A small step for you, a giant step for me!
Book by: sherwin Court
The days were getting longer and the nights shorter. The cocks perhaps were the ones affected most by this seasonal phenomena. The nocturnal creatures had a shorter time to stay active whereas the diurnal ones, like ourselves had to adapt to be being awake for longer than we’d care to. For the destitute and unwanted without a roof over their heads it was as if living in hell, so it was no surprise to find that many of the families had packed and left for cooler pastures, hill stations namely, Mussoorie, Nainital, Shimla and Manali which were suddenly flooded with a deluge of migrants from their neighbouring plains. Owners of hotels and resorts in these places were charging three to four times the normal fees, and like good entrepreneurs they fleeced all and sundry. Everything the tourist requested for was delivered, but at hefty prices. The power of money being impressive, displayed the comforts and luxuries it could provide in these small hill stations. While there were reports by the media of the increasing number of people dying due to the intensive heat wave that had swept almost the entire northern plains in various cities and urban development’s on the other hand visitors to the hill stations were busy shopping in these holiday spots buying leather jackets to comfort themselves from the unaccustomed and uncomfortable cold.
Like other diurnal creatures we too had to make adjustments and thereby make adaptions to situations in order to beat the heat. We had to be alert to the electricity going off in order to switch off all the electrical appliances that we could live without for some time. At times we’d collect in one room so that all the other fans and coolers could be switched off. It was necessary to do so for there were times there would be no supply of electricity from the corporation for hours on end rendering the inverter incapable of generating electricity and also incapable of recharging its batteries. The indeed became white elephants!
All signboards, hoardings and commercial advertisement spaces in the various forms of media carried the message propagated by the ruling party in India so much that every citizen could not help but see it. The message was ‘India Shining’ a publicity statement for political mileage in a bid to make the entire population to notice and recognize India to possess a booming economy, which was part of their propaganda to seek voters from as many voters as possible. Unfortunately, I did not buy this message for as far as I was concerned the only truth in the statement was that the sun was shining with such ferocity that many people over northern India, were dying by the dozens. If this was India of the twenty first century I could not imagine what it must have been a decade ago, leave alone a century back.
All the plans which we had made of going to Bangalore before my traumatic experience with the teacher and our premature exit from school went up the spout. Our flight tickets which were so difficult to procure in the first place now had to be cancelled. Then, apologies had to be offered to our expectant relatives out there who had themselves not made alternative plans owing to our expected stay with them. Thankfully, they were very understanding about the entire matter. They even offered to help get us into a school in New Delhi as the owner of one of the schools there was a close relative of theirs. Dad thanked them, but declined their kind offer as the school they were discussing was too far away from our residence to commute to and from on a daily basis.
Mom too, who had managed to secure leave from her office by staying in late every day for almost a fortnight had to suddenly inform her boss that she would not be availing of the leave after all. Her boss was thrilled on receiving the news and promptly grabbed the opportunity with both hands by going on leave himself. He went with his wife to Hawaii as part of a package tour, which of course he was gifted by some travel agent. So, while he was soaking up the sun, surf and sea mom would be absorbing up all the work and the pressures of the office that came with it.
My hands had almost healed except for a few bruises on my knuckles. A grim reminder of why our lives had been turned upside down. I couldn’t help but blame myself for putting the entire family through all this misery. Had I only been more attentive that day we would have been enjoying ourselves in Bangalore instead of being stuck at home. Mom would also have enjoyed the break which she so richly deserved and rightly earned. I felt so guilty for being the reason dad was jobless and my brothers were being deprived of the wonderful friendships they shared with their loyal friends. God, I was such a loser in life, such a useless brother and most of all, such an embarrassment to my parents!
The entire month was traumatic as we were not able to gain admission into any school, either I would fail to reach the required standard for admission into these prestigious institutions or the development fee as it is termed by the Heads of these institutions was way beyond my parents reach. Dad in this period was not able to find a job to his liking and so was rather despondent, and despite his attempt to show that there was nothing to worry about, we knew him to well to know that it was just an act. He was and is an ambitious man and father who wanted to be the provider for the family. There were two birthdays to celebrate that month, my elder sibling’s and mine which were held with as much enthusiasm, enjoyment and entertainment as was in previous years. The outside world would never have believed that we were in any sort of anxiety.
