Three decades ago, a civil service aspirant, faced with a multiple-choice question on the most adverse male-female ratio amongst Indian states, safely ticked Punjab because he had been unable to find himself a girl. The deep-seated prejudice against the girl child has not gone away, and not only in Punjab. Female foeticide, debilitating gender discrimination and female incarceration are unfortunately not things that happened, like sati, only in the past.
When Simran Singh, the hard-drinking, “khadi-clad, NGO wali” protagonist of Kishwar Desai’s debut novel sets out to talk to a 14-year-old girl suspected of murdering 13 family members, she walks into a minefield of prejudices of a rich, hypocritical family in which girls are killed at birth or before. Those who survive are forced to tread the straight and narrow, watching their brothers being pampered silly. If they dare step out of line, tempted by human desire, they are banished, or locked up in padded cells as insane, with the connivance of corrupt doctors and policemen.
The nature of the theme, dramatic yet grounded in harsh reality, enables Kishwar Desai to make a relatively smooth transition from journalist to novelist. She knows her Punjab well and uses her knowledge bravely, like an investigative journalist. The characters come startlingly alive, and in the cynical Simran, she has a winner. Desai is to be commended for documenting a major social ugliness in unflinching detail and producing a fluent page-turner in the process.