When I picked up Kritika Kapoor’s first novel, Batshit, I was arrested by the image on the cover. You see the bare back of a blue-coloured woman. Her cascading mane cloaks her face, allowing just a glimpse of an eye, which stares back at you. As your eyes travel downwards, you see a tiny silhouette of a woman against a red background. The silhouette is like a miniature portrait placed alongside the looming figure of the wild-haired woman. If you’re faint-hearted, like me, you’ll put the book away. There was something, however, that pulled me into the macabre world of this unputdownable book.

It was probably the beginning – smooth and suspenseful – that served as a hook. It sets the eerie tone of the novel:

He barely recognises the laughter coming out of the kitchen. It doesn’t fit in with the usual morning cacophony of unruly birds screaming in the trees, the vegetable vendor’s off-key raag listing the day’s inventory, the dull thud of the knife slicing into tomatoes, onions and chicken on the cutting board, and the sharp hiss and piercing whistles of the pressure cooker.

Mother issues

The book has plenty of horror, some of which might make you wince. But it has much more to offer. If you’re into psychoanalysis, it will have a special appeal for you. Even the uninitiated will enjoy the in-depth analysis of the protagonist’s mysterious personality. The ideas of Jung and Freud are woven dexterously into the narrative. What elevates this book above a run-of-the-mill horror novel are the therapy sessions, which seem to have required a considerable amount of research. At one point, the psychiatrist, Anando, quotes Jung while explaining the Mother Complex. What Kapoor offers is both enjoyable and erudite.

The novel explores the pathological effects of mother-daughter codependency. Anando delves deep into the psyche of Pia, the protagonist, tracing her pathological behaviour back to its origins. The lives of Pia and her mother, Neeta, are worryingly enmeshed. Under the shadow and control of her mother, Pia does not develop a distinct and stable sense of self. To put it simply, she has mother issues. Though the book depicts the mother as controlling and suffocating, it also shows her earnest efforts to protect and train her daughter. Knowing that Pia is not normal, Neeta sets in place “an elaborate system of rules and rituals” to help her daughter navigate a world that does not accommodate abnormality. In a way, the book avoids the propensity for mother-blaming seen in psychoanalysis.

When it comes to the mother-daughter dynamic, Kapoor is willing to dig deep. Neeta’s protective control becomes obsessive and overbearing. Neeta needs Pia to depend on her. She’s unsettled when she cannot read Pia’s thoughts and monitor her life. The merging of selves and the blurring of boundaries make the mother and daughter a problematic unit. In the end, when Neeta removes the sheet covering her dead daughter, she sees her own image: “. . . Neeta lunges forward and rips the sheet off Pia. Gathering all her strength for their final goodbye, Neeta looks at her daughter for the last time and all she sees is her eyes, her nose, her lips – her very own face – staring back at her.”

Vilification of women

While exploring the psyche of its characters, the novel also exposes the repressed fears of a society dealing with women’s power. It expands on the myths around yakshinis, who are seen as both benevolent and malevolent. Even when they grant wishes – their benevolent avatar – they are said to create new wants and trap you in the cycle of desire. In return for every desire they fulfill, they demand a sacrifice. In their malevolent avatar, they “use their shape-shifting and illusion-wielding abilities to lure men into their trap”.

By thoroughly examining the myths around yakshinis, Kapoor reveals the ambivalence towards powerful women. The “malevolent” tendencies seem to be male fears projected onto these mythical creatures. By drawing attention to all kinds of “demonesses”, which are painted by Pia with lurid brilliance, the novel provokes reflection on the vilification of formidable women – a misogynistic tendency observed across time and cultures. Kapoor shows how misogyny rears its ugly head in this day and age:

“You swore to me you wouldn’t paint anything weirdly feminist,” Raghav’s saying now. “This feels like it might be. The whole female demons drinking men’s blood thing might trigger Rohan. He has, like, six #MeToo cases against him so far.”  

Kapoor’s animated prose makes the novel a wonderful read. If you’re mainly looking for shock, fun and thrill, you will not be disappointed. The novel, however, is at its finest when it probes the causes of Pia’s destructive behaviour. Without the exploration of Neeta’s and Pia’s inner struggles, this would have become a simplistic story of a dangerous woman unleashed on the world by a devouring mother. By tracing Pia’s troubling developmental trajectory, the novel humanises her. From a woman who tears into people’s bodies like a wild animal, she becomes a girl who falls victim to her demons (not just literally but also metaphorically). As someone who’s researching motherhood, I was most impressed by Kapoor’s sensitive handling of Neeta’s character.

The novel critiques the ease with which blame is heaped on mothers, who, at the end of the day, are only human:

And she had felt her violent anger return after years. 

It’s so easy to blame the mother now, isn’t it? So easy to say, “You shouldn’t have done this alone.”

“Where were you all these years then?’ she wanted to scream, as she felt his words slap her across the face and kick her in the gut.”

A notable feature of the book is its slow build-up. It does not assault you with grisly images right away. Those are deferred till the final pages of the book. Kapoor tantalises you with glimpses of the paranormal, throwing hints of something sinister at work. She eases you into the surreal landscape of the book. For a moment, she even convinces you that all the strange phenomena have a psychological explanation. The seemingly inexplicable lends itself to a compelling interpretation. Therein lies the intellectual heft of the book.

However, before you can say “Aha!”, you get a punch in the gut. What follows is truly spine-chilling, what with people’s intestines spilling out. For those who have an appetite for blood and gore, this deluge of terror might be the high point of the book. In the end, the novel scales the heights of horror, living up to the promise of its spooky cover.

I have only one issue with the book. The title is ill-suited to a book with such psychological depth and complexity. The book draws you in, but the title puts you off.

Batshit, Kritika Kapoor, Pan Macmillan India.