Language that leaves you speechless

by Malay Desai

Sunil Sahasrabudhe is a teacher, living like millions of others in a bourgeois apartment in suburban Mumbai. On routine evenings, his wife Shweta is found chatting away with neighbours while he works on his laptop inside, the sole room lit up by their sprightly daughter Kimaya’s presence. The trio’s tightrope walk in maximum city isn’t any different than that of other one-child families, their disagreements being around preferences, behaviors, inflation… the usual. Why are we talking about them here, then? Here’s why: Sunil is deaf. So is his wife. Their daughter is not.

On a warm evening last week, we visit the trio. We could’ve emailed Sunil our questions – stuff like ‘How has the communication system evolved at home?’ and ‘What challenges did he overcome to complete his MA abroad and resume his career as a special trainer?’ But that would’ve meant not noticing things such as his door-bell connecting to a light bulb; stickers of a recent ‘No TV Day’ campaign on a cupboard, a tiny validation of them not having a TV at all… and most importantly, that Sunil and Shweta can have nearly perfect, smooth conversations with anyone, thanks to their extraordinary lip-reading skills.

Sunil has been deaf from birth, just like his parents and younger brother Sujit. The Indian Sign Language (ISL), a world where there is a gesture for every alphabet and action, is an intrinsic part of him but unlike many other deaf people (around 1 in 12 in India) who use it, he is proficient enough to train its teachers. As Project Coordinator (Technical) @ Indian Sign Language Cell of AYJNIHH Mumbai he ends up not only teaching the language, but also instilling valuable self-worth among students.

It was during his early teaching stints in 2000 that one demure student came by and subsequently fell in love with him. Shweta blushes while reminiscing those days. “I was confused about my identity before that,” she admits, after telling us that nobody in her immediate family is deaf. “But his ways gave me confidence and I began to like him. It wasn’t strange liking my teacher… we connected as he was deaf too!” she smiles.

In under a year-and-a-half came Shweta’s turning point, marriage. “It’s not unusual, deaf people marry only deaf people!” she explains. The most interesting, and without doubt most beautiful chapter of their lives opened in the form of their child. “We weren’t really concerned about her being deaf too, we’d love our child anyway,” Sunil tells us. But the first-time mother was more hurt by the behaviors of those around them. “On the day of her delivery, someone came and clapped near her to check if she was hearing,” she recalls her hurt. These ‘clapping’ types didn’t cease to turn up even later, adding to the parents’ frustrations.

Kimaya, perhaps the brightest six-year-old we’ve ever met, loves her abacus, playing online games and going out. Being a CODA (child of deaf adults), she is sharp with ISL and understanding all the non-verbal cues from her parents. Her childhood does have an unusual number of visits to the ENT specialist though, for regular checks. They might not admit, but the parents seem overtly attentive to this and even a slight niggle in her ear ticks off paranoia.

Our most intriguing element about this family is the most routine one for them. They communicate with others vocally, albeit with an occasional mispronunciation or tremor, but sometimes have to request the speaker to write in case of misleading words (we had to do this just thrice, for our chat which lasted an hour). The couple is better off with sign language among themselves, which means that their fiercest arguments are silent. “I do rant when I’m angry though!” Shweta says, admitting to be the more short-tempered one. “When I was abroad, we would fight in sign language over webcam chats!” Sunil laughs.

Technology has changed Sunil’s and several million deaf people’s lives in astounding ways that we can ever imagine. India’s telecom revolution has made it possible for them to have video calls (on 3G networks) and use signs, a big leap from two years ago when mobile conversations only meant texting. Efficient advocacy has improved Mumbai’s infrastructure for the disabled too. “The bigger handicapped coaches in trains are finally giving us the space we deserve,” Sunil raises his eyebrows for emphasis.

As a man of multi-layered communication, what language does he revel in the most we ask, and pat comes the reply, ISL. “I have a problem with deaf kids being forced to learn speech training. They’re never going to be perfect. Even I’m not! Why should they undergo all the trouble just to communicate with the hearing world?” he argues.

Perfect sign language is any day better than imperfect speech, we learn. But more importantly, as we bid the Sahasrabudhes goodbye, we also learn that language is a luxury some can afford, but some others are rich anyway.

(An initiative of Trinayani, a nonprofit NGO founded by Ritika Sahni, the THIS ABILITY articles celebrates the intriguing lives of persons with disabilities. Trinayani works towards Disability Awareness and Support, communicating through workshops/seminars, print, radio, films and other electronic media.  Visit www.trinayani.org or write to us at trinayani.contact@gmail.com)

The Articles in the Series “This-Ability” are copyrighted material of Trinayani.  This Blog is carrying the series on the request of Ritika Sahni, Founder Trinayani.  Any queries or request to publish these articles please contact Ritika Sahni. The owner of this Blog is not responsible for any copyright infringement

Nilesh Singit

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