I’m Deaf- Can You Hear Me?
Looking back on an eventful four decade journey called Life, I feel a rush of emotions. How I’ve changed, so much, not just physically, they say, as one grows older, we gain wisdom, that’s true, but we also gain other things too- infinite ways of seeing, hearing, touching, reacting, behaving, understanding; the possibilities are limitless.
Where do you begin when you pen down your innermost thoughts and feelings about how you came to terms with your hearing handicap as you were growing up in a family of achievers, goal-oriented towards securing yourself financially? How do you give life to your thoughts on an inanimate thing as a piece of paper, to be shared and dissected, discussed by others, strangers, friends, the unknown? Does anyone know what it means to be told that you can’t hear, that you are deaf and that you have to wear a hearing aid- an aid made of wax ear shaped, painful to wear, painful to see other’s silent glances, the huddled whispers, the hushed silence, the raised voices, the contempt too, the pity, the amused glances when you cannot hear or understand what the other is saying.? Only those with a disability can.
I’ve seen it all. Looking back on an ordinary life, not so ordinary for me, at that time, I really marvel at God’s immense grace and power to heal. Old wounds still linger, as I write these words. I am the middle child, the second daughter; after my older sister and a younger brother. Our parents were hard working, both trying to make ends meet, with their respective Central Government jobs. My mom worked in the Telephones Department, just a plus 2 high achieving student, from the backwaters of Kerala, the first girl in her village to land a lucrative government job, never mind if the pay then was miserly by today’s standards. At that time, she was just 20 odd years, freshfaced, with little money, but high on confidence and determination. Her achievements are so many, I can write reams of paper; she is not perfect, but which human is really, you tell me?
My father, too had his share of difficulties. Losing his father when still a teen and with huge responsibilities as the head of the family, with five younger sisters to get married, with just an entry level Government job, my Dad’s life journey was tough those days; yet another success story, but this I’d like to say. Hats off to my parents for their immense courage, confidence, hard work and determination to pull through. The saying, ‘tough times never last, but tough people do’ holds true for my parents too. Today, both are retired senior citizens, living in the southern limits of Chennai, happy in their own way, enjoying their lives at their pace.
The early years…
Coming back to me, recalling long forgotten incidents, conversations with my mum, I can say, that the symptoms of a hearing impairment were all there, only perhaps my folks did not see it for what it was. The catalyst was the tonsillitis operation I had when I was five years old. After that it was all downhill as they say. I couldn’t hear, didn’t respond correctly, was a dreamer, vague and what not. Until I was 13 years old, I just went about my life, I don’t recall much, perhaps I don’t think it was important; as a family, we all used to attend marriages, festivals etc, I was just another kid, but with a hearing problem.
My world shattered
Until I turned 13, I was told not to wear the hearing aid, as my doctors did not consider it necessary. But frequent instances of my goofups at conversations, prompted my parents to go again for a checkup and finally the doctor said I needed to be fitted with the wax model hearing aid. My world shattered, for I had to come to terms with my puberty too. It was all too much at that time; I went into a shell, was withdrawn, silent, angry. I was in class eight, a growing individual and out of the blue this and that happened. I railed at the fates silently, cursing myself, all the time. I was scared of the phone, that little instrument that connects near and dear, but a real demon to me; I was jumpy, nervous, reduced to goosebumps when a message came to take a call( we had no phone, but had to go to another place to take the call); I hated being alone for I would have to take the call; when I did have to take the call, I was a mass of nerves, that I never listened, answered wrongly ; they were very ugly and painful moments in my life, but it happened; visitors were always surprised to find me covered head to toe with a woollen blanket in the peak of summer, for I hated myself and hated to reveal myself with a hearing aid ; I wore the aid for five years; didn’t wear them for the next five years at college; was fitted with a new one, while doing my Ph.D and wearing them through the early years of my marriage and the birth of my only son. It was a torture, a nuisance, while traveling in public transportation, a painful symbol of branding someone as deaf- ignored and sidelined too.
It was a chore for me to have a decent conversation, so I used to sit all by myself, either upstairs of our home, or read books. I loved reading, and still do, it opened the world beyond my four walls of a home; beyond the demons in my mind, beyond the silent glances of pity, contempt (perhaps I imagined so, I’ll never really know) I used to sink into the story, any story; I was starved for companionship, where I was free to do as I pleased, no time limits.
My growing years were largely uneventful. My parents worried always about me and my future. They used to verbalise it a lot at family conversations; I felt deeply ashamed, embarrassed; I was very sensitive, touchy about whatever was said personally about me, so much so, the common refrain was that I had an ‘inferiority’ complex. At that time, I rebelled against that very idea but did not know how to express my feelings verbally. Even today, I carry over some of those traits- I am no good at expressing myself always, but I took to penning my feelings those days, in my diary- a companion of sorts. Oh yes, there was the labelling too, ‘the deaf wretch’ (‘shavuddu mundom’ in tamil, my native tongue) was one that stood out. I was appalled and shocked in turns at such crass insensitivity on the part of my family too- my mother was an exception, I don’t recall her branding me that way; my dad was and is still a short tempered guy, easily provoked to anger at the slightest thing; still all in all, I shared a very warm relationship with my parents, with the usual fights, during my growing years.
