of the Book
Adults tend to feel a certain
discomfort in thinking of childhood and sex in the same breath. We think of
childhood as innocent and free of sexual taint. Any discussion on the subject
is taboo, and if at all it comes up, it is swept under the carpet.
Why we insist on believing this
in the face of much evidence to the contrary is a mystery. Creating taboo
around sex only drives it further underground and makes it impossible for a
child to broach the subject with an adult. This has repercussions on the sexual
curiosity of a child and can also increase the damage done by abuse.
In Dark Room, the first book of
its kind that speaks directly to the general reader, Pankaj Butalia us moving,
compelling, real-Life stories of eleven people cutting across class and gender.
From young rag pickers in Delhi to the daughter of an army officer in Pune,
from a young girl in an old Kolkata mansion to a boy in an elite north Indian
school, the protagonists vividly recall their childhood sexual experiences,
Honest and unflinching, the
book is an attempt to start a much-needed conversation about child sexuality in
the Indian context.
About the Author
Pankaj Butalia is a former table tenniis player who also taught Economics at Shri Ram College of Commerce, Univeristy of Delhi, for twenty years. He now makes films. Butalia lives in Delhi with his wife Nilofer and son firdaus. This is his first book
what I may thought I would do in life, writing this book certainly wasn't on
the cards. Yet, over the past two years, despite many obstacles, my desire to
see the book through has only grown. The setbacks were primarily because most people I met and interviewed -
and these included very close friends - did not want stories about their early
childhood published. I offered to keep the stories anonymous and also said I
would change the context of the narration so that there would be no way of
identifying them, but for most people the thought of seeing intimate moments of their childhood in print
was frightening. Was it a fear that sexual encounters of their childhood could
make transparent the neuroses of the present – if not necessarily to others,
then at least to themselves?
It was not as if I
didn't have doubts about my own involvement in such a project. I had no qualifications to put such a book
together, apart from having lived a bit longer than some others. I had not been sexually abused nor had I been
privy to anything more than situations an average child encounters. Basically,
I didn't have any special skill that made me the voice of a project like this.
On the other hand, there was also a lurking fear that I may appear to be a
paedophile out to get vicarious pleasure by talking about child sexuality. I had
to fight all these notions in me. I also had to consider the implications of
such a book for my son, who at the ripe old age of twelve was about to venture
on a journey of his own, and the last thing I wanted to do was add a burden to
what he might have been carrying anyway.
How did it all start?
We were a gathering
of about ten friends, well into an enjoyable evening with alcohol, when Tara,
probably the most reserved and conservative person in the group, burst out,
'Ok, what is the most outrageous thing any of you have ever done?' Predictably,
she didn't get a response, so she began narrating an incident from her own
When she was around
eight or nine, she said, she was left at home by her parents one evening. The
only other person in the house was a male cousin, who was about six years older
and was in charge of looking after her while her parents were out. Over the
evening, they talked and read a bit, but after that, there seemed to be nothing
much to do. They were seated on a sofa and, as the evening wore on, Tara and
her cousin sought comfort in cuddling each other. This took a sexual turn. This
experience, she continued, was repeated three or four times and then, as
suddenly as it had started, it stopped. Tara could not recall any other sexual
interaction with other people in her entire childhood, though she
said she did become sexually promiscuous by the age of fifteen. Her subsequent
meetings with that cousin were initially a bit tense because neither could
confront what had happened, but later, as they grew up, they fell into a
pattern of normality. Today, both of them are happily married (to different
partners). They meet as friends but also have between them the secret knowledge
of that special time.
This is not a situation that
classically would be defined as abuse, but it is mentioned here only because it brings to the fore something we
are so reluctant to recognize: the sexual lives of children. This book explores
the subject not to propagate childhood sexuality, but merely to recognize
different aspects of it that exist.
We were still processing this
story when another friend, when another friend, who was then in his forties,
told us of a widowed aunt who used to visit their house every summer. Since
they were a lower middle class family, the aunt would have to sleep in the room
where the children slept. One night, he
noticed some movement under his aunt's sheet. It was as if she was wriggling
rhythmically. He looked up to see that she was looking directly at him as she moved.
This excited him and he started masturbating gently under his sheet. For the
entire summer, both nephew and aunt kept up this 'undercover' nocturnal
relationship, which found absolutely no mention in their interaction during the
day. This, however, lasted only one summer as the aunt did not come to their
house again. He remembered that he was eleven when she last came to the house,
and rued the fact that he hadn't discovered this pleasure on her earlier
visits. He never figured out why she didn't return. He tried asking the family
but didn't get a satisfactory response.
Getting into the spirit of the
discussion, I competitively went on to narrate episodes from my childhood. As I
recounted a few, yet more emerged from the deepest recesses of my memory (one
of these stories is included in this book). Another friend gave an account of
the way she allowed herself to be seduced by her uncle, who was also her local
guardian (this story has been fictionalized by my collaborator Nilofer Kaul and
is in this collection).
