Dutt’s newest novel ‘The Butterfly Room’ raises awareness about the taboo subjects of domestic violence and homophobia through the evocative art of storytelling. Short-listed on both The Guardian and LA Times Books, Dutt is known for his non-fiction and fiction, and this recent gender critique is the carefully crafted culmination of both. The plot centres on daughter-in-law Lakshimi and the complex emotional struggle she goes through to escape her abusive family constraints: “The world of the book was informed by the 200 plus interviews conducted with various women of South Asian descent,” Dutt told us. “All of them had suffered at the hands of household violence.”
“I spoke to women of different classes,” he continued “from stay at home mums to the successful heads of business, and what was very interesting was an underlying psychological element. Though physical violence would certainly manifest, mental oppression was consistent throughout. For example, though certain Indian women were financially stable, it did not make them any less likely to be trapped in an environment of abuse; often they couldn’t, or wouldn’t, leave due to social reputation and extracurricular security being at stake.” So, Dutt is telling us, though violence may be taking on an untraditional form, it is keeping backward, traditional stereotypes more alive than ever: “whether it was using her party-going past against her or actually striking blows, the end goal was always to attack the woman’s self-confidence and keep her down as an individual.” And the relevance of the psychological intricacy in women’s abuse cases is not just limited to South Asian culture. In a recent multiple assault case, filed against a former Canadian radio show host, there was a shocking readiness to dismiss the behavioural nuances of victims caught in the trappings of a silent patriarchal system: for example, the action of sending flowers to the attacker would be immediately questioned when it was just as plausible that this was the only way the woman could get his attention to confront him, as a powerful, womanising man. But as Dutt expressed, his turning to writing about domestic violence was ultimately two-fold: “I wanted to leave a message of hope: every survivor has shown such courage and strength in enduring and prevailing through the hardships, and I have new found respect for all those who've been through abuse.” Thus using the format of fiction- “to probe in a way that more immediate forms of art such as ‘film and music’ cannot”- Dutt not only makes visible a universal wrong, but actually shapes our thoughts as powerful tools in the social law so fundamental to change.
'The Butterfly Room’ is a beautiful name. What was the inspiration?
There is a character who encases very beautiful butterflies. This serves as a wider metaphor for all those women – wives, mothers and daughters – within relationships and marriages who aren’t able to break free. They are continually taken advantage of because in South Asian culture there is a stigma on divorced women and it is not easy to leave.
Tell us more about the message you wanted to leave with the readers
It was about leaving a message of hope: simply seeing these women as victims is unhelpful. There is much to be admired in their survival; their fight through all the pain.
Can you elaborate on these new forms of cultural oppression that violence takes?
Yes, research showed that psychological oppression could actually be one of the most harmful forms of violence: it is harder to detect and has a long term effect. The abuser might try to choke an otherwise independent woman’s financial freedom by, say, confiscating her credit card or dissuading her from career progression: this is not borne out of jealousy necessarily, but rather control.
Have you always felt drawn to women’s rights?
I am invested in the issue of human rights and supporting the oppressed. Watching cowboys and Indians movies as a child, I would support the Indians. On this note, I was actually approached by a group of quite influential men who wanted me to write about the stigmatisation of Indian men in abuse cases, and it later transpired that one of these men was convicted for being a perpetrator. I feel there is a concerted propaganda effort to withhold the feminist movement, and me speaking out as a man has a significant effect.
Do you feel personally connected to the book because of your roots?
I was born in India and brought up in Britain, and South Asian issues concern me greatly. I do feel that there are not enough Asian men speaking out about the issue of gender inequality. The only way for there to be progress, is if we work together: proceeds from ‘The Butterfly Room’, for example, are going to charities such as Refuge, Amnesty International and the Sharan Project.
Is there a recurring theme in your writing?
The issue of denial; it’s a big problem in the Indian community. If behaviour is scrutinised there is a tendency to shut down. There is projection onto women who speak out too: “no one is going to marry you, you’re just going to antagonise your husband”.
What was the most challenging part of writing this novel: emotionally, technically?
They were intertwined. I wanted to be able to portray the pain of these accounts without being too maudlin. It wasn’t meant to be a melodramatic Bollywood epic. That is difficult to produce at a writerly level. It is a challenge to translate the experience accurately. But fiction writing does allow you to be nuanced and I’m proud of the end result.
Finally, what is your advice to other journalists who might be feeling tentative about confronting a difficult issue?
Remember you’re in a position to give a voice to the voiceless. If you don’t write about it, no one else will. Or, in the best case scenario, it’ll come out years later. As a journalist you help people on a daily basis to keep in mind the bigger picture. Action happens alongside what you do; getting people to talk holds valuable weight.