Belletrista Blog


Last week I read an excellent book called Witness the Night, by Kishwar Desai. Set in 21st century India, it’s part murder mystery, part social critique. Instead of a police detective, the sleuth in this story is an unconventional social worker who gets herself involved in a wealthy family’s attempt to promote an all-male progeny. I had the good fortune to have the opportunity to read this novel for the next edition of Belletrista.

Last autumn I read a detailed account of this “female feticide,” as it’s called in India, in the riveting Means of Reproduction: Sex, Power and the Future of the World, by Michelle Goldberg. According to her research, there are half a million sex-selective abortions performed in India every year, even though fetal sex determination is illegal. As India becomes more prosperous, this problem is worsening. With growing consumerism, dowry demands have grown exponentially. The attitude with many is that spending 500 Rupees on an ultrasound now can save parents 500,000 Rupees later.

So when I read Desai’s novel, I had some awareness of the situation. But the timeliness of her novel really struck me when I opened my Globe and Mail on Saturday morning and saw the article “Rate of aborted female fetuses increases in India.” According to the latest statistics, in the age 0-6 range, there are currently 914 girls for every 1,000 boys; the rate of female fetuses being aborted is higher than every before. Further, the baby girls who are born die in infancy more often than boy babies due to discrimination of resources (including food and health care)—this is an issue that Desai effectively illustrates in Witness the Night.

Despite both dowries and sex determination being illegal, according to the Globe and Mail, the government has little political will, and does not take this issue seriously. In light of the recently released statistics that show this problem worsening, Desai’s novel is an important book that deserves a wide audience. It’s imperative that this issue is reported in the media, and in non-fiction books such as The Means of Reproduction, but by putting this issue in a novel format, the author has expanded the audience of readers who must learn about this issue and speak out against it.

TED is a non-profit organisation that holds tow annual conferences bringing together the great and the good from all walks of life to give 18 minute talks about they experiences, their thoughts and their dreams.

In July 2010, Turkish author Elif Shafak gave a talk about the danger of identity politics destroying the art of story-telling. She explained that writers should be seeking to tell stories that take readers beyond their cultural comfort zone but all too often writers are expected to stay within their own culture – Muslim women are expected to write stories, usually unhappy ones, about Muslim women. Writers are not seen as creative individuals but as representatives of their country. Shafak asks why students on creative writing courses are taught to write about what they know – they should be taught to write about what they don’t know.

TED talks are fascinating. In 2009 Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie gave a talk that also focused on identity and literature. She warned that if we only hear a single story about a person or a country, we risk a critical misunderstanding.

In December 2010 TEDWomen ‘will invite both women and men to explore in depth: Who are the women leading change? What ideas are they championing? How are women reshaping the future?’. I’m looking forward to exploring the talks that seek to answer these questions.