Rebecca here—and today we’re going international with an interview with Damyanti Biswas, author of You Beneath Your Skin, published by Simon & Schuster India. This literary crime novel, set in New Delhi, released last year in India and is making its way around the globe to high praise—and increasing empowerment for the author’s causes.
Damyanti Biswas lives in Singapore and supports Delhi’s underprivileged women and children, volunteering with organizations that work for this cause. Her short stories have been published in magazines in the US, UK, and Asia, and she helps edit the Forge Literary Magazine. She was recently awarded The Fay Khoo Award in Penang, Malaysia. Her debut novel, You Beneath Your Skin, is an Amazon bestseller, all author proceeds of which will support the education and empowerment of women at Project WHY and Stop Acid Attacks.
Damyanti was kind enough to answer my questions—about her book and her humanitarian work—over email.
Damyanti, You Beneath Your Skin takes place in New Delhi, India. Can you tell us how you came to set the story there—what that city means to you?
I spent a few years of my youth in New Delhi. Despite being fascinated by it, I never managed to develop an affection for its streets. Delhites have joie-de-vivre in abundance, but there’s something about the city that is cold, maybe even a little menacing, because I never really felt safe there. It seemed as if the men and women of the city inhabited two different worlds. As women we were supposed to constantly look over our shoulders, watch where we were going, and when and how. The helpless rage I felt due to this came to a head during the infamous Nirbhaya gang-rape tragedy in 2012, where a woman was brutalized with an iron rod by a group of men until her intestines fell out on some of the very streets I used while running errands. I was working on a draft of You Beneath Your Skin at that time, and everything I felt went into the novel.
The novel’s plot revolves around crime; yet this is not your typical crime novel but a literary crime novel. What inspired you to write about crime? Is this a genre you’ve always loved to read?
With You Beneath Your Skin, I wasn’t aware for almost two drafts that I was writing a crime novel. When I did, it scared me, because not only did I not know much about writing a novel, I knew even less about writing a crime novel. The end product is more of a whydunit rather than a whodunit—the exploration of why crime takes place rather than who committed the crimes in the story. The periphery of crime interests me—the people it touches, whether perpetrators, victims, or investigators. Around a crime, especially crimes against a person, a human body, emotions are heightened, and the masks come off. It felt like the right way to examine a society so entrenched in its patriarchy and misogyny that it treated half its populace, irrespective of their beliefs, capabilities, and backgrounds, as somehow less than the other half.
The crimes being investigated in your story are crimes against women—including acid attacks. How did you decide to illuminate these particular crimes?
The decision was made for me by the times I was writing in—crimes against women were at the forefront of my psyche in 2012 when this novel really began. Through my work with non-profits, it has remained an important cause for me ever since. Acid attacks came into the picture pretty late—while writing my fourth draft I realized I needed something that would render visible the crimes against women—a situation that cannot be hidden, or be hidden away from. It was only after I met acid attack survivors though that I realized how shallow I was—that I needed to write their stories with empathy and authenticity, not just as a symbol or plot device in my story.
This brings me to the causes of Project WHY and Stop Acid Attacks. Can you tell us about their work and why you generously decided to donate your proceeds from the novel to these organizations?
It is not generous at all. My husband supports me so I don’t have to worry about food and rent—who knows if I would have donated the proceeds if I were using fiction to put food on my table? The decision to donate the proceeds was sparked by a conversation with a teen at Project WHY, who said if I didn’t want to market my book or need the proceeds (I had confessed as much), why not let them have it?
Project WHY is a wonderful little organization I’ve known for more than a dozen years that works within underprivileged communities to empower and educate women and children, turning them into agents of positive change. The alumni of Project WHY go on to become independent in their thinking and finances, and aspire to evolve into not just good citizens, but change-makers. Project WHY gives them safe spaces to learn and dream, which should be the birthright of every child.
Stop Acid Attacks—the name explains itself. They campaign against acid violence, support and empower acid attack survivors, and raise awareness for their cause. Recently they have been in the limelight in India because of a Bollywood movie, Chhapaak, made about a well-known acid attack survivor and activist, Laxmi Agarwal. Both of these organizations do excellent work and deserve all the support they can get.
From the title of the book to the idea of “keeping up appearances”—within family and the individual—you do a good job of uncovering truth about the power of the patriarchy in the world of this book. Did you set out to write a feminist novel?
For the last century, the challenge to the patriarchy has been strong, and now, far from being a white-only or exclusively Western movement, feminism has spread in the East as well, because it is about equal rights for all humans. In traditional Indian patriarchy, keeping up appearances is important, and leads to a wide array of abuses. Women are seen as a family’s “honor/ izzat“—their activities directly related to how a family is seen and respected. A woman who is raped, who becomes an unwed mother, or even a woman who likes a glass of wine is seen as a culprit against this tyranny of appearances and honor.
If we are to speak the truth of our times, especially in India, feminism would come in, one way or the other. Personally, I set out to tell a good story. Most writers write about what speaks to them, and I’ve ended up revealing the concerns and causes that engage me. Before working on You Beneath Your Skin, a lot of it was in the subconscious—writing the book changed me even as I changed it over many drafts—made me more articulate and clearer with what I believed in.
Your book introduced me—and likely many Western readers—to new cultural icons, among them the poet Ghalib. How did you choose to include poetry in your story?
Ghalib is an institution in India, possibly made more popular by a host of Bollywood movies, both modern and historical, borrowing from him. I chose poetry because I needed three things for my male protagonist Jatin: a way to connect with (and differentiate from) his father’s legacy of violence and patriarchy; to give a certain sophistication to an otherwise brutal and initially unlikable character; and also to find the language and metaphors for his journey. Ghalib’s poetry, in its brevity and depth, gave me all three. Readers have variously loved and hated the use of poetry—some found it clichéd, others very effective—but in my mind Ghalib and his lexicon are inextricably linked to Jatin’s character.
You are also an editor at the Forge Literary Magazine. How does that reading inform your writing?
Reading for the Forge and being given the opportunity to serve as an editor has been transformative for my writing. I see now what stands out, and am able to analyze why. It has taught me so much about the use of language, about how to begin a story, about how to seduce a reader, how to use the right detail, how much is too much or too little. I’ll always be indebted to John and Yosh Haggerty not just for the opportunity to edit the magazine, but also for the many internal critique exchanges and workshops we do within the group.
What’s been the most surprising thing about the release of your debut novel? And what should we look out for next from you?
The most surprising thing, for me personally, is how completely wrong I was about the audience of this book. I thought because of its darkness and realism, the target audience would be over 25 years old. Since You Beneath Your Skin speaks about violence against women, more women than men would identify with it. These are only peripherally, marginally true. I’ve met elderly people who are excited about the book, and I’ve had long chats with teens about it. Men have loved it, as well as women. That astonished me.
I have two other novels, one of which is finished, and the other awaiting feedback from my agent. Let’s see how it goes. In the meanwhile, I hope for better things for You Beneath Your Skin and the two causes it supports.
Thank you to Damyanti Biswas, whose debut novel You Beneath Your Skin is available in the U.S. here!