BOOK EXCERPT

Unending trauma: The heavy toll of ongoing violence on mental health in Kashmir

Besides physical harm, the Valley is struggling with a mental health crisis that has only gotten more serious since the increased use of force in 2016.

Dr Arshad Hussain, professor of Psychiatry, Institute of Mental Health & Neurosciences (IMHANS), Srinagar, has been observing the mental health of the general population in the Valley in a situation of conflict from the early 1990s, when he was just a medical student. “In the old days, there were many stories of distress. I remember, for instance, a young man who would climb a particular tree every morning and sit on it all day. He did this for 20 years before psychiatrists could rehabilitate him.”

It is thanks to the efforts of people like Dr Hussain and civil society organisations that took upon themselves the task of addressing the forgotten issue of psychiatric stress that Kashmir today has both medical expertise and rising awareness. Today mental health is a well-recognised condition and J&K has about 40 trained psychiatrists, unlike three decades ago when people had to depend on family elders, local pirs and visits to shrines and dargahs to cope with their mental agony.

Speaking to Dr Hussain provided us with an insight into how large a toll the current violence is taking on the mental health of the population, a trend that was perceptible in the outpatient department of IMHANS, which gets around 150 patients, coming in from all parts of the Valley, every day.

According to his estimation, at least 11 per cent of the population suffer from mental health morbidity currently.

Dr Hussain pointed out that trauma is the result of an abnormal event in the natural cycle of life; there were two aspects to recovering from such trauma: gaining a feeling of internal security and a feeling of external security. Both these are difficult to achieve in situations of constant violence. Typically, people will somehow manage. Belief systems evolved, fathers grew more pious, neighbours extended a hand of support, but the families of those left permanently disabled will never be able to escape the perpetual cycle of struggling to cope. According to Dr Hussain, while death brings intense grief and suffering, there was also closure. But here, as in cases of disappearances, the trauma was unending. In all cases of such loss, there were also secondary traumas within the family like financial breakdowns because of the loss of an earning member or a job. Unemployment is a major trigger factor for mental health disorders in the Valley, with unemployed persons having twice the possibility of going into clinical depression than their employed counterparts. Also, the poorer the person was, the higher the trauma of the adverse events they experienced.

In the immediate aftermath of the [Burhan] Wani assassination, there was a widespread feeling of insecurity among the general population, according to Dr Hussain, something that was last perceived in the early 1990s when there was the midnight knock syndrome, with patients getting panic attacks at night as they kept imagining people coming in search of them.

This time, however, there was a significant change. Because the use of force was much more widespread and had permeated every section of society, there was more anger and less fear. “You now have a generation that is desensitised to fear,” observed Dr Hussain.

What also come out clearly in the data is that women were twice as likely to suffer mental health morbidity than men. Among the cases that came to Dr Hussain’s attention over the years was a woman who was so affected by her son’s death that she banged her head in despair and fractured her skull. Another shattered mother would visit shrines and keep repeating the words, “Get my son”. This morbidity may be noticed by the rest of the family, but most often it is just accepted as a normal physical change. One of Dr Hussain’s patients began losing her eyesight after she learnt of her son’s death. Family members thought it was related to age. Yet, as Dr Hussain pointed out, trauma did have physiological impacts as well. This was clearly the case with Mehmood’s mother as well, when she mentioned that she had lost hearing in one ear from the moment she heard of her son’s injury.

Interestingly, women not only bear the burden of reversals within the family, they contribute towards stemming what Dr Hussain pointed out as “social drift”, when a family member becomes socially dysfunctional. They were also the ones who observed changes in family members and invariably took the lead in bringing affected people to hospital, either as mothers, sisters or wives. As he put it, “Women we find constitute the largest group of survivors. They demonstrate a higher resilience in terms of coping. They are the ones who tend to see the brighter side of things, telling victims ‘at least you are alive!’.”

