Deaf in Delhi: A Memoir
By Madan Vasishta
[pgs. 15-18, 23-24, 112-114, 157-159, 211-215, and 220. Used by permission from Gallaudet University Press © 2006]
[Note: Born in India, Madan Vasishta became Deaf at the age of 11].
Looking for Cures
"While Babuji [my father]was checking on doctors, hakeems (physicians who practiced a Greco-Persian form of medicine), and vaids, other members of the family were busy finding "better" cures.
My Bhu Parvati, Babuji's younger sister, was a very religious woman. Everything in the world, according to her, happened according to the pre-written will of Rama or Krishna or Vishnu or Shiva---the four major Hindu gods. Her faith in her gods was inimitable and unshakable...
Bhu Parvati strongly believed that my deafness was caused by my lack of respect for various gods. I had read Ramayana and Mahabharta epics when I was only ten years old and was convinced that neither Rama nor Krishna were bona fide gods. Bhu Parvati used to cover her ears when I would try to argue my theory about the gods....
...She wanted to make sure that I made amends for my transgression so I would be forgiven. She was as sure as the sun rises that I would regain my hearing if I asked for forgiveness...
[A holy man or sadhus who lived in a cave next to an old temple near his home, called Gurkha Baba was called].
Gurkha Baba..."was a well-built young man who dressed only in a langoti, which closely resembles thong bikini underwear. Gurkha Baba's langoti was a thong tied around his waist, which held a two-inch-wide strop of cloth that went from front to back between his legs. His whole body was covered with white ash, as was the practice of many holy men in India. Even in winter, when the temperature went down to forty degrees and all of us wore woolen sweaters, Gurkha Baba walked around only in his langoti. His immunity to cold won people's respect for him as a man of God. I, along with other kids in the village, used to make fun of Gurkha Baba. No wonder he did not like me. .."
...Bhua Parvati brought Gurkha Baba to our home. He sat there in front of my bed, erect on a child with his left foot crossed over his right knee holding the trishul (a three pronged speak that many sadhus carried as a symbol of Shiva) in his right hand. His eyes were very serious, and he did look graceful-almost holy. No wonder Bhu Parvati and Bhabhi [my mother] sat there looking at him with their hands clasped in abeyance. I knew if we were both alone, I would have made some smart remarks and he would have threatened me. Here, we were acting very civilized to each other, and I did not want to exasperate Bhua Parvati and Bhabhi.
Bhua motioned for me to touch his feet, which I did with an exaggerated motion. He blessed me, matching my exaggeration. While I lay there, Bhua and Bhabhi took turns explaining something to him while pointing toward me. Gurkha Baba listened with great earnestness and then closed his eyes and began to mumble something. Bhabhi and Bhua also closed their eyes in respect to the great saint's efforts to bless me. I tried my best to hide a smile, as I believed Gurkha Baba, behind his faHade of prayers, must have been thinking, "serves he little brat right."
With the prayer over, Gurkha Baba dug his hand into the small cloth bag that hung from his shoulder. He produced a small packet made of old newspaper, unwrapped it, and took out some white ash between his thumb and index finger. Bhua Parvati stood up and hurriedly made me get both my palms open so I could receive the hold ash. He put a pinch of ash in my palm and applied some of it with his thumb to my forehead...knowing what was expected of me, I licked the ash from my palm and moved it around my tongue and swallowed it. Gurkha Baba gave the ash to both ladies and applied it to their foreheads. They both touched his feet with great respect and prayed with their eyes closed.
After he left, I got mad at Bhua Parvati and told her that Gurkha Baba was nothing but a thug, who was too lazy to work and was leading a nice life fooling people. Both Bhabhi and Bhua Parvati were upset and asked me not to be sacrilegious. They pointed to my ears and toward Heaven, explaining that God will cure me.
'God does not need a Gurkha as a middle man to help me,' I declared. 'If God wants to make me hearing, he would do it without that faker.' They got exasperated and I went to sleep.
...Needless to say, I received some admonition from Babuji that night for being disrespectful to a holy man. I quietly read as he traced words on his palm and said, 'OK!'
In Gagret, a son never disagrees with his father; he just obeys. I did."
