Kishwar Desai’s new novel “The Sea of Innocence” combines anger towards gender violence with the hope that things will change

If you happened to stumble in midway through the launch of Kishwar Desai’s The Sea of Innocence (Simon and Schuster), you could have got a completely wrong idea of what was going on. With Union Law Minister Ashwani Kumar, lawyer Malavika Rajkotia, anchor and journalist Sagarika Ghose among the evening’s discussants, the launch threatened to, and often did, become a debate about the intricacies of law (“laws are only as good as the systems in which they operate”) and sexuality (“are women complicit in their own denigration?”).

Even though the author tried her best to bring the discussion back to her book, the course it took was inevitable.

The novel, as the Law Minister pointed out, is a social thriller after all. The protagonist Simran Singh is a social worker-cum-crime investigator who retreats to Goa for a break from work. But when a disturbing video appears on her phone, featuring a young girl being attacked by a group of men, she is drawn into the darkness that lurks behind the backpacker paradise.

The trigger for the novel came in the form of a real life episode involving the rape and murder of a British teenager named Scarlett Keeling in Goa in 2008, a case still awaiting closure. “I also looked at many other cases. The more research I did, I found that it wasn’t easy for a rape survivor to even register a case with the police, let alone tell her family about it. Nor is it easy for her to expect the courts to… listen to what she has to say,” Kishwar said.

It was during the final edit of the book last year, that the Delhi gang-rape took place. “So I put a few references to it in the book. As I put those references in, I realised that the entire book actually had a resonance with the case. It wasn’t as though I pushed that case into the book, it all seemed to be telling a larger story of the kind of society we live in and…what happens to a lot of women in this country,” she added.

It is possible to be crippled by the rage one feels towards the spectrum of violence women face every day, but in Kishwar’s novels rage is alloyed with the hope that her protagonist represents. Simran Singh also appears in her earlier novels — Witness the Night and Origins of Love — which focus on the issues of female foeticide and commercial surrogacy respectively.

“I thought it was about time that these stories came from a woman’s point of view into literature —an independent, unconventional woman, the kind of woman who we don’t see enough of,” the author said.

Taking off from Sagarika’s description of Simran as someone who “begins her day with wine and ends it with whiskey”, Kishwar said she hoped to bring “a certain amount of joie de vivre to a very serious subject. She is a rebellious character who does what she wants, I hope we become more and more like her every day.”