The Scarlett Letter

Scarlett Keeling was up against desi ‘values’ the minute she stepped off the plane.

Published: 28th July 2019 05:00 AM  |   Last Updated: 27th July 2019 09:08 PM   |  A+A-

British teenager Scarlett Keeling, a few days before her murder on February 18, 2008. (File photo)

British teenager Scarlett Keeling, a few days before her murder on February 18, 2008 (File photo)

Scarlett Keeling was up against desi ‘values’ the minute she stepped off the plane. A white girl into drugs, hanging out in bars with men she’d just met, it was not long before her body was found at a Goan beach during a family trip to India in 2008. Naturally, no suspects, no one who saw the victim last. Yet another murder without a murderer.

But for the recent arrest of beach shack worker Samson D’Souza, 36, she would have been just a forgotten statistic here. Of course Indian courts are slow, criminal cases subject to all kinds of influence and red tape, and witnesses prone to changing statements and skipping town, but the 10 long years are also partially due to our notions of morality. 

Which law-abiding self-righteous citizen of India will take the death of a skimpily dressed foreigner out all alone that late at night seriously? Seen intoxicated and tottering. Leaving behind a diary with entries on sex and booze. Body found half-naked, with drugs like ecstasy, cocaine and LSD in her system. 

‘Character’ is what we are about. Girls without this will die sooner or later, old Indian saying. Innocence is the precinct of protected girls, back home long before dusk, safely moving about in groups of other girls. They are not out there, pretending to be equal among men. And this is the nemesis for all who stray. A little rape, a little killing.

Naturally, no one really examined the site her body was found or traced the paths she trod last; instead eyebrows were raised at her mother’s lifestyle back in Devon, and the ‘casual’ decision to leave daughter behind as the family moved to another place. This was beyond middle-class ken. 

We called it accidental drowning and sat back as a local court acquitted the suspect. The CBI then went in appeal to the Bombay High Court two years ago. Only after a second post-mortem, that said Scarlett was drugged and raped, was D’Souza arrested. Now the Goa bench of the Bombay High Court holds him guilty on all five counts of drugging, raping and murdering; guilty of ‘culpable homicide not amounting to murder’. Thanks to Scarlett’s mother, Fiona MacKeown, who never let up despite financial hardships and huge distances involved. 

Eleven years ago, a young British girl went for a belated Valentine’s Day party in a Third World country. Just a kid, and like all kids trying to have a good time, naïve and perhaps too idealistic about an ‘Indian experience’. A 15-year-old on the threshold of life. One of her last entries said: ‘I want to go home, but I’m stuk (sic).’ Like so many mixed-up teenagers trying to right their tilting world perhaps. The last thing she expected was to be raped and left for dead.

Even the most judgmental among us can’t deny we had blood on our hands. It was not her ‘badness’ but her trust in others’ goodness that let her down. Ek ladki bheegi bhagi si, soti raaton mei jaagi si, mili ek ajnabi se, koi aage na peeche… as someone warned long ago.

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