voice played in her ears. You never listen.
‘Get back in the car,’ she yelled at Nikhil, but he’d disappeared, leaving Anjali stranded at the narrow, sloping exit tunnel of the capital’s largest shopping mall. Two drivers honked behind her. She wanted to turn and yell at them but held back. You know better than anyone else he can’t help it.
She needed to clear her head before she spoke to him again. He wouldn’t go far. Deep breaths. She leaned out of the car door and inhaled, only for the petrol fumes to hit her, along with the smog and that dusty smell unique to New Delhi. She forgot it most times, but now she choked on it and coughed.
Anjali stepped out of her car, the yellow overhead lights blinding her for a moment. Five cars now queued up behind hers. The driver in the first car had seen a teenager throw a tantrum in front of his harried mother. He slammed the horn and the rest followed suit. She spotted Nikhil’s gangly form down the slope, cantering away.
‘Madamji.’ A short Nepali guard in a beige uniform hurried up the slope towards her, his whistle shrieking. ‘Yahan parking allowed nahin hai.’
‘I’m sorry.’ Anjali tried to remember the Hindi words, but they’d fled, along with her composure. ‘My son has run away.’
She was about to sprint after Nikhil when the guard overtook her and blocked the way.
‘No parking here.’ He pointed at the cars queuing up behind her. ‘This is “Exit”.’
Down the slope behind the guard, Anjali watched in horror as Nikhil turned into the parking area and disappeared. The cool air of a November evening made her shiver.
‘I need to go get my son. What part of that can’t you understand?’
Anjali loosened the scarf about her neck, parted it from her jacket. In her last therapy session with Nikhil, the two of them had been taught to cup their hands and take deep breaths when in a trying situation. She tried it now, but terror clogged her throat. Her breaths came gasping, short.
‘Big boy only, mil jaega.’ The Nepali guard gestured towards the main road and spoke in a mixture of Hindi and broken English, ‘Make one round and come back. Where will he go?’
How was she to explain to this man that she couldn’t afford to lose sight of Nikhil? By now he might have tripped and fallen down an escalator, screaming like a horror movie hostage, or thrown a fit when a stranger brushed against him in the evening crowd.
‘Move your car.’ Another guard appeared, his eyes trained at her chest instead of her face. ‘You are making jam.’
A supervisor. Making jam, indeed. Strawberry or apricot?
She needed to get past the honking cars, the petrol fumes in the exit tunnel, and this cranky supervisor eyeing her up.
‘Get into car, madam,’ the supervisor continued. ‘Gori memsaab,’ he muttered under his breath in Hindi, ‘samajhti kya hai apne aap ko?’
The sight of a light-skinned, blonde-haired woman, taller and broader than him, had clearly pissed this man off. Twelve years in Delhi and it still got to her. The guard didn’t know she understood his comment: ‘What does she think of herself?’ and the way he chewed on the words ‘gori memsaab’ behind his moustache. White Madam.
She wanted to punch his face, show him what a big ‘white madam’ might do, but that wouldn’t get her any closer to Nikhil. Quite the opposite. Two more guards jogged towards her from the parking lot.
‘I will find him, madamji,’ the Nepali guard spoke up in order to be heard over a renewed spate of honks, ‘you go and come back. I saw him. In black t-shirt and jeans, hai na?’
‘Yes. But please don’t touch him, he gets upset.’
Anjali scrabbled through her bag. ‘Here’s my card. Call me, please, when you find him.’ She dropped it. ‘Sorry!’ she snatched it up again. ‘Oh, his eyes are blue.’
The cars blasted their horns, and the supervisor edged towards her. Anjali stepped back, her hands shaking. Would she lose Nikhil the evening after his fourteenth birthday? She slid back into her car and drove off. Speed-dialling Maya, her landlady and best friend, she crashed her gears. Maya might not have found a taxi near the mall entrance yet. She could help look for Nikhil.
Anjali tried to steady her fingers on the steering wheel. Stuck amidst other cars in the afternoon traffic on Mandir Marg, with bikes edging past her and picking their way to the
front of the congestion, it would take at least another ten minutes to turn back into the mall’s parking lot. She prayed for Maya to find Nikhil before he got into trouble.
Should have checked the child lock on his door, Mom’s voice piped up inside her head. But how was she to know Nikhil would run? No point in worrying about that now—she needed to breathe through this. Anjali had grown up with Mom’s voice, and even though she had moved thousands of miles away, Mom still lived within her. Anjali counted her breaths, which took her back to Lamaze classes, days with Nate Morgan sitting behind and breathing right along, days when Nikhil was a part of her and couldn’t kick other than from inside her belly.
She could no longer shelter her son within her body or absorb his punches and tantrums. Even as a baby, he’d refused to nurse. Later, he lay alone, keeping his gaze on the red toy airplane buzzing in circles over his crib, unhappy when Anjali picked him up for a nappy change.
