Seven years ago, like many other women, especially those who have lived in Delhi for some time, I was shaken up by the rape and murder of a young physiotherapy student on a bus in the city. Sitting in my well-lit Singapore drawing room, far away from the media’s descriptions of the cold menace against women on Delhi streets, I could imagine in appalling detail what the 23-year-old had gone through.
The coverage on newspapers and television was relentless. The barbaric nature of the crime had horrified the nation, and even far away, it was impossible to avoid the barrage of updates. And I did try to run away from it, of course I did. It felt too close to home. I had walked those streets in Munirka. I’d watched movies in the evenings and returned home at night. I’d tried to find whatever joy I could in my life, like her. Like all women in New Delhi.
What I felt then was sheer helplessness—not much I could do, I thought. I blogged and spoke, but mostly swallowed what I really felt—the rage and grief for a woman I didn’t know but could completely identify with; the many times I had been groped or pinched on public transport; the time some men in a truck had hit me with a stick, putting me in a hospital for two days with concussion; that time my friends saved me from a man who tried to drag me into a Scorpio with tinted windows.
The body remembers all assaults, big and small. In December 2012, I’d already written a sketch of what would eventually become my debut novel, You Beneath Your Skin. When I began the next draft, I channelled all the ferocity and ferment from my body into it, but the narrative lacked intensity. I kept searching for a visual representation—a way to make violence visible.
A year later, while I was working on the next draft, I found the book Beautiful (2011) by British acid attack survivor Katie Piper. I began reading up more on acid attacks, and discovered that it was rampant in India, but a crime that mostly went unpunished. The situation has not changed significantly since then—National Crime Records Bureau data shows that over the past five years, while the number of acid attack cases has been rising, there has been a decrease in the number of people charge-sheeted.
I knew I wanted to write about this, but when I sat down to work on the draft, I was swamped by guilt—at that point, I had not even met a survivor of an acid attack. What right did I have to make a plot point out of someone’s trauma? I began reading more on the subject, and set up meetings with activists such as Alok Dixit, who had begun the Stop Acid Attacks campaign. I called up their centre in New Delhi, and visited India to meet a group of women who had been affected, Ritu Saini and Neetu Mahor among them.
Ritu was 17 when her cousin, who was 22 years older, wanted to elope with her. Infuriated by her refusal, he hired goons to pour acid on her. He and his aides were arrested, and a trial court handed life sentences to two of them and 10 years to the others. But all the culprits were released after a mere five years in prison when a High Court overturned the decision.
Neetu was just three when her father threw acid on his family. Her mother was injured, Neetu lost her eyesight and her infant sister was killed. The man served a brief prison sentence, and then went back to the same people he’d attacked. Later, when I met Neetu’s family, I realised that her mother’s circumstances meant she had no choice but to forgive her attacker and continue living with him, giving birth to another daughter a few years later. Both Neetu and her mother still take care of the father, who is now ill and couldn’t survive without them. Both work at Sheroes Hangout in Agra, where I met them again last year.
Neetu’s experience taught me that not all acid attack cases could be viewed through one lens. Things could be much more complicated than they appeared at first glance. I began spending more time with the survivors and activists of the organisation—Ritu, in particular was very helpful, and over many Skype conversations, I pieced together some of her story, and her emotions at the time of the incident.
On another visit to New Delhi, Ritu introduced me to her plastic surgeon who operated on many of the survivors. I learnt about the multiple operations needed for a survivor to recover. That was a lot of physical pain and mental anguish simply to gain back the functionality of their bodies. Once that had been achieved, further procedures helped repair the devastation to their faces. These sometimes took place over years, and did not come cheap. Unlike the portrayal in daily soaps, plastic surgery could not completely restore a survivor’s appearance.
I realised that my novel and my writing had to go far deeper if I hoped to write with authenticity. Over the next few years, I worked on draft after draft after draft, re-writing the novel from scratch, about 15 times in all. One of the books I often turned to at this time was In Cold Blood (1966) by Truman Capote. It was a work of non-fiction on a gory mass murder, but the beauty of its language showed me that crime writing could also be used as a lens to study people and the society they lived in.
As I read more and more—from Kate Atkinson to Jo Nesbø , Jodi Picoult to Tana French—I began to understand what I wanted my book to be: a crime novel that incorporated all the tropes and intensity of a thriller, in order to voice something deeper about the characters and the city they lived in.
Through all of this, one thing didn’t change: my simmering rage at the injustice women experienced every day in India. How they were not safe in their homes or public spaces. How toxic masculinity often masqueraded as benevolent patriarchy. How the most urban and educated of women were just as unsafe as their less privileged counterparts. How the marginalised had little recourse from different forms of violence. And in each chapter of the book, in each voice, through each character and scene and setting, I let this anger filter through.
I’d love to say that there was a feeling of triumphant satisfaction as I finished my last draft, but I merely felt the story clicking into place. Each incident in the novel led to another, and all of it emerged from my characters’ motivations. At that point, I let the story be. I felt a sense of loss as well—of moving away from the characters I had lived with for years, and moving on to the grind of copyediting and proofreading.
I’m still not sure I’ve done justice to the acid attack survivors I wrote about. I volunteer with them online from time to time, by conducting workshops in English, writing content and acting as a consultant for their education programme. I’m also hoping the book will be translated into Hindi soon, as the survivors who generously shared their stories with me have not been able to read it so far. The author proceeds from the book go to two New Delhi-based non-profit organisations that do inspiring work every day: Stop Acid Attacks, for obvious reasons, and Project WHY, an organisation that works for the empowerment of underprivileged women and children.
I’m still angry—how can I not be?—but throughout my travels in small towns speaking about my book, I encounter people who give me hope: a man working overtime to educate his daughter, another who is supporting his sister in her fight against a marriage she doesn’t want, young women with steel in their voices when they say they want to make their own decisions, not acquiesce to others.
Change is coming to India. It might be slow, but it is by no means insignificant. As a writer, I consider it my job to reflect the realities of our society, to create empathy and raise awareness. I can only hope that my work resonates with readers, both men and women, and aids them as they renegotiate the territory of their relationships,
I’ve begun work on my next book, a crime novel set against the backdrop of the shutdown and reopening of dance bars in Mumbai. My research has led me to the slums, dance bars and police stations of Mumbai, and through its protagonist, Tara, I hope to examine society’s attitude towards women who make a living by dancing in bars.