We were a family of optimists and firm believers of the power of positive thinking. Dad’s favourite line to us was from the poem, ‘Ode to the West Wind’, by P.B. Shelley – “If Winter comes, can Spring be far behind?” Mom used to say, “When you hit rock bottom there is only one way left to go, and that is up”. They used to preach that worrying did not solve anything; it was planning and implementation of the plan that would solve a problem. Worries only bred more problems and problems led to worries. The motto of their lives was not to see something as a problem but as a hurdle that needed to be crossed and well if the hurdle was too high to cross or jump over one merely could merely walk around it. These words of encouragement or advice were my North Star. They led me to reach whatever success I did gain, later on in life.
At this stage in my life there were certainly obstacles that stared me in the face as large as life itself. How would I cope if my hearing loss worsened and the world became quieter? How would I feel about being unable to talk to friends on the phone, interact with uncomprehending strangers, or enjoy music? Would I need to curtail my travel and speaking engagements? These activities which every other human takes for granted and which perhaps never ever crosses their minds, were the food for thought for me.
I had never heard the wonderful sound made by the cicada, active and alert at night when all others are asleep, or the happy chirping of birds that wake you up early in the morning reminding you of the harmonious bonding man shared with nature. I’d never been disturbed by the sound of the inverter or the ticking of a clock. I’d heard heavy stomping of feet, nor even the soft rhythmic tapping of them. I guess there were thousands of sounds which I had never heard, the sounds that you all hear but don’t care to pay attention to. Mine is a quiet world and as one deaf person described it, “Like living inside a glass jar and seeing but not hearing others who are outside the jar. My world was a complete contrast to your wavering and ambiguous world.
I needed to find a solution to overcome this dilemma in which found myself. It would certainly take a long time to overcome this one and would not heal as fast as the injuries that I had received. This injury was psychological and would scar me mentally, perhaps for life. Whatever I did in future was all dependent on how fast I allowed myself to adapt to the new scenarios that would encounter in the future. I needed to not be judgmental of the teachers whom I would come across in future. I had already learned that one swallow did not make a summer nor were all five fingers alike. Like the enlightened, Gautam Buddha I had found a solution – to focus on what I was good at and use that talent to gain respect and with it my acceptance by society. I had a gift as many people label it – the gift to read people’s lips.
As I was focusing on my road ahead and how the cobbled way seemed much smoother and sure footed, my dad’s road also seemed to be defining its path ahead, for him. He was suddenly called up for a job interview and he was highly optimistic, putting him in a pretty upbeat mood.
The day of the interview arrived and suddenly the skies became overcast, a fresh cool breeze blew and then suddenly there was this loud burst of thunder and for one terrifying moment it seemed as if the sky had collapsed. The dogs, Lassie and Rover ran and hid under my bed. It was such a scene watching them running like frightened chickens and then almost wrestle each other for a place under the bed. We were so highly amused that we laughed almost in chorus. The breeze decided to stop blowing allowing the smell of fresh, moist earth to fill the air. A little later the first drops of rain fell onto the soil hardened, parched earth. Then, barely a moment later to everyone’s joy and answer to their prayers, the Heavens opened up. This brought the entire population of Gurgaon; the young, the old and even the lame came hurtling out of their homes and into the streets. Warring neighbours and feuding brothers forgot all their grievances as they reveled together while friends and family members holding hands and singing happy Bollywood songs of rain. As long as the rain poured there was that unfamiliar feeling of brotherhood that one had the privilege to witness.
The rains lashed the city for almost half an hour resulting in floods all over the city and highlighted the shoddy work done by the Local Corporations and Municipal Boards as almost the entire city was brought to a grinding halt. Fortunately, for office goers it was the day off as it was the Sabbath Day. Mothers of school-going children had nothing to worry about as all the schools were closed, owing to it being vacations.
