Review of Dark Room: Child Sexuality in India; Pankaj Butalia, Illustrations Neelima P. Aryan; Harper Collins 2013; pp 179; Rs 350
– Shana Susan Ninan
That’s a question I’ve tried a lot to answer.
The line between sexuality and abuse of children is thin and shifting. It is demarcated by family background, neighbourhood lived in, culture and social mores. In India we see a mediated sexuality, in children and adults. Elders, society and often, strangers, dictate what our sexualities should or shouldn’t be. Childhood sexuality has always been a cause of anxiety, and elders’ first step has always been to “protect” children from sexual experiences – with the self and with others. Adults often refuse to acknowledge that children have a sexuality. The children do. They’re not just kids, they are mini humans. With all the innate feelings, emotions and instincts as we have – just that its levels are much lesser, perhaps.
Butalia has chosen 11 stories – real and happened ones – to illustrate how children have a sexuality. It may be expressed through words or deeds, and most definitely through thoughts. After reading them, it registered in me how the term ‘child’ is wrongly defined by us. The continued existence of child marriage in India gives us a glimpse into our negotiation with childhood sexuality, and that it isn’t restricted to myth or religion.
The longish introduction by Shalini Advani, and educationist and author, opened my eyes to facts I had read before but refused to accept. Sexual experiences by and in children are blanketly termed as abuse. Having worked for a while with young mothers who were victims of incest, it was very difficult for me to see the positive side of child sexuality, if there is something as a positive side.
The importance of touch, is another theme I’d like to explore, after having taken in the real life experiences of the 11 people. Parents and siblings, and to an extent, cousins and friends, play a large and irreplaceable role in initiating and grounding the tactile senses of a child. Hugs from parents, platonic kisses from siblings, a pat from a friend… all these ‘harmless’ touches may actually help to condition sexuality in the childhood. And it may even help children to keep away predatorial sexual experiences.
Pankaj Butalia is a former table tennis player who has a 20-year stint at teaching Economics, and has won several international awards for his documentary films. This is his debut work in writing. The book is an eye-opener. The accompanying illustrations by Neelima are strong and focused. I think all adults, especially parents and teachers/ professors, should read this book. A much needed impetus for a conversation on child sexuality.