You Beneath Your Skin presents as a crime novel, but it’s also a love story: to those who find themselves in loveless marriages and are seeking comfort elsewhere; to mothers who bear the burden of raising children that don’t always turn out the way they intended; to fathers who will go to great lengths to protect them; to those trying to make their way in a world that seemed to have lost its own; and to India herself, a dichotomy made flesh, brash, bold, ancient and overcrowded, a country that struggles to keep itself upright as it thrashes its way into the 21st century; a country housing some of the world’s great treasures, but lacking the modern convenience of housing and sanitation for millions; a country that resolutely adheres to the great social experiment that is the caste system, but leaves 276 million people, about 23% of the population, in the dust, wallowing in poverty as a result; a country at war with itself — the feminine vs. the masculine. It is into this arena that Damyanti Biswas steps with her literary crime debut novel, You Beneath Your Skin.
The India Biswas presents us with is a wreck. Overpopulation rules the day and the resulting environmental hazards are everywhere — smog so thick you can barely see down the block; millions living in substandard housing conditions so adverse that even a drainpipe qualifies as a “home”; an extreme lack of sanitation and the infrastructure to hold it; corruption so deep that it would take a backhoe to dislodge the tip of it; and a dispirited female population that has known for centuries they are worth far less than their male counterparts, a population whose lives are literally at stake.
The story starts off as most crime novels do with a dead body and a man looking to solve the mystery except this dead body no longer has a face because it was burned away by acid.
Yep, that’s what I said; acid attacks are actually a thing in India, but only against women. Stop and let that sink in for a moment.
In fact, there are so many of these horrific attacks that there is an organization dedicated to raising awareness of the issue, Stop Acid Attacks, which Biswas is supporting through proceeds received from the sale of You Beneath Your Skin.
As a female lucky enough to be born in the United States where I have been given the same advantages as my male counterparts — okay, there’s still hidden sexism and women still make somewhere between 78-82% of what men make — I am startled by this state of emergency. Yet, since most such attacks are carried out on the penniless, it’s not considered an emergency in India, just the state of the country.
Biswas deals with all these issues brilliantly, weaving the crime story into the larger social ills that plague modern-day India with a clear-eyed view of the social injustices absent nostalgia or longing or excuses. Also, she’s a terrific writer so even when she takes you to the most horrific places with such difficult subject matter you find that you can’t look away. My one difficulty with the book had to do with me, not Biswas. As Indian names are not familiar to me, I had a bit of trouble early on keeping the characters straight, but this cleared up for me once the initial scenes were set and I got comfortable. After that, the rest was just a great read.
I’m not the kind of reviewer to give away more than the first couple chapters of the story because I don’t want to ruin your journey and the blip in the picture above gives you enough of the story for you to decide whether you would like to read this book or not, but let me just say this: the characters in this story are so full of depth, so nuanced, and so strong, even in their frailty, that you will want to read this simply as a psychological study of human nature.
You won’t come away from You Beneath Your Skin with a skip in your step and a Pollyanna-ish view of the world, I promise you, but that’s not why we read, is it? We read to educate ourselves, to map out the social conditions here and abroad, to take stock of the world and see how we fit into it, to work toward a more socially just universe where everyone has the opportunity to live life their best life without fear of violence or oppression and it’s the sobering books like You Beneath Your Skin that open doors to the larger conversations like what we as a people should be demanding from other people and ourselves. I’m sure acid attacks on potentially one half of a country’s population is not us living our best lives.
You Beneath Your Skin teaches us, without admonishing, that we can do better humanity. We owe it ourselves, to each other, and to society as a whole.
pam lazos 1.5.20
And now, let’s hear a few words from Damyanti:
Out of all the social justice issues that pervade your native India, how did you settle on acid attacks to be the subject of your novel, You Beneath Your Skin?
