The Sea of Innocence by Kishwar Desai


I first discovered the talented author Kishwar Desai and her eminently likeable heroine Simran Singh, in “Witness the Night” which I reviewed in 2011.  So I was thrilled to be sent a copy of Ms Desai’s latest novel “The Sea of Innocence” and asked to review it.

Simran Singh really is an engaging heroine and in this bang up to date novel – it takes place over New Year 2012/2013 with the horrors of the Dec 16th Delhi gang-rape case as a leitmotiv – we meet our feisty, middle-aged, smoking, drinking, slightly overweight heroine as she holidays in Goa.

Now, I haven’t been to Goa in aeons –  well, in about 22 years – so that means that it will have changed out of all recognition.  20 years in post liberal-economy India usually means a major change and –  dare I say it –  not always for the better.  So the Goa I knew –  sleepy, very few tourists, one restaurant worth its salt, 2 good hotels –  is, I know, hopelessly out of date.

Simran goes through the same experience :

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I fully empathise.

But, my word, the Goa of “The Sea of Innocence” is an edgy, not very nice place at all.  Beneath the holiday veneer of beach shacks and playing on the beach, of swimming and buying sarongs, there is a seething underworld of drugs, sex, gambling and worse.  Ms Desai brings this parallel world out of the shadows and into the limelight with devastating force.

Simran and her adopted daughter are in Goa for their Christmas and New Year break, with a brief to relax, unwind and spend some quality time together, but events soon overtake them.  Simran, in her role of social worker (and pretty smart investigator) becomes embroiled in a murder case that leads her deeper and deeper into the murky underbelly of Goa.

Ms Desai is an accomplished writer and the story grabs you by the throat from the very first sentence, and  the pace and suspense never let up until the closing paragraph.  Obviously I am not going to be a spoil sport and reveal too much of the plot and certainly not the ending, but there were twists and turns that caught me unawares right until the final pages, making this an addictive read.

The suspected rape of a young British girl – not Scarlett Keeling, though this poor child is referred to many times in the novel – takes place against the backdrop of sea and sun, whilst back in Simran (and this reviewer’s) home town, Delhi, the city explodes in cold, wintery anger at the horrors of December 16th :



Though the topic is grim, the story has many moments of lightheartedness and the descriptions of Goa are great fun.

Ms Desai  –  through Simran –  often compares the Goa of January 2013 to the Goa that she (and I ) knew 20 odd years ago.  Compared to the hidden ruthlessness of Goa circa 2013, the Goa of ageing Western hippies like Stanley seems positively innocent.  Guitar strumming under a banyan tree and smoking joints in the forest seem benign compared to the tawdriness of offshore floating casinos.  And yet how freaky those self-same hippies seemed 20 years ago…

Stanley, who lives in an apparent drug induced haze most of the book, is shown to be more than aware of the ravages of what passes for progress in India :



A good read.

Thoroughly recommended.

And, yet again, let me repeat what I said in my review of “Witness the Night” –  I do like Simran Singh very much indeed.

Published in late April 2103 by Simon & Schuster, the paperback costs Rs 350 in India.

Now, having read this review, if you would like to but the book, nothing could be simpler. Just click on any of the links below :

WITNESS THE NIGHT by Kishwar Desai

This compelling first novel by Kishwar Desai takes the reader to the heart of Punjab, where a world of unexpected horror and deceit and sorrow lies just beneath the veneer of upper-class society.

A grisly series of murder has taken place, in the course of which all of the Atwal family has been wiped out.  The Atwals are rich and powerful and well-connected, and so their murders send shock-waves through the town of Jullunder.  Even more shocking is the fact that the sole survivor of the murders is their very own teenage daughter Durga.  And Durga is the main suspect.  Raped, traumatised, orphaned – and yet no-one in Jullunder society has any sympathy for the 14-year old Durga.

Simran Singh, a social worker, is brought from Delhi to try and communicate with the child.  45 years old, unmarried, an energetic drinker and smoker, Simran is the antithesis of a nice respectable Punjabi girl, and she knows it.  As does her poor long-suffering mother, who wants only to find her a husband.  Simran’s discoveries lead her way beyond the role of social worker and into a world of intrigue, passion, murder, infanticide.

For behind the walls of the lavishly painted and even more lavishly decorated homes of Jullunder, there is a universe of violence.  Violence of the worst kind.  In a society where boys are prized, the birth of a baby girl is bad news. So the solution is, quite simply, to get rid of the new-born.  The descriptions of the murder of new-born babies are horrific, and yet the practice is common.  In the Atwal household, we are never quite sure how many baby girls have been killed, but what we do know is that two girls escaped the death envisaged for them –  and one of them is missing, and the other is the prime suspect in the murder of her own parents and siblings.

A darkly fascinating read, this novel is well-written, and moves along at an energetic pace, cleverly combining narrative, e-mails and diary excerpts.  And welcome to a very likeable heroine, the wryly realistic Simran Singh.  She is middle-aged with a drinking problem.  And she knows it.

Witness the Night is published by HarperCollins, and the paperback retails for Rs 225 in India.

If, after reading this review, you would like to buy the book, nothing could be easier. 

Just click on the link below :