Since the release of Leslee Udwin’s ‘India’s Daughter’ and its ban in India, London-based author Saurav Dutt’s ‘The Butterfly Room’ (2015) also makes an intervention in women’s rights and LGBTI rights in India.
The novel deals with domestic abuse, LGBTI rights, interracial relationships, and divorce, exploring complex characters forced to deal with raw and gritty issues, which are suppressed in lieu of sustaining the patriarchal status quo ingrained within Indian society.
I caught up with Saurav to find out more.
Nidhi Shrivastava: Please speak more about the inspiration behind the novel in particular, the NO MORE campaign, domestic violence against women and LGBTI rights.
Saurav Dutt: I wanted to write a story that talked about how domestic violence against women and LGBTI discrimination within Asian culture is prevalent among those who really should know better. I wanted to explore the fact that such opinions have not necessarily evolved with time but have seemingly become entrenched in age old stereotypes and regressive mindsets which do not encourage dialogue but seek to eradicate it. ‘India’s Daughter’ was a good starting point. The denial and opaque nature of the ruling class to the programme and its determination to ban it made me wonder why they were so ashamed to talk about these issues head on; then I realised that these same fermented attitudes pervade dialogue of the above subjects and is not just limited to the hideous act of rape. This is not limited to Indian or Asian culture but seems to be particularly relevant to it due an unwillingness to encourage dialogue and admit to certain faults.
N.S: You interviewed survivors of abuse and discrimination. Tell me about those experiences and the challenges you faced while researching the book.
S.D: This was both a troubling and inspirational experience. The media sometimes likes to stereotype those who have survived such abuse and discrimination as weak, ineffectual and even complicit in their own suffering. What if I was to tell you those I interviewed were as young as 19 and 20 and had settled for arranged marriages and marriages of convenience to preserve archetypes and a status quo that has pervaded certain cultures for decades? That they were not poor, uneducated but were extremely well-read, articulate and struggled daily with whether they should accept their abuse and discrimination or fight to be heard. These were ordinary people: doctors, teachers, housewives; highly articulate, intelligent, independent and forceful people who were trapped because they were foolish enough to fall in love with an ideal in the 21st century: that they could love and be loved and not be judged. However, some seek to punish transgressions because they feel their stereotypes are reinforced by a culture which silently nods its head in agreement and that they will be met with unswerving support throughout. However, these talks were ultimately inspirational because those who were younger were determined not to be trapped in a vicious cycle in 20 years, they would rather take a stand now to earn freedom for later.
N.S: The novel is presented as an urgent response to the controversy behind Leslee Udwin’s ‘India’s Daughters’. Tell me about the two in relation to one another.
S.D.: It disturbed me that the ruling class, the elite and its echo chambers seemed to revel in heaping scorn upon Leslee and her film; if it wasn’t one diversionary tactic it was another, all to obfuscate the real issues and to somehow shrug a shoulder or two and dismiss what happened as the product of evil lunatics hell bent on raping someone weaker than them. That’s only the tip of the iceberg. It exposed in its wake a primeval attitude that some women in society are still better seen than heard, that they should stop agitating and being a nuisance by advocating their rights. The same mindset seemingly applies to those from the LGBT community. You’d be surprised how entrenched this ideology is. At the same time this class elitism is directed against the LGBT community, that fighting for their rights in the 21st century is a sign of how allegedly sick minded they are and that they should shut up and let the legislature decide for them. I wanted to write a book that highlighted this class indifference; the family in my novel are a successful family in financial terms with status, power and prestige but who fall apart because they are unable to face and admit the kind of hidden realities a lot of Indians and Indian families experience and because they are not dealt with head on they tend to become hugely self destructive.
Author Saurav Dutt
N.S: In your novel, you write about Sunita’s relationship with David, who is still viewed as a “foreigner”. Lakshmi acknowledges that she understands the relationship but it is against their familial cultural beliefs. What was the reasoning behind the creation of the interracial relationship?
