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How Mumbai's children cope with trauma

Vaihayasi Pande Daniel in Mumbai | December 11, 2008 12:06 IST
Last Updated: December 11, 2008 17:28 IST


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On the night of November 26, my younger child, eight, had gone to sleep long before the events began to unfold in Mumbai.

The next morning, she got up wondering why she had not been woken up for school. And found us watching the unforgettable assault on the city on television and began to listen to the broadcast.

After a bit she quietly crept away and began to cry, not noisily, but silent tears. She said she was scared and did not want to watch the broadcast. Later she told me: "I thought I was going to die too."

As the attack agonisingly continued beyond 60 hours -- I was in and out reporting; my husband was with my two daughters all through -- her fears seemed to change.

We are not far from either Nariman House or Taj Mahal [Images] Palace hotel (five minutes either way). The blazing Taj was clearly visible from our side window. The sound of grenades and gunfire was audible right through. A Rapid Action Force truck and its sturdy blue-uniformed crew were posted in our street, a few lanes away from Rajwadkar Street, where Nariman House is situated.

On the roof of the petrol pump, at the corner, commandos were stationed to prevent attacks on the pump. Both sides of the Colaba Causeway were cordoned off and a curfew was on -- milk, bread, vegetables did not come in. The rumbling helicopters flying low overhead on Friday morning only worsened the atmosphere knocking everybody out of bed in a panic.

By then my younger child was worried that the terrorists would get into our building and our home. Neither she nor my elder child, a teenager, could sleep properly. They had numerous nightmares day after day and did not they sleep in their room.

This continues till today. They want to be briefed from time to time on what is happening and if there could be more terrorists loose in the city. They say they are no longer scared, but then will suddenly confess to not wanting to go to the next room alone.

My younger child tells me she wishes she was a karate black belt so she could give Ajmal Mohammed Qasab, the lone surviving terrorist who is now in custody, a few tough punches. My elder one dreams of watching RDX being carried into her home. They are nervous of going anywhere near the Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus [Images] or being out at night. (We, however, have seen Nariman House up close and marched to the Gateway of India [Images] with the protest rally on December 3; my elder child's choice although the crowds eventually worried her).

They have lived through the previous terrorist attack of 2006 and the bomb blasts at the Gateway of India and Zaveri Bazaar in 2003. But for them this attack has been shattering -- too long and far too close. Worse, there were casualties in their school.

Many children across Mumbai have found coping with the 26/11 tragedy as difficult as my two. Says a principal of a south central Mumbai school: "We had this case of a 12-year-old in Class 6 who started talking to the other children about what had happened at the Oberoi. He said he was there. That he had been present and that he had had to hide under the table. He told his teacher as well."

"So we called the parents. They said they had not been at the Oberoi. He had watched all this on television and imagined he was present. It seemed to have been the effect of watching it on television and the effect of others talking about it. And perhaps there was some fear factor."

The boy was sat down with a counselor and eventually he did agree that he had not been at the Oberoi and is having sessions to counter whatever effect the exposure to this tragedy had on him.

Another mother of two, also from Colaba, says, "My children were awake the night it happened. They both howled. My nine-year-old elder one did not sleep the whole night. They were worried someone would attack us. Those feelings have gone away and now most of their feelings are for the little boy who rides on their bus. He had lost his parents. But whenever we pass the Taj or the Oberoi they remember it again."

Dr Rani Raote, a psychotherapist, has been visiting schools and colleges to make parents understand how children will express their post-traumatic stress. "Parents need to educate themselves on how trauma affects a child and how it will show up in children.

"A lot of children are playing 'terrorist-terrorist' games. Parents think they are doing this because they do not understand what has happened or are trivialising the issues and think it is a question of morals/values that they do not understand the gravity of the situation. They tell them not to play the game."

Dr Raote explains that games are a pretty standard way for kids to express post-traumatic stress. And parents have to talk to their children, communicate with them and understand what they are going through. There are other obvious or less obvious signs -- clinging behaviour, separation anxiety, regression, school phobia, omen formation (example: 'I was wearing pink the day it happened, I won't wear pink'), restlessness, reckless behaviour among teenagers, lack of concentration. And these symptoms can continue for up to three to six months after which they may need special attention.

"Another example was of this child who was very upset and inconsolable. The father told her that if she did not stop he would take her to the Taj!"