* * * * * *
"The 'treatment' for my deafness did not stop with the holy men and miracle workers. There were other "remedies" that ranged from harmless fun to pure physical discomfort bordering on torture. I submitted to these hoping against hope that something might work or just because I had nothing to do or did not want to insult the person perpetrating the torment, as they all wished well.
My eldest sister Brahmi was a firm believer in home remedies and considered doctors and other licensed practitioners as nothing more than adventurers looking to take your money. It was ironic that her family later produced no less than five doctors. Of course, she always ignored their advice saying "you go give medical advice to people who are stupid enough to pay you."
Sister Brahmi learned from an older lady how deafness can be cured by steam from milk. She had to, of course, invent her own system for introducing steam from boiling milk into my ears. A makeshift arrangement with consultation with other ladies was made.
Milk in villages is cooked slowly to form a thick layer of malia, which becomes the base for making butter. A large black pot called a dudhunu is used for first boiling and later simmering the milk. Sister Brahmi positioned the dudhunu on the burning coals in a launda (a large bowl used for feeding cattle) under my cot. After moving the dhurrie [a mat] and bed sheet aside from above the twine mesh which was knitted to form the "mattress" in the cot, she made a small hole in the yarn that formed the support for the bed.
After establishing this setup for her operation, she positioned my head over the hole in the yarn---right above the steaming dudhunu. She blew at the coals to increase the boiling and steam poured from the dudhunu.
The warm steam felt good on my cold ears at first, but soon it became uncomfortable. People gathered to see the miracle happen, and their presence did not help to reduce my discomfort. I would pull my ear away from the hole in the yarn each time the steam became uncomfortably hot. The kids and ladies gathered around would encourage me to keep my ear there in order to make the steam do its magic. I tried to oblige them but it was really hot. Then I would be asked to change side so the other ear could be subjected to the torture.
After each treatment, which lasted about half an hour, everyone standing or sitting around me would take turns yelling into my ears to see whether or not my hearing had improved. It was not the most scientific audiometric test, and my responses varied. Sometimes, I was convinced that I could hear better mostly because of the volume of the 'tester's' voice or the distance of the speaker's mouth from my ear. There would be an expression of delight, hand-clapping by ladies, and jumping by the kids each time I professed to hear better. Plans to decrease the time between treatments, increase the treatment time, and make the heat produce more steam were discussed and implemented. This went on for the whole month on a daily basis and ended abruptly when Sister Brahmi had to return to Kuriala, the village where her in-laws lived. Additionally, the inconsistency of my response to the audiological tests indicated that either my deafness was fluctuating or the benefits short term.
Needless to say, I was relived when this ended, as I was sure after the first treatment that it did not help at all. However, I loved my sister and knew she genuinely believed in the possibility of me being cured by the steam. I did not have any other activities with which to entertain myself either."
Making Deaf Friends
"Our class of three grew to five then six. One of the new students was Kesh Kumar. His name sign was 'cheek.' When he was young, his cheeks were always red, hence the name. Kesh was a very good-looking guy and very funny. He could communicate with me and was an excellent mime. Soon we became good friends. Another new student was Raj Kishore. He was also very good looking with curly hair and very light skin. His name sign was 'lifting-the-hat,' which means 'British.' He could have passed for a European, especially in winter because he was so pale.
With the arrival of Kesh Kumar, my time at the PID [Photographic Training Institute for the Deaf] became more interesting. He was a ball-and-a-half of fun and very creative. He was impressed to learn that I was a high school graduate and could write in English, in addition to Hindi, Urdu, Punjabi, and Sanskrit. He proudly called himself "illiterate" by putting his right thumb first on his lips and then pressing it on his open left palm indicating the way illiterate people signed their names on legal papers-by making a thumb impression. He could tell the difference between Urdu and Hindi because Urdu was written from right to left, but could no discern written Punjabi from Hindi or Sanskrit. "That writing stuff is for hearing people," he said.
Illiterate or not, Kesh was bright. He could make up a joke in no time. Everything was a joke to him, and I loved to match wits with him. Soon we became inseparable and the others began to leave us alone or rather Kesh would shoo them away.