Anjali watched a woman stirring a pot on the pavement not five feet away from the traffic, her baby’s feet hovering over the fire. Be careful, Anjali wanted to tell the mother, please be careful. Despite the cold, toddlers ran barefoot, in torn sweaters. Wrapped in wide, shaggy blankets, elderly men sat smoking beside flimsy homes fashioned out of tarpaulin and cardboard. Pedestrians sidestepped makeshift beds and hurried past migrant children who came to the capital in search of a better life: outsiders, like her, only far less fortunate. Behind them, a huge, lighted hoarding showed pale-faced models in tuxedo suits and gowns next to large television screens.
Sweat beaded her upper lip. She didn’t feel very fortunate right this minute, merely stupid. Why hadn’t she taken that guard’s mobile number? Like an idiot, she’d told him about Nikhil’s blue eyes. Nikhil usually kept his gaze to the floor—what if that guard tried to get a look at Nikhil’s eyes and he freaked? We’ll find him, Maya had assured her on the phone not ten minutes ago, don’t panic. Maya was more family than friend and good with Nikhil, so she was a good bet to locate him. Anjali tried to reach Maya again and listened to the unanswered phone. Instead of a ring, Maya had downloaded a caller tune, a peppy Punjabi number.
Catching sight of her face in the rear-view mirror, Anjali flinched. Faded make-up, wrinkles under her eyes, greasy hair. Mom would have cackled had she seen Anjali like this. Stay with the face God gave you. Vanity is a Sin. Nikhil had aged her by a dozen, no, twenty
years. Long work sessions at her Bhikaji Cama clinic, taking him for group therapy sessions with Dr Bhalla, and now this shopping trip from hell. She thumped her hand on the horn, emitting a series of sharp honks to hurry along the cars at the green light.
What if this was her punishment for letting him skip lunch today, following a tantrum? Dr Bhalla said she must remain consistent, not give in when he went into a meltdown during his daily routine. Nikhil was bound to be hungry by now, after a chocolate shake and not much else for lunch that afternoon. No, Anjali, focus. Find him first. She sighed and dialled her friend again.
Maya finally picked up as Anjali turned into the mall parking area.
‘Can’t find him, Anji. I’ve looked everywhere. He’s not at the toy shop. Should I call Bhai?’
Anjali sprinted up the escalator, two steps at a time, sweating despite the chill. If they didn’t find Nikhil soon, she must get the mall security to make an announcement. He might have lost his way to the toy shop, a long walk and three floors up from where they’d parked. Trying to look calm, she approached the handbag-check, where the lady guard in a khaki saree delicately swirled the metal detector through her bag, as if stirring a curry. Wanting to scream with each wasted second, Anjali crossed through the sliding doors and headed for the information desk. She had taught Nikhil to look for one if he got into trouble. Would he remember?
Reaching the main courtyard, Anjali squeezed past a bevy of perfectly-coiffed women in salwar-kameezes, laden with shopping bags. Out of breath, she stopped beside Nando’s, where a family sat with two kids about Nikhil’s age. To manage an episode, Dr Bhalla said, use the right aids, at the right time. Nikhil did not allow touch. Anjali grabbed a smiley squeeze ball and his favourite blue blanket out of her handbag and scanned the crowd for a skinny boy with tufts of hair jutting up at the crown, a shambling walk, hands fisted.
She spotted him near a hair salon. She wanted to call out his name, but that would scare him into running or throwing a tantrum.
He started when she touched his sleeve, but the face was a lot older, filled out, with a moustache. Not Nikhil but a salon employee, a bright red tag on his black tee-and-jeans uniform. Anjali blurted out a stream of hurried apologies and sprinted on.
Nikhil wanted to get to Hamleys and buy that airplane. He already owned one in black, but he wanted the red one, he’d said, and the blue. Anjali should have said yes, instead of handing him a squeeze ball and showing him his schedule for today. It specified that he
could stay in the mall from 6.30 to 8.30 pm, pick one slice of Black Forest cake at the pastry shop to eat after dinner, and buy one airplane of his choice. Not two, or three, just one.
She called Maya. ‘Did you see him?’
‘Not yet. I’m at Hamleys. I think you should go to the information desk.’ Maya paused. ‘Bhai called to ask if I was on my way. I had to tell him.’
Great. Within minutes of each small crisis in her life, one of Delhi’s top cops knew. Mr Jatin-Worried-Bhatt, Maya’s doting older brother, would call any minute now. Please, not him, not now.
She cut the call. Stopping to catch her breath, she closed her eyes. She needed to collect herself, not panic. A low whine floated up, but once she opened her eyes there was only the buzz from the throng of shoppers around her.
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