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'The mental trauma of the attacks was enormous'

By Sheela Bhatt
Last updated on: December 19, 2008 11:04 IST
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Dr Ashit Sheth, 63, has been practicing psychiatry for nearly three decades and knows the psychological symptoms, problems, trends and stress of Mumbaikars as an insider. Even after counselling thousands of patients he has not lost the curiosity to know a different, unusual or uncommon side of the human mind and behaviour in these changing times.

The terror attacks on Mumbai affected Dr Sheth as much as any Mumbaikar. He lives near Wodehouse Road in Colaba, south Mumbai, where his sixth floor apartment's front window opens to the the Oberoi and Trident hotels and the back window towards the Taj hotel.

His home is quite close to Nariman House too. From his home he was able to see the National Security Guard commandos alighting on Nariman House and huge black clouds of fire on the sixth floor of the heritage wing of the Taj.

Thursday was an important day for Dr Sheth. He addressed a meeting of 40 of the most terror-affected staffers at the Oberoi and Trident hotels. Along with the hotel guests, these staffers went through horrific experiences for two days as NSG commandos fought the terrorists in the hotels.

In an exclusive interview to, Dr Sheth provides an insight into the current state of mind of Mumbai residents and also of four of his patients who survived to share their stories of the terrible tragedy at the Taj and Oberoi hotels. This is what he told Sheela Bhatt:

When ten people walk in and occupy the important city landmarks and kill people mercilessly it will affect not only the direct victims or witnesses it will affect even the viewers who watch the news on television deeply. I have found so many of my patients getting disturbed just by viewing the television coverage. None of their relatives were involved, no one from their circle died, but they want psychiatric consultation.

People were completely glued to television because there was a spectacle between heroes and villains. The heroes were our commandos and the villains were the Pakistani terrorists. This real drama was viewed with particular anger against the terrorists. People could very well see that they came to the city just to kill people and that the amount of training they got was immense.

Near the Cama Hospital, the way they shot three police officers and injured four people sitting in a car was astonishing. Their training is what surprised onlookers.

They were totally merciless. Their assignment was to kill. They were completely brainwashed to kill and they carried no sympathy for their targets. Their attempt was to make a show out of violence. Ten terrorists could bring the whole nation down by killing helpless people. The unarmed and helpless victims were shot dead without any responses. These terrorists were emotionless as far as their assignment was concerned.

Surely, they had a brotherhood amongst themselves. They were not emotionless in their own territory. While I was trying to study psyche of ten terrorists who attacked Mumbai, I came across a case of Miss Kim Hyon Hui. She is one of the accused in the destruction of Korean Air Flight 858 in 1987.

Her training is well chronicled by Eileen McDonald in Shoot The Women First. I quote from the article on how her training was conducted in complete isolation from her family. She was given daily instructions in small arms, languages, codes and communications. Political indoctrination was interwoven with all courses. Her physical training was so intense that she claimed that she could swim two kilometres and run 40 kms over rough ground at night.

The writer of the book claims that the State-directed terrorists can be more technically prepared, can be more intensive and effective and better equipped than non-State sponsored terrorists. The rigorous training can change minds radically. Television viewers could see that the naval commandos were not as effective and took time to flush them out.

The impact of the destruction was enormous.

A friend of mine is a contractor. On November 29, he went, along with his surveyor, to one of the affected hotels to survey the damage as soon as the police handed over the hotel. He has been asked to repair the hotel in the shortest possible time. That night, he got up screaming with fright. He had some dreadful dream. During the day-time visit to the hotel he didn't see dead bodies or any limbs but he told me that stench of blood and gun powder was so bad and the impression of that scene was so disturbing that he got affected. His surveyor also lost his sleep and is terrified at night.

Another patient had a similar complaint that he had a bad dream in the early mornings. This kind of violence and destruction affects human psychology considerably. I know of cases in New York, within a two mile radius of Ground Zero -- where the World Trade Centre towers once stood -- some people were unable to sleep comfortably for a long time.

We don't have any mechanism to assess the damage to society and people. How many people have lost sleep and how many people are terrified and suffer long-term consequences?

One patient escaped from the Kandahar restaurant at the Oberoi. I can't give his name. After he was rescued he found on the fifth or sixth day that he could not function. He says he has become irritable. He is unable to cope with his work. His level of concentration is gone. All the time that scene of living for two days with dead bodies comes before him. He asked what would have happened to him had he gone upstairs instead of going down from the exit door of the kitchen at the Kandahar restaurant?

