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Monday, October 25, 2021

Children of terror

Many children lost their parents in the 26/11 terror attacks on Mumbai and in 2006 serial blasts

Written by Kavitha Iyer |
November 27, 2011 8:56:28 pm

More than two years after his father died and just a week before his sister’s wedding,Deepak Shivshankar Gupta,16,found himself in a place Mumbai’s mothers dread the most—the rooftop of a local train. As he lay on the tracks that June evening,having lost his footing,his first thoughts through a bloodied blur were not that he’d been very lucky not to have been electrocuted. “It hit me then that I’m the man of the house,I’ve got to quit being like the other boys,” he says.

Deepak’s father,a bhelpuriwallah in south Mumbai,was among those killed on the night of 26/11 three years ago as he tried to secure his cart and rush home,falling to bullets near Cama Hospital. Deepak wouldn’t realise it until much later,but his home had silently joined a growing community of families on the verge of coming unhinged after a terror attack. He now remembers seeing hysterical families in the hospital on the night of 26/11,he has heard of the dead taxi-driver’s wife in a nearby slum with the impossible task of raising three very young kids,other families fighting for government or other donors’ largesse. His mother Rajkumari,in her forties and already frail,renews her promise to Deepak that she’ll kill herself if his reckless heroics continue. “I have three other kids,two of them still in school,so our hopes are all on Deepak,” she says of her second born,now in class X.

Across town in Gorai,just off the north-western tip of Mumbai,Shruti Kamble is seriously considering finding a counsellor for her son Rohan,13,who wants to become a “shooter with perfect aim”. Rohan’s father Rajan Kamble,a maintenance worker at the Taj Hotel,died a hero’s death a week after 26/11,having saved several guests even after taking bullets himself. The once-vivacious Shruti is mildly wary of Rohan’s fascination with Bollywood military heroes,but it’s his battle with tears that has her wringing her hands.

“He just won’t cry,no matter what happens. Not at the worst scolding,not even if I raise my hand,” says Shruti. Rohan doesn’t think it’s a big deal. “It just doesn’t happen,” shrugs the Class VIII student. Does he feel sadness,pain,loss? He’s not sure. “I feel I should be responsible.”

From short-term post traumatic stress to long-term behavioural changes,altered sleeping patterns and separation anxiety,surviving single parents from Mumbai’s string of terror attacks are slowly getting acquainted with long-in-gestation symptoms of the impact of violence on children’s minds.

There’s Prawara Patil who lost her husband Nitin,a bank clerk,in the 7/11 serial bomb blasts on board local trains in 2006. Even neighbours in the colony where they live in distant Virar,say Prawara’s daughter Aditi,now 14,has changed dramatically since losing her father. She’s now always the first to compromise in an argument,is more reliable than other kids her age but,even five years after the blasts,acutely feels the void her father’s death created.

In Varanasi,there’s three-year-old Sheetal Yadav,the youngest survivor of the attack at Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus,who just won’t leave her mother’s side.

Deepak,Rohan,Aditi and Sheetal are among scores of other grown-up-too-soon children who’ve inherited a close and personal relationship with terror. Some lost more than a parent,finding families torn asunder in family disputes in the aftermath of the attack—one 26/11 martyr’s brother attempted suicide after being accused of rape,a handful of women had bitter disputes with parents-in-law over multiple claims to government compensation,a few terror-hit families just left Mumbai for smaller towns. In every case,it’s terror’s children who’ve had the most adjustments to make.

*****

At least some of the children’s challenges come from the surviving parent’s own struggle to adapt. Shruti,for example,confesses she is seized by an inexplicable paranoia when either of her sons is unwell. “Even if it’s a minor fever,I’ll watch over them endlessly,asking over and over again if they’re feeling worse. Dole ughad,dole ughad (open your eyes),I’ll insist,if they doze off at an odd hour. No parent should have to feel that cold fear—that once again somebody will be taken away suddenly.”

Rajkumari says she is sick often,unable to keep a job for long. She also berates herself for passing on to her children her worries about the home and finances. “This is a rented shanty,just rent is

Rs 1,500 a month,” she frets. “Just buy one vegetable and that’s Rs 25 gone for a quarter kilo of something.” Having spent most of the ex-gratia money on living expenses in the past three years and daughter Neelam’s wedding in June this year,her brother,an autorickshaw-driver,is currently providing for her. “But he can’t do it forever,” she says.

Other mothers say having had to take up a job,they’ve suddenly become less available for their children. Three-year-old Sheetal Yadav may be too small to ask for her father yet,but grandfather Fauzdar Singh Yadav says from his home in Ghazipur,Uttar Pradesh,that his daughter Sunita finally took up the Class IV Railways job in Varanasi,where she lives with her brother and daughter.

