March 11 2016
Saurav Dutt’s novel, a mixture of fact (through interviews) and fiction ‘The Butterfly Room’ was published to much acclaim last year. In this special interview with Chayya Syal (Avid Scribbler), he talks about the book’s central themes and impact.
This piece was scheduled to have been published on UN International Women’s Day on Tuesday (March 8) and the interview took place in 2015, but it was delayed by technical snags at our end…apologies…
By Chayya Syal
IN “THE BUTTERFLY ROOM” writer Saurav Dutt follows the lives of the Sharma family who have made their millions from the steel industry and are at the very top.
From the outside, they look like the idyllic Asian family, whom many aspire to be like: an influential husband, a pretty wife, and their three grown-up children who live in a mansion surrounded by opulence in Warwickshire.
It is an illusion of aspiration, wealth and idealism which acts as a veil for the abuse, pain, power struggles, suffering and turmoil that sees the family eventually implode and fall apart.
The Sharmas live in the shadow of Rohan; the tyrannical patriarch who rules the roost with an iron fist by imposing his traditional beliefs onto his wife Lakshmi, children Vikram, Anita and Sunita and brother Sunil without question. Dutt (pictured above and below) is a freelance journalist and filmmaker and continues to campaign on social issues.
www.asianculturevulture.com (ACV): Having read ‘The Butterfly Room’ I couldn’t help but notice that the book says that it was inspired by true events. How closely does the narrative reflect what actually happened?
Saurav Dutt (SD): The novel was compiled through true accounts, utilising interviews with individuals within the Indian and South Asian diaspora. These individuals were often people who had been impacted and radically affected by the issues of domestic violence and abuse, homophobia and regressive acts such as forcibly ‘arranged’ marriages.
All these interviews helped me in the research stages of the novel to formulate these characters. Often some of what happens in the story is based on something told to me during these interviews and I was careful to ensure I interviewed a wide net of people to obtain as diverse a viewpoint as possible. The views reflected within the story mirror the concerns of South Asian men and women in all elements of society.
ACV: What inspired you to write ‘The Butterfly Room?’
SD: I wrote the book to glimpse behind the mask of society that covers the face of many Indian and South Asian families.
What I mean by that is how Indian-and Asian-families and figureheads often feel that they must repress the truth in order to save face or to portray a certain image to others. This might be within the family unit itself or to those closest to the family. The book explored nascent and primeval attitudes to certain subjects which should have been buried in the past but which still subsist today. Furthermore, they exist outside the class structure because these issues are not localised to the ‘low class’ or the uneducated. Rather they are perpetuated through society and over time by these same families. I wanted to explore that dynamic and answer questions as to why in this day and age certain taboos are preserved and are even encouraged.
In that sense the book is a debate between these figureheads because there are always two perspectives to an argument and sometimes understanding how and why a taboo continues to exist allows you to combat it.
ACV: With regards to issues of domestic violence, denial about having prejudiced attitudes (towards divorce, interracial/interfaith marriages) and homophobia, there are many young British Asians today (from various backgrounds, cultures and religions) who uphold the very same cultural beliefs as older generations did. Why do you think that is?
SD: That’s a very good question. I would argue that such views not only go unchallenged but are never encouraged to be challenged. You can only be indicative of the environment you cultivate your personality within and so if you are surrounded by those who dispel any notion that these norms can be challenged, then how else are you likely to feel about the subject? There is also a divergence between cultural norms and religion, so a certain fear is instilled within younger generations that to combat such archaic views is somehow to go against your heritage, your religion when in fact these views have little to nothing to do with Hinduism or any other religion practised. I would like to believe that familiarity breeds contempt but within this framework it does not and as long as the younger generation perpetuates obeisance there will be nothing but egalitarian bigotry. The younger generation within South Asian cultures must arrogate to themselves the right to challenge any narrative that they are brought up to believe because without questioning something you cannot validate it, at least within your own mind.
ACV: During my reading, I picked up on ideas of masculinity and macho-ism, which many of the male characters in “The Butterfly Room” blame for their violence. I have seen such attitudes play out in reality and the consequences of this. How damaging are these ideas of reinforced masculinity upon South Asian men and women?
SD: Often gender roles are assigned from a very early stage within the South Asian societal framework; these are not always based on entitlement, privilege or a hereditary based reason but rather a perverse logic that men are better placed to do certain things and women are not or vice versa. At any rate such thinking is condemnable because it omits the context of a community, a family and all those variables that make society operate to its best levels. These gender assignment roles are very damaging to South Asian men and women as it does not allow growth and nullifies debate and change at the first instance. It is akin to law, it is manmade and permeable and that is too risky for a society to cope with because the ethic of the male or female character should not be exclusive to pre-assigned gender roles. If it is allowed to stand we fall into a trap of expectancy which is damaging and represses both women and men, often without them knowing it.
ACV: Similarly, I couldn’t help but think that the female characters are not as weak as the male characters think they are. In addition, there also appears to be an irrational fear of strong South Asian women and raising South Asian girls to be strong, independent women. How do we go about changing such attitudes towards women?
SD: I deliberately set out to ensure the women were not hapless victims of circumstance resigned to their fates, this was really important. How do we go about changing this irrational fear you mention? We normalize women’s role in society-they need to be included within the police, the judiciary, the media, the arts and have freedom to represent their views. The more this happens, the less power the critics have. As long some websites continue to perpetuate the image of the scantily clad woman, writhing her hips for the alpha male, the less power women have a voice in a society that still ‘beautifies’ a woman within a sexual narrative. If these avenues work together the collective voice of strong South Asian women isn’t ostracized and relegated under the banner of ‘extremists’ or ‘fembots’ but are taken for what they are-accurate representations of informed opinion.
We can’t give sexist elements of South Asian society a choice to relegate women into convenient abstract tick boxes.
‘The Butterfly Room by Saurav Dutt, Kindle £1.99/paperback Details/purchase HERE