For all the talk in India about empowering women, it remains one of the most “gender-insensitive” societies in the world with even bodies like the National Commission for Women mostly engaged in “headline-grabbing” exercises, says Kishwar Desai, the U.K.-based Indian writer and broadcaster whose novel, Witness the Night, about female infanticide has just been awarded Britain's prestigious Costa prize (previously known as the Whitbread award) for a first book.
“Generally, we're a very cruel society and so obsessed with pursuit of ‘perfection' that anyone who is even slightly different — for example, disabled or not considered ‘pretty' enough — is seen as ‘abnormal.' Women are the worst victims of this attitude — that's if they are allowed to be born or live at all. The fact is that we don't want girls in the first place. Forget about aborting female foetuses, we don't have any qualms about killing newly-born baby girls — and here I'm talking about supposedly modern and enlightened people who live in big metros,” Ms Desai said talking to TheHindu after collecting the prize.
She cited a study according to which more than 1,000 female foetuses are aborted every day in India. Estimates of female infanticide were equally “horrifying.” What she found really shocking was that women themselves were complicit in this.
“I spoke to some psychiatrists and they said women did this because they felt empowered — it gave them a sense of wielding power. It is a weird logic. My own sense is that, given the way women are treated in India, it is perhaps a perverse way of delivering baby girls from a cruel fate,” she said.
How it struck her
The scale of the problem first hit her when she was running a Punjabi television channel in India in the 1990s:
“One of the things I routinely encountered were stories of female infanticide and foeticide. Once in Chandigarh, a woman, quite well known in social circles, told me how when she was young her parents tried to get rid of her by giving her an overdose of opium but she survived. After all those years she still lived with the trauma that her own parents could have been her assassins.”
The story of the Chandigarh socialite was the trigger for the novel that she was to write some 20 years later.
“I kept asking myself: why do Indians behave like this towards their daughters — burying them alive, giving them poison, trying to kill them with an overdose of opium? When I started to research I was horrified by the sheer scale of the practice of female infanticide and the widespread public indifference. Almost every State in India is affected: Punjab, Haryana, Delhi, Maharashtra and Tamil Nadu. As a result, according to the most conservative estimates there are at least 30 million Indian women ‘missing,' so to speak,” Ms Desai said.
Even in the West
This “anti-girl child” attitude was also widespread among Asians living in the West. In Britain, she pointed, it was not uncommon for Asian men to take their pregnant wives to India for sex-selection procedures and abortions.
“I met a girl whose father openly told her that he was taking her mother, who was pregnant with a girl child, to India for an abortion. She said there were three girls in the family and he didn't want one more. Here was a man who had lived all his life in Britain and yet his cultural attitude had not changed. Really, shocking. In fact, one of the reasons that Britain banned sex-selection in 2007, I believe, was because it was being abused by Asians,” Ms Desai said.
What the judges said
She hopes that her novel, published both in the U.K. and India, would provoke debate and create greater awareness.
She sees it as a measure of the difference in cultural attitudes that the book has been “appreciated” more in the U.K. than back home.
The novel was inspired by the case of a young girl in Kolkata (Calcutta at the time) who was accused of poisoning her entire family but mostly it is fiction and can be read purely as a “thriller.”
“I didn't want to be didactic but raise the issue by telling a story.”
Judges praised the book for lifting “the lid on the problems that simmer under the surface of modern-day India.”
“Desai has pulled off a remarkable trick transplanting a country house murder to modern day India in a book that's not afraid to tackle serious themes,” they said.
Ms Desai, who is married to the economist Lord Meghnad Desai, has been commissioned to do a series of novels built around the central character of Witness the Night — a “feisty, whiskey-swigging, chain-smoking social activist” from Delhi.