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The Sea of Innocence | Kishwar Desai

Sex, lies and videotapes

Simran Singh, the feisty social-worker-cum-crime-investigator, returns in Kishwar Desai’s new novel, The Sea of Innocence, to unravel yet another horrific crime. After exposing female foeticide in Witness the Night (2009) and the murky nexus around surrogacy and adoption in Origins of Love (2012), Singh ventures into the seedy underbelly of Goa.

Sex, drugs, surreptitious video clippings, political corruption—there’s nothing lacking in this mystery, and yet, oddly enough, these ingredients do not quite translate into easy reading. Set in December 2012, the story unfolds over the days during which India flared up in protest against the gang rape of a young girl in the Capital who eventually lost her life. During these momentous weeks, Simran is on vacation in Goa with her adopted daughter, Durga, with no thought of getting embroiled in the shady dealings of the local drug mafia or in the lives of naive foreign girls who get themselves in trouble.

But Simran smells bad news when she gets an MMS from Amarjit, her ex, showing a young British girl being harrassed by a couple of local men. Before long, she is thrust into a vortex of violence and deceit as she tries to get to the bottom of a crime that exists as much in real life as in the cyberworld—on laptops, cellphones and video clips.

With her holiday ruined, and her daughter back home, Simran plunges into the case with determination, but not before she has dithered for nearly 100 pages and tested the reader’s patience to the hilt. Thankfully, just as her indecision and Amarjit’s reticence start getting on our nerves, Simran decides to get going, and the plot picks up momentum, getting curiouser and curiouser.

Liza Kay, a 16-year-old British girl, is missing from Goa after getting herself entangled with a sordid middle-aged politician who is a covert drug baron and casino owner. From the series of video clips sent to Simran’s phone from an unknown messenger, it becomes evident that Liza had been molested, raped and abused at different times by a rotating cast of culprits. Liza’s elder sister, Marian, is keen to find out the truth, yet also disturbingly distant. The girls’ father, Stanley, arrived in Goa with the first wave of hippies, some “thousand years ago", and never left the place. The mother is a banker in London who has been kept blissfully unaware of the happenings.

The obvious parallel is the rape and murder of Scarlett Keeling, a British teenager who was on holiday in Goa in 2008, an incident Desai refers to in her plot. She also brings issues of female sexuality, and its expression in public places, into the fold of her narrative, without being preachy. But at 350-odd pages, the book does drag a little, and Simran’s observations often come across as borderline silly. “I wish I could have taken out my phone and made a comparison with his image," she muses, faced with a prospective suspect. A move like that might have speeded up the conclusion though.

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