The psychotherapist feels this particular attack on Mumbai has affected children much more than previous instances of terror. "It lasted a long time. It was a very unpredictable situation. When it seemed like it was over it would start again. This evoked more trauma."

It is nor restricted to just the children living in the vicinity of the attack either. "The commandos came in. There was a war in the city. The Taj example I gave was of a child in north Mumbai. I have had cases from across the city."

Dr Raote says it is not good for parents to divert, distract or minimise the situation because that could increase fear. Children want to talk about it and they need to talk about it. Parents should also handle their own PTS first even as they cope with their children's trauma.

Says a 14-year-old who was dining at the Royal China restaurant, about 10 minutes away from the CST: "I have still not fully recovered. I am still in shock. I have been sleeping terribly. I have been sleeping with my parents. I was worried that the terrorists would come in and shoot us all down."

This teenager, her family and the rest of the diners and staff at Royal China lay under the tables till 2 am with crying children. They could hear the gunshots from both the Metro cinema and from the CST (they had one television on) and were not sure what would happen. And though the restaurant was locked down, lights out, occasional knocking on the front door made the panicked diners think that terrorists were knocking. Later, it turned out that it was a driver looking for his passengers. They finally stole out of the restaurant at dawn through the kitchen and the back entrance and drove home in a convoy of six cars.

"And from where I live in Colaba I could hear the shooting and grenades at Nariman House and the Taj. From my aunt's house at nearby Pushpa Bhavan we could see Nariman House. On Friday morning I could see the terrorists standing just behind the curtains and shooting down (at the street). We were also watching everything live on television. And when they were bringing the victims out from the Oberoi I kept imagining myself in that state."

Little Sheshikant, all of four, who lives in the slums behind the Cuffe Parade police station, south Mumbai, was at the Cama Hospital with his father because his mother was in labour. He and his father were barricaded in an ante room with other patients' relatives that night as terrorists fired shots into the locked door.

Says his father Ramu: "I could not tell him anything. But he trembled all night. Finally by morning I started massaging him and that helped. Later I explained to him that it had been a terrorist attack. For the next few days he would watch the events on television. But he is very young and he has now forgotten."

The mother of a six-year-old in north Mumbai recounts her son's trauma. "It started with an innocuous conversation about Gandhiji and how he died. And then it moved on to the attack on the Taj -- ever since it had happened, he kept asking if the people inside were okay and if the building was okay. He knew that people had died."

A few days earlier the little boy had seen a child on television, covered in blood and perhaps dead. And he wanted to know if the child was hurt.

"On December 2, he again asked me questions about the Taj. Suddenly, big tears welled up in his eyes and he said he didn't want to die. And he did not want me to die. If I died, who was going to look after him? I told him I was not going to die anytime soon, that I would have to become really very old before anything like that happened. That brought about a fresh round of tears, saying he did not want me to die ever. Do people die only when they want to die? He said he did not want to die, he wanted to go down and play every day. He wanted to know if dying hurts."

The mother recalls that it was a long conversation that lasted more than three hours and her son would not stop asking questions or crying. It was past two before she finally got him to sleep.

Most children could not avoid knowing that Mumbai was under attack because the events played out on television sets in every one's homes. With the sounds all around it was difficult to hide the events occurring across the city. So some parents saw no harm in making their children understand the entire situation.

Karan, 11, came on Saturday to see the Taj with his mother. He was quite cheerful and was the one who had insisted they come there. He wanted to see the fire and the hotel that was hijacked. He was quite thrilled because he had spoken to and shaken hands with the commandos.

Last Wednesday, December 3, Zayne, six, was at the Gateway of India with his parents. His father said they had deliberately brought him to the protest march. "I am happy he is seeing so many people and has an idea of what is happening."

Zayne told me he had come to light a candle there for the people who had died. "He is seeing on TV, we are talking about it, he is getting to understand what is happening. After seeing the response, I feel I should have talked to his teacher and brought more children from his class," says his mother.

Says the principal of the south-central Mumbai school: "The sympathy factor has been overwhelming. The day the Taj was freed I lit a candle." He placed it at a key location at the school. An eleventh-grader came over and said they wanted to light candles too. And the little shrine is still glowing at the school. "They are feeling the pain."






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