“The child is sexual, but its sexuality (bisexual, polymorphous, perverse) threatens our own at its very roots. Setting up the child as innocent, is not, therefore, repressing its sexuality—it is above all holding off any possible challenge to our own.”exuality—it is above all holding off any possible challenge to our own.”

—Jacqueline Rose, The Case of Peter Pan or the Impossibility of Children’s Fiction (1984)


On May 15, 2015, a consultation was held at the Indian Law Institute in New Delhi in which legal experts, activists and child rights practitioners came together to contest the Juvenile Justice Care and Protection of Children 2014 which was referred to the Parliamentary Standing Committee last year. Despite the Committee’s categorical statement that the age of punishable juveniles should not be reduced to 16, the Cabinet approved of the selective inclusion of the 16-18 year olds committing “heinous offences” coming under a category akin to the rarest of the rare for punishment as adults.

This unthinking and insensitive approval is what the various folk at the Consultation were seeking to contest, coming as it does from the retributive rage that demands the head of the juvenile involved in the December 16, 2012 rape case in Delhi. The “logic” of this baying for the blood of the juvenile is that this was a rape case that was particularly heinous.

Indeed, most reporting on the case and writing about it always appends some adjective before the word rape like horrific, heinous, barbaric and so on when referring to this case, participating in the production of a national hysteria around the case whose orgasmic culmination can only be in the demanding for the hanging of all the accused (the Consultation Concept Note itself includes the words “horrendous” and “brutal”).

Indeed, my contention is that even these well-meaning folks at the Consultation at the Indian Law Institute in Delhi would not have touched upon any of the important issues that they should have in building an understanding of both child abuse and child sexuality in general. Indeed, most of the child rights advocates from Professor Ved Kumari to child rights organisations offer a deeply sympathetic but also deeply antiseptic and therefore ultimately counterproductive account of the world of the child, one in which child sexuality does not really exist.

There is no real reflection in the clamour of voices around children and juveniles and sexual violence and sexual abuse and child rights and child responsibilities, on the question of child sexuality and what are the frames within which we inspect the world and the world-view of the child. What do we mean by the category of the child? What do we understand, if we even allow ourselves to mention it, by the category of child sexuality? What is our knowledge of the abuse children face and in turn perpetuate on others on the streets as much as in juvenile homes and as much as in middle-class families and homes? Do any of us even know what we are talking about when we talk about children?

In her extraordinary first book The Case of Peter Pan, Jacqueline Rose shows how when we talk about children, what we are actually talking about is children’s relation to adults. She speaks of the impossibility of children’s fiction, by which she means “the impossible relation between adult and child”. The difficulty of that relation is papered over or avoided by producing the child as the innocent Other even as the child is drawn in (seduced) by the adult, the adult who writes children’s fiction, in Rose’s case of Peter Pan.



ankaj Butalia’s Dark Room: Child Sexuality in India dares to confront that relation by focusing on the question of childhood sexual desire, as its subtitle courageously announces. This is in itself an incredible move in a culture that relentlessly produces the child as free of sexual desire. The child is produced as free of desire because of the terror of child sexual abuse which haunts both our culture and more than the edges of Butalia’s Dark Room. A series of effects follow from the production of the child as “innocent” and Rose summarises them brilliantly:

“The child victim is desexualised— necessarily—for there does not seem to be a readily available language in which one can talk of childhood sexuality and insist on the reality of child sexual abuse at the same time. Language itself is made innocent—since children can only be made to talk of abuse with great difficulty, it is essential to believe them when they do (in cases of alleged child sexual abuse, the idea that there might be play, fantasy or ambiguity in language is almost invariably used to discredit the child). It is essential, too, that the child’s voice be clear and unequivocal in order to lift the adult burden of disbelief. More important still, if damage to children can be shown to stem from lone abusers, then the wider culture—with its responsibilities, trials and dangers in relation to children—can be absolved. Thus childhood returns to a pre-Freudian state of sexual innocence and families, that is, families without abusers, revert to the ideal.”

We see these processes at work in our culture clearly at the moment. The Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act, 2012 (POCSO), for example, desexualises all children till they are 18 when presumably a light-bulb called sexuality suddenly illuminates in their bodies. Children’s testimony is both invoked and trivialised in favour of adult clarity. The “paedophile”, as a new-fangled category largely borrowed from the fetid imaginations of the Rightwing in the US and Britain, emerges in our culture as a monster akin to who he is in Anglo-US  culture and we pretend that everything is all right with the family, even as we know that most abuse takes place within the context of the family and by close family members deemed unimpeachable, and even as we have no real discourse that engages with the Indian particularities of the figure of the child and its elations in the Indian world.

