February 23, 2020
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Childhood's End

A much-needed primer on how to identify and handle a silent scourge

Childhood's End
Bitter Chocolate: Child Sexual Abuse In India
By Pinki Virani
Penguin India Rs 295, Pgs: 245
EVERY month, sometimes more often, the local paper in my city carries a report - usually brief - about the rape of a "minor", as journalists put it. Some of these "minors" are as young as six months; some are not categorised as "minors" in the eyes of a reporter, being 14 or 15 years old. In a very high proportion of these cases, the perpetrator of the rape or sexual assault is either a member of the family or is closely affiliated to the family. And these, please note, are the cases that do make it to the papers: not the ones that are not picked up by the family, not the ones that are hushed up, not the ones where the children are not believed or dismissed.

It does not take a report or a book to make it clear that child sexual abuse is a silent scourge in India, all it takes is for us to read the papers every day. And yet few Indians and fewer Indian families are willing to admit that this might have affected - perhaps is affecting, as you read this - someone close to them.

Pinki Virani's impassioned, hard-hitting book does not intend to allow even one reader to turn away from reality. She uncovers startling findings. Child sexual abuse is not a lower-class phenomena, something that doctors and workers in this field have always known but that the so-called upper classes prefer not to acknowledge.

By and large the perpetrators of child sexual abuse are men, often men who are themselves survivors of csa, while women who have survived being abused in their childhood tend to turn their hatred inwards and perform acts of terrible damage on themselves. Child sexual abuse, according to Virani, is directed at girls and boys, not just girls. In fact, the boy child is increasingly at risk. Survivors of child sexual abuse - in an admission that must have taken great courage, Virani places herself among them - may take years to come to terms with the outfall of abuse, especially if they have received no help from their families or specialists.

The chances that a child abuser will be brought to book by the law, especially if he has stopped short of actual penetrative rape, are very slight. The tourist sex industry has succeeded in practically institutionalising child prostitution: young girls are at risk thanks to the premium our society places on virginity, young boys are in demand as other countries crack down on child abuse, sending the paedophile trade scurrying across into India.

In other words, this book was long overdue. In many respects, it is an admirable piece of work. Virani has divided Bitter Chocolate into three sections. Notebook one tackles the subject of Child Sexual Abuse, defines it, lists warning signs for parents, and includes some case studies. Notebook two is a highly personal survivor's account. Notebook three goes through the legal issues, warns that even well-meaning doctors, workers and lawyers might put a victim of child abuse through secondary victimisation, and provides parents with a primer of their legal rights and their child's legal rights. A list of helpbooks and a section on helplines provides much-needed information.

But Virani is not perfect. The stylistic tics proliferate: a half-page digression on why she spells Mumbaii with the double ii, purple prose, a preoccupation with her own story which leads her to constantly overdefine her agenda. More disturbingly, she lacks an understanding of the complex gender politics of homosexuality and lesbianism.

But it is hard to argue with the central premise behind this book. Bitter Chocolate is an urgent wake-up call to all of us who think that the innocence of a child could not possibly be violated in our own homes, our "safe" neighbourhoods. It should be required reading for all Indian parents. One may hope that they will never need to use the advice set out here, but given the numbers that Virani has come up with, that hope may not be very valid.

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