(Mr. Mohammad Tahir, 26, was born in Pampore. He completed his B.A. (hons) in English Literature from the Aligarh Muslim University (AMU), and his Master's degree in International Peace and Conflict Studies from the Islamic University of Science and Technology (IUST), standing first in the Class of 2010. He is currently employed by the Greater Kashmir as a feature writer, largely writing on social and cultural issues. Mr. Tahir received the Best Story award in 2007 from the Help Foundation organized by the Rajiv Gandhi Foundation in the Tagore Hall. He enjoys writing poetry and small stories.)
LOSS OF CULTURE AND COMPETITIVE LIFE STYLE HAVE RUINED THE MENTAL CALM
Three years back closely witnessing an incident deeply shocked Zamrooda (name changed). It remains etched on her mind since then.
She was home, all alone; bed-ridden because of her aching neck. Suddenly heavy firing struck through summer evening. While her heart raced frenetically, she closed her eyes and prayed to God. For nearly an hour, exchange of fires between two militants who were holed up in an adjacent house and large contingent of army continued. The incident had a long lasting effect on Zamrooda. She started behaving in odd ways: getting angry frequently at slightest hint and feeling sleeplessness at night. This uneasiness with life took a heavy toll on her mind and ultimately, on one fine afternoon in October, after returning from a wedding, she consumed poison at home to kill herself. But she survived, because she was quickly rushed to SKIMS. Even now burden of a strained life is patently written on Zamrooda’s face; she does not easily smile and it has been a long time like that. She depends on tranquillizers to keep her easy.
Zamrooda’s case is not unique. The conflict of the last twenty years had a definite effect on the psychological health of Kashmir (and in certain cases saw people taking extreme steps), and a large part of Kashmiri society, gradually, become victim of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), exhibiting symptoms like: sleeping disorders, panic attacks, nightmares, flashbacks, and anger. However, suicide rate was not as high as it is today. According to a study, there is a dramatic 26-fold increase from 0.5 per 100,000 before the militancy to 13 per 100,000 now. Even though the worst phase of the conflict has receded, cases of suicide attempts are only going up owing its causes, apart from conflict-induced stress, to changing socio-economic and cultural factors.
One of the leading psychiatrists of the valley Dr. Arshad Hussain attributes the causes of rising suicides and other mental-health related problems to the break-down of the culture. “We are taking Modernization akin to Westernization and here lies the problem.” Dr. Hussain reasons, “We had joint family structures, there were neighborhoods, then there were villages and there was such a camaraderie and trust that stress had a buffer: you had a small stress at home there were twenty people who would come to help you. That was a huge social insurance”
“Yaarbal, Samanbal and Waan Peand - these were the places were people would find solutions to their daily problems.” Dr. Hussain, sporting a black sleeveless pullover and a matching cotton shirt speaks with a gentle smile, “When women would gather at Yaarbal (place of gathering at a river) to fetch water or wash clothes, they would talk about their problems with other women and relieve their stress.” He further recounts with a hint of nostalgia: “Similarly, men would escape late in the evening to Waan Peand (shop front) and take turns at hookahs with their friends and listen to community radio. This was a support system that was woven into our cultural ethos over time.”
Speaking in similar vein, eminent poet and social activist Zareef Ahmad Zareef recalls: “There was a robust cultural support system in the past, in every other mohalla there was a Maas (elderly woman) or two who acted as a counselor for women folk. A Maas would help in settling disputes between in-laws, facilitating reconciliation and dialogue between estranged parties.” Mr. Zareef Ahmad’s flowing Kashmiri verging on metaphorical rhyme evokes a strange sense of nostalgia, “These neighborhood Maases had compassionate appeal about them and they very well used their social credibility to broker peace and counsel and console any one who approached them.”
Between the psychiatrist and the poet, both of whom have keenly observed their community, there is a consensus about where lies the problem. This consensus based on experience and practice over time can be summarized like this: There is this fierce competition that people indulge in and get trapped. Castles of aspirations are built so high that when they fail to materialize it tumble down on their heads and frustrate them. They are burdened under the colossal mound of their own desires. They get desperate, because others acquired wealth and status, but they could not and it germinates poison in their minds and slowly gnaw at their patience and they take extreme steps like drugs, deliberate self harm and suicide. Another important factor that is responsible for growing tendency among people to take their lives is lack of faith in God.
To Dr. Hussain we don’t only have to rely on rational therapies and medicines that come from the West; rather we should revive our own cultural healing system. It was such a beautiful thing to watch, he fondly remembers, when a person would faint, the elder of the family or the mohalla would caringly touch the patient’s wrist, close the eyes and say few Quranic verses. And in an instant everything would be fine. All the people must come together and revisit our culture, he affirms.
“We cannot stop the flow of the time,” reasons Mr. Zareef Ahmad, “but we can preserve our cultural ideals and values”. Mr. Zareef Ahmad advocates carving ‘a middle path’ between old way of living and modernity. Dr. Arshad seconds him, calling for creating alternative spaces where people can meet, share their emotions and feel relieved.