S.D: Interracial marriages are a wonderful thing and within a few generations from now there will be no resistance-implied or otherwise-from Indian parents if their children want to marry somebody who is not Indian or from an Indian background. Lakshmi is in a way the last of her kind, she is from the old guard but knows that there is no point in resisting change and the development of society. She knows her daughter has to be happy, whoever she chooses but it is a realisation she has come to because her older daughter was more or less blackmailed into settling for another well to do Indian boy simply because it was more convenient. This was the kind of evolution that I wanted to show in the relationship.
N.S: Divorce is another issue that is explored in the novel and it is important to acknowledge that both Sunita and Anita seem to be pariahs in their own families because they are choosing to transgress their “traditional” cultural values. Please elaborate more about the discussions of these issues in the novel.
S.D: Divorce is hugely frowned upon within Indian communities and families, particularly so amongst those ‘well to do’ families with perceived status, prestige and who feel they are on the higher scale of class privilege. It is deemed a badge of dishonour and must be fought and eradicated. At the same point even if a relationship has broken down, this almost arrogant mindset believes that a broken marriage must be preserved because others may talk and gossip. At the same time the bond between Indian families in this sense is preserved because the children must not suffer by having their parents break apart; I had to explore this because it underpins the relationships of many who are successful on the face of it but are tormented inside because of what society expects of them.
N.S: In the novel, another two characters engage in a discussion where there is an important observation made by them. One observes that where it is Hindu, Muslim, or Sikh, there is no open discussion about domestic violence, rape, sexual abuse, child molestation, and so on. I think this is an important moment in the novel because it acknowledges the fact that these issues and the silences behind them remain unresolved. As an author who was also researching on these issues, what types of silences did you encounter from the survivors and victims? Were they all vocal about their experiences?
S.D: Those who were younger were determined not to remain silent but when their community, their elders and even their own immediate family suggest it is better not to speak up, then they feel alienated and alone. Very few can fight the fight because it means ostracizing yourself and others instead seem to suffer in silence. I talk about the ‘wall of silence’ that seems to meet them and that is sometimes more harmful than being criticized outright. Again this mirrors the culture of denial pervading Asian society on these issues.
N.S: The patriarch of the story is once referred to as a “living anachronism” and seems to represent the archetypal patriarchal figure that we frequently encounter within our community. Tell me about how you created him.
S.D: Rohan represents the old guard and yes he loves his family so much he must hold them up to his values; they are puppets to orchestrate his vision and image of what the perfect successful Indian family should be as it exists within the Western world. As a result he himself feels alienated when he feels this is not given the gratitude and thanks he expects, he almost feels those who do not share this idealism are traitors in a sense.
N.S: You use Hindi (Hinglish) phrases intermittently throughout the novel. Does the novel have a particular audience?
S.D: The audience is for those who can identify with those who are voiceless needing a voice. The use of the Hindi is to lend the context credence because these families would speak in this sense and it provides a bridge between the two cultures. The novel is for anyone who wants to understand the deeper layers between these mindsets. Abuse and discrimination is never black and white, in fact the more deeply layered attitudes to it are almost as disturbing as the acts and words themselves
N.S: The Delhi rape case became an important turning point in India’s history putting it on the international media map and violence against women has become a controversial and debatable issue since 2012. How do you feel about violence against women after writing the novel and interviewing the survivors?
S.D: I have always condemned this violence in the most vitriolic of terms but I feel it is how we handle its repercussions as a society that says everything about who we are. Speaking to those for the novel I was dismayed about how they felt their voices were not being heard and that there was no freedom in collating a collective voice when a huge media sponsored event occurred because after the media and hype dies down we almost seem to be waiting for another India’s Daughter to happen. We pray it never does.
N.S: Finally why the Butterfly Room?
S.D: The room is an allegory of self contained beauty put together with painstaking care, love and attention but only for show. What if those butterflies never wanted to be encased within a room? Who is to judge whether beauty should be imprisoned or what one’s ideal of beauty is? What about the butterflies, should they free as nature intended or contained and managed, their beauty on display for all to see as long as it can’t be set free to fly away.
‘The Butterfly Room’ is now available on Amazon.
The author of this article is a PhD student in English at the University of Western Ontario.