Review of You beneath Your Skin by Damyanti Biswas

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First, a disclaimer: I received an Advance Reading Copy of this book with no obligation to post a review.

A psychological crime procedural novel set in Delhi, You Beneath Your Skin quickly paints a vivid picture of the streets, drawing the reader into a dark and desperate world. Although Indian society is divided into the haves and the have-nots more starkly than many, here the two worlds soon collide.

The central character, Anjali, is the divorced mother of a teenaged boy with a form of high-functioning autism that makes him extremely challenging and demanding. She is having a long-term affair with Jatin, who is both the Special Commissioner of Crime in the Delhi Police Force, and the married brother of her best friend, Maya.

Jatin has been charged with investigating a crime supposedly committed by an opposition member of Parliament, but while the government want a conviction, the politician has friends who will pull strings to ensure it is hushed up. The crime under investigation never made clear, but this conflict has resulted in pressure being brought on Jatin to have the case dropped. On top of this, a series of brutal murders are being carried out in the slum areas of Delhi, and although there are elements of the police and the wider establishment who don’t consider them worth investigating, Jatin and his team are determined to track down the perpetrators.

As the tension increases, and the investigations unexpectedly threaten to draw in more of the central characters, one of them is suddenly the victim of an acid attack. And from now on, there are two main storylines, one being the on-going police investigations into the murders, and the other following the victim of the acid attack and the search for reasons and answers to that.

The unfolding storyline, the large cast of different characters and the continuing atmosphere of menace is handled skilfully throughout. Both the brutality both of the criminal underworld and of the police themselves is an ever-present threat, as is both the desperation felt by the poor and the sense of privilege and entitlement by the rich and powerful. And throughout it all, the misogyny intrenched in Indian society overlays everything that happens.

Damyanti Biswas is a Delhiite, writing with the knowledge and authority of someone who knows their area intimately. This a remarkable achievement for a debut novel, powerful and fluent. I was hooked from the beginning, sympathising with the characters and intrigued by the twists and turns of this powerful plot.

Acid attacks are a horrendous phenomenon, scarring and disfiguring, and even killing the victim. I think that many people view them as almost ‘minor’ crimes, and assume that the victim merely suffers a bit of pain and discomfort, and a bit of damage to their skin, but these attacks can inflict injuries as terrible as the burns from fires, and cause almost unbearable pain. Yet partly because of the easy availability of corrosive liquids, they have become almost commonplace in some ways, being used as revenge for perceived slights and ‘dishonours’ as well as for gangland feuds.

This novel, as well as relating an excellent detective story, is also Damyanti’s vehicle to help bring understanding of this horror to the attention of the wider world.

I would certainly give this book five stars.

A Little Village in Northern India…

Having bludgeoned all my readers with posts about Making Friends with the Crocodile recently, I thought it would be only fair to share a few pictures of villages in Northern India for the benefit of those who have not been there. It gives a flavour of the (fictitious) village I write about in the novel.

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Village street

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Pigs foraging on waste ground

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Morning

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Farm

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Hindu Temple

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Sunrise

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Village outskirts

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Hi jinks during the festival of Holi

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Goats at rest

Leh Old Town

Fourteen years ago I went up to Ladakh, in the Northern Indian Himalaya. Crikey, fourteen years! Where did that go?

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This is a painting I made in ink and watercolours of an area of the Old Town of Leh, the Main Town of Ladakh. It shows part of a Buddhist shrine, next to another old building. Most of the buildings are a mixture of stone and wood, the wood frequently carved and / or painted.

Although there were quite a few new buildings in the town, the majority of them were old and the whole town had the feel of belonging to another century. I travelled in early April, before most visitors arrive and when Ladakh is still bitterly cold and wintry – certainly overnight. During the day the temperature just sneaked a little above freezing. This meant that I seemed to be the only Westerner there – I certainly don’t remember seeing any others – and I was never hassled by touts of any description, possibly because it was still too early.

But, above all, the people were among the friendliest I have ever met.

Regretfully, I doubt I’ll get another chance to go there, but it is certainly a very special place!

Picture available on my Etsy shop site here

Wordy Wednesday 2

Coolie – now there is a word that is remarkably offensive; offensive not so much because of what it is, but the implications behind it.

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The Oxford Dictionary defines the word thus: unskilled native labourer in eastern countries and gives the word’s origin as perhaps from Kuli, an aboriginal tribe of Gujarat, India.

Hobson-Jobson, the 1886 Anglo-Indian Dictionary, has rather more to say upon the matter.

It gives the spelling as ‘cooly’ and the definition as follows: a hired labourer, or burden-carrier; and, in modern days especially, a labourer induced to emigrate from India, or from China, to labour in the plantations of Mauritius, Reunion, or the West Indies, sometimes under circumstances, especially in French colonies, which have brought the cooly’s condition very near to slavery.

