Innocence at Sea: How to revive spirit of ‘shakti’ in every woman

kishwarIt’s as if the floodgates have opened. Ever since the brutal gang-rape of a 23-year-old woman in the heart of the Indian capital shook the nation and the world, every day brings news of more rapes from different parts of the country. Shocking stories are now making it to the front pages of newspapers and on to prime time debates on 24×7 news channels. What is worse is the growing number of daily reports of children being victimised. The recent rape and brutalisation of a five-year-old girl in the Indian capital was gut-wrenching and once again fuelled angry protests in the country.

The statistics tell a gruesome tale. In 2011, the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) registered 24,206 rape cases. These are only the ones reported; most of them go unreported. Of these numbers, child rapes constitute a huge chunk. An article by the BBC in February 2013 claimed that more than 7,200 minors are raped each year in India. Between 2010 and 2011, the number of registered child rapes had shot up by 30 per cent, according to the NCRB.

To complicate matters further, even foreign tourists have not been spared, thus creating an impression of an unsafe India. It was in 2008 that the rape and murder of British teenager Scarlett Keeling brought international attention. And, most recently, the gang-rape of a German tourist in Madhya Pradesh revived the growing international impression that India is increasingly becoming an unsafe tourist destination, especially for women.

It’s amidst all these disturbing accounts of sexual violence that we have Kishwar Desai’s new book, A Sea of Innocence. The story revolves around a young British teenager who goes missing while holidaying in Goa. Crime detective Simran Singh, who is also on vacation in Goa along with her daughter at the time of the disappearance, is called upon to solve the case. The novel raises certain troubling facts that have come into sharp focus recently — women’s safety and India’s image as an unsafe tourist destination. Desai, whose first novel Witness the Night won the Costa Book Award in 2012 for Best First Novel, explores these intertwined issues in the her new novel, albeit unwittingly. The fact that the book was released at a time when these issues were in the news, is pure coincidence, she admits. The book was planned three years ago as part of a crime detective series, with Simran Singh as the social worker-detective.

In an interview with India Writes (www.indiawrites.org), Desai says that researching for this particular book (published by Simon & Schuster India), was an unpleasant experience; she discovered that in a lot of cases justice had not been delivered to the victim and her family.

Excerpts from the interview)

Q) Why did you choose to focus your work of fiction on a rape case? Did the recent headline-hogging stories in the news drive you?

A) It is a huge coincidence that the book has come out at this crucial time when everyone is interested in gender issues, and the ways and means of stopping the sexual violence that seems to have increased  all over the country. The book actually was planned around three years ago when I was commissioned to write a crime novel series. I had planned a gender-centric series with a social worker-cum-detective, Simran Singh, at the heart of it. I had never imagined that the book — and the series — would become so topical and get this amazing response.

Q) How seriously have these incidents, especially the recent ones involving the 23-year-old physiotherapist and the German national, dented India’s image globally? This is a concern raised by one of your characters in your novel?

A) Yes, that was another coincidence. I had written the novel, which explores the global impact of a high profile case, last year, without knowing that later in the year we would be confronted with a similar but real situation. Perhaps it was just zeitgeist. But yes, India’s image has taken a real beating with those two rape cases and the almost daily onslaught of so many other shameful incidents. The international press has reported extensively about these cases, and there is a fear that India is simply not safe for women.

Q) A lot of awareness is being raised about sexual harassment and assault but are things really changing? Are you optimistic that they will change?

A) I am very optimistic that things will change, but I am afraid that they will take a long time to do so as we simply do not have the leadership, both political and social, to ensure that there is a constant scrutiny of what is happening on issues related to gender. We need a constitutional body, perhaps like the Election Commission, independent from the government to monitor the status of women in this country and ensure that justice is delivered to them whenever required. The present bodies such as the National Commission for Women have proven to be useless and should be disbanded.

Q) How can we change our attitudes towards victims of rape? In all these cases, it’s the survivor who suffers, sometimes for a lifetime.

A) The sensitisation of society and all those who deal with the rape victim is required. We need to be trained in order to deal with rape survivors and their families. Sadly, we do the opposite. Often, no one — the family, the police, the judicial system or the media — has any sympathy for the rape survivor, and her suffering becomes a tamasha (entertainment), just another piece of breaking news. We need to move beyond that — be gentler, kinder. This is very possible and very achievable but only if we have a strong institution, like the one I have mentioned above, monitoring it.

Q) Was it tough writing this book, given that it deals with such a harsh and brutal subject?

A) Yes, this was a difficult book to write because the research I had to do was not pleasant, and neither was the fact that in most cases I looked at, no justice was delivered to the rape victims or their families.

When I wrote the book there was no media scrutiny of rape cases as there is today, so that did not affect me. What did affect me was the harrowing nature of the subject.

Q) What has been your inspiration for Simran Singh? How do you plan to develop her character further?

A) My inspiration for Simran Singh is the ‘shakti’ that exists in every woman — the spirit of resilience and courage, the ability to fight for justice and a basic independence, while being altruistic and caring. Sadly, many of these qualities are crushed by our patriarchal society but I think we need to revive that spirit through characters like Simran and celebrate the woman in literature and art and cinema — not as a minimalistic figure, but as someone who dominates the landscape! Simran will be back soon in another novel but she will always remain a human figure — fallible and imperfect. I don’t want to create an unreal super being because I want Simran to be achievable for all of us.