Empathy Strike

by Sahadev Komaragiri

empathyKarthik is somewhat a mischievous boy with special talents to create complicated problems. One day he approached me with a very sad face and complained to me that Ram Kumar his classmate took his pen and was not returning it back to him. I thought it was a simple problem and summoned Ram Kumar.

Ram Kumar: Sir, Karthik took my pen yesterday and he lost it. As a replacement he gave me his pen.

I: Karthik, what do you have to say?

Karthik: Sir, I lost his pen while playing in the ground. I searched for it for a long time and I could not locate it.

I: Did you give him your pen as a replacement?

Karthik: I gave him my pen because he said he did not have a pen to do his homework. Now, I have to do my homework and I do not have a pen.

Ram Kumar: Sir, even I have my homework to do and if I give this pen to him I will not be able to do my homework.

Ram Kumar explained in plain terms that he would return Karthik’s pen only if his own pen is returned. Sweet! One pen, two kids, and one problem. I personally thought that the problem is homework. If there is no homework there would be no problem. I got a pen from the storeroom and gave it to Karthik and told him that I will record this transaction in his account and collect the money from his parents. If I gave away that pen for free, news would spread around the campus that I was distributing free pens and there are indeed multiple ways to get a free pen.

They both left somewhat disgruntled. They have to settle down again to do their homework! I understood a little later that these two little rascals were siblings from the same family!

One day, as I was entering the campus, I was informed that Ram Kumar and Karthik left the school for their village. Their mother passed away at a very young age of 35 after losing a long battle against cancer. They were in the school hostel mainly because their mother was unable to take care of these two kids. Karthik was 13 and Ram Kumar 12 and they both were in 8th standard.

After a couple of weeks they both returned to the school. Ram Kumar was able to reconcile to the fact that his mother is gone forever and is in the safe hands of the Almighty. Karthik was unable to come to terms. I met both of them early in the morning before the school started. Karthik looked very emaciated and I was told that he was not eating food for the last few days. His grandparents and his dad tried their best to make him eat but in vain. He would eat just a little bit and leave the place in tears. They thought that the boy would be alright once he goes back to the school hostel and mingles with his friends. They were wrong. On the night he arrived he did not touch a morsel. On day two he did not have his milk and refused to have his breakfast. The moment the food is offered he would cry until it hurt him. His friends and some of the teachers tried to force feed him and it did not work. During the lunch time the scene repeated. The boy was not going to touch the food. The situation was getting out of control and something had to be done.

In the lunch room with a plate of food in front of him and with my own lunch in front of me we both sat together to eat. I requested his company and after some cajoling he agreed to sit next to me. I requested him to eat first. He refused and started crying. I spoke to him sometimes very softly and sometimes in a stern voice. I tried to counsel him that his mother was suffering from a long time and that her suffering has come to an end. I told him that his mother is safe with God.

I said ‘If your mother knows that you are not eating your food, she would be very sad’. He looked into my eyes and turned his face away only to start crying again. There was no verbal response.

Then it suddenly occurred to me that this boy is not talking. Everyone was trying to talk to him and tell him something or the other but the boy was not responding. I waited for over 15 minutes and the food was getting dry. All the other students and teachers were slowly leaving the room after they finished their lunch.

I decided that I should do something drastic. I got up from the place and told Karthik that he may go to his class and I will go back to my office. I promised Karthik and all the hostel staff that I will not have my lunch until the boy had his lunch, comes to my office and informs me that he has eaten his food. In a haste I left the place without waiting for a response. It was 12:30 pm when I left the place.

There was no call until 3 pm. The rule was simple I will not eat until he eats. I know that I will not be the first one to blink. Being older has some advantages! 4 pm no call. I was getting restless but I would not show it.

At about 4.30 pm, Karthik appeared at my office door along with the hostel cook. Karthik told me that he had his lunch and that it would be my turn now. I checked with the cook and she said the boy had had his lunch but not enough. I asked him if he would join me for lunch one more time. He agreed. We both had our lunch and this time he ate a little more.

Later that night, I decided to stay back in the school for my dinner. I asked Karthik to join me. This time he ate without much protest. I had a long chat with him about his doting mother and his grandparents. He did not talk much and when he talked, he talked very haltingly amidst tears. Over a period of time Karthik finally came to terms with his mother’s passing away. When I went on that short hunger strike he found someone in me that he could connect to and share his feelings. He, and Ram Kumar remained in the school for the entire academic year and later left the school to stay with their dad. I did not hear from him again. I hope and pray he is enjoying his teen life!

empathy2This episode taught me the lesson of my life. Children in trauma do not need sympathy and counseling. They need some very strong empathetic attention to their condition. It is possible to put ourselves in their shoes via a temporary mental conditioning, but it is impossible to experience what they are going through. They need to talk, not talked to. Allow them to talk, listen to them, empathize with them and allow the wilting child to bloom again. It requires careful nurturing, keen observation and a strong will to make the child blossom back to normal life.

May all the children in all the worlds be happy.

{ 6 comments… read them below or add one }

anupama February 4, 2016 at 10:10 am

very beautifully u have touched d cord of a child’s heart. n beautifully portrayed too.


Sahadev Komaragiri February 4, 2016 at 11:10 pm

Thank you!


Bharadwaj February 5, 2016 at 1:11 am

Thanks for sharing this very powerful episode.


Sahadev Komaragiri February 5, 2016 at 8:14 am

Thanks for reading Bharadwaj!


saileela February 5, 2016 at 11:54 am

Very well told story on how to treat feelings, specially young children who don’t know to express and share their worries. As said, yes all they need is empathy and not sympathy. Just talking to them strengthens their spirit and help build basic life skills to survive and move on.


Sahadev Komaragiri February 5, 2016 at 12:59 pm

Thanks for your comments. Fully agree. We should make them talk and let it out as much as possible. That I think will help immensely.


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