But hope, “that thing with feathers/That perches in the soul” as the poet Emily Dickinson wrote so long ago – is difficult to hold on to in the Kashmir Valley today. The ordeals and uncertainties marking life formed a constant thread in the conversations we had with Kashmiris across age-groups and backgrounds. What was most conspicuous in these conversations was the death of hope – hope that the violence will abate, hope that life would become more secure, hope that a modicum of justice would be delivered, hope that the Indian state was serious about addressing the Kashmir issue.

As Professor of International Law, Sheikh Shaukat Hussain, observed, “We have been engaged in so many exercises for dialogue. Over the years we have been telling and re-telling our accounts to anyone who will listen, knowing full well that nothing will emanate from these conversations. There is a sort of hopelessness we feel when we search for any remedy within your system.”

The irony of the Government of India claiming Kashmir as part of its country, yet treating it in ways markedly different, is not lost on Kashmiris. “They want Kashmir, the land; not Kashmiris, the people”, was an observation we heard again and again.

It startled us to hear young Amir, still nursing a wound caused by a pellet gun in July, whisper, “After they cause such wounds, no one from the government even bothers to come and ask about our condition. They hate us, they want to remove us from the face of the earth.”

The questions put to us had no answers. How was it that if suo moto action could be taken by the courts in the case of the Bhagalpur blindings in Bihar, no one bothers when hundreds of people suffer blindings from the use of pellet guns in the Valley? Why is it that pellet guns are not used to quell protests when Jats go on a rampage, as they did in March 2016, or in the instance of angry mobs burning buses in Karnataka in September 2016? What is the reason that the Supreme Court of India took cognisance of the excessive use of force by the state in Manipur, but refused to rule against the use of pellet guns in Kashmir unless it can be guaranteed that stone pelting would end?

Like the threads woven into the exquisite shawls the Valley produces, questions arise, twine and intertwine, creating a narrative of their own – a narrative of a fissured earth.

Excerpted with permission from Blood, Censored: When Kashmiris Become the ‘Enemy’, Dinesh Mohan, Harsh Mander, Navsharan Singh, Pamela Philipose and Tapan Bose, Yoda Press.

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Swara Bhasker: Sharp objects has to be on the radar of every woman who is tired of being “nice”

The actress weighs in on what she loves about the show.

This article has been written by award-winning actor Swara Bhasker.

All women growing up in India, South Asia, or anywhere in the world frankly; will remember in some form or the other that gentle girlhood admonishing, “Nice girls don’t do that.” I kept recalling that gently reasoned reproach as I watched Sharp Objects (you can catch it on Hotstar Premium). Adapted from the author of Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn’s debut novel Sharp Objects has been directed by Jean-Marc Vallée, who has my heart since he gave us Big Little Lies. It stars the multiple-Oscar nominee Amy Adams, who delivers a searing performance as Camille Preaker; and Patricia Clarkson, who is magnetic as the dominating and dark Adora Crellin. As an actress myself, it felt great to watch a show driven by its female performers.

The series is woven around a troubled, alcohol-dependent, self-harming, female journalist Camille (single and in her thirties incidentally) who returns to the small town of her birth and childhood, Wind Gap, Missouri, to report on two similarly gruesome murders of teenage girls. While the series is a murder mystery, it equally delves into the psychology, not just of the principal characters, but also of the town, and thus a culture as a whole.

There is a lot that impresses in Sharp Objects — the manner in which the storytelling gently unwraps a plot that is dark, disturbing and shocking, the stellar and crafty control that Jean-Marc Vallée exercises on his narrative, the cinematography that is fluid and still manages to suggest that something sinister lurks within Wind Gap, the editing which keeps this narrative languid yet sharp and consistently evokes a haunting sensation.

Sharp Objects is also liberating (apart from its positive performance on Bechdel parameters) as content — for female actors and for audiences in giving us female centric and female driven shows that do not bear the burden of providing either role-models or even uplifting messages. 

