When a Mother Had to Explain India-Pak and War to Her 10-Year-Old

‘Is my nana going to be safe’, asked my very worried 10- year-old. My answer didn’t convince her. In the last few hours, the one commercial flight to Adampur, the same one we take to reach her ‘nani house’ in Jalandhar had been cancelled. She already knew that airspace over Srinagar was closed, just as she was clued into Adampur being not just a quaint airport, but more importantly a military air base.

Since the Pulwama attacks snippets of conversation had been trickling in around her, some factual and some far from it. For instance, the school holiday for Ravi Dass Jayanti was supposedly because Pakistan was going to attack us. Kids say what they hear at home and the rumours had not even spared them.

‘What about the pilot, what will they do to him’? ‘They will just keep him in prison’, I tried to keep it simple. Never underestimate the curiosity of a child. ‘But what will they do to him in jail?’ For an instant those bloodied images flashed through, immediately though they were overpowered by the calm Wing Commander Abhinandan sipping his tea while his short and crisp answers spoke a thousand words.

Here was the stuff of real heroes for children, not that ‘Dangal wala papa’ who keeps popping up in advertisements. The scars on his face were collateral damage, yet sometimes not telling children the reality is doing them a disservice. They will hear a distorted version anyway in the school bus. It can cause more damage. So, I showed her the video of him being questioned because their generation still has a choice, between delivering or sitting back and chest beating.

They will hear a distorted version anyway in the school bus. It can cause more damage.

A Mother-Daughter Conversation About War

In the last 24 hours my daughter and I have had some of the toughest conversations. Having grown up through militancy in Punjab, I am well aware how sensitive a young mind is, not knowing the complete picture can make imagination carve it’s own story. So, I told her. A lot. I told her about the air strikes and what terror camps across the border were doing to our people.

About the dozen brave men who went in, deep in the night, deep into Pakistan while we slept and their family counted the dark hours with a prayer on their lips. The devil is in the detail so she learnt about the bare minutes they spent inside Pakistan before turning back. There is no better way to explain discipline and dedication.

‘It’s not fair that we sit and watch television while people fight for my country, saying is easier than getting things done, mama’, came the mature response. She had obviously overheard an animated conversation on posturing and war mongering. ‘Everyone loses in a war, baby, although sometimes when you get pushed too far, like we did in Pulwama you have to reevaluate. Never be weak, peace is not weakness even if there are not too many in your corner.’

‘Tell Me, Mama, How Many Died?’

Words, a close- knit group of us have been venting for the last couple of days just came pouring out.

But kids are kids and they will pick up what they think is the most exciting bit. Having read about wars only in Shakespeare and Greek mythology, she was all attention. A discussion on Kargil had still been a couple of years away. ‘We went to war before? How many people died? ’ A child knows unless a parent gives facts and logic, it is all rigmarole. There was momentary distraction as Lata Mangeshkar’s ‘Ae Mere Watan Ke Logon’ came on and the names of those who died in Pulwama scrolled up. She heard it. She watched it. And then, ‘Tell me, how many died?’

What dose of realism will a 10-year-old take in her stride?

What dose of realism will a 10-year-old take in her stride? For a social media generation that tick tocks way too much and believes in every hearsay, it is hard to draw a line. How much is just right to allay their fears, real or imaginary? Protecting innocence yet toughening up a child is tricky. Explaining missiles while hoping they still believe in the rainbow is as hard a task as breaking the tooth fairy myth. So, how much is too much? Many of us are chicken, shirking from discussing issues like death with our children. But they know and worse, make their own interpretation. Sometimes for their sake it is just better to come clean.

Telling My Child There are Good and Bad People Everywhere

My daughter is well versed with our family history. She has spoken in class about my grand-father who was a freedom fighter from Lahore. She knows his story and clearly understands India-Pakistan and it’s nuances. She also realises that from my hometown Jalandhar, Lahore is that close and yet that far. Ever so often, she indulges my nostalgia for wishing to see what remains of the family house. ‘There are good and bad people everywhere’, we discuss not because that’s easy to explain, but because it’s not always that complicated. ‘You have bullies in school, similarly you have grown-ups who think violence is the answer’. A shy child, she understands this all too well.

In the last couple of days much happened that so many of us found difficult to fathom.

But as a parent it’s hard to crush all idealism. I still haven’t told her about growing up in Punjab, a land she simply adores for it’s happy space and culture. That’s for another day. Or maybe not.

She suddenly remembers something that happened in school. ‘Mama both my teachers have an army background. They said they moved from school to school and one of their fathers’ wasn’t even there when the sister was born’, she finished with wonder. Just like that, with her childlike innocence she had hit the nail on the head.

In the last couple of days much happened that so many of us found difficult to fathom. Hysterical, war mongering couch potatoes who smelled blood and wanted more, but would never think of putting their own children on those MiGs. How many of them would have remained stoic in Air Marshal (Retd) S Varthaman’s place? For that matter, how many baying for more would agree to give up their comforts and follow Israel’s example of conscription?

‘Mama we have to respect the armed forces, make them feel special’ and for once I was glad she was parroting my thoughts. Instead of all these reservations for votes, will we ever acknowledge these silent people as being worthy of much more? Or will Wing Commander Abhinandan soon become like Group Captain Nachiketa, anonymous and long forgotten? ‘It is not the army’s country, its ours, mama and like Mahatma Gandhi said be the change you want to see’.

Sometimes, children can teach us a thing or two.

PS: She just learnt the pilot is being released. She smiled.

(Jyotsna Mohan writes extensively for most major publications in both India and Pakistan. A former senior news anchor and senior news editor with NDTV, she also heads the morning news band for @editorji.com)

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