The evening wore on and we
listened to each other with relief, excitement, curiosity, impatience and, of
course, prurience! It was intriguing to know the intimate textures of childhood
memories and the different meanings sexuality is reposed with - for me, a
boyhood adventure and perhaps an initiation into sexuality; for Tara, a source
of gratification; for the male friend, a forbidden encounter with a quasi-
incestuous figure; for another, a hostel epidemic.
This was when I initially
thought of looking around for other accounts of child sexuality and putting
together a collection of such experiences in a book. Some people I met talked
about the seemingly innocuous car ride as an activity with sexual undertones.
'We were a lower middle class family,' said one young woman, 'and there was one
second-hand Premier Padmini our uncle owned. When we were driven to India Gate
for ice cream, everyone would be bundled into that one car. For us kids, the
excitement of sitting next to each other, male or female, and that of touching
each other's bodies or of having someone leaning on ours was as much the reason
for the journey as the ice cream was.'
The range of
experiences I came across made me feel there was much more to our early sexual
experiences than we were willing to acknowledge or were even aware of. The
irony remains, though, that the middle-class view throughout the world is that
this pre-adolescent stage is an age of innocence - one that precedes the
discovery of the centrality of sex in our lives. Why we insist on believing
this in the face of so much evidence to the contrary beats me. Every
psychoanalyst knows that the genesis of many issues patients have lies in their
encounters with sex and sexuality very early in their lives. So why are we in
such denial about this aspect of our lives?
happy memories of childhood and child sexuality are intertwined with those of
sexual abuse, fear and trauma. It is difficult, if not impossible, to talk
about one without coming across the other. In India (like in many other parts
of the world), some of the loudest proclamations about the sexual innocence of
childhood come from conservative middle-class households. Such households live
in complete denial about any sexual explorations children may be up to.
However, the epicentres of abuse often lie in the very same places. Could there
possibly be a connection between the refusal to acknowledge the existence of
child sexuality and an increased vulnerability to sexual abuse? Creating a
taboo around sex only drives it further underground and therefore makes it
impossible for a child to share the knowledge of a sexual experience with an
adult. This has repercussions for the sexual curiosity of a child and it also
shapes the extent of damage done by the trauma of abuse.
As I set out to
collect these stories, I met a large number of people-individuals as well as
people in the social sector. I was keen to try and get material from class,
gender and geographical locations. But everywhere I went, I was met by curious
glances, and almost always the same question: ‘Are you a psychiatrist?’ , ‘What
is the point of doing such a book?’ it dawned on me that books on sex and
sexuality have to be explained, while others do not.
encouranging response I got was from people working in the social sector. Whether
it was organizations helping street children, middle-class school children,
victims of abuse and abuse-based incest, they all realized the seriousness of
the issue. Most such groups had come across enough instances of child sexual behavior
to not think of it as an aberration. However for them the focus was not so much
child sexual behavior as child sexual abuse. Many of them had already brought
out small pamphlets, booklets and full-length publication documenting some of
the cases of abuse they had come across.
and Healing from Incest), for instance, is one such organization. It works primarily
with victims of incest, which is defined much more broadly than merely sexual
relationships within the (blood) family or even extended family. It covers all
sexual activity which takes place within what is considered a personal or
protected environment, that is, one in which the child has learnt to feel secure.
Incest, therefore, is a threat from within surroundings previously considered safe.
A violation of this trust can have devastating consequences. It leaves the child
defenceless because it takes away the existence of the guaranteed safe haven
children need till they grow into adulthood (or perhaps throughout their lives).
Both Anuja Gupta
and Ashwini Ailawadi, who founded RAHI and continue to run it, have worked extensively
on the issue of incest. In addition to the counselling they provide, they have also
published a collection of stories written by some of the abused women
who came to them for assistance. The house I Grew Up In is a compilation of stories
by five women who were abused within the confines of their homes. The perpetrators
were members of the family – father, stepfather, brother, uncle or some other close
relative. The women write about the relentlessness of the abuse and the
emotional turmoil they went through as they tried to deal with their trauma.
Their chronicles are poignant and point to the damage done to the victims by
those who were closest to them. Often, such damage is irreversible. Abused children
could end up becoming abusers themselves or become completely dysfunctional. One
of the women hints at the fact that she herself became abusive towards her
younger relatives as she grew older. Fortunately, not everyone is affected in
the same manner, because another narrator in that group is today the primary
care-giver of her now old and ailing abusers. Finding a coping mechanism is critical
and those who manage to do so are able to deal with the trauma of their abuse,
while others can remain trapped in that disturbing moment.
Introduction: Childhood Sexuality - History,
Love, Kiss, Marry, Fac'
I Don't Want to Talk About It
The Back Benches
The Landscape of Garbage
Diary of a Child Moll
The Tenant's Son
A Game of 'Seep'
You, and You, and You
The Long Shadow of Guilt: An Afterword
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