Lady Kishwar Desai talks to Curious Book Fans

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After publishing the review of Lady Kishwar Desai’s latest novel “Witness the Night” we were curious to learn more about the author and the background of this powerful story about prejudice and violence against women. Kishwar has had a long career working in media as a journalist, TV anchor and producer, as well as becoming head of an Indian TV channel. She is now a full-time writer with a weekly Saturday column in The Asian Age newspaper.  She lives between London, Delhi and Goa, currently working on a biography of Devika Rani and Himansu Rai.

Kishwar DesaiCBF: Why did you think of gendercide as the theme for your first novel?

Kishwar Desai: It was a chance encounter while I was running a TV Channel in Punjab, and one of the guests on the channel starting telling me about her life. It turned out that she had survived an attempt to give her opium and then kill her when she was born. Her story haunted me –and I kept wondering how she would feel, as an adult , looking at her parents and seeing her would-be assassins. Apart from that, of course, as a journalist I wrote about infanticide and foeticide; later in television as well I would come up against this issue. So in a sense the novel was in my head for many years.

CBF: Were you inspired by any particular case when you wrote Witness the Night?

Kishwar Desai: The other story which got woven into the novel was also based on a real incident. This was about a young girl in Bengal who had been accused of murdering her entire family. Again it was a startling episode, and I began wondering why someone who is just starting out in life would take such a horrible step, against those who are closest to her. But in both these cases –of the woman in Punjab and the girl in Bengal–I only took the very broad outlines of their stories –and fictionalised the rest. I did not want the book to be about any one specific event as then readers would tend to dismiss it as a particular case. I wanted it to be appeal to a wider audience, on different levels. That is why I fictionalised the two stories so that the reader could get emotionally engaged and , hopefully, upset at the cruel treatment of baby girls in India.

CBF: Is the character of Simran based on anyone you know?

Kishwar Desai: Not really. But she is an amalgam of many NGO workers. She is certainly the sort of social worker I wish we saw more of–in the sense that she is brave and feisty. Of course, she has her human fallibility , but I wanted her to be imperfect as all of us are. Not a super heroine.

CBF: Are you going to continue to focus on issues relating to women or is Simran going to settle down to more usual forms of crime as the novels progress?

Kishwar Desai: No, I think the issues are going to remain but they will become more broad based, as I hope I can use the novel ( or crime fiction format) to carry on writing about real issues and the moral and ethical dilemmas which confront us today. I don’t think I could write a usual type of crime novel even if I tried. Having been a journalist in India –you see so much which needs to be exposed and talked about, that I do hope Simran will be able to boldly go where no one has gone before!

CBF: Who are your favourite writers?

Kishwar Desai: I actually love short stories; so I like Oscar Wilde, and Ismat Chughtai. I am constantly dipping into Rabindranath Tagore with his stories and novellas; but my favourite remains Saadat Hasan Manto. However, I prefer to read him in the original –and since I cannot read the urdu script I read him in the devnagri script. I cannot find any translation which does justice to his acerbic and bold writing. He is a complete inspiration. I also like the manner in which he wrote–the stories flow naturally and are not ‘carefully constructed’–but they are controversial and provocative.

Thanks to Lady Kishwar Desai and Anjana Basu for making this interview for curious book fans. You can read full review of Desai’s “Witness the Night” here.

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Written by Anjana Basu
Anjana Basu

Anjana Basu works as an advertising consultant in Calcutta. In 2003, Harper Collins India brought out her novel Curses In Ivory. In 2004, she was awarded a Hawthornden Fellowship in Scotland where she worked on her second novel, Black Tongue, published by Roli in 2007. In February 2010. her children's novel Chinku and the Wolfboy was brought out by Roli. She writes features for travel magazines and reviews for Indian newspapers.

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