It was from Kesh that I learned to communicate in sighs effectively. Kesh could communicate with anyone-deaf or hearing. One incident that really impressed me occurred when we were talking to an American artist in a coffee house.
Kesh had a number of hearing friends, and one of them was a painter. One day, this painter brought a visiting American painter to the coffeehouse with him. Kesh and I frequented the coffeehouse as the food was cheap and the atmosphere bohemian. Of course, Kesh and I did not know what a bohemian atmosphere was; we just liked it.
That day, Kesh's painter friend was sitting with the visiting American painter and several other artists who were more interested in the American than painting. Kesh and I joined them, and someone ordered coffee for us. One benefit of being deaf is that someone always orders coffee for you. Darshan, Kesh's painter friend, introduced us to everyone. He pointed toward us and told them who we were, or so it seemed, and then pointed to each the people sitting around the table and said their names with exaggerated lip movements. We did not understand any of the names as we could not lipread, but we smiled and shook our heads at each introduction.
'He,' Darshan pointed at the American painter and said, 'America.' We understood. Darshan told the American painter about Kesh. Both Kesh and I could tell from his hand and body movements that he was explaining how Kesh was a professional classical dancer and how he was a funny guy. The American painter beamed. Kesh asked me to talk for him, and I voiced, 'He wants to tell you a story.'
The American painter kept smiling. Kesh started miming slowly about his being a painter (pointing at him and miming painting) and painting a woman (moving his hands indicating a woman with an hourglass figure). Then he pointed at various parts of his face---eyes, nose, chin-and made painting movements. At the end, he pointed to his lips and vigorously shook his index finger indicating a firm 'no.' Then he mimed taking out lipstick, painting his lips, and then kissing an imaginary easel firmly. Everybody burst out laughing.
That is how Kesh communicated and associated with people. He was full of confidence and walked with an air of owning the world. He did not have any money, but had a wealth of talent that gave him confidence few people---hearing or deaf---have. Opposite him, I felt like a village idiot and was afraid to talk to anyone. Being with him, though, gave me a lot of courage. It seemed strange that I, as one of the highest educated people in Delhi, was learning a lot about life from a self proclaimed illiterate deaf guy."
Adventures in signing
...After a day's work, Kesh and I were on a bus having a nice time chatting. The bus was crowded, and we had to stand in the aisle, holding onto straps attached to the ceiling railing. This meant we had to sign with one hand; however, we kept signing, or rather Kesh kept signing with me nodding or smiling as the situation demanded. He was telling me a funny story that he had invented just then. He was using his talent as a mime to make the story even more interesting.
Kesh was too engrossed in his storytelling to notice, but I saw that everyone sitting on the bus was staring at us. At first I ignored it, but then I began to feel uncomfortable with more than fifty pairs of eyes gazing at us. Kesh noticed my expression and, being very observant, figured out the cause. He told me to ignore them. Then, seeing I was not paying full attention to his story, he decided to do something to eliminated the competition.
"I know you do not like people staring at us. Do you want me to stop them?" he asked.
'How?" I asked. 'Are you going to throw them out of the bus or order them to stop looking at us?'
"Watch me." His fertile mind had thought up some plan and I began to worry.
Without any warning, Kesh pointed out the window with the expression of having seen a ghost. He kept looking there for a few seconds as the bus passed the area he was pointing to. I got concerned and looked outside, following the direction of his pointed finger. There was nothing unusual to be seen, and looked back at Kesh, who winked at me and continued his story.
I noticed that our audience had followed Kesh's cue, just like me, and all of them were looking outside the bus. Of course, there was nothing to see, and they guessed that they had missed seeing the scary thing and went back to watching the show the two deaf guys were staging in the aisle.
A few minutes later, Kesh again pointed out the window with great fear on his face; but this time, he pointed toward the other side of the bus. The whole bus looked in that direction and Kesh continued his story. I began to smile at his antics. Some of the members of our audience muttered something to their neighbors and went back to staring at us.
At that point, Kesh suddenly jumped and pointed at the floor of the bus with eyes bulging in fear, as if he had seen a snake there. People quickly looked at the floor in fear. Some even stood up to get a better view. Kesh had already resumed his story as if nothing had happened.