Dad who was never one to believe in superstitions and omens suddenly surprised us all when he said, “The rains this morning is a sign of our luck changing for the better, God has just sent us showers of blessings.” “Maybe it is, as your father sees it. We could all do with the Lord’s blessings”, said mom in an excited manner. “I’m no soothsayer and I possess no crystal balls that predict the future but I have this gut feeling, this sort of voice inside me telling me that it’s our turn, now”, said dad with so much conviction and self-belief that we couldn’t help but believe him.
Dad left for the interview along with mom. Dad often admitted to us that mom was his lucky charm and that things in his life changed positively since the day they first lay eyes on one another. It was therefore expected that mom would be tagged along by him as the interview was a very important one. He said before leaving, “With God on one side and your mom on the other even the Devil can’t stop me from getting this job!” Mom added “I’ll phone you when dad’s turn comes so that you can keep your fingers crossed”.
The job would no doubt entail life changing decisions to be taken as we would have to shift base to Nainital, a small, but popular hill station in northern India and about three hundred and twenty odd kilometers from where we were. It was approximately an eight hour drive from the national capital. There were a number of issues to be sorted out and prime was the issue of what mom would do. It would be cruel to ask her to give up her job for not only was it very lucrative, but also a very prestigious one. Expecting her to even consider such a proposition was unfathomable almost as unfathomable as the sinking of the Titanic, before it actually did sink.
After what seemed a considerably long time a car could be seen drive up resulting in the tree of us running to the balcony hoping it was our Ferrari red, Fiat Palio, car. We were thrilled to discover that it was! Mom was carrying some bags in her hands and one of which we recognized to be of McDonald’s. I was not sure what made us happier, seeing them or the bag which we recognized. It was typical of mom to bring us something whenever she returned home, but it was an unexpected surprise this time as she had gone with dad on serious business.
After we had eaten all the burgers and French Fries in the bags and had thrown the empty packets into the refuse can did the discussions on the interview start. We had asked them how it went and mom said, “Not too well, not as expected,” and she looked dejected. This made me and my brothers feel really bad for dad; I wondered how much longer his patience would hold up.
I guess the depressed look on our faces was too much for her to endure for suddenly she shouted, “Your father got the job!”
We were elated and felt over the moon with joy! We ran to dad and hugged him, all three of us throwing our arms around his waist. The smile on his face accompanied with the glow in his brown eyes was worth a pound of gold. The two dogs who were comfortably sitting and listening to everything that was said also started barking excitedly, “Woof, woof”, and began wagging their tails as if they knew what all the excitement was about.
“There’s more good news! Anyone cares to hear?”
I didn’t think anything could be better than all that we had heard, but sure we wanted to hear, I was curious to know what else was in store, “I want to hear”, we shouted almost in one voice.
“I too have been offered a position in the school and I have decided to join your dad, there”, she declared excitedly.
“That’s really awesome news which you both have given us today!” is what I said.
“Does that mean you will work only during the school time and then will be free to spend all your time with us; is that what you’re saying?” my elder sibling asked my mom.
“Yes, my children that is exactly what I am saying and exactly the reason I took the decision of resigning from my present position. I feel I owe it to you all to spend time with you and bring you up. Asha has done a wonderful job all these years, but I feel too guilty of not being able to do more for you boys. I worry about you guys all the time. I wonder if you all have eaten well or not, whether you have had your baths, whether you are happy or depressed, all these things. I’m looking forward to being the best mom I could ever be to you guys. Do you all understand what I’m trying to tell you?” she enquired from us.
“Yes, mom and I’m very happy that you’ve taken this decision. From now on we will have you with us all the time and I am looking forward to that, most of all. Now, I’ve nothing to fear,” I said, without really understanding the gravity of her decision and the difference it would make to her life.
Later that night I asked mom if I could sleep with her, just for that one night and she replied that she would discuss it with dad and as luck was my friend that night, he agreed. He further added, “Why don’t both you boys sleep with mom on our bed and I will sleep with your younger brother in your beds, how’s that for an idea?”
