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Book Review: The Sea of Innocence


Sex, lies and videotapes
SAIBAL CHATTERJEE | New Delhi, June 7, 2013 14:32
Tags : Kishwar Desai | The Sea of Innocence | Witness by Night | Origins of Love | Scarlett Keeling |

A thriller erected on the foundation of shocking incidents yanked out of the newspapers, The Sea of Innocence is Kishwar Desai’s third book in the Simran Singh series. Like the previous two – Witness by Night (which dwelt upon honour killing) and Origins of Love (the issue of surrogacy seen in the context of the urban-rural divide) – this tale addresses a pressing contemporary problem – sexual violence against women, which seems to be getting worse with each passing month.

So the relevance of The Sea of Innocence is undeniable. It frequently alludes to the brutal gang rape and murder of a paramedical student on a private bus in Delhi late last year. However, the central story is reminiscent of the fate that befell British teenager Scarlett Keeling on the beaches of Goa some years ago.

The Sea of Innocence tells the chilling tale of a White girl who vanishes without a trace after being raped in Goa, where Simran, social worker and crime investigator, has landed in the company of her 16-year-old daughter Durga in the hope of taking a much-needed break from the grind of big city life.

But this isn’t quite the paradise that she imagined it to be. Amarjit, a Delhi cop who is an ex-flame and classmate from St Stephen’s, sends her a grainy video of the aforementioned girl being molested by four men in a seedy hotel. From what Simran can make from the tape, the victim appears to be playing along with the predators and putting up no resistance at all.

The girl, Liza Kay, is now missing. Her alarmed sister, Marian, is looking for her and Amarjit gets Simran (initially against her wishes) to help the foreigner in the search. The mission is, needless to say, fraught with risk.

As more tapes follow, Simran runs into a web of lies and red herrings that is extremely difficult to smash. While it appears that the truth is out there for all to see, the law-enforcement authorities and the local administration evince little interest in getting to the bottom of it all.

The private investigation – which is obviously the spine of the story – is an opportunity for the authorial voice to throw light on various aspects of Goa’s rapid descent into infamy as a result of increasing crime, drug deals and rave parties that often end in utter mayhem. In short, the place is no longer the “oasis of safety” that it used to be and the reasons are too well-known to bear repetition.  

The book, which proffers familiar theories, really has nothing new to offer in terms of insights into what is going wrong with a one-laidback vacationers’ paradise. It piles truism upon truism as Simran goes about looking for leads to the disappearance of a girl who is exactly the age of her own rebellious daughter.

Referring to the Scarlett Keeling story and citing an email that the 15-year-old sent days before she was killed and dumped in the sea, narrator Simran tells the reader: “It was the story of a young girl leading an artificial and very adult life, where she was seemingly pushed frenetically into one disturbing situation after another.”

And then, after ordering scrambled eggs and a beer in a seaside shack, she watches a girl and a boy sitting at the next table break into dance to the accompaniment of a Bollywood track. She thinks: “The girl who was dancing with abandon expressed a freedom which probably did not really exist for many like her.”

And then, she springs the clincher upon the reader: “… while girls were allowed freedom up to a point, their sexuality was still something which the family controlled. And any transgression could mean the severest of punishments, even death.”

That is the general tone of the book: it moves from straightforward storytelling to sociological adumbration. When she is in simple narrative mode, Desai does a good job of grabbing and holding the reader’s attention. But when she slips into those well-meaning but clunky attempts at laying bare the larger picture, she is, at best, average.

But if you love a good story, even one that is as disconcerting as this one, you will find enough to keep reading on till the very end. The Sea of Innocence, give the kind of book it is, is perhaps a tad too long. A shorter narrative would have served the author’s purpose – shaking the reader up a little and provoking introspection – infinitely better.

A poignant heaviness runs like a thread through the book and holds it together through the clichés and the occasional limp stretches. The book is a racy enough read: snuggle up with it but don’t expect a comfortable ride. It isn’t meant to be one.

Author: Kishwar Desai

Edition: Paperback

ISBN: 978-1-47112-837-0

Pages: 358

Price: Rs. 350

Publisher: Simon & Schuster

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Issue Dated: Feb 5, 2017