It goes on to give further definitions and details of the word, and then makes several suggestions for its origin. One possibility, agreeing with the Oxford Dictionary, is that it derives from Koli, the name of a caste or race in Western India who frequently carried out these tasks and who, the dictionary reports, had long held a reputation for ‘savagery, filth and general degredation.’ This would make its origin analogous to that of slave, which is presumed to come from the racial term Slav.

But it suggests the waters are rather muddied by a couple of similar words in the Sub-continent: In Southern India a Tamil word Kuli signifying ‘hire’, and Khol is a Tibetan word for slave.

And then there is also a Turkish word kol meaning a slave while, more specifically, kuleh  means ‘a male slave, a bondsman’.

But back to the implication. It is impossible to get away from the colonial undercurrents with this word, as brought out in the Hobson-Jobson definition above. So to use the word to describe a person or persons today, is to call them a servant or slave of a foreign overlord.

Wordy Wednesday 1

Many bloggers post photographs on Wednesday under the heading ‘Wordless Wednesday’. Me? I’m going to write a few posts about words – specifically words in English borrowed from languages of the Indian Subcontinent.

I’m just plain awkward, but you knew that, didn’t you?

I am currently editing the first draft of my novel A Good Place, which is set in a hill station in Northern India. And in that hill station live a number of English who remained behind after Partition.

‘I’m sitting on the veranda of the bungalow in my pyjamas.’ Well, no, no one says that in my book. But if they had, what is the significance of that sentence?

The significance is the number of words borrowed from Indian languages.

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Veranda is an Indian word, but coming originally, perhaps, from Persian. The Oxford Dictionary suggests two derivatives, either from the Hindi (varanda) or from the Portuguese (varanda). Digging a little deeper, if I refer to Hobson-Jobson, the Anglo-Indian Dictionary that was published in 1886 and traces pretty well every word or phrase borrowed from the Sub-Continent, I discover a very long entry on this word. It begins by dismissing the possibility of it being derived from the Persian beramada, and goes on to state that it appears to exist independently in both Hindi, and in Portuguese (and Spanish). It then traces the possible routes the word might have taken to reach the English language, before then saying, surprisingly, that it could have its roots in the Persian after all. This seems quite likely to me, since many Persian words made their way to India especially with the Mughals, and it suggests a possible route to the Spanish peninsular when the Islamic armies arrived in the early eighth century.

I tried typing it into Ngram Viewer. This is an online tool that searches through the entire database of books that Google can access online (including ones still under copyright) published since 1800. Looking at the results for all books in English, it tells me it was barely used in 1800, although it does exist, rises steadily to a peak about 1910, and then falls away slowly, although it is still in common usage. Unfortunately Ngram has not been set up to search books in Indian languages, or even Portuguese. I tried Spanish and the pattern was similar, except that after peaking just before 1910 , it dropped sharply, but since then the trend has been upwards. I then noticed something. I had actually looked at the trend in American English. So I then tried British English, and this gave me a rather different pattern; The curve rose gradually until it peaked in the 1950’s and then fell away sharply. Why? I think it must be due to a surge of historical / biographical / nostalgic writing, both fiction and non-fiction, after the British left India.

Don’t worry, I’m not going to try to go into that sort of detail with other words.

Next, bungalow actually refers to a ‘Bengal style’ house (often with a veranda!) that the British frequently chose to live in.

And pyjamas are loose cotton trousers worn in India which were ‘adapted’ for night wear by Europeans.

Okay, class, lesson over. Be sure to wash your hands before eating your snacks (samosas and pakoras today, of course).

The First Draft

It’s November. And I’ve set myself the target of finishing the first draft of ‘A Good Place‘ by the end of the month.

What is a first draft? No one seems to agree with anyone else on this one. And my use of the term here is a little different to most of the definitions I have come across.

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A hill station in Northern India photographed by my father during WWII. How is this relevant? read on…

Ideas of what constitutes a first draft seem to vary from, at one end, a sketch of the story arc with most of the characters written in, a mixture of great and awful writing, plot holes and loads of inconsistencies to, at the other end, the story pretty much as the author imagines it, but with minor inconsistencies to iron out, prose to polish and some information dump to delete.

I imagine that any single writer’s idea of a first draft will depend upon what type of writer they are. Being a pantser myself, i.e. NOT beginning with a carefully planned storyline and characters, but making it up as I go along, I think the first draft has to be closer to the finished article than if I were a plotter. This is because it is a little harder to see when I have reached that destination.

So my personal idea of a first draft is the book written from beginning to end, no obvious plot holes, no gaps, and nothing I think is glaringly wrong.

When I come back to revise, plot holes will reveal themselves, and I’ll deal with them then. What I shouldn’t be doing is coming back to a work with a huge gap where I found it too bothersome to write the dialogue in the first place.