“Game on dad, game on; that sounds like another great decision you have made tonight! You’re sure learning fast, old man!” I said with a mischievous grin on my small face.
“‘Game on! Young man! You’re sure sounding a lot more confident about yourself. Good to see that! Well I guess we’ll see each other in the morning”, he declared.
“Good night dad”, I said.
“Good night, my son”, came his reply.
A short time later my elder sibling joined us on the bed. His biological clock did not permit him to stay awake after nine, so much so, that he was called, ‘The nine o’clock child’ by all of us.
The effect of his biological clock worked in my favour for it meant I would have mom all to myself, which was what I wanted, more than anything, at present.
That night was one that I held precious for having been assured of mom’s commitment to me and my brothers I told her all that was on my mind. How I felt about school, about my hearing impairment and about life at large. I had been carrying these fears and these pent up emotions for a very, very long time and I guess my small chest could not carry the burden anymore. I needed to get rid of as much of the load as I possibly could in order for me to breathe easier. It was that night when my emotions erupted like an active volcano.
I clambered into the car which was already filled with my parents, two siblings and Rover, the dog. There was a slight chill in the air which caused the hair on my limbs to stand. “Roll up the window or you’ll catch a cold”, said mom. The sky was grey and the moon now, stationary, would soon move away, just like me and my family. The headlights of the car created shadowy monsters on the walls. I tried not to look at them. I searched beyond them; to capture the images of my home and all the homes of my friends, the homes in which I had spent had so many hours. I wanted time to freeze and the car to stop so that I could capture it all. I did not blink till we were outside the colony gates. I felt like a fledgling leaving its nest on its first ever flight, both happy and sad at the same time.
Dad had made the decision to leave this early in the morning as he wanted to hit the Highway as early as possible so that he could avoid having to negotiate between vehicle, humans and dogs and cows which would fill the streets of Delhi, later on. The streets of Delhi was a place of mayhem during the day, with loud honking of cars resembling some sort of cheap marriage band accompanying the groom to his doom, and peddlers screaming at the top of their voices in a bid to attract dubious customers into purchasing their fake and cheap wares. Street urchins like swarms of flies harassed pedestrians or poked their dirty hair into every open car window. And judging from the sheer magnitude of cars on the roads it seemed as if cars were being offered free of cost to the people of this city. The producers of cars were surely busy, but happy people and though there were seminars and talks all around about global warming and its effects, the money coming in through the sales of these cars was only warming hearts of their producers. To be honest I too was feeling light hearted and happy to be enjoying the warmth of my car.
Dad was cruising and no doubt enjoying the almost unbelievable experience of driving on deserted roads. He made us aware of this by saying, “This is what it must feel like driving in Perth. My brothers often talk of the boredom they experience when driving there, but they don’t know how lucky they are.” Mom added, “Take a look at Delhi. Who knows if we will ever see it like this, ever again?” I did try to enjoy the view but soon my eyelids grew heavy as if they had worked hard to stay open with all the last minute packing and the farewell party that lasted late into the night . They showed me that they were in charge, by closing together. If that is what they wanted! That is what they got. Even Rover’s antics of moving about every now and then to everyone’s annoyance could not stir me from my position of rest. I got up only when I was awoken a few hours later, in the middle of nowhere to nourish my tired body and give dad’s stiff limbs a chance to allow some blood to circulate through its veins.
The sun was climbing in the sky and with it the mercury in the thermometers too. In another couple of hours it would be so hot that it would be the topic of everyone’s conversation. Dad turned on the air conditioner and soon moved the gears that caused the car to move forward once again. Now all locked in we were imprisoned in the car till Kathgodam, the last halt made by railway engines pulling bogies packed with people or heavy cargo, where we would made our final halt before making the ascent to the hills; our destination.
