You Beneath Your Skin is an indubitably disturbing novel. It holds up an ugly mirror to a deeply entrenched misogyny in Indian society that manifests itself all too often in gruesome crimes against women. This decade has been particularly frightening, and 2012 marks a defining moment in it: the heinous gang rape of Jyoti Singh Pandey in a moving bus in Delhi by six men made India sit up and take note.

There was extensive media coverage of the incident and its aftermath (including unprecedented nationwide protests and changes in India’s criminal law); the years that followed also saw a controversial BBC documentary on the subject (India’s Daughter, 2015), and a fine Netflix series in 2019.

The Netflix series – the seven-part Delhi Crime – based on case files, was very much on my mind while reading Damyanti Biswas’s debut novel. For two important reasons: First, at the heart of both is a crime that is particularly savage in its enactment. And second, the police investigation not only unravels a crime but also lays bare the dynamics of a fraught filial relationship – in the series, between a mother and teenage daughter (DCP Vartika Chaturvedi is hell bent on nabbing Pandey’s assailants not only to deliver justice to the victim but also to restore the faith of her own daughter in their city and the law of their country), and in the novel, between a mother and teenage son (psychiatrist Anjali Morgan, an Indian American, settles in Delhi to flee her past in America and has a hard time being a single mother to Nikhil, who has autism).

Mother and son

There is however not one but multiple fraught filial bonds in the novel – between Anjali and Nikhil, between Anjali and Dorothy (her mother), between Jatin and Varun (Anjali’s lover and his son). The most dramatic confrontation scenes are between the latter. But it is Anjali’s relationship with Nikhil that anchors the whole story.

It is difficult not to be moved by it. And by the daily challenge of their lives: The mutual stress, the difficult recalibration of their moods as advised by therapists, the enormous need of one to protect and of the other to be protected, the comparisons with other children that inevitably crop up in parents’ mind, the unpredictable behaviour that the slightest change in routine can provoke in the child... the list is endless. This bond – fierce, all-consuming – established at the very beginning of the novel, falls apart soon after. The rest of novel can be said to be a painful recovery of it.

Too much, too few

Just as there are multiple fractured relationships in the novel, there is also a surfeit of concerns, all radiating from Anjali: A single-mother with a challenged child, having had a traumatic childhood herself, in a long-standing extramarital relationship with a police commissioner (who happens to be both her father’s protégé and her bestie’s brother), sucked into a drug and prostitution dragnet that exposes both the misogyny and corruption of the society she lives in, and the hypocrisies hiding behind social norms. While they are inter-related, each one of these concerns could have had novels unto themselves. Anjali, one can’t help feeling, has just too much to bear!

You Beneath Your Skin is also a novel peopled with many characters and moves fast between different settings (though mostly within Delhi). It is difficult to give space to the exploration of relationships over time in such a scenario – but Biswas does manage to give us effective back stories through deft flashbacks. And for a novel that centres around violence, the most moving scenes, surprisingly, are small intimate moments.

“He hugged her from behind her. She stared at the picture they made, Jatin’s strong arm around her waist, his face on her shoulder, her hair tangled under his chin. She liked that he was so much taller than her five feet nine, and she liked him when he relaxed into her, lost his hard edges.

‘I like that that you father gave you this love of poetry.’

‘He didn’t give it to me.’ Jatin’s eyes turned wistful. ‘I got it from him. I’m trying to do a better job as a father. Everything he never gave me, I’ll give Varun.’”

Alas, there are too few of these moments.

It is easy for a writer dealing with such an incendiary theme to easily slip into sensationalism, especially while writing in the crime fiction genre – where people expect “action-packed thrillers”, the “thrill” element coming primarily from the peddling of violence and sex. Biswas steers clear of that route with élan – giving us all the necessary details of what it means to be an acid attack victim (from the nature of the chemical through what it does to the skin to the painfully long and complex recovery process), but never allowing it to slide into a “thrill”.

Brutally honest and evolved selves

I really liked the ending of the novel. Both Jatin and Anjali have to own up to themselves and their pasts and cope with their failure as parents – as events spiral out of control and they face the greatest crisis of their lives. It is particularly hard for Jatin, as it is impossible for him to be fair to both his son and his beloved at the same time. He makes a heroic attempt to stand by his principles, but can’t... the residual guilt and sadness gnaws at him even as he tries to start over a new life.

Anjali begins as a vulnerable mother in the novel, but ends as a fiercely honest individual. Accepting life for what it is and embracing her true self.

Biswas manages to be realistic in her ending without giving up on either idealism or hope for the future. That’s a balance hard to achieve – but worth aiming for, both in life and fiction.

You Beneath Your Skin, Damayanti Biswas, Simon & Schuster.