You Beneath Your Skin began life as a short story in the first few months of 2012. By the end of the year, I had an almost complete draft in hand, when the Nirbhaya tragedy struck New Delhi. Like with many other women, especially those who have lived in Delhi for some time, I was shaken up by the gang-rape of a young physiotherapy student. The details were horrific, the molestation brutal enough that the victim’s intestines spilled on the street.
The helpless rage and grief I felt at the plight of a woman I didn’t know, but had no trouble identifying with, poured into the next draft of the novel. I’ve often been asked why I chose the theme of crimes against women, but the truth is, it chose me. As a writer, I’ve always thought that my role should be to respect my characters and my readers.
My characters have always been independent entities, and though I write them, I pretend no god-like power over them. They are simply people (imaginary, but people nevertheless) who need their stories told, and told well, with empathy and no judgement. It is not my responsibility to pronounce a character good or bad, smart or not—all I do is take dictation once the story has got hold of me. Of course, I edit drafts—You Beneath Your Skin went through 15 of them. The story changed from draft to draft, but not the characters. Anjali, Jatin, Maya remained the same—I only found new ways to show the arc of their journey.
If the characters are real enough, possess flaws and strengths, desires and dislikes, wounds and secrets like the rest of us—readers tend to care what happens to them. They may like the characters or not, but they’re not indifferent to the characters’ fate. Readers are wise and intelligent, they know where to put their affections, and how to devote their time. My responsibility towards them is to fulfil the contract I make with them on the first page, that of telling a good story. By the end of the story I should have answered all the questions I raised at the outset, and satisfy the reader. They may or may not agree with the ending (many readers have discussed the ending of this novel at length), but they have to see an ending that is the inevitable result of the decisions and events in the narrative.
A good story, well-told—that’s my ultimate goal for any novel. What readers make of it is their business. It was only after You Beneath Your Skin had reached its final drafts that I made a few cosmetic changes to deepen the themes that had emerged: police corruption, parenting of special needs children, deeply ingrained patriarchy that leads to toxic masculinity and violence against women.
All throughout—the aim was to write the story of Jatin and Anjali—what the reader makes of their journey is up to the reader. Many readers and reviewers have commented on how the book tackles social issues, but that was not the intent I started with.
If I started writing stories in order to send messages, I’d never write much at all.
I’m sure inspirational fiction is great for those who read and write in the genre, but my writing is for readers who like a good story. It is a great corollary for a reader to take away a message from a story, but subjectively, that is all it is, a corollary. Readers should be respected, and any conclusions they draw from a story should be their own prerogative. The story and the characters remain, for me, the primary focus of storytelling.
Samuel Goldwyn, a movie producer who founded several motion picture studios once said, “All I want is a story. If you have a message, send it by Western Union.” As both a reader and writer, I agree.
You Beneath Your Skin is a crime novel about the investigation of an acid attack on a woman from Delhi’s upper class, set against the backdrop of crimes against underprivileged women. They are assaulted, disfigured with acid, and murdered.
It is a whodunit, but also a whydunit, because violent crime unravels those affected: the people, the relationships, the very fabric of society, and we get a glimpse of what lies beneath. That’s why the title, You Beneath Your Skin.
You Beneath Your Skin has been optioned for TV screens by Endemol Shine, as announced by Hollywood Deadline.
About the Author:
Damyanti Biswas lives in Singapore, and supports Delhi’s underprivileged women and children, volunteering with organisations who work for this cause. Her short stories have been published in magazines in the US, UK, and Asia, and she helps edit the Forge Literary Magazine. You can find her on her blog.
She also sends out monthly newsletters with book recommendations and writing resources, which you can grab here.