Trappings of survival

By Ananya Mahapatra. Ananya is a psychiatrist from New Delhi, India. Please read her entry and leave your thoughts and comments below.

It means a branch made of gold, the woman said fondly.

She spoke in broken Hindi, her voice soft and hesitant, with an unmistakable Afghani accent. Her gaze turned towards her daughter every few seconds, even though she sat right next to her. The seven-year-old girl had an emaciated face and pale, frightened looking eyes. Her frail body twitched nervously, and she stared determinedly at her toes all the time. I smiled at her effusively and offered her a colored pencil with modest friendliness, but she eyed me with trepidation, shrank back in her chair and averted her gaze. Almost on cue, her mother put an arm around her. It seemed like a much-practiced ritual.

Zarsanga was an unusual name; it had the sound of an exotic melody that piqued by curiosity. I had casually asked her mother what it meant, hoping to start the conversation on a friendly note, build rapport, develop trust.  As a psychiatrist, it was essential for me to find a common turf with my clients to connect and build a therapeutic alliance. The clients in question were Afghan refugees, who could barely understand what I was saying, and I was struggling to break the ice with them.

The little girl’s mother had asked for a female doctor. She answered my questions shyly, but I was able to ease her into a sense of comfort after a while. However, her daughter remained reticent, huddled into her seat, arms drawn across her chest.

“Does she sleep adequately at night?” I asked, making concomitant gestures with my hands to make myself more comprehensible.

Her mother shook her head anxiously.  “She wakes up in middle of the night. She cries and shakes. I have to hold her tight. Some days she wets her bed.”

Zarsanga’s mother was helped by a volunteer from the NGO-run shelter where she was currently living, to meet a psychiatrist for her daughter. It was three months that they have been living in Delhi. Every day, the little girl broke into fits of panic, sometimes spells of incessant crying, sometimes spells of rage where she kicked and hit her mother, only to fall limply into her arms exhausted. She wouldn’t let her mother out of her sight for a single minute. She vigorously sucked her thumb, and she wouldn’t play with the other Afghani children in the shelter.

“She was a very bright girl,” her mother continued, with a matter-of-fact kind of sadness that unsettled me. “She sang like a bird, this one. Now she won’t say a word, even to me.”

Her mother was a woman of twenty-seven years, with a face worn beyond her years. The relics of her endurance splayed across her face, her forehead cross-hatched by lines of weariness. Her eyes were clouded by an impenetrable numbness, and even when she spoke, she seemed to be transported to a different realm altogether for a few moments, a faraway look setting in her eyes, her voice growing distant. Her movements were slow and ambivalent, and she started at any abrupt noise in the background. It was only when she talked about her daughter that I could glimpse a sign of animation in her. It appeared to be an elemental and fierce sense of protectiveness, mixed with rage and anxiety.

“Why did you have to leave your home?” I asked.

Her mother flushed at the question. She was silent, but the query brought a deluge of emotions. They passed like thunderclouds across her face. What had driven this woman to leave the only place she had lived her entire life? The vast inestimable desert and the arid grasslands where she was once a little girl, like her daughter. I could see her grappling with many thoughts as she sat silently across the table. I regretted asking this question. I didn’t know her story, but I had an inkling about the answer to it. It was the same answer for every single person living in the shelter.

“It was not safe,” she finally replied.

Zarsanga had a brother, who was traveling along with an uncle. Her mother didn’t have enough money for all of them. She had to send her son to her brother’s family. They were smuggled in a goods ship across the perilous waters of the Arabian sea. They haven’t heard from him yet. I could see her mother torn between hoping ardently to see her son and chiding herself for hoping so hard.

There is a label for all kinds of grief. While I observed this woman and her daughter battle what I was trained to refer to as post-traumatic stress, I realised no label will ever be able to describe even a fraction of what they were going through. I could only gaze at the face of it, there was deeper abyss beneath which we could never fathom.

Every single day, hundreds of people from war-ravaged, conflict-riddled nations make the most difficult decision of their lives; to wrench their roots out of the soil of their motherland and set sail in search of a safer terrain. They leave behind family, friends, moving on with only snatches of nostalgia worth their weight in gold, sitting heavy on their chest. Half of them perish in their endeavors, or watch their loved ones perish. They haggle with touts and intermediaries, who flock like vultures around them. Their vulnerability and misery have a very high market price. Their grief is displayed in lurid shades, on shady dockyards, where they make furtive, desperate entreaties with traffickers, pawning their very last possessions and sometimes their soul to get out of it. For once and for all. War wrecks the lives of unsuspecting millions.

However, that is only one of its many ugly faces. The desperate search of an escape route strips them bare, of their belongings and the last vestiges of dignity. People were willing to be packed like rats in cramped vessels, sell their body and soul, only to survive. Only to see their loved ones survive.

The only thing Zarsanga’s mother managed to bring along with her was a faded photograph of her family. Her husband, rugged and muscular with an ebullient Pashto smile, her son a gangly teenager gaping awkwardly and little Zarsanga with fuller cheeks, and a shock of curly hair, all umber and gold. She looked nothing like the somber child who sat in front of me, her eyes brimming with silent terror and her parched lips shut tight, as if in protest against the grotesque nature of human perfidy.

Zarsanga and her mother had survived, but the light of life burnt dimly in their eyes.

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