It’s a dark, smog-choked new Delhi winter. Indian American single mother Anjali Morgan juggles her job as a psychiatrist with caring for her autistic teenage son. She is in a long-standing affair with ambitious police commissioner Jatin Bhatt – An irresistible attraction that could destroy both their lives. Jatin’s home life is falling apart: his handsome and charming son is not all he appears to be, and his wife has too much on her plate to pay attention to either husband or son. But Jatin refuses to listen to anyone, not even the sister to whom he is deeply attached. Across the city there is a crime spree: slum women found stuffed in trash bags, faces and bodies disfigured by acid. And as events spiral out of control Anjali is horrifyingly at the centre of it all … in a sordid world of poverty, misogyny, and political corruption, Jatin must make some hard choices. But what he unearths is only the tip of the iceberg. Together with Anjali he must confront old wounds and uncover long-held secrets before it is too late.
Genre: Crime, Drama, Fiction, Thriller.
Review: India is a huge country, and one of the fastest-growing economies in the world. It is also a deeply-patriarchal society, where men and the family hierarchy dominate. But with that size, population and gender imbalance, come problems in all shapes and sizes, and oppression and violence against women is a huge one.
My first thought on coming across Damyanti Biswas’ debut novel, You Beneath Your Skin (YBYS) was a question, “What does the title mean?” And as I started reading the first few chapters, there was also the question of what the book’s central questions and themes were. I read the blurb only much later. And that’s when things got clearer for me. The story of YBYS is as much a whodunnit as a family drama, with the Indian-American Anjali Morgan at the centre of it all.
The most striking thing, perhaps, about the book is the way the atmospherics have been created on page. As you leaf through the pages, you can almost feel yourself looking at the characters doing this and that, and feel the whole ambience around them. The plot is sparkling too, nice and smooth and never getting bogged down in unnecessary sideshows. Following the many threads and characters (secondary ones, specially) is a bit difficult at first (which one’s Radhe, which one’s Chander?), but once you get into it, the story hooks you and doesn’t let go. The 387 pages go by in a breeze. The characters are also nicely-rounded, human figures, with their vulnerabilities and vices, and you can largely connect with everyone, even though you might have more sympathy for some than the others.
The book uses an omniscient narrator, but tweaks the language and the expressions used to suit the POV of whichever character is the focus at a particular time. It takes some getting used to, sure, but serves the plot well.
The gaze, and the narrator’s commentary, is feminine, and thus, calls out many of the everyday examples of patriarchy and sexism, particularly in the beginning.
Most Indian males, especially the older ones, treated women either like doormats or fragile fairies.
It was a nice change to have for me, because most crime novels I’ve read are from male authors, with male protagonists, and thus, sometimes, not quite mindful of this POV.
Also wonderful is the fact that this book, in portraying a feminist narrative, doesn’t seek to demonize all men, as some works of the same vein I’ve read do. Like the women in the story, the men are flawed too, and the author wonderfully showcases them as products of their own environments. This isn’t to take any responsibility away from those characters’ flaws or crimes, just that the story achieves a balance that lesser works might struggle to.
I enjoyed the way the relationships are explored. I loved the fact that there’s no completely pure character, and it is easy to look at things through the eyes of any one of them and feel a justification for what they feel and do. I also thoroughly enjoyed the way the starkness of the poor people’s living conditions, and the questions facing them, have been presented in the book. Sometimes, living in our own bubbles, it is easy to miss out that there are millions of people who arrive in cities like Delhi and Mumbai and live through extreme hardships just to manage two square meals a day. These people are highly vulnerable to crime, and more often than not, no one cares about them. All of this irony and cruelty of the ways of the society is portrayed spectacularly in the book.
The other strong suit of this book is shining a light on the scourge of acid attacks in this country, and the way such an attack traumatizes the lives of the victims and their near and dear ones. No praise is too high for this, and kudos to the author for the same.
The book also works as a coming-of-age story, in a way, as plot devices, woven in superbly amidst all the carnage and search for answers, come together nicely in the final stages.
Ironically, the weakest link, for me, was the whodunnit. Without spoiling anything, I saw the revelation coming a long way off, and it struck me as odd how the protagonists didn’t make that connection beforehand, or at least some of them. Also, I was left unsatisfied by the final sections, which I felt were a tad rushed, and contrary to my own expectations as a reader, although I could see why the book ended the way it did.
However, none of this takes away from the fact that this is a stupendous debut for the author, with the plotting and the peeling of emotions particular high points. I’d be pretty excited to read whatever she writes next.
Verdict: You Beneath Your Skin is a searing examination of the role of patriarchy and inequality in fostering gender violence. A recommended read.
Have you read the book yet, or are planning to? What did you think of this review? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments section.