The dark side of Delhi

Lucy Beresford’s heroine investigates her husband’s death while uncovering the truth about India’s missing millions in her compelling novel Invisible Threads

13 June 2015

9:00 AM

13 June 2015

9:00 AM

Invisible Threads Lucy Beresford

Quartet, pp.240, £15, ISBN: 9780704373853

When Sara discovers that her husband died in India, rather than being killed in Afghanistan as she was told, she travels to Delhi to uncover the circumstances of his death. On the surface, Invisible Threads is a novel about an English woman on a personal journey to India, and comes with many of the trappings we’d expect. Lucy Beresford describes the country’s assault on her protagonist’s senses and observes the seeming contradictions of poverty, such as when Sara sees a barefooted beggar — her ‘hair is matted, her turquoise sari filthy, but she is carrying a mobile phone’. Sara also finds India to be palpably erotic, imagining how a sari ‘could be peeled off by a lover in a matter of seconds’, and it comes as no surprise when she lusts after her Indian driver, who is also a skilled sitar player.

This is, however, the misleadingly light surface of a dark and powerful book. Sara, like her author, is a psychotherapist — a profession dedicated to understanding the deeper issues behind our superficial behaviour. The deeper issue of Invisible Threads is the terrible position of girls and women in India, and Beresford skilfully weaves visceral examples of their plight into Sara’s experience while she is there investigating her husband’s death.

Sara’s first patient in Delhi is an 18-year-old whose family wanted to burn her to death when her 64-year-old husband, who she married when she was 11, died. When Sara meets a friend, a riot causes their rickshaw to be diverted through Delhi’s largest red light district, lined with prostitutes, including a little girl still sucking her thumb. She attends a conference where a question introduces her to the word ‘Devadasi’, which she discovers is the practice — continuing in spite of being officially outlawed — of marrying daughters to a temple to earn money for their family by performing sexual acts.

Through Sara’s research, Beresford informs us that in 2008 over a million women and children were trafficked into and around India, funding global terrorism and the drugs trade. We learn that in India, 500 people — half of whom are children — go missing every day, and of the terrible wilful blindness of the police, who give rape victims the ‘two-finger test’: if a woman’s muscles allow the fingers to be inserted she is considered to be ‘habituated to intercourse’, and this is taken as proof that she can’t have been raped.

The book’s great strength is the plurality of the title’s Invisible Threads. These allude to the marital bond that pulls Sara along in her quest to discover how her husband died, and also to her links with the abused women of India she tries to help on the way. Beresford’s novel is both enjoyable and eye-opening, alluring and appalling; it is a call to respect the ties that bind us all.

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  • Gilbert White

    Very titillating coming to a remainder bucket near you any time soon.

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  • This is either a shoddy book or the reviewer has sensationalized matters.
    If the protagonist on arrival in India immediately meets, as her first patient, a girl who claims to have been the victim of a ‘suttee’ plot (i.e. immolation on the death of her husband) she has stumbled on pure Journalistic gold. Thousands of reporters would give their eye-teeth for a story like that. The TV Channels would be swarming around her house. Barkha Dutt would put her on NDTV. Aamir Khan would do a TV special about it. Far better books would be written about the case.
    Delhi does have a red light district but a little girl sucking her thumb is more likely to be the daughter of a sex worker than a prostitute. The devadasi tradition had a positive aspect as well as a negative one. People like M.S. Subbalaxmi and Balasaraswati continued the artistic and cultural traditions associated with it. Lord Buddha accorded Ambapali a high position despite her calling but then so did Kautilya’s Arthashastra. As an European, the term ‘devadasi’ may have been unfamiliar but surely the author would know the opera La Bayadere. Still, it must be said, a Conference on Women’s Issues in Delhi would be pretty difficult to stomach.
    Turning to the trafficking of women and children, India actually has proportionately less of this simply because it is poorer. However certain districts are disproportionately affected. In general, States with higher development- especially those which have turned the demographic corner- see a far smaller number of reports of missing children. Re. the ‘two finger test’, the Indian Supreme Court clarified matters in 2014. It is illegal without informed consent. It is true that the Legal system needs reform- such as those Modi introduced in Gujarat- so that the Police can successfully prosecute rapists, traffickers and so on. Currently, in many parts of India, the police are demoralized because though the arrest the rapist and beat him and get a confession, he is out on bail for years as his case keeps getting postponed and, finally, witnesses turn hostile because they can’t afford to keep showing up for trial dates.
    Invisible threads are threads of stupidity and sensationalism. We need visible threads- Courts forced to deal with criminal cases in a timely manner- strong Institutions not stupid self-publicists who think finding a Suttee victim in Delhi is an everyday occurrence. What’s next? Will Lucy Beresford discover a woman who is half snake after attending a Conference where ‘naginis’ are mentioned? Or will she find a dazzling beauty with her feet turned backwards after hearing the word ‘churel’?
    ‘Physician, heal thyself,’ says the Good Book, though, sadly, it fails to mention to whom the esteemed healer in question is supposed to send the bill.
    Still, it is comforting to know that Psychotherapists live up to their reputation for being narcissistic windbags with only the most tenuous and histrionic link to Reality.

    • Gilbert White

      I cannot see anybody sucking their thumb and I have had a good look.

    • Johnny Foreigner

      Wow, she really got your gander up. Your post was worth reading and sensible, thanks.