I did not settle on the subject at all. I wasn’t aware I was writing a novel with social justice issues until the time I’d written it. The issues crept in because I work with Project WHY—an organisation that works with the empowerment of women and children. While writing, I needed a way of making violence visible, and my research led me to acid attacks. After I’d met some of the survivors I knew I either had to write about them in-depth and with authenticity, or not at all. The final shape of You Beneath Your Skin came from there.
How has the experience of writing the novel raised your awareness of this and other issues?
Writing the novel made it more visceral. With each character, I had to inhabit a situation and a psyche. To make it more authentic, I had to read up, watch videos, and finally, speak with the survivors. It gave me a perspective I did not have before. I still do not understand all the nuances of the lives I’ve depicted, but I certainly get them better than I did before.
What are the top three social justice issues that concern you and, if you could wave a magic wand, what would you do to eradicate them?
Violence against women and children, the exploitation of the environment by the rich, and the inequality of wealth.
If I were to be given a magic wand, I’d like one that could inspire compassion in absolutely everyone. More compassion and kindness would lead to less greed, less consumerism, less sloth, less rage, less discrimination — the human characteristics that often make our world a dark place.
Without a magic wand, the slow and painstaking answer is education and awareness. Education not just targeted at making money, but also at knowing our fellow beings and having true compassion for them. Science that would pursue people rather than profit. Sounds almost like I would need a magic wand to make this happen.
Have you always tackled social justice issues in your writing and, if so, was there one event that sparked your interest in social justice or something more general?
This is my first novel. In my short stories and flash fiction, I have not consciously tackled social justice issues. I’m fascinated by what makes people tick, and my effort is to portray them as they are. I have been interested in social justice ever since I was a child when I witnessed violence against women and children and suffered some of it myself. Most of the time this has been reflected in my work in oblique ways. You Beneath Your Skin was the first work that ended up tackling social justice issues head-on, and as I said before, it was not intentional.
You have a robust blog following and are active in many social issues, working tirelessly to raise awareness for these issues. Where do you see yourself as a writer in ten years? As a social activist?
My blog is all due to the kindness of blog friends. I write about issues that fascinate me and I interact with other bloggers. In ten years I would love for the blog to have more impact — to be able to fundraise more for issues, to be able to raise even more awareness, and possibly to invite guests from these spheres to talk about their work.
I don’t see myself as a social activist. All of us do our bit in adding to the good in this world, and I’m doing that. If raising awareness and fundraising for causes are social activism, I have done a little of it. I do not see these activities as a separate vocation—they’re a part of who I am. Let us hope the coming years bring me more opportunities to leave an impact.
Anything else to add?
I would love to reach out to your readers and ask them to check out the causes that have my heart: Project WHY and Stop Acid Attacks.
Project WHY offers free after-school support to underprivileged children and empowers women by skilling them and providing employment. Each year it reaches out to about 1200 children. Its magic lies in the depth of the impact in the communities it works in—teachers are erstwhile maids and salesmen from the communities, and the curriculum is standardised and exhaustive. Alumni have joined the army, hold down office jobs and have turned entrepreneurs.
Stop Acid Attacks works to raise awareness against acid attacks in India—women are attacked with impunity with a cheap, readily available weapon, and the punishment is hardly ever commensurate with the crime. Stop Acid Attacks educates and empowers survivors, and also gives them employment opportunities in their Sheroes cafes in Agra and Lucknow. They provide survivors with legal support a well. They conduct campaigns against the ready availability of acid and the indifference shown to the survivors by members of our society.
If we could speak more often of the issues of violence against women all over the world and in our communities, that would not just help people in distress or save lives, but allow countless individuals who suffer in silence to speak out for themselves.
Thanks for your time, Damyanti, and best of luck with the book, the work, and the vision. You are a role model.
Excerpt of You Beneath Your Skin
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.
To get in touch with Damyanti:
Social media info
Pls tag me at @damyantig on Twitter and Insta, and on @damyantiwrites on FB
To tag Simon & Schuster
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