Baby Sheetal’s story—she spent almost four days with nurses in the children’s ward of a government hospital while her mother recovered from surgery in another ward—had touched do-gooders across the world,who sent nearly Rs 5 lakh in donations for her through a non-governmental organisation.

“That money has been kept in a fixed deposit,” says Yadav,“for her education when she grows up.” He says Sunita had not been keen to take the job. “She wanted to be a full-time mother,but this is the best parenting we can offer right now,” says Yadav.

In Satara,Pratibha Patil is uneasy that three-year-old Shaurya is watching Ajay Devgn-starrer Singham once again. Pratibha lost her husband,constable Jayant Patil,in the Rang Bhavan lane attack that night,in which three senior police officers were killed by Ajmal Kasab and his partner.

“I can’t really explain to him why I don’t like him watching such films,” she says. “And then he asks for a uniform and wants to play a policeman—it’s absolutely normal at his age,but it’s heartbreaking for me,” she adds,breaking down on the phone.

That his mother is very different from his friends’ parents is something Rohan senses acutely. He loves it when she fusses over his friends when they come over,but he doesn’t fully understand why she doesn’t spend evenings visiting neighbours or chatting with her own friends like the neighbourhood mothers.

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Minal Lonkar-Kavishwar,a clinical psychologist who has been offering animal-assisted therapy to children with different needs for almost a decade now,recounts meeting children who’d lost a parent to the 7/11 serial train blasts in 2006.

“We found that children,especially those from a nuclear family,were finding it difficult to adjust. As opposed to adults,for children to even acknowledge that there is emotional trauma within is a problem. And we had parents telling us that the son or daughter had become suddenly very reserved or withdrawn,they were unable to express themselves,” says Kavishwar,adding that the introduction of animals helped some of these children open up,though the session was held several months after the attacks.

Shruti Kamble agrees that Rohan can be reserved,sometimes spending long hours in complete silence or getting very irritable at the smallest provocation. “I want him to be well-adjusted. After all,we are on our own,the three of us,” says Shruti,whose in-laws mostly abandoned her after the tragedy. “They perhaps think I’ll be clinging to them for help.”

Rohan,standing almost 5 feet and six inches at age 13,would like a career in the armed forces if he gets a chance. Shruti is still contemplating if a Sainik School education is indeed the best thing for her son only because her husband Rajan had been so keen on it. Rohan has almost brought up four-year-old Atharva,bathing and cleaning him as an infant,teaching him to walk,now fetching him from school,keeping a stern eye on him as the younger boy runs,squeals and rolls on the floor excitedly.

“After Papa went,I realised what responsibility is. Nobody told me that Papa had died. I came back from school and saw the crowd of relatives here and knew immediately that there had been bad news from the hospital. I know my mother can’t do everything on her own,she has a backache. I help in whatever way I can,” he says,legs crossed,eyes serious as he thinks a few moments before answering questions.

Back in Mankhurd,Deepak Gupta is contemplating what he wants to do with his life. He’s been given a second chance,even by Mumbai’s unforgiving trains and he is battling his demons as fast as he can. “I used to be very angry all the time,never paying heed to anything my mother says.” He says that since his accident,he has understood that his position is a significant one after his father’s death.

“If I don’t do well,the terrorists would have taken the entire family,not just Papa,” he says.

Coping with trauma

Belief in bad omens,continuing fear of some situations,a desire to get trained in some form of martial arts or archery,play-acting roles of terrorists and soldiers are all natural responses for children who’ve either suffered the loss of a loved one to a terror attack or even been exposed to graphic imagery of terrorist violence,say experts.

Dr Yusuf Matcheswallah,a Mumbai-based psychiatrist who set up a helpline and reached out to several families in the immediate aftermath of the 26/11 terror attack,says the difference in the way adults and children deal with stressful situations is that while adults have to learn to cope with memories that stay fresh for very long,children appear to grow out of problems as the days pass.

“But the impact of such a loss could move into the subconscious or unconscious part of the mind and then,unexpectedly,emerge at some time with disastrous consequences. It’s less common among adults than in children for stressful events to stay behind in the subconscious,” he says.

He counsels some kind of therapy for children who have been exposed to violent situations or have lost a parent in a violent attack. “There’s family therapy,spiritual therapy,work therapy,and most important,psychological therapy.”

Children who’ve been in violent circumstances showing aggression,insisting on a career in the armed forces or police or anti-terrorism units is common,he says,as are games of “policeman-terrorist”.

“These are initial reactions and as kids grow,they get resolved sometimes. Still,it’s essential to take steps to come out of the trauma,otherwise it can affect various aspects of life or the ability to live a more healthy and fruitful life. Children could grow up becoming more prone to depression,angers,can develop psychological problems,their social connectivity may not be very good.”

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