Title: You Beneath Your Skin
Author: Damyanti Biswas
Publication: Simon & Schuster India
Pages: 392 pages
Price: Rs 399
The world we live in has desensitised us to the many horrors we read about in the newspapers. Rape, murder, acid attacks — often, they are just news reports that we read before moving on to the next thing. We have learned to compartmentalise our emotions so we can survive in the world today without going to pieces ourselves. Damyanti Biswas’ debut novel, You Beneath Your Skin strikes a good balance between a thriller and a book that also induces empathy in readers. It’s not an easy thing to achieve given that she doesn’t succumb to the temptation to sensationalise the events taking place.
The book unravels through the eyes of its many characters — Anjali Morgan, the half-Indian, half-American protagonist, a single mother with an autistic son; Jatin Bhatt, the handsome but troubled special commissioner of crime with whom Anjali is having a clandestine affair for several years; Maya, Jatin’s younger sister, in whose house Anjali lives; and, Varun, Jatin’s 17-year-old son who seems to live a duplicitous life with ease.
Weaving easily through these different strands is the story of a gruesome crime — a woman, a slum dweller, has been attacked, raped and killed and her face has been disfigured by acid. Anjali is brought to the scene by Jatin because of her experience in psychology and the work that she does with underprivileged women and children. While Jatin tries to solve this horrific crime, even as more bodies spring up, he tries to keep it under the radar because he wants the political brownie points for himself. Jatin is as ambitious as Anjali is self-aware.
Although events unfold slowly, they are carefully teased out and readers are drawn into this murky world of Delhi, whether it is the top brass of the police or Varun’s secret life, or Anjali’s own observations of the life she has made for herself in the city. Anjali is empathetic but is also caught up with her own troublesome son who has problems adjusting to everything and everyone around him. While the investigation into the deaths continues on a parallel track, the worlds collide when you least expect it, leaving you gasping in shock. From this point onwards, the tenor of the book changes.
It becomes a gripping thriller but at the same time, we are also afforded a glimpse into the mind of an acid attack survivor — what she feels, what she undergoes, how she comes to accept the new normal, something she doesn’t want to accept at all.
Jatin cannot be considered the mandatory love interest for various reasons and he is not without his faults either, most of which do not endear him to the reader. He’s ambitious, cold towards his wife, patronising towards his sister and blinded by love when it comes to his son. Maya, who runs her own detective agency, is an easier character to love — she’s loyal, brave and also self-conscious because she has vitiligo, and a crush on her assistant Pawan.
This is a layered story, and a riveting, remarkable debut. It’s not without its flaws though. While the author weaves in and out of the heads of all the important characters, allowing us a better understanding of their motivations and why they behave the way they do, a glimpse into the mindscape of Jatin’s wife, Drishti, would have completed the circle perfectly. As it stands now, one doesn’t understand why she’s so detached from her family or why she’s so anorexic. If she had some secrets of her own, it would have made the story even more compelling.
Nevertheless, the author is keenly observant when it comes to the characters, the situations, and of course, the setting. Delhi is an underlying character in itself, dusty, filled with smog, murky — the perfect setting for crimes that bring together antagonists from two different strata of society. The common factor is their disdain for women, their refusal to see women as anything other than objects for pleasure, and, their inability to see women as people.
Biswas’ work with non-profit organisations — Project WHY and Stop Acid Attacks, has given her a close view of the people who are affected by these crimes. With her debut novel, she makes a focussed and successful attempt to make us feel something, to stop pushing and categorising disturbing events into boxes, and, to look at acid attack victims and survivors as people, not just news reports or statistics.
Wajid is a Bengaluru-based writer