My relationship with my elder sister(two and a half years older) was often ambivalent. I was always compared to her academically and socially. She had vision problems and had to resort to wearing spectacles from an early age. But academically she was brilliant. I had to cope with comparisons with her at home and school( we studied in the same school right upto 12th standard); besides my own negative feelings about myself; It took me years to come out of her shadow; she never encouraged closeness for she shied away from touching much, sharing feelings etc but she too was prone to bursts of anger and irritation with my slowness as well as my physical appearance- I was fat and chubby and was called ‘fatso’; she was bossy, ‘wear the aid’, ‘listen’ were some of her words of advice those days. But she always encouraged me; she literally goaded me to be independent and not cling.
With my brother, my relationship was always one of close tenderness. He being younger than me by two years, he was very protective about me, especially from my father and sister. Initially, I was the one to protect him, care for him, everything, he followed me like a little lamb, but slowly the roles changed. He is still seen as the elder one and I the younger, since he started working while still a teen.
The turning point, a new era
It was a new school, new friends and yes, my sister had left for college. So used to being around my sister, I did not think to enjoy myself. I was always referred to as “Meenakshi’s sister”, not as Janaki. I wanted to be ‘Me’ and be accepted as ‘Me’ only. I did have a gang of my own friends, who accepted me as I was while at high school, but some of us were separated by opting for different courses; the new school encouraged us to excel, my proficiency in English flowered, I learnt to enjoy myself; highpoint was when I was nominated for a cultural coordinator post at school. I didn’t win but I was recognized and accepted; instead, I was elected to be the class leader in class XII; I did very well academically, coming first in most subjects and was a hit with the teachers and class alike; and then I stood Joint State Second in Sociology in the board exams. What ecstasy! Had I had wings, I would have flown!
My parents, especially my mom had always believed I could do anything; but they didn’t know how to encourage me specifically, believing me short of confidence, yes, but stating always, that I had an ‘inferiority complex’ did me more harm than they imagined. We never discussed strategies, approaches like what we read today, but that time, those words shattered me to my core; repeatedly stated, stripped me of what faith I had in myself and my capabilities; I used to state that it was not inferiority complex, but no one believed me and refused too.; I used to be scared of the dark and would never ever speak to anyone in the dark, especially during power cuts, for I couldn’t hear properly and I needed to see the person speaking too.
It wasn’t always bleak, there were happy moments too. Moments playing with my siblings, with our grandmother too, the palaanguzhi, dhaayam etc(traditional board games), that are being revived today; family vacations, an annual feature, visits to temples, movies, my aunt’s place where we always had goodies., our first TV, watching our country’s sporting glory; my sister’s first job, her marriage, her children, my college years, my trips alone in the course of my doctoral studies, my interviews with many people, my interactions with social activists, my male friendships, my first paper presentation at a national conference, my teaching experience, marriage and motherhood; all things we take for granted, but which all had a great impact on my development as an individual with substance and feelings.
My family supported me in their own way, but looking back, theirs was a flawed approach- they shied away from verbalizing the fact that I had a hearing impairment. The invisible disability. My hearing aid was a reminder and the fact that I used to repeat what people said was a source of embarrassment; consequently and unconsciously, I too began to think it was a shame to be deaf and wearing the aid a greater shame; my friends urged me to face it, sometimes I did (I used to wonder about how Prema, a year junior to me at high school coped; we were the only two students with a hearing impairment, most visible with our hearing aids too). Not until I was in college, free from the real pain caused by the aid, did I truly, initially feel free; I did feel inhibited, but this was compensated by a group of friends, who laughed and joked at everyone, without malice while I stayed in the background; I was the union typist, a role I enjoyed and which taught me the basics of communication and the like;
Marriage and motherhood changed me in terms of priorities. My husband knew about my hearing impairment when I announced it to him at the first meeting itself. He made me accept it and tell others in all conversations- lest there be no misunderstandings later was his reasoning; I had a close shave when my son was born- both of us were saved: I heaved a sigh of relief that my son did not inherit my disability and his growing achievements to this day continue to leave me spell bound and grateful to God for His little mercies.
My growing with disability has taught me many things. My family, friends have in their own ways taught me lessons that no course book ever will. The well spring of our lives lies deep within us. It is upto us to gauge our inner core. The process has been slow, tedious, long winding with negativity interspersed with positive developments- but they all taught me confidence, self belief, optimism, seek solutions and not problems, will power and more. There will always be some residual ‘what ifs and buts’; imperfection is ok, just do your best, maximize your potential always; be responsible for all your actions, words and behavior; learn the art of communicating well at all times in all the ways you can.’ behind every cloud there’s a silver lining too’ and ‘life is meant to be lived’ as Eleanor Roosevelt long ago put it, is the credo I live by.