Sunday, June 19, 2005


In the summer months every nook and corner of our old ancestral house in Wai would wake up to aroma or ripening mangos and a medley of voices. This was the time when my aunts and uncles would come with their families to spend the summer vacations with their mother. Although I spent all of the first six years of my life in this house, the memories still linger in a little fragrant corner of my mind.

As summer approached, the top floor of the house would be swept and cleaned and the mattresses and bedcovers would be freshly laundered. The copper utensils would be rubbed with tamarind and scrubbed and washed until they shone. The front and the back yards would be washed and repaved. Cartons of mangos would arrive and be arranged in neat piles and allowed to ripen. The smell of ground mustard and spices for pickles would suffuse the whole house which would be waiting in anticipation of little girls and boys who had once frolicked in these precincts, to come back as adults with their own young ones in tow.

As the families would arrive one by one, in horse driven carts and rickshaws our household would to be in frenzy to welcome them. My bedridden grandmother, dressed in her special saree, would haul herself up and sit in her special chair facing the main doorway, to welcome all her beloved grandchildren. One by one they would come and touch her feet and she would raise them, plant a toothless kiss on their cheeks and give them sweets.

I would be perched besides my grandma, waiting impatiently for one special cousin of mine to arrive – my pretty cousin sister, Supriya. Supriya was only one who was closest to me in age. Being the youngest child of grandma’s youngest son, I was much smaller in age to all my cousins, so, they would either bully me or neglect me completely. Supriya was the only one whom I could play with and since then we have shared a special bond that has lasted throughout our lives.

A peachy white complexion, a thick mane of curly hair, blue eyes and the softest of skins, Supriya is one of the prettiest girls I have ever seen. She is an extremely friendly, talented, jovial and outgoing person. But Supriya is quiet. Not because she wants to be like that, but because she has no choice. Supriya, like one of her older brothers, is hearing impaired from birth.

Supriya has had to deal with one of the worst misfortunes in life, but she has faced it with remarkable courage. I have never felt sorry for her, not once, because she has never felt sorry for herself. From a very young age, she has been full of confidence and has been fiercely independent. She has never considered herself inferior to anyone and that is what I have always admired about her.

What she could not do with her mouth, she has learned to do with her eyes and hands. With her, I have learned the language of the hearing impaired and have been awestruck by the depth of thought that can be communicated using only your eyes and signs. There is so much that can be said and heard in a non verbal communication, only if you are willing to listen.

Even when we were young, I never had a problem communicating with her. We used to play and chase each other throughout the old house, giggle and laugh and even fight with each other all the time like children do.

Our favorite game was teaching her to speak. She had learned a new technique to simulate voices. Though she could not hear, she would ask me to talk and put her hand on my throat to sense the vibrations. Then she would try to repeat the same words by putting her hand on her own throat and see if she could replicate the vibrations. Though it was not perfect, it would be close enough. When “Supriya” would come out from her mouth as “Gupika”, I would giggle and she would laugh with me and we would repeat the exercise. I would say “Suuuuu Prrrrriiiii Yaaaaa” and she would repeat, sincerely, “Guuuu Piiiiii Kaaaa” and both of us would be rolling in laughter, again.

After I turned six, our family moved out of Wai and traveled abroad. I did not see Supriya for a long time. She was growing up in Alibaug, a quaint little town by the western coast of India. After a few years we went back to India and settled in Pune and around the same time, Supriya’s family moved to Pune as well. When I saw her again, Supriya had grown up to be a beautiful teenager, and I was still a gawky twelve years old. We were awkward in each other’s company in the beginning, but soon became friends again. Surprisingly, I could still communicate with her effortlessly, and we still understood each other perfectly.

Our school had a special section for the hearing impaired and Supriya had enrolled in the program. Since we went to the same school, I would see her every day. She was extremely outgoing and fun loving and made a lot of friends in school. In fact, my classmates were more of her friends than mine. Since I was a shy child, I would be amazed to see her always surrounded by people. In fact, she had gotten almost half the school talking in sign language and they all loved to talk to her.

Since she was older than me, she took it upon herself to mentor me and would try to coach me in the ways of a woman. She would tell me, ‘don’t do this, don’t do that, do this and do that’ and I would be frustrated with her bullying but loved her nevertheless. In the vacations I would go to stay at Supriya’s place or she would come to ours and we would chat into the night about our dreams and aspirations and also our latest crush. Supriya would tell me that she wanted to study hard so that when she grows up, she could fly abroad.

Sometimes she would take me to her group meeting. I would be delighted to meet the incredible group of extremely talented, beautiful and proud people engaged in animated discussions in sign language to the exclusion of the entire world. In the beginning they would scoff at me, but soon started accepting me as one of them. They would talk so fast that I would sometimes find it difficult to follow the conversation. Then one of them would slowly and patiently explain to me what was going on, until I understood. Handicap is such a relative thing!

By the time Supriya completed high school, I was in college. She wanted to go to college herself, but unfortunately there was no facility that would train her with her handicap. She would ask me over and over about college and be fascinated by all the things that I told her. She had started getting worried about her future and would ask me sometimes if she would ever get married, if she would have a good life. I would comfort her telling her everything would be alright and for a girl like her, nothing was impossible.

She was worried but she was never bitter. She had accepted herself for what she was. Over the years she has learned to reach out to people, but had also learned to stay quiet when appropriate. She had learned that not all conversations were for her to follow and that she should not ask what people around her were talking to each other. Earlier, she would be curious and wanted to know what everyone was saying. As she grew up, she sensed that people would be reluctant to explain to her and they would avoid her because they found it difficult to talk to her. She soon learned valuable rules of life – never become a liability and position yourselves where you are needed the most. This allowed her to mingle amongst people without making them uncomfortable in her presence.

Supriya got married soon after I did, and went to a small village in Konkan. There she started working in a school for the hearing impaired. Her husband, who is hearing impaired also, works in the Konkan Railways. They have a small but thriving household.

A few years ago, she gave birth to a pretty little girl, Veda. Veda has difficulty hearing but is not totally impaired. To help her with the problem by giving speech therapy early on, Supriya has been staying at her brother’s place in the city as this facility is not available in her village. Veda is improving and picking up more words than her mother did in her entire life.

Nature is still cross with Supriya, but she has not given up. Supriya is still fighting her lifelong battle with nature, at a times winning and at a times making peace with it.

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