Differently Abled

Short Story - By Subhash Chandra

When I got back home from the Translation Workshop at the Jawaharlal Nehru University, Meera said, “Thank God, you are back. I thought you’d board and lodge at the JNU tonight. Your devotion to scholarship is enviable. Anyways, what do I know of all this? An ignorant school teacher!”

“Meera, must you always shoot barbs? Today was the last day of the four day seminar. It got a little late,” I said.
She looked at me in a strange way briefly, with dilated eyes, and then burst into laughter. “Why are you moving your lips like a fish?”
My response to her was a reflex action. I had forgotten I had lost my voice in the midst of an intervention I was making at the last session.
I pouted, touched my mouth, raised my right thumb and shook it.
“Oh. No voice? No surprise. I had expected it,” she said amusedly and added, “That you would bring it on so soon, beats me.”
I wanted to say, “Don’t be mean. Instead of feeling sorry, you’re settling scores.”  But now I knew no words would issue forth from my voice box. I realised what I had lost and hoped it was temporary. Not being able to answer, retort and match the wits of your interlocutor is a pain that can be understood only by the dumb. I immediately empathised with them.
So, I, too, was differently-abled now.
                                                     ***
Once I heard a girl -- a mouth-painter who had got CNN-IBN Ability Award for her outstanding paintings which had won accolades at several exhibitions -- say at the function, “God takes away a faculty, but gives you something valuable in return.”
I tried to think if god had given me a substitute faculty for the loss of my voice.
Yes, he had! I had turned into a circus joker and got frequent chidings from our son. “Why are getting so aggressive?” he would say, when I tried to make a point by crazily moving my facial muscles, arms and hand and fingers. I wished I could explain to him that I was never sure, if I had been understood properly. But for this, too, I needed audible words ....Alas!

When I stirred out of my house to buy milk, fruits, veggies or stationery, running into a neighbour was a nightmare! He would initiate a discussion or ask a question and it became literally painful to tell him I had lost my voice.
When I tried to explain in my improvised sign language, he grew more confused and I more harried. Eventually, when I did succeed in conveying my malady, he would ply me with further questions.
“How did it happen? You were alright, when I met you a few days back.”
And then he would go on to ask, “Have you tried gargling with saline water? It’s very good for the throat.”
“Have you consulted an ENT specialist?”
And to fulfill the obligations of a good neighbour, he would suggest one.
                                         ***
A new shop assistant  at the stationery shop, whom I met for the first time looked at me pityingly and called out from the counter, “Sir, I can’t understand what he wants.”
I needed a glue stick. Though I had enacted, as in a dumb charade, the action of keeping an envelope on the counter, running the glue stick on the flap, closing it, and then pressing it, but the shop owner, too, could not make out. Eventually, I asked for a paper and pen and wrote down. The shopkeeper looked at me briefly and then started to write…”
I seized his hand abruptly. He looked up intrigued, a bit irritated. “I pointed to my ears and gestured they were O.K. That I could hear and he needn’t write. But he wrote, nonetheless, “We don’t have ear drops. Go to Aggarwal Medicos. And which brand of glue do you want, Fevi Stick or Kohinoor?”

I was now deaf and dumb. How stereotypes rule our thinking and lives. Logically right! A person who cannot hear cannot learn words, and has to be dumb. Alternatives are not thought of.  Another time, I overheard a newly hired boy at the fruits and vegetables Mother Dairy booth, shout “Babuji, here is a deaf-mute. I don’t know what he wants.”

But the shopkeepers and their semi-literate or illiterate boys were not the only ones for whom I was deaf and dumb.  My brother-in-law, who has made a pile in import and export business, did the same. He and his wife were visiting us during their short trip to India from the States. To participate in the discussion, I wrote something. He snatched the pen and paper from my hand and launched on writing his response. I kept moving all my facial muscles, and pulling hard at my ears to tell him, I could hear. His wife told him in so many words that I was not deaf. But he seemed to have gone deaf and went on with the treatise. And what was worse, he had the habit of writing in caps. After ages, during which all of us looked on like idiots, he finished his jejune response and handed the paper back to me pompously, as if he had put down for posterity a sagacious philosophy of life.
I felt like tearing up the stupid piece of paper into shreds and throwing it into the dustbin. Meera read my mind and shook her head imperceptibly. She has a penchant for social correctness. Atithi Devo Bhava. (A guest is god!)
I now regretted my intransigence. Meera had warned me when I came from Kolkata after a four-day Conference, with sore throat and hoarse voice.
“Now forget about the Translation Workshop, take a week’s leave from the University. And observe total voice rest with medication.”

But I could not keep away from my classes. Each class was a stimulating ego-massage.  Whenever I entered my class at the English department, I experienced a ‘high,’ akin to snorting a pinch of cocaine.  Sixty to seventy Masters’ students, with bent heads, eagerly gathering the gems I cast and diligently sticking them in their note books, looking up now and then, with admiration in their young sparkling eyes, was a stirring experience. And then there were the corridor discussions after the class. Three, four girls would surround me for some clarifications or to put forth a counter view to a point I had made during the lecture and after an animated discussion walk away, converted to my position. My self-esteem, which always took a beating at home and in the neighbourhood, where I could not convince anyone, soared unfettered. How could I keep away from my classes?
The workshop was the last straw on the already strained vocal cords.

When a week of trying out home remedies like ginger-honey, turmeric boiled in milk, honey and fresh lime in lukewarm water did not help, I consulted Dr. Saxena the ENT specialist, who had been recommended by one of the good Samaritans in our Housing Society.

“For how long have you had this condition? Your laryngitis seems pretty chronic,” he frowned, while peering deep inside my throat, with the help of his searchlight, stuck to his forehead. “This is a singer, preacher, teacher syndrome.”
“Week” I wrote.
He looked up with a grimace. “Are you a singer by profession?”
“No”
“Preacher?”
“No. Teacher.”
“What subject?”
“English literature.”
“In a school?”
“No. In the university.”
“You mean you teach M.A. English classes.”
“Yes.”
“He circled the word, ‘week’ I had written. “No wonder, our M.A. students can’t write an application correctly,” he said and then wrote “a” before the word “week.”

I wanted to tell him that the basic purpose of any language was to communicate. That I was sure he got the answer to the question he had asked. But I felt terribly insulted and frustrated and in a fit of anger, started writing “You are…” but then took hold of myself and left it incomplete. I had wanted to say, “You are an idiot.”
“Why did you stop? Complete the sentence.” He was curious.
“You are fantastic! You’ve such command over the language!” I scribbled and underlined it to stress the point.
You cannot rile a doctor. In India they’ve a licence to kill or maim.

Short story Differently Abled continues here...