Update: This article has been cross-posted at DesiCritics
Update 2: This article has been published at YouthKiAwaaz.
Update 3: This post has been recognized as the Best Book Review Post at Avantgarde Bloggies Award 2009.
“Bitter Chocolate” is a book which is sure to shock the reader at every each and every page flip. The book deals with Child Sexual Abuse (CSA) in India. Through this book, the author Pinki Virani shatters every myth regarding CSA, and jolts the reader out of complacency regarding the issue. She explains the effects of such abuse on the child, and proceeds to offer suggestions – for prevention, as well as to deal with abuse. This book considers as CSA, cases where the abuser is more than sixteen years of age, and the abused is less than sixteen.
"Bitter Chocolate" is split up into three “notebooks”.
Notebook 1 starts off with an account of the author's own childhood experience. It then touches upon scores of instances of CSA from all across the country, cutting across social strata (both of the victim and the perpetrator) and age of the victim. There are some instances where the abused is too young to even know she has been abused! Some of the accounts were disgusting enough to make me question the very notion of “humanity”. Sample this:
A lot of cases of CSA occur within the house of the child, at the hands of a person known to the child.
Boys are the target of the abusers too – and we are not talking of a one-off case here. Far more little boys are sodomized than one can imagine.
There have been cases of women being perpetrators (although this forms a small percentage)
Only a negligible minority of the perpetrators are actually “suffering” and need “treatment” (referring to paedophilia – which is an excuse often used by child abusers to get away).
Yes, the driver, liftman, security guard at school might be looked at suspiciously, and the child might be warned to be cautious of such people. But what if the abuser is a person who, ostensibly, is supposed to protect the child? What if the child is violated by uncles, teachers, grandfathers, older cousins, family friends, even brothers and most shocking of all – fathers? This is not all that rare – as Pinki details out in the book. People who are gentle, caring and smiling by day – turn predators when they find themselves alone with the child.
The sickest of all factors mentioned in the previous point is that the child is often abused by the very person who the child is totally dependent on! Thats the irony.
In many cases, the abuse does come to the notice of the family members of the child – but they often do nothing about it. Reason? Our twisted notion of the “Khaandaani Izzat” measured solely by the “purity” of its girl child. The boy victim is luckier in this respect, as the family's izzat does not rest on his shoulders, and it is more probable that something will be done about it when his case comes to light.
In a vast majority of the cases, the victim feels guilty that (s)he was responsible for what happened. And family/society does nothing to dispel this guilt. How blood-boilingly-repulsive is that?
Child prostitution and child pornography are more widespread that one might be led to believe.
This list is just an indication of what to expect from the book. It is difficult to control oneself while reading some of the examples – I often found myself closing the book in disgust or choking or wiping a tear from my eye.
Notebook 2 undertakes a long-term study of a couple of real-life stories, thereby examining the effects of CSA on a victim. It explains the short-term and long-term effects of CSA, and how it has the potential to destroy a person's life – forever. Some of the effects mentioned include:
Physical scars and emotional insecurity (these short-term effects are pretty obvious)
Confused sexuality, promiscuous behaviour on part of the victim (this is a long-term effect where the victim might experiment with homosexuality/multiple partners in an attempt to “erase” the memory of the abuse).
Problems in family life, including emotional and sexual problems
Most destructive of all, the abused may turn predator in the long run, and when the child grows up, (s)he may end up abusing a child in turn.
The book goes on to cite the opinions of several counsellors, doctors, child psychologists on this matter. The bottom line is: CSA devastates a child and this devastation can manifest itself much later in the life of the victim.
Notebook 3 comes round to providing approaches to prevention of CSA. But not before it touches upon the reasons the abusers have a free run in India:
For one, the laws pertaining to CSA in India are grossly inadequate. Only rape (as in, penetration) carries any significant punishment.
Secondly, the abusers are probably aware that there are very small chances of the truth coming out into the open. Even if it does, our notion of family pride ensures that everything will be hushed-up and the abuser is free to go find his(/her) next target.