Instead, it presents a world where women are dangerous and dysfunctional but very real — a world where women are neither pure victims, nor pure aggressors. A world where they occupy the grey areas, complex and contradictory as agents in a power play, in which they control some reigns too.

But to me personally, and perhaps to many young women viewers across the world, what makes Sharp Objects particularly impactful, perhaps almost poignant, is the manner in which it unravels the whole idea, the culture, the entire psychology of that childhood admonishment “Nice girls don’t do that.” Sharp Objects explores the sinister and dark possibilities of what the corollary of that thinking could be.

“Nice girls don’t do that.”

“Who does?”

“Bad girls.”

“So I’m a bad girl.”

“You shouldn’t be a bad girl.”

“Why not?”

“Bad girls get in trouble.”

“What trouble? What happens to bad girls?”

“Bad things.”

“What bad things?”

“Very bad things.”

“How bad?”

“Terrible!!!”

“Like what?”

“Like….”

A point the show makes early on is that both the victims of the introductory brutal murders were not your typically nice girly-girls. Camille, the traumatised protagonist carrying a burden from her past was herself not a nice girl. Amma, her deceptive half-sister manipulates the nice girl act to defy her controlling mother. But perhaps the most incisive critique on the whole ‘Be a nice girl’ culture, in fact the whole ‘nice’ culture — nice folks, nice manners, nice homes, nice towns — comes in the form of Adora’s character and the manner in which beneath the whole veneer of nice, a whole town is complicit in damning secrets and not-so-nice acts. At one point early on in the show, Adora tells her firstborn Camille, with whom she has a strained relationship (to put it mildly), “I just want things to be nice with us but maybe I don’t know how..” Interestingly it is this very notion of ‘nice’ that becomes the most oppressive and deceptive experience of young Camille, and later Amma’s growing years.

This ‘Culture of Nice’ is in fact the pervasive ‘Culture of Silence’ that women all over the world, particularly in India, are all too familiar with. 

It takes different forms, but always towards the same goal — to silence the not-so-nice details of what the experiences; sometimes intimate experiences of women might be. This Culture of Silence is propagated from the child’s earliest experience of being parented by society in general. Amongst the values that girls receive in our early years — apart from those of being obedient, dutiful, respectful, homely — we also receive the twin headed Chimera in the form of shame and guilt.

“Have some shame!”

“Oh for shame!”

“Shameless!”

“Shameful!”

“Ashamed.”

“Do not bring shame upon…”

Different phrases in different languages, but always with the same implication. Shameful things happen to girls who are not nice and that brings ‘shame’ on the family or everyone associated with the girl. And nice folks do not talk about these things. Nice folks go on as if nothing has happened.

It is this culture of silence that women across the world today, are calling out in many different ways. Whether it is the #MeToo movement or a show like Sharp Objects; or on a lighter and happier note, even a film like Veere Di Wedding punctures this culture of silence, quite simply by refusing to be silenced and saying the not-nice things, or depicting the so called ‘unspeakable’ things that could happen to girls. By talking about the unspeakable, you rob it of the power to shame you; you disallow the ‘Culture of Nice’ to erase your experience. You stand up for yourself and you build your own identity.

And this to me is the most liberating aspect of being an actor, and even just a girl at a time when shows like Sharp Objects and Big Little Lies (another great show on Hotstar Premium), and films like Veere Di Wedding and Anaarkali Of Aarah are being made.

The next time I hear someone say, “Nice girls don’t do that!”, I know what I’m going to say — I don’t give a shit about nice. I’m just a girl! And that’s okay!

Swara is a an award winning actor of the Hindi film industry. Her last few films, including Veere Di Wedding, Anaarkali of Aaraah and Nil Battey Sannata have earned her both critical and commercial success. Swara is an occasional writer of articles and opinion pieces. The occasions are frequent :).

Watch the trailer of Sharp Objects here:

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This article was published by the Scroll marketing team with Swara Bhasker on behalf of Hotstar Premium and not by the Scroll editorial team.