At Kathgodam I sauntered out, to purchase a packet of wafers along with mom. Quite near the railway station was a post office. An old man sat outside the post office, squatting very low on his haunches. He sat very still, staring ahead with calm, empty eyes. Even in his tattered attire there was something stately about this old man. When he saw me looking at him he smiled, a friendly and caring smile, one I hadn’t seen on a stranger’s face in a long time. I took the packet of biscuits from my shirt pocket and gave it to him. He refused my offer and with a smile that distorted the wrinkles on his face into different geometric patterns, said something in Hindi, which I obviously did not understand. Mom had caught up with us. She had been watching and listening to all that had being taking place. She took out a few currency notes from her handbag and offered it to the man. He held a short conversation with my mom which sort of set off a stampede of sorts as suddenly as if from nowhere people were jostling to get a glimpse of mom and the old man. I thought that if the conversation went on a little longer perhaps the media would land up. I tugged mom’s hand and said, “Mom, dad is calling us”. He was not, but I said so, as the attention we were getting was frightening and embarrassing.
“You can roll down the windows, there’s no need for the air conditioner any more. It’s going to get cold and will getter colder, the higher we climb,” dad said, once we were all back in the vehicle. Then as we started moving Shannon said to dad “Is it true that Amitabh Bacchan studied in Nainital, dad?”
“Yes, he studied in Sherwood College, which located just behind where we are going to live. Field Marshal, Sam Manekshaw is also one of the alumni of the college,” he added..
“Ever heard of him?” dad looked at mom and winked, mischievously.
Mom twisted her mouth and gave him such a look that we all burst out laughing. Rover too, joined in as if he too understood. by barking, “wuf, wuf, wuf.” Mom said, “Keep your eyes on the road and not on me or we’ll end up on Sam’s field.
There was complete silence for miles and miles. “How can anyone live in such silence?”Shannon remarked. His thoughtless inference struck me like a bolt of lightning for this silent world, was the only world I knew.
“Welcome to my world, Shannon,” I said sarcastically.
“I’m sorry, I didn’t mean it that way, it’s just that I’ve never experienced it being so quiet at this part of the day,” he replied, apologetically.
It seemed as if it was getting colder with each kilometer of ascent and the air seemed to get thinner and like a Jew I started inhaling as much as I could. I started developing goose flesh and so I took a sweater which mom had taken out and kept ready for us, during our stoppage at Kathgodam. It was supposed to be summer, and here I was feeling cold, almost freezing. I wondered if I was the only one feeling so cold and so asked no one in particular, “Are you too feeling the cold?”
“Of course, we are. We’re not rhinos you know?” Shannon took the liberty of answering for everyone.
I was about to respond to him when dad said, “Cut it out, it’s cold now and let me inform you that it will remain like this for the rest of the year. Get used to it. Now at least I won’t have any more complaints about the heat, henceforth”.
Mom displayed her motherly instincts; that of understanding our boredom and feeling of being caged with hardly any space to even maneuver our tired feet leave alone move about. She took out a brochure on Nainital and began reading it aloud.
“Mom, look at me, so that I can see you speaking,” I said emphatically.
“Nainital is a town in the Indian state of Uttarakhand and headquarters of Nainital district in the Kumaon foothills of the outer Himalayas. It is situated at an altitude of 1,938 metres (6,358 feet) above sea level. It is also known as a ‘Lake district of India’ and is like nature’s blessing for the state. The center of attraction of Nainital’s panoramic beauty is its ‘Naini Lake’. In the day light, mirrored in its waters stand seven proud hills, glittered with pretty cottages and villas. More beautiful than this however the lake looks at night when the glittering of bulbs from the hill sides and quite a large number hanging near the lake’s edge spread their magic light into its water. There are also opportunities for yachting, boating & paddling that make it equally interesting at daytime”.
“Look ahead, there, can you see it, the signpost? It says, ‘Welcome to Lake City’, we’re almost there,” said dad excitedly.
I craned my neck to look over mom’s shoulder, and then I saw it, in clear bold letters. “Yes, I see it,” I said reassuringly.
