I recently read Witness the Night (Mystery 210 pages) by Kishwar Desai, which was a book I picked up during my travels.
“Durga. A fourteen-year-old girl, found all alone in a sprawling house in Punjab. Silent, terrified, and the sole suspect in the mass murder of thirteen members of her family. Simran. A whisky-swigging, chain-smoking social worker from Delhi. She is Durga’s sole hope, for Simran is the only one who believes that she may be more a victim than a suspect. As Simran tries to unravel the mystery of what really happened that night of the multiple murders, she comes in close and often uncomfortable contact with Jullundur and its people, from Durga’s enigmatic tutor Harpreet and his disfigured wife to the picture-perfect high-society Amrinder and her superintendent husband Ramnath. The prejudices she encounters are deep-seated and the secrets manifold. And Simran knows she cannot rest until she has uncovered the whole truth. A chilling first novel that gets to the heart of tradition-bound India.”
Some time recently, I decided a viable goal to increasing the diversity and representation throughout my own work was to diversify my reading in order to see how authors from other cultures and backgrounds write and how that impacts the characters and world-building. I am looking for the casual representation that “everyone from that culture just instinctively knows” in order to add more depth to my own writing, as I don’t want to just slap on the Diversity Sticker TM. I don’t want to just say, “Look! Look! I said this character was a minority! Because I mentioned their skin color or something!” I don’t want that to be my version of diversity. I want my writing to have more substantial representation, which means being able to see the world through eyes that do not reflect my own upbringing or cultural background.
While reading this book, I took notes on all the casual uses of words unfamiliar to me. These notes and the subsequent google searches provided me with hours of cultural terminology which I, as an outsider-looking-in, will definitely need to continue to research if I want to include any of this in my own work. My list of words includes (but is absolutely not limited to) shamshan ghat, phool, Ganga, salwar, khadi-clad, sardarni, sikhui, lakh rupees, kolhapuri, chappals, brah mastra, rakshasas, sardar, salwar kameez, and so many more. Those are just what I found in the first ten pages of the story. Reading the entire book was an eye-opening experience, not just for the terminology, but also for the cultural content.
This book was dark on a level I was not intellectually prepared for when I began reading and the story itself made me extremely uncomfortable in a lot of places. I’m going to say the intent of a well-written story is to push your boundaries and encourage an emotional reaction of some sort, which this book absolutely achieves. The mystery portion of this book is written in such a way that the solution was not obvious until the end when more of the story is revealed. I don’t really want to say more about the book for fear of giving things about the storyline or plot away.
Overall, I’d say this book is a two on my rating scale. While I’m happy I own it and I’m happy I read it because it was definitely an eye into a very unfamiliar world to me, the sheer darkness in this book was very disturbing to me. As I live and work in an environment where I’m sometimes faced with the best and worst that humanity offers, I usually spend my reading time with books designed to help me step away from the horrors of the real world. The writing style is poetic, for all that the content was fairly dark, which was interesting. I may or may not read this book again in the future but I am glad I have it as a reference for diversity.