JOURNALIST and TV producer Kishwar Desai can now lay claim to being an award-winning novelist after scooping a top literary prize with her debut novel 'Witness The Night' last month. Her book, which exposes female infanticide in India, landed the prestigious Costa First Novel award. Here she speaks to Zeenat Moosa about 'Witness The Night'
Congratulations on winning the Costa First Novel Prize. How does it feel?
It feels wonderful. I never imagined this would happen to me with my first book. I am really grateful to the judges for finding my book worthy enough of such a prestigious prize!
You have a wealth of experience in media, as a journalist, TV producer and TV presenter. What made you start writing?
I had worked in TV for over 20 years and in the last few years I found that I was disappointed at how celebrity-oriented the shows had become. I was also concerned that everything seemed to be becoming a little superficial at that time. So I thought it was time to get back to writing - I used to write a lot, as a schoolgirl-and fulfil a childhood dream of becoming an ‘author’.
We probably know you best as the wife of Lord Desai. Tell us briefly more about the real Kishwar Desai - your background, your life.
I was born in Ambala (now in Haryana) and grew up in different towns scattered all over North India: in Punjab, Haryana, Delhi --and even Kashmir as my father was in the police and posted in all these places. I changed more than ten schools - but it was fun because I would make a lot of new friends, every year. After school I joined college in Delhi, to study Economics Honours in Lady Shri Ram College. But I was interested in media --and so after college I became a journalist in Chandigarh with the Indian Express - and then I got married to my former husband --and again began a life of once again being posted in different cities. However, I carried on working - in Mumbai and in Kolkatta - and by the time I began living in Delhi I had shifted to TV and joined NDTV as a production controller and later a TV journalist. I loved my TV career and carried on working whilst my children grew up. I have two kids, Gaurav and Mallika, who are both coincidentally at Harvard Business School right now.
I met Meghnad Desai in India in 2004 --and we got divorced from our previous partners and married each other. The romance made front page news in India as everyone was totally surprised! Now I live in the UK and have a great life writing and visiting India and the US to meet friends and family.
Without revealing too much what is Witness the Night about?
Witness the Night has been described as a thriller and a work of crime fiction. It is about a young girl who is accused of a horrific crime, and about an unconventional social worker Simran Singh, who, convinced of her innocence, decides to help her. The book also deals with gender and with other issues which confront a modern India. But, overall, I hope it’s a book that people will want to read.
It’s an intriguing title – how did that come about?
The book was originally called ‘The Tyranny of Dreams’. It had been long listed for the Man Asian Literary prize, 2009 but then we all felt the title was sounding a little too ‘heavy’. But I still wanted a name which represented some of the events and characters in the book. So during one brainstorming session with my editor in which many names were suggested, I came up with ‘Witness the Night’ and everyone liked it so we went with it.
What has the reaction been to the book so far?
Very good and I am really pleasantly surprised by that. The reviews both in the UK and in India have been very appreciative and even readers have been getting back to me with extremely positive feedback. They have been particularly affected by the issue of gendercide and have liked the character of Simran Singh a lot. So much, in fact, that she is now returning as the central protagonist in a book series. I am now writing the next one.
Sex selection is still prevalent today, within many British Asian communities. Why do you think this backward ideology is still so apparent?
When people migrate overseas, they usually carry their traditions and prejudices with them. So it is not astonishing at all if some British Asians still show a marked son preference over their daughters. This regressive attitude is self-reinforcing, and can be justified in a million ways: it is because of the dowry system which still exists. It could be due to the fact that girls get married and ‘go away ‘, thereby turning out to be wasted investments. Or it could be due to the fact that they do not bear the family name, after they are married. Or due to the fact that in a western world, it is also much more difficult to protect the ‘virginity ‘ of girls, thus leading to notions of family shame associated with girls who have found their own partners. There could be many reasons, and most of them are economic, but most of them are completely irrational in this present world of gender equality.
You spend your time living in Britain and India – what, in your opinion, needs to be done to combat this problem?
The problem can only be solved through a change in the mind-set and a clear recognition that women are equal to men in every way. In the UK especially, this can be done quite easily through a targeted approach, using the media to spread the message. It is also important to ensure that girls are educated properly, and given an opportunity to work in the area of their interests.
Finally Kishwar what are you working on next?
I am working on the next book in the series in which Witness the Night was the first book. And I am also completing the biography of some early pioneers of Indian cinema, Devika Rani and Himansu Rai.
Kishwar Desai: Witness The Night, published by Beautiful Books, is available to buy from all leading bookshops