So it’s mainly dialogue I’ll be working on. There are two scenes which need a lot of work on them still, and quite a lot of smaller gaps in the final third of the book. The draft currently weighs in at about 85,000 words, which is almost twice the length of Making Friends with the Crocodile, and feels to me to be the right length for the story.

It’s taken quite a while to get here. I know it’s generally accepted that the second novel usually has a far more difficult birth than the first, but the storyline has changed tremendously over the couple of years I have been working on it, and has become something I had not foreseen at all.

I’m not quite there yet, though.

And what is A Good Place about?

I’m so glad you asked.

It is 1988, and an Englishman arrives at a small hill station in Northern India. At first he appears to be no more than just another tourist, but gradually we learn he lived in the town as a child, during the time of Partition. A couple of years later his family moved back to England in a hurry, and he suspects it might have been due to some dark or ignoble reason and has decided to do a little research.

The human landscape of the story is the mixture of characters living there, the good and the bad, the well-off and the poor, the weird and the apparently normal, especially the English left behind after Partition.  It also happens to be the one hundred and fiftieth anniversary of the founding of the town by the English, and amidst the planned celebrations there are predictable feelings and tensions over this.

And the main character’s private life is a bit of a mess…

Seven Cities of Delhi by Rajiv Chopra

 

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On my first visit to Delhi, almost thirty years ago, I was overwhelmed by the huge numbers of monuments there, such as the Red Fort and Purana Qila. I found the area around Paharganj to be chaotic and exciting and everything an inquisitive Westerner could wish for – a mixture of smells of food and incense and, yes, sewage. A mixture of ugly concrete buildings and beautiful dilapidated buildings left over from the British Raj and often much earlier. Milling crowds of people and cows and rickshaws and bicycles and autos, and history, history, history.

Chadni Chowk was incredibly crowded, the Lodi Gardens completely deserted. The Jama Masjid crowded by tourists and worshippers alike, the Janta Manta often almost empty.

There is so much history everywhere you turn in Delhi.

Other Westerners I met tended to be highly disparaging of Delhi, which was something I couldn’t completely understand since many of these same Westerners seemed to praise Mumbai and Kolkata for the very reasons they hated Delhi.

Yet Delhi is, I think, one of the most exciting and interesting cities I have ever visited. From a historical viewpoint alone, it has over ten thousand listed monuments.

Ten thousand!

Rajiv Chopra is a Delhi based photographer with a passion for recording both the historical Delhi and the street life he comes across from day to day. In this book, he has combined his photographs with a little of the history of the seven historical cities that constitute Delhi, and also a perspective of the differing processes that photography has passed through from its invention up to the present day.

To illustrate all these factors, his book is split into seven sections – one for each of the historical periods – and in each section he has outlined one of these photographic processes so that, for example, in the section covering the first city, Mehrauli, he speaks of daguerrotypes. And then his own photographs he processes through Photoshop to simulate the effects of these processes.

This is not a long book, but it does not pretend to do more than act as an introduction to the history of Delhi. And in this it certainly whets the appetite for more, and then for anyone with even a passing interest in photography it gives a concise and potted description of these photographic processes. Finally the photographs themselves complement the text perfectly.

I unhesitatingly recommend this book for anyone who wants to know a little of the history of Delhi, and who enjoys photographs that give a real flavour of the history of that magnificent city.

Five stars out of five.

You can find Rajiv’s website and blog here

Salt

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I should feel like an Egyptian pharaoh,

But I never had all that splendour.

Mine was such a short life,

And then I was mummified for the Hereafter.

 

There was never anyone to wait on me,

To bring me delicacies or fan away the flies.

You could not imagine Liz Taylor

Wanting to play my part in a film.

 

But I want you to take a moment or two,

To imagine that your feet and hands

Are permanently covered in cracks and crevices.

And to imagine the constant burning pain.

 

And contemplate now, the virtual blindness

That comes from seeing – day in and day out –

The bright sun reflected from the brilliant white

Of salt, from horizon to horizon.

 

And breathing, such a natural thing!

But even breathing was slowly killing me.

Coughing, spitting, rasping breath and breathlessness

And worse…

 

And when I died, they could not burn me.

Not properly, for the years of salt had seeped

Into my skin and as a final indignity,

Ensured that even death was not a true escape.

 

 

Sprinkle, sprinkle on your dish,

Shut your eyes and make a wish,

Up above the world so high,

If there’s a watcher in the sky,

Pray they somehow can arrange

For this indignity to change.

A couple of years ago I wrote about the extremely difficult conditions endured by Indian salt workers – and many others all over the world (the link is here should you care to read it) – which I don’t think have eased since then.

As you add salt to your meal today, think of them.