The book provides examples where a judge simply refused to believe that a grandfather was abusing his granddaughter. This shows how skewed the upholders of the law are with respect to the issue of CSA.
Finally, the abuser is aware that even if a case gets to court, it is an extremely uphill task for the family of the child to prove anything. The child will have to be produced in court and will be cross-examined. It is definitely easy to confuse a child during cross-examination.
Pinki Virani goes on to provide several practical approaches to tackle the menace. These revolve around the idea that if the perpetrators of CSA are brought to book, then it could help partly in discouraging such despicable acts in the future. The approaches include
Tougher, and clearer laws dealing with CSA – starting with the proper definition, to increasing the punishment.
Child-friendly process to deal with the matter (for example, the child not having to be repeatedly cross-examined and explain the harrowing experience several times, in graphic detail, to complete strangers).
Child Protection Units (to counsel the victim of abuse) and Child Protection Courts (to handle all cases where the victim is a child).
But above all, Pinki pins the hope on responsible parenting. This includes
providing an open atmosphere at home so that the child is not hesitant to speak out is (s)he is abused,
being aware of what the child is up to, where (s)he is and such, and
most importantly, dealing with disclosure appropriately (without blaming the child for what happened).
I have just summarized some of the points – the author goes into the nitty-gritties of each of these factors.
Yes – "Bitter Chocolate" is hard-hitting.
Yes – At times, you'd rather just quit reading the book.
Yes – the book will definitely give you several sleepless nights.
Yes – at times, the extremely graphic descriptions might be just too much to take.
In spite of all this, I still recommend one and all to read this book. For the simple reason, that unless one reads this book, one will not really grasp the magnitude of the menace. It is human nature that unless something shocks us beyond imagination, we treat it as just one of those things. If I had just read a statement that CSA does take place – I might not have reacted as strongly as I am now doing after reading the book.
"Bitter Chocolate" is a must read.
My Personal Views on the topic:
It is my belief that an adult who sexually abuses a child does not even qualify as a human. CSA is the lowest to which humanity can stoop. Of course it has to stop. But the issue is definitely a complex one. For example, in the case where a person who is supposed to provide for the child (shelter, food) himself resorts to sexually abusing the child, there is no easy solution.
I agree with most of the approaches outlined in The Bitter Chocolate – both for prevention of CSA and to deal with it. However, something does not seem right.
Making sure the child is aware is a good thing – but then, at what age does one begin educating the child about CSA? The book highlights a case where a girl was abused even before she uttered her first word!
Educating school-going children to be wary of strangers is a good thing – but what good would children be if they are not .. well .. children? I'm not sure if it's a good thing if a child is suspicious of everyone and everything.
Early adolescence is an even more difficult time to explain about CSA. There is every possibility that the child loses the distinction between a good touch and a bad touch – thereby treating every touch as a bad one. So, we end up with a case where a child has never been sexually abused, but still tunes out of love and sex completely. Its almost like the child has been frightened into this emotional situation.
I completely agree with the author regarding the urgent need for the law to be reformed to be more child-friendly. Child Protection Units and Child Protection Courts are definitely bound to be effective.
To conclude, I think that it is the responsibility of every citizen to raise our voice against this most heinous of crimes, to work towards its prevention, and to push for reform. Remember, children are our future citizens. What kind of country would it be, where a staggering 40% of the girls and 25% of the boys have, at some point of time in the past, been sexually abused as children?
Juts a footnote – CSA is by no means purely an Indian phenomenon – nor is it restricted only to poor and developing countries. It exists everywhere. USA is struggling to counter child pornography and some other countries like Cambodia are waging a battle against child prostitution (I have written about this at Innocence Snatched). The entire world is violating its children – and the responsible citizens of the world have to come together to eradicate CSA once and for all.
Edited to Add:
Other books I have reviewed:
Wise and Otherwise (by Sudha Murthy)
Frontline Pakistan (by Zahid Hussain)
Dude, Where's My Country (by Michael Moore)
Games Indians Play (by V Raghunathan)