Saturday, January 27, 2007

The Heart of Darkness

Pinki Virani's portrayal of child abuse in her first book Bitter Chocolate has been shocking. After the controversy surrounding it has abated Virani has written two more books of non-fiction, "Once was Bombay" and "Aruna's Story". In an interview with Ahmede Hussain, the best-selling author talks about child sexual abuse and her life as a writer.

Ahmede: What was the public reaction to your book? What prompted you to write it? Is it the only book that talks about Child Sexual Abuse in India?
Photo Credit: Shankkar Aiyar
Pinki Virani: The public reaction has been gratifying. Not just in terms of the copies sold ('Bitter Chocolate' went on the best-seller list within a week of its publication; it is currently in its twelfth) but also phone calls, emails, letters, people reaching out in person when they have recognised me in public places. Equally important -- because each aware adult can intervene to protect a child from CSA -- after 'Bitter Chocolate' the subject of Child Sexual Abuse in India came out in the open as traumatising children in upper and middle class homes too (before which seen as a "lower class" phenomena). Consequently, the subject has been included and opened for further discussion in the mass media including films and theatre.

I wrote the book because it fell upon me to do so.

'Bitter Chocolate' is the first -- and so far only -- book of its kind in the Indian subcontinent.

Ahmede: You say ``it fell upon you'' to write the book. Can you please elaborate it a bit for us? Was it create awareness and give the abused child a voice?

Pinki Virani: I am a victim of incest. I have never allowed myself to be defined by it nor wallow in permanent victim-hood though several of my early life-choices and mistakes were obviously dictated by what was done to me till I was at least eight years old by my father's brother. I started my professional life as a typist in a Bombay office. I decided to occupy my evenings by joining a one-year diploma in journalism. I did well in it, much to my own surprise. I got a scholarship, because of it, to do a masters in journalism in America. I came back and worked my up from reporter to chief reporter to editor. One of the special articles I did led me to be offered a commission by Penguin to do a whole book on that article, "Aruna's Story". It was a bestseller, it still is. I was then commissioned to write my second book, again non-fiction, "Once Was Bombay", the first book to not glamorise the city and examine its contemporary content in novella format. That too went on the best-seller list. So here I am, best-selling author and I am asked to do a third book. I have to do the right thing while writing because God has brought me to a point where it falls upon me to do so. I start research and discover and that 25 percent of boys and 40 percent of girls under 16 years have, and are being, sexually abused in India of which 50 percent are being abused by persons who hold their trust (in their own homes and around this space). I realise how simple it is for parents to ensure that this does not happen to their children. I come to the conclusion that if I have to write such a book I have to prove that the problem exists and then provide answers on how to deal with it. And I will have to stand up and say it happened to me. This would make me the first Asian woman to stand up and say so. Which means there will be many repercussions. So do I write it. Or not. If I don't, I save myself from all that is definitely going to happen to me in not-nice ways. But if I do, I save children who can be protected in the future and I give voice in validation to all those -- who are adults now -- who have been sexually abused not just in India but also Bangla Desh, Sri Lanka, Nepal and other Asian countries. So you see, it just fell upon me to write 'Bitter Chocolate'.

Ahmede: Do you think there is enough awareness regarding CSA?

Pinki Virani: A lot more needs to be done.

Ahmede: What, according to you, are the challenges facing parents who obviously want to protect their children from CSA?

Pinki Virani: The biggest challenge is to actually stop it from happening. Prevention. To prevent a child from being sexually abused is the most challenging part, especially in the light of how much more stealthier the abusers are becoming. The more the awareness, the greater the stealth. The greater the stealth, the more the abuser succeeds.

Ahmede: Can non government organisations play a role here?

Pinki Virani: NGOs do not enter middle and upper class homes, so there is no role for them to play in the upper strata of society.

Ahmede: Do you think the Indian legal system is sensitive to children who have suffered abuse? Are there likely to be laws in the near future?

Pinki Virani: No, not at all. Yes the laws are in the process of being drafted. And in some measure credit has to be given to the several parents who wrote to the law ministry and the prime minister's office -- after they read 'Bitter Chocolate' -- demanding that the laws be changed to protect their children. Though I continue to keep my fingers crossed that the new law will understand that the boy child needs as much protection as the girl child does. I must add here, it is not enough to have laws, every nation also needs Child Protection Courts and Child Protection Units where the children are not being dragged through adult courts.

Ahmede: How free do you think you are as a South Asian woman?

Pinki Virani: As much -- or as less -- as any other kind of person in the world. It helps to think of yourself as a human first, and then a woman; society responds accordingly and it generally creates a more empowered environment. This also helps in understanding that as a human being we come with both, the expectation of rights and the resultant responsibilities. I don't see why women should categorise themselves in fixed slots. For instance, I don't think of myself as an author, a journalist, or an activist, or a wife, or a sister, or just a friend. I am a human being, I am evolving, and I play many roles. More power to all of us to play as many positive roles as possible. It's one life; it needs to be lived with grace.