It must have dawned on most of the passengers that Kesh was pulling a trick on them. They began to talk to each other. Some smiled in amusement and some looked offended; however, all stopped looking at us. They were either looking outside or examining their hands or staring at the back of the passenger sitting ahead of them.
During the rest of the journey, everyone on the bus ignored us."
Arriving in America
Two days later, after an overnight layover in London [from New Delhi], I arrived in America.
.....Up until then, I had envisioned America as being populated by cowboys trotting on their sorrels and pintos through the purple sage and mesquite.
The bus (from the airport) dropped me in D.C. at 12th Street, N.W., and I then faced the task of finding my way to Gallaudet. I tried to talk to people like I always did in India, but found no one who understood me. My heavy Gagret accent made my speech unintelligible to the Americans. A huge black porter was helpful. He asked me to write down my questions and he wrote back answers. In India, hearing I was understood there. I never had to write to express myself. This was anew experience, Hearing people in America did not understand my speech. I had never heard English spoken, especially by an American; therefore, I had no idea, and still do not, how American's sound when they speak.
...I had practiced the American Manual Alphabet on the plane and felt very comfortable with my speed. ...(after entering the Gallaudet camps) I saw about thirty students milling around, signing to each other with the speed of lightning. ..I stood with my Air India hand bag at my feed and gaped at the students who were signing so fast. I could not understand even one word...
...The students ignored me totally, and I wondered if I was invisible. In India, the arrival of a stranger is a big event. A student from another country would have been surrounded by people and questioned about where he was from and what he was doing. I knew I needed to get some assistance.
.....Finally, I did succeed in getting the attention of two pretty girls who passed close to me. They were very helpful. One of them asked me if I was from India by pointing to my Air India bag. Then the second girl asked me something I could not understand. She then wrote on her notebook, 'Are you a freshman or prep?' I did not know which one I was. Worse still, I did not know what a prep or freshman was. Our attempt at conversation got the attention of a bespectacled male student. The three consulted with each other, and then the male student motioned for me to follow him. I waived to the two girls and followed my benefactor.
He wrote on paper that his name was Godsay, and that he was from Florida. 'Where are you from?' he wrote. I pointed at the Air India bag, and he nodded his head in understanding.
We walked to Fowler Hall, which was the dorm for boys in the preparatory department. I learned that students who were weak in English or mathematics spent 1 year in such departments. My guide introduced me to a short but muscular man. They exchanged words with their fingers and hands flying to and fro. I still could not understand what was being said. When they were done, the muscular man handed me a key along with a pillow case and two bed sheets. Godsay led me to a room-his own-on the fourth floor and helped me make one of the beds. I have never seen, much less used, a mattress before and was grateful for his help. Later, he showed me where the bathroom was, and I changed into my sleeping suit, slowly got into the bed, and passed out. I slept for 12 hours.
The next morning when I woke up, Godsay was in the room, sitting in a chair. He smiled when he saw I was awake and signed, 'Eat.' I was indeed hungry. I took a hurried shower and dressed in my suit and the tie. Godsay, who was dressed in a T-shirt and shorts, did not say anything. He was a very understanding guy.
My visit to the Gallaudet cafeteria was a revelation. The stainless steel equipment and floors were so clean, they amazed me. However, what really got my attention was the number of machines that dispensed Coke, three kinds of fruit juices, and milk. You could fill you glass with all the milk or any other drink you wanted. In India, you were given measured amounts of everything, and you didn't ask for seconds. I had read in history books how rivers of milk used to flow in ancient India; however, I had not read that there were countries like American where these rivers were still flowing. I knew the United States was a wealthy nation, but reading about prosperity is not enough. You have to experience prosperity to really understand it; just as you have to experience poverty to understand it.
.....My friend from Florida was a patience guy and fingerspelled words slowly for me or wrote on paper to explain things. After breakfast, he showed me around the campus, introducing me to students he knew. I had met many Americans in India; they were all "Americans." Here, however, they were not from America; they were from Florida, California, New York or other states! Of course, I was from India; nobody asked about Himachal Pradesh or Punjab."
* * * * * *
...Perhaps my son Dheeraj was right when he said, "Daddy, you were lucky to become deaf." Deafness did open new doors for me, and I used them to arrive where I am now.