Kishwar Desai gave up news for fiction in 2010, when she quit journalism to write her first novel, but continues to address issues relevant to contemporary Indian society. Her novels—centred around Simran Singh, an independent middle-aged woman with a penchant for investigating social injustice—are well researched and tend to bear an eerie resemblance to real life. Her first novel, Witness the Night (2010), tackled female foeticide; her second, Origins of Love (2012), was about commercial surrogacy in India; and her latest, The Sea of Innocence, deals with sexual violence. Through her writing, she attempts to voice issues she feels are significant, yet not discussed enough. Here, she talks about what it takes to be a writer and of choosing rape as a subject in a country roiled by sexual violence:
Q Many journalists start out aspiring to be writers, yet seldom make the transition. Did you aspire to it or was it spontaneous?
I had wanted to be a writer much before I became a journalist. That was when I was around 10 years old, and because I was a voracious reader, I used to read the encyclopaedia at home...if I couldn’t find anything else. I read the collected works of Oscar Wilde and much of Tagore, though I don’t know how much I actually understood. I also read Harold Robbins and other things I wasn’t supposed to. I spent a lot of time on my own, and most of it was spent reading and writing. I actually think I was a much better writer in my teenage years than I am now. Everything was so fresh and exciting, I suppose.
But then I fell in love with cinema and wanted to make films, instead of which I became a journalist and eventually joined TV, where I spent around 20 years. I wrote a play that got an award while I was a TV anchor, and was very tempted to go back to writing. But in those days it still paid very poorly compared to TV, and it seemed foolish to give up recognition and money. Till one day, I woke up—around seven years ago—and realised that perhaps I should do what had come so naturally to me when I was a child. And so here I am. I have no idea why I didn’t do this earlier—except that I was seduced by the visual medium.
Q Like many Indian women, you have grown up around gender violence and sexism, and like any author, you derive your fiction from personal experience. How hard is it to disengage and write about rape topically?
I must point out that I have had a fairly lucky life, in that I have faced minimal sexual harassment, compared to other horror stories I have heard. In fact, most of the places I worked and lived in were wonderful. So a great deal [of what] I write about is either based on research—that is, other people’s experiences—and of course, my own imagination. I... try to put issues like rape and sexual violence into a contemporary context. I think we need to do more of that in our literature, cinema and art. Rape and sexual harassment often happen in situations where you think you are safe, and often the perpetrators are people you trust. Very few of them come looking like Bollywood villains, laughing evilly and saying ‘Main teri izzat lootne aaya hoon (I have come to plunder your honour).’ Which is why, in all my three books, terrible exploitation does take place, but always disguised as ‘normal’.
Q What made you write about rape? Were you writing The Sea of Innocence when the Delhi Gang Rape happened?
This topic was chosen three years ago, when I first thought of the Simran Singh series. I had been horrified at the escalating number of attacks on women, and wondered why more was not being done to stop it and why it wasn’t becoming a national issue. The book had already been researched and was actually written last year [by] August. But when I was doing the final edit in December 2012, the horrific attack on Nirbhaya, as we know her, happened in Delhi. I felt I had to include it in my novel because, eerily, the time line of my novel was also [set in] December. It would be quite normal for the protagonist Simran Singh, a social worker-cum-detective... hunting for a missing girl in Goa, to be troubled by it. Thus, I made it part of the narrative.
Q Rape and sexual violence in India—even with all the media coverage, legislative changes and discussion—are still topical, in the sense that they’re always under the radar, only resurfacing when a new incident occurs. What do you think could be a solution to this?
It can only be resolved when tough action is taken against rapists. Recently in the UK, a man has been found guilty of having... raped and murdered a five-year-old child. He has not confessed to the rape, but has still been given a life sentence. The case has been very public—within months, the sentence was delivered. It sends a very strong message. In India, we have all these tough laws; what we don’t have is action. I do not doubt that the killers of Nirbhaya will be condemned. But it will happen when the Government finds it politically useful—possibly closer to the elections, or [when it needs] to simply bury some bad news. Otherwise, there is no reason why the fast track courts could not have reached a conclusion by now. My only fear is that the case might have [been] bungled up by the police.
Q The protagonist in your novels, Simran, is a strong feminist icon—from her irreverence to her unconventional choices. Does she embody qualities you relate to? What were you thinking when you created her?
I think she was a character I missed very much in literature coming out of India. She is a stroppy, spunky woman with a sense of humour and a zest for life—and she is not a victim. You are right; she is a feminist icon in many ways. And yet, she is very human and foolish as well. She is always falling in love, is a flawed person, but is altruistic. She is the kind of person I would love to see more of in real life and in literature as well as cinema. Yes, she is unconventional, but I think all women have a bit of Simran Singh in them. And that is why I have found that, all over the world, people treat her like a ‘real’ person. They can relate to her—both men and women. In fact, men tell me that they wish they could find more women like her in reality.
Q You write with much emotion and clearly feel for your cause. Do you expect your readers to take something away from your books?
Oh, definitely. I do hope that the books start a discussion...To begin with, we must break the silence. If a girl has been molested, there is no shame in seeking justice, and [in] everyone else trying to help her. Women must come together to help other women, not condemn the woman who has been raped...If the police or judicial system falters, we must speak up about it, as [we did] in December. So perhaps my books [can] help push this change… But I hope that first and foremost, people will read it like a novel, and then, hopefully, be motivated to change things.
Q Of the three Simran Singh novels, which was the toughest to write and why?
Each one is tough in its own way, because crime novels are much more complex than ‘normal’ novels. In crime fiction, all the pieces have to fit, so the plotting is very intensely thought through. Characters cannot be obviously villainous and the good guys cannot be all pure either. Perhaps Origins of Love, my last novel about the rent-a-womb industry, was the toughest—because I had chosen to do it in two time zones, and each chapter was about a different character, so I had to make elaborate charts to make sure the trajectory was alright. But I wouldn’t say it was tough; I would say it was challenging, and therefore it was fun. I am one of those perverse people who enjoy doing difficult things. If anything is too easy, I get bored! Strange!
Q How long do you spend on a novel? Do you isolate yourself or give yourself timed working hours?
I normally spend a few months researching the book, if not longer—sometimes it is years—and then I give myself a deadline to complete the actual writing. Usually, it is driven by the expected publication date, or the date my agent would like it by. I find I write best if I am at home and not engaged socially. So when I am writing, I cut myself off completely. The Simran Singh novels have all been written in the space of a month or two... I do nothing but work on the book till the first draft is complete. Then, of course, it goes for editing and various queries come from the editor, and accordingly some tinkering takes place. But the narrative of the book remains unchanged. Darlingji: The True Love Story of Nargis and Sunil Dutt was non-fiction, but was written in the same manner... While I did take frequent breaks [while] writing that book, the last few months were very intense, and quite isolated. I find that people misunderstand that self-imposed isolation. But there is no other way for me than to just hunker down and write.