Q and A with D.G. Kaye – Featuring Damyanti Biswas

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. Damyanti Biswas volunteers for the non-profits, Project WHY and Stop Acid Attacks. She speaks passionately on the subjects of gender, violence, and poverty. 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.     Blurb: ‘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 … Continue reading Q and A with D.G. Kaye – Featuring Damyanti Biswas