Book Review: You Beneath Your Skin by Damyanti Biswas
(Published by Simon & Schuster India, 17 Sept 2019)
I purchased this book even before I requested it on Netgalley, but I requested it anyway and was approved.
The author Damyanti Biswas lives in Singapore, and has written many shorts / flash fiction, and this story derives from her experience working with NGOs in Delhi. The author also happens to be a mentor in a prestigious writing competition. This book, “You Beneath Your Skin,” in its unpublished avatar, was longlisted in the Bath Novel award (UK) of 2016.
The book come with the logline – Lies. Ambition. Family. There are primarily two characters, but the story progresses through five POVs. The story is told in third person, and it has been written with remarkable detailing. The characters are well formed, and depicted with all their complexity. As the story progresses, the layers of their mental masks get ripped off one by one. This has been achieved pretty well using the inner thoughts and motivations of the characters, and through interactions with their near and dear in various life situations.
The author does well to depict the reality and the axis of rot that prevails at various levels of the Indian society. This book has been spoken about as a contemporary crime fiction with a literary bend, so don’t expect it to be a cozy whodunit or a police procedural or a murder mystery. The crime part is gruesome with all its details, and may even have a trigger for those who have had some bad experience with acids. A bad experience with acids that I had in school in chemistry lab, and had forgotten, came rushing in when I read chapter 19 that has acid attack portrayed in graphic details. Besides, hindi cuss words have been used at many places.
The two main characters are Anjali Morgan, an Indo-American psychologist working in Delhi, and the cop, Jatin Bhatt, an officer of Delhi Police. More than Anjali, the cop is the main character. The story explores their psyche through backstory and present. Their relation has a potential of creating havoc with their friends and family. In some ways, broken families and its effect on kids can be easily deciphered. The other three POVs are Maya, the cop’s sister, Pawan, Maya’s employee and beau, and Varun, the cop’s son and a spoiled brat. The characters are vivid.
I loved many of the nuances that the author deploys early on to set the narrative. Whether it be the way kids are used as a tool for career progression of their parents, whether it be the descriptions of slum kids, or the way people from backward areas of India speak English. The book can be a delight for those interested in urdu couplets of Ghalib whose translation has been well integrated within the scenes, so one doesn’t feel out of place as if reading simple translation as done in some books. It brings out a flavor of Indian society, and makes the book deeply rooted in its setting, Delhi, but more importantly in a social milieu that is upper middle class and sensitive. It plays out pretty well with the character of the cop.
Besides the crimes against women and children, and juvenile crime, it shows the underbelly of Delhi in details. The scenes are well expressed. The book deals with various kinds of marginalization, women in poverty, a mixed-race woman who is seen as the ‘other,’ and an autistic child. These marginalizations are depicted in various manners through daily interactions of characters with people around them. The plotline may not be new as similar plotlines can be found in books like “The Silence of Murder,” a YA book by Dandi Daley Mackall. I liked the way the story progressed to a point where the cop gets torn between two people he loves.
In a way, it goes deep into the dark side of Indian society, and blurs the boundaries between reality & fiction, and many layers of socio-political-criminal nexus of patriarchy are peeled off.
So, is the book perfect? While the book is well crafted (with couple of POV timeline issues), it would attract a similar criticism that books like “To Kill A Mocking Bird” or “Gone With The Wind” attracts. In this case, the acid attack is used as a narrative device, and there is nothing more to it. In trying to be a mirror of the society, the book falls into the trap of ‘product of its time.’ For a book that espouses the cause of acid-attack victims and pledges funds for survivors and their children, I couldn’t understand why the book allowed itself to peter out at the end – where it really mattered – the quest for justice.
As a reader I could feel the anger and the dismay of the characters. As I read through the end, I expected it would go the way of a book like “The Hate U Give,” or the ending similar to a movie like “Mother India,” but then nothing happens! Those behind the attack, who are also involved in other crimes against women and murders, are sent off to study in London! And everyone is reconciled, perhaps even happy!
A quote from last chapter for the character Anjali who is the victim – “In front of the mirror, she twirled in her dress, setting her hair loose and let a smile work its way down her body. She had a job to do, a life to live, and a hell of a story to tell her grandchildren.”
Given the rot of socio-political structures in India, justice may look a mirage, but to accept it as fait accompli without even trying is perpetuation of the wrong. I couldn’t understand why there is no outrage, no protest, no marches, no demonstration by the people for action to book the culprits. Delhi has after all not been so insipid not to take up issues. I don’t know what prompted the author to not dazzle in the end. It makes me think the author missed the opportunity provided by fiction.
Except for the ending, the book is excellent.
Further reading on the issue of ‘product of its time’ at The Atlantic and Bookriot
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