No country for ‘bad’ kids

Emotional abuse of children is an issue we hardly talk about — we need to wake up

By J.R. Ram
  • Published 19.08.18

Akshay was a bad kid. There was no other way to describe him, at least from what he heard about himself from others. He was also described as unlucky, a blot on family’s reputation and someone who was destined to cause lifelong misery to anyone who cared for him. He was 14 years old when I met first met him. He was born on Akshay Tritiya and so his mother named him Akshay. Perhaps that was the only auspicious thing in his life, being born on a sacred day, because what followed was a harrowing tale of emotional and physical abuse for him. 

His mother brought him to meet me on a particularly sultry summer’s day from Majdia, a village near Nabadwip in Bengal. His parents were separated. His mother, Sutapa, was a 38-year-old, frail woman, who was working in a parlour. Sutapa and Akshay lived with Sutapa’s parents, who were in their 70s. 

Sutapa’s own childhood was difficult as her parents fought with each other constantly and she got married to escape the oppressive environment at home. She eloped from home and married her tutor’s brother. After a series of miscarriages, she finally conceived Akshay, but suffered severe domestic violence and emotional abuse from her in-laws and husband. She was forced to leave her marital home with four-year-old Akshay and started living with her parents, much to their annoyance. 

Women in India are given birth, only to be handed over. They have a fixed shelf life at their parents’ home. Sutapa’s parents were poor and they deeply resented the burden of looking after an unemployed daughter and her four-year-old hyperactive child.  

Akshay did not make things easy for his mother and his grandparents. He was a difficult child. He had grown up seeing his mother being beaten up by his father and his paternal grandparents. He was restless, impulsive and loved to break rules. He had large ears and a very thick curly mop of hair. He was bullied in school by his peers because of his appearance, disliked by his teachers as he was very restless and had little interest in studies, unloved by his mother, who suffered from chronic depression because of her own privations, and his grandparents simply saw him as a pest. This was Akshay’s world. No positive affirmations and no positive experiences. He had hardly experienced any affection and nurturing. Adults in his life imprinted it in his mind that he was not good at anything.  If the received wisdom was that you are worthless, why would you even try? This was Akshay’s logic and he “excelled” in bad behaviour. At least it got him some attention from his mother and grandparents, from whom he craved affection and praise.

What if he was understood?

Sutapa had brought him to me as she had heard from a patient of mine, who visited her parlour, that I “treat” badly-behaved children. She had taken a day off, travelled for five hours with her son, spending more money than she could really afford on travel and consultation fees to seek help for her son. She cried helplessly as she narrated her life story. She expressed bitterness about her son, who she felt was as “evil” as her ex-husband, who was a violent drunk. 

This was how I got introduced to Akshay. If Akshay felt bad, he did not show it. He sat with an impassive face, which betrayed no emotions. I asked his mother to give us some time, so that we can talk in her absence. Initially Akshay would not look at me. He was upset, as he had to hear an endless list of his misdeeds in front of another stranger, who was supposed to “cure” him.

My initial round of “ice-breakers”, which I try to disarm reluctant adolescents, flopped miserably. He refused to engage in any conversation with me. He probably felt that I had already formed an opinion about him. Then I went for the jugular, an absolute last-ditch effort to engage him in conversation. I complimented him on his hair and asked him whether he can recommend any hair oil, as I would love to have his hair. He finally smiled! The irony of a middle-aged, completely bald man asking for tips on haircare was not lost on him. 

We then talked about hair, having friends, being labelled a “bad” kid, failing in exams and our failed attempts at impressing girls in school. I shared my failings, how people perceive me as an ill-tempered, rude and cantankerous doctor. Akshay was generous with his advice about how I can change a few things and I listened to him with awe. Here was a child whom adults have failed consistently. Yet he was kind to me, a complete stranger. He, who has received no kindness from anyone that I could tell, was gentle and thoughtful about how I could feel good about myself. He had a father who never saw him, a community which humiliated him, a mother who did not want him, and his teachers thought he was a waste of space. Yet, his innate humanity propelled him to wish me well. After a conversation lasting about half an hour with him, I asked him to wait outside while I spoke to his mother. I discussed various options of accessing subsidised care.  Akshay left my room smiling. A few minutes later, when his mother was leaving my room, he put his head in through the door and said: “Uncle, don’t feel sad that you are bald… you are quite handsome,” he said and then disappeared.  

What if he had lived?

That was the last I ever saw Akshay. A few months later, I met the lady who had sent Sutapa and Akshay to me. I asked him about Akshay. She hesitated before answering. I asked her again. She told me that a few weeks after Akshay had come to see me, he had killed himself by jumping in front of a moving train. 

This is what we do to children. As Prof Amartya Sen has written, ours is a country for first boys only. This was a child whom everyone, all of us, had failed. Yet, he had the grace, kindness and compassion to comfort an adult, who he felt might be upset. He may not have received kindness and compassion from the world around him but this “bad” kid had it in him to feel for a stranger. 

Whose fault was it that he killed himself, unable to suffer constant rebuke and humiliation? Can we blame his mother, who was a victim herself? Can we blame his grandparents, who were poor and struggling to meet their daily needs? Could we blame the teachers, who were overburdened and had to work within poor infrastructural support and had really no training to handle difficult children? Could we blame other children (his peers) for bullying a child?

Should I blame myself, for not realising the vulnerability of this child and not doing more?

But what if Akshay had lived? What kind of life do these marginalised, unloved children have when they grow up? Would he have run away from home, like many of these children do? Would he have then joined millions of other children in India as a child labourer? Would he have fallen into bad company in the mean streets of a city and started dabbling in drugs, adhesive and alcohol?  Would he have lived on the streets or a slum? Would he have committed some heinous crime like rape and murder, in company of similar youths, whom we (adults) have failed? Would we then have screamed from the rooftops asking for his death penalty? Was he better off dead?

Emotional abuse of children is an issue we hardly talk about. But it is rampant and destroys literally thousands of children. This is a true story of a single child, whom I will never forget. There are millions like him. We need to wake up and stop shaming ourselves further. 

Dr Jai Ranjan Ram is a senior consultant psychiatrist and co-founder of Mental Health Foundation( Find him on Facebook @Jai R Ram