Witness the Night
Winner of the Costa First Novel Award—a dazzling mystery that takes readers into the heart of India
In a small town in northern India, a house still smolders from a devastating fire. Inside a young girl is found severely beaten and barely alive, along with the lifeless bodies of thirteen people. Inexplicably, the local police accuse the girl of the murders. But Simran Singh, an independent-minded, unconventional social worker, is convinced of the girl's innocence. As Simran goes against the authorities to seek out the truth, she discovers a terrifying web of deceit that will change her forever. Seamlessly weaving themes of sexism, police corruption, and infanticide, this captivating mystery plunges readers into the thrilling heart of modern India.
My eyes snap open and I stare at the ceiling. I look at the clock—3 a.m. The occasional flash of a passing car lights up the room. It is quiet, as only Jullundur can be quiet. After all those years of terrorism, when bomb blasts used to light up the night, now it is only car headlights. I reach for a cigarette. The pleasures of not sharing a room are many. You can fart in bed, and you can smoke without asking, ‘May I?’ I look across the chintz printed bed sheets and imagine The Last Boyfriend sprawled there. Hairy, fat, rich. Better than bald, thin and poor. But unbearably attached to his ‘Mummyji’.
Funny thing, this umbilical cord. If you’re female, they can’t wait to snip it off. But for boys, Mummyji’s breasts drip milk like honey dew. I watched Boyfriend squirm with delight under Mummyji’s gaze, as he piled on his millions in stocks and shares. With the ever increasing millions, and the solitaires glittering ever so brightly, why would she want a daughter-in-law dark and khadiclad like me? I gently exhaled and blew Boyfriend away.
I can still hear Mummyji’s shocked voice, the solitaires shaking in opprobrium: ‘Simran, you are a sardarni, a Sikhni, and you smoke!’
I settle down on the bed more comfortably, lolling over the side where Boyfriend would have lain. The Punjab police guest house room smells of smoke. They say that once smoke enters the air conditioning ducts, it keeps circulating there for years. Just like my Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, of not being able to erase a single detail from my mind.
Playing it over and over again. Like smoke it filters through my mind. The girl. The remand home. The theory I have, which is both a hypothesis and a nightmare. The scenario I have examined over and over in my mind for three months. The only part that makes me uneasy is my inability to put the pieces together. Was there a man, an outsider? The girl denies it—but she had obviously been raped. Or was it murder in self-defence? Did she kill anyone? Did her brother or her father try to molest her? When they found her, she was covered with so many wounds and so much blood—her own as well as that of, perhaps thirteen other people—that it was difficult to find out what had happened. And then, she could hardly speak. She was in hospital for three months and has just been shifted to a room near the jail, in judicial custody.
It worries me. Something tells me instinctively that the evidence is too obvious. From experience I know we have to redefine the boundaries—push away the walls that block us. As a professional but unsalaried social worker, rudely called an NGO-wali (and a rather amateur psychiatrist), I am shocked to find this poor traumatized fourteen-year-old orphan. In the last twenty-five miserable years I haven’t seen a more sorrowful sight. I look through my notes, reading how every single member of her family had been poisoned and some of the victims stabbed with a knife. Since there was no other evidence or fingerprints, she is the chief suspect, and under investigation. Once the police have finalized their case, she could, of course, be under trial for years, as few cases in India ever come to the courts before at least twenty years. By that time she would be thirty four years old and would probably be immune to any sort of reform and, if she isn’t already, a murderess as well.
I light another cigarette. Shit, the electricity has just gone off. Why does anyone bother to live in this corrupt country? They screw you if you don’t pay your taxes, but you can’t do anything to them once you elect the damn ministers who live in palatial electric splendour while the rest of us scrounge around for a scrap of light. In full technicolour memory is a recent wedding: my mother’s best friend’s daughter married the son of a Minister in the Central Cabinet with Independent Charge. The wedding venue was lit up as though to guide a NASA spaceship to earth. The twenty lakh rupees spent on hiring generators for the various hotels and houses could have kept several hundred ordinary homes blazing with lights for a few years at least. My mother was moved to tears, of happiness of course, that her friend’s daughter was being given away in a blaze of glory. She always said that if you have it, flaunt it. It was a long-standing Punjabi tradition in her family.
I fumble around and find a candle, then go back through my notes about the ‘case’ as I still think about it. Sweat trickles down my back. It is obvious that no one actually cared about Durga. Were it not for her large inheritance, the ‘case’ may not even have attracted the kind of publicity that it had. Perhaps the publicity would force an early decision?
I know what makes me uncomfortable—the danger of accepting the more obvious and easy explanations. I know, to my constant regret, that we sometimes take those options. We could be tired and exhausted, the so-called criminal might not co-operate, the victim’s family could be much more rigorous and demanding. Or influential and demanding. Yes, the justice system has been known to give up, and the wrong person ends up being convicted. If there is a conviction at all.
But of course, these days high-profile cases call forth candlelight vigils and activist journalism. Not that it helps, because thanks to mass vigilantism the courts are being pressurized into taking popular decisions. Democracy drives everything, you can even vote to hang someone today.
“A thought-provoking tale.”— The Guardian (UK)
“Riveting, slow-burn murder mystery in which the new and the old India collide head on, as Desai's ballsy, maverick, and thoroughly modern heroine, Simran Singh, reveals a shocking twist on one of India's ugliest traditions.” — M. J. McGrath, author of White Heat
“We were thrilled and exhilarated by this stunning debut. Just like her feisty main character, Desai has fearlessly blown the lid on the problems that simmer under the surface of modern-day India.” — The Costa Award Judges
“Witness the Night is an important novel with a compelling mystery at its heart. Simran Singh, in particular, is a terrific protagonist - the perfect guide on what is a dark and unsettling journey. Desai deserves a wide readership to go with the accolades she has already accumulated. This is a novel of genuine accomplishment.” — Simon Lelic, author of A Thousand Cuts and The Child Who
"Terrific." — The Telegraph (UK)
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