He was part of the crowd which included advocate Anand Bhatt and others. He feels guilty that one of his subordinates went upstairs and was taken hostage with Bhatt and others. Many of them were killed, but his subordinate called on the third day to say that he was alive. He was one of the four guests at the Oberoi who pretended to be dead for more than 24 hours.

The subordinate said the terrorists were coming back to verify if people were dead and were shooting people again -- even those who were dead. One person, who was lying injured, was noticed by the terrorists. One of the terrorists said, 'Ye toh saans le raha hain (He is still breathing).' But there was a distraction and they left before shooting the man.

You can imagine the plight of such people who have experienced such terrorism and deaths. That colleague of my patient was hit by bullets in the arm and leg. He lay on the 18th floor till the commandos came on Friday (November 28). For 48 hours, he was lying with dead people piled on him. When the rescue team brought him down, the first thing he did was to kick the slain terrorist, "Saala hum ko marne aaya, ab maro tum!" (you came to kill us, now you die!). There was so much of anger and hatred.

When they visit doctors they repeat the scenario. How dazed they were when they walked out. One of my patients was trapped in a building adjoining the Taj hotel. She was asked not to move out by the police. She was okay till the incident ended, but one small incident occurred much after the event and her balance is shaken. She has gone into panic and she thinks she is going crazy. We told her that these are normal symptoms and she will be fine.

One of these days she said she felt she is dying. She becomes anxious when her husband goes out to work. She says nothing like this has happened to her before. I could see that this fearful event has brought to surface some problem between her husband and herself. It was suppressed for long, but now she is anxious.

Another old patient whom I had helped to go through tough accountancy exams called me after many years. He was at the Kandahar resturant that fateful night.

He called me to say, "Doctor, I want immediate help. You must see me today." It was Saturday. He said, "Doctor, I just don't know what is happening to me." He heads a multinational company.

Another patient was at the Unilever meeting at the Taj. They could escape, but for some six hours they were locked in a room. At around two o'clock the explosion was so loud that he finds it difficult to forget.

Another lady's parents were hostages in the hotel. Now she does not want to leave her child alone with anybody. She thinks that anything can happen to her. Her parents were trapped in the hotel, but she is now afraid about her child's safety. That 60 hours of anxiety has shifted from her parents to her six-month-old child.

People may deny having particular emotions, but I see there is so much hatred and anger. Many Indians are not comfortable with our anger. We dissipate our anger. Indians have become so indifferent towards their anger and never channelise it to take firm action. We don't even take preventive measures even after this kind of experience.

We Indians have tendency to deny. We don't want to acknowledge and understand the bad-ness of these terrorists. These emotions of denial distort reality. So when we prepare for the future, our preparations are not up to the mark.

To get out of the impact of this violence, what is important is to know what post-traumatic syndrome is. People who are affected deeply repeat the dramatic over and over again. Second, they avoid celebration of any kind. My patient cancelled her wedding anniversary party and is sticking to home. Some people want to avoid public places. I see there are physical symptoms like headaches, lack of sleep and palpitation. People feel tense and are unable to concentrate. Some say they feel an "emotional numbing."

People, who have survived the trauma inside the hotels, may find that their nervous system is going through arousal. I tell patients that these are temporary things. You are not going mad. The more you accept the event, the easier it will be to get over it. A person who escaped the Taj siege wants to cry and wants outbursts of emotions. He says he is unable to share details of the terrorism with his wife or his father. He wants to cry. I said 'You must. Go and talk to them, spend time together.'

The people who have lived inside the hotels for 60 hours are facing trauma. In cases of a major arousal of the brain they can be given medicines. They are facing flashbacks. While talking to you suddenly they talk about the terrorists who were walking outside their rooms with guns.

However, I don't think that this incident will make Mumbaikars more violent because all of us have identified with the victims and commandos who were helping them.

I have read that children have lost sleep because of viewing this episode. I was told that at south Mumbai's Cathedral and John Connon School three or four children lost their parents. All these facts affect other children. Children don't know the language to express the turmoil they go through.

But I know Mumbai will move on. People have a short memory. Mumbai does not have time to think about human security.

Photograph: Sanjay Sawant

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