Butalia’s Dark Room skirts around these traps and produces a series of narratives almost unimpeded by them. These are a range of voices of adults talking of their own childhoods (thereby preventing the illusion that we are getting pure children’s voices, something which Rose tells us is impossible) and they are framed by an opening account of childhood sexuality by a school director/principal Shalini Advani that is remarkably unsullied by cultural conservatism and paranoid prejudices, and  a closing account, of incredible nuance and sensitivity, of the psychic processes involved in childhood sexual experiences by psychoanalyst and literary academic Nilofer Kaul.

Butalia’s own disarmingly modest preface only belies the remarkable achievement of this book, opening as it does several doors that would ventilate the fetid culture we live in if only we mustered the resolve to let them remain open.



he surrounding flatness of the landscape on childhood sexuality makes this book seem almost monumental, even though it is shadowed, as I have suggested, by the high buildings of the hysterical discourse (if you will pardon my mixed metaphor) on child sexual abuse in our culture.

The measured, thoughtful writing in Dark Room really blows apart the foundations of those high buildings starting with the most egregious example of Pinki Virani’s unreadable Bitter Chocolate: Child Sexual Abuse in India and ending with The House I Grew Up In: Five Indian Women’s Experiences of Childhood Incest and Its Impact on Their Lives edited by Ashwini Ailawadi and published by the NGO Recovering and Healing From Incest (RAHI).
On the actual topic of child sexuality (not abuse), we have nothing, nothing till Dark Room. That is a shocking realisation in itself. We do have it in the literary, of course, but not
theorised or written about with a frontal focus.

If Virani’s book is an over-the-top demonising of the child sexual abuser, Butalia’s book opens the figure of the abuser to a gaze that is compassionate and humane. It does not excuse this figure. (Indeed one of my problems with Dark Room is that it is too eager to placate the abuser demonisers and in the bargain shuts down the question that Rose opens for us.)

That question is that we are all potential abusers not just of the child but of ourselves and others when we do not recognise that “sexuality works above all else at the level of fantasy, and that what we take to be our sexual identity is always precarious and can never be assumed. Sexuality persists, for all of us, at the level of the unconscious precisely because it is a question which is never quite settled, a story which can never be brought to a close.”

Dark Room keeps the fantasy alive and tracks with great sensitivity the tentative articulation of that fantasy in several contexts, those of pleasure, of trauma, of violence and of great tenderness, all of which constitute the sexual in our lives. Shalini Advani (why don’t we have more school directors/principals like her?), in her introduction “Childhood Sexuality: History, Memory, Mythology”, tackles the repression and hypocrisy about child sexuality in our society head-on. And yet with great equanimity and sensitivity.

Nilofer Kaul’s extraordinary afterword, “The Long Shadow of Guilt”,  is nothing short of a poetic meditation on the question of collusion or complicity in the child with desire and, therefore simultaneously, her participation in guilt and terror about it. She delineates with amazing sensitivity what she calls the “psychic footprints” of sexual experiences in childhood and the various domains they cross. This is arguably the closest we will ever come to an account of child sexuality, certainly it is the closest I have ever come to it.

That the narratives are bookmarked on either end by such extraordinary narratives by these two women means that the narratives themselves are illuminated by them.

That they hold their own nevertheless is testimony to the immense courage, power and depth of these narratives, some authored by names and other anonymous. If the narratives in The House I Grew Up In fall straight into the narrative trappings of the individuated US/British “survivor” narratives of child sexual abuse and incest, Butalia’s personae resist the seductive urge to offer accounts of themselves as victims.

Indeed, some of the pleasure of the book must be left to the reader who will eventually pick it up, which is why I do not dwell on the qualities—the exhilarations as much as the failures—of these narratives. Suffice it to say that they range across age, class and region and move across pain, violence, abuse and great humour and tenderness.

Dark Room is a tremendous achievement and its quiet entry and circulation over the last year in Indian bookstores and online portals, I hope, only means that people are ruminating on the many insights it offers us and the many doors it opens into the magical and terrifying world of sexuality in general. More importantly, it should be read by child rights practitioners and lawyers and parliamentarians if we are to really protect children from ourselves, more than anyone else.