"Yes, the subject matter is dark, unflinching and there are no rosy endings."
London-based author Saurav Dutt’s groundbreaking novel, The Butterfly Room, unmasks the cultural taboos of South Asian society.
Set in England it follows the attitudes of a modern British Indian family who still hold strong ties to their homeland.
The novel is written in light of the recent BBC documentary, India’s Daughter, which recalls the brutal abuse of Delhi student Jyoti Singh in 2013 through the unrepentant eyes of her rapists.
Dutt challenges the stigmas attached to gender, sex, discrimination and homophobia, which still plague many parts of the Indian subcontinent even today.
In an exclusive Gupshup with DESIblitz, Saurav Dutt tells us more about the novel and its conception.
Tell us about The Butterfly Room, and how it came about?
“The novel is based in England and concerns the fortune, history, misfortunes and chequered past of a modern Indian family.
“It goes into the battle between the old guard represented by the father, the ultimate willingness to change (represented by the mother) and the transitional, progressive mind-sets of third generation Asian sons and daughters in this country.”
Why is it important to publish a book like this in 2015?
“Because even in 2015 some of these culture and traditions still need to be challenged.
“Domestic violence and abuse and LGBT discrimination within Asian culture are at an all-time high, especially considering legislation in India and because the political class and the higher elite class elements of society still look down upon these subjects.
“To them they are not an area of desired improvement but an example of modernisation that needs to be scorned.
“This is despite the fact that education, historical progress and greater debate means that times have changed and that we should discuss these subjects out in the open.”
Where do these deeply rooted taboos stem from in Asian society?
“Perhaps it is because of a perceived moral high ground taken over certain subjects whereby those in power and with greater education feel they have the prerogative to be the moral arbiters of what is ‘right’ and what is ‘wrong’.
“Because this has not been allowed to be challenged (until now) these myths have lasted through the chapters of time.
“India and Asian Culture have aided this propagation of these myths and perhaps it is because denial is a very easy thing to be a part of once you rationalise it to death and do not allow others to question it.”
Did you face any backlash when interviewing abuse survivors and their families?
“Not at all. Those willing to speak were happy to be open about this; perhaps because they were relatively younger and more outspoken. They are angry and frustrated at the lack of development in attitudes and wanted to share them.
“The most enlightening aspect of this was a simple wish to be respected as human beings and their anger is purely because this inalienable right is taken away from them when others judge.”
Are charities and NGO’s still struggling to break through the cultural taboos of Asian society?
“These charities do wonderful work. That is why I am providing proceeds raised from the book to many of them helping survivors of domestic violence and abuse and LGBT discrimination. They do face an uphill struggle but at least they are there.
“They are often under resourced and understaffed and yet are pushing forward change as much as they can and are there to listen to the stories when those who tell them feel there is nowhere to turn.”
Is there a difference in the attitudes of Asians from South Asia and those living in the West towards these issues?
“It’s all about layers. Those from the West absorb change by osmosis but certain intrinsic elements and attitudes just remain buried and lie dormant.
“Yes we’re far more inclusive and progressive in discussing these issues here; however second generation Asians who may still have been brought up in India or Asia initially may find that transition difficult.
“The difference is in the West we are exposed to a more transparent culture and climate where the survivor and victim is not pilloried as being part of the problem rather than the solution; whereas the opposite might be true-to some extent-for Asians in South Asia.”
How much of an impact did the ‘India’s Daughter’ documentary have in how people viewed abuse in Asian culture?
“The subsequent ban and attitude to the programme said more than the horror in the programme itself and that is saying something.
“Everybody should be repulsed by what happened and that feeling of repulsion is quite ubiquitous.
“Why then do those same people turn around and say that the programme should be banned and that these issues should not be discussed in the open and that somehow the assailants are more important than the victim and her families?
Do you think the ban of the documentary in India had a detrimental effect?
“Yes absolutely. Obfuscating areas and subjects of debate is always harmful, especially when based upon age old taboos which need to be held up to the spectrum of today’s arguments and knowledge not that of a hundred years ago.
“It also harms and criticises the subject of the documentary itself, it is NOT about the venal and vile rapists but about the victim and her family and other girls who have had to suffer at the hands of such regressive attitudes from men.
“What does this say to them? That if you talk about your ordeal too much, we’ll ban it because it offends our sensibilities?”
What key messages are you hoping to convey with The Butterfly Room?
“That under the patina of class, education, intelligence and cohesion, some underlying issues always remain.
“Every family has its own scars or particular anachronisms but I feel Asian and Indian families seem to excel in this.”
“I wanted to convey the struggle of survivors and the voiceless within the context of a Western and liberal viewpoint of the Indian culture. Hopefully within its context and pain it conveys the determination to be your own person and to never compromise your values.
“Yes, the subject matter is dark, unflinching and there are no rosy endings.”
What Saurav’s novel reveals is that while patriarchal beliefs are still set in stone, attitudes are changing – particularly among younger generations who are willing to stand up and fight for equal rights whatever the outcome.
A moving and engaging read, The Butterfly Room is a necessary novel for our time. You can buy the book from Amazon, Waterstones, iTunes and other good book outlets.