A few hundred meters on and we had arrived at the police office and the bus stand, the landmark that served as the entry into and out of the place. The streets were unpeopled and very clean. It was hard to imagine this same street swarming with people barely a month ago. The police check office bisected the street into two. The office itself was archaic red-bricked which resembled a pseudo-Renassiance office. The lake in front of us was enormously large and from where I was sitting I could not see the other end of it. The lake was responsible for the welfare of the entire community of hill dwellers who resided there. The house, the hotels the boatmen who ferried happy tourist across it all owed some sort of debt to this magnificent expanse of water that nature had so generously donated to these people. The lake looked after its people and the people looked after their lake. They shared a wonderful and healthy symbiotic relationship.
Dad put his foot on the brake pedal to stop the car to enable him to seek directions. A smart-looking cop appeared as if from thin air and poking his head into the window said, “Sir, can I help you, do you have a reservation? I can help you find one.”
“No thank you, I do not need a reservation but I would be happy if you could guide me to Graham’s School,” said dad.
He gestured with his hands and gave instructions that dad needed to follow. I recognized him say, “Do not leave the main road and you will come to it.” Dad thanked him and took the left turn as instructed by him. The man had said ‘main street’ and so I naturally expected to see a broad street and was taken aback to see only this one narrow street that was a little broader than what served as a service lane, back in Delhi. The place seemed unreal to me and an abstraction of a city, but there appeared something mystifying about it. It was way different from anything I had ever experienced in my short life. We took another right and began climbing to the top of the hill, passing St. Joseph’s College and the All Saints’ College. The former we were informed by dad was an all boys’ college while the latter was for the fairer gender.
“This road we are travelling on was only used by the British sahibs, when India was colonized,” said dad, seriously.
“And how would you know that?” mom asked.
“I should know for after all my grandfather was a British Sahib”, he replied.
“Next you will be telling us that your grandfather knew Mahatma Gandhi,” mom replied.
“Of course he knew Mahatma Gandhi, everybody knew Mahatma Gandhi. Don’t you even know the old man?” dad said humorously.
“That’s not what I meant”, mom said.
“I know, but honestly saying my grandfather did not know him, but he knew my old man,” said dad.
We were laughing at dad’s humour which unfortunately mom was in no mood to appreciate. I only hoped dad did not pursue this line of humour any longer as it could get out of hand. And talking of hands before we knew it we were a handshaking distance from our final destination. “There it is,” I squealed in delight. “We’ve come, finally!”
Dad blew the horn of the car which stimulated a diminutive-looking hill man to open the heavy, iron, gates and walk to us as if he were sleep walking. It’s when dad introduced himself to the man that he almost instantly was shaken to his senses and enthusiastically said in his thick Garhwali accent and smattering of English, “Principal waiting for you. He especting you family.” I understood that to mean, ‘expecting your family’. He pointed towards this massive building, which was freshly painted shiny white and gave off a sort of a gleam in the dim sunlight. The building looked like it was probably the property of some British sahib, that dad spoke of just a little while earlier because it had that distinct, Victorian architecture. Perhaps, the entire campus was the home of one or maybe more wealthy British families who had been charmed by the weather, tranquility, and the sheer beauty of this place.
I, like the rest of the family were happy to at last get out of our prison and stretch the aching muscles that must have wondered what they had done wrong to have been punished so severely. My legs, which were made for obviously and so graciously provided to me by the Almighty to aid me in my locomotion, made me aware of their frustration of not being used for the right purpose by falling off to sleep. They suddenly felt so heavy that it took a Herculean effort by me to lift them. I literally had to lift them with both hands, one by one and put them on the firm ground.
We had no difficulty in locating the Principal’s office which was at the entrance of the Victorian building. A peon opened the heavy, wooden door which suggested that the door like the rest of the building were built at the same time, over a hundred years ago and had withstood all the fury that nature had sprewed on it, and time as well.
The Principal, whom I and my brothers were meeting for the first time, immediately left whatever he was doing and came out from behind his heavy, well varnished mahogany table to meet us. He looked younger than my expectations, barely a few years older than dad. Either I was guessing correctly or else he had maintained himself extremely well, for he walked upright and briskly. He was casually dressed, being a holiday but suggested that he had a good taste and good dressing sense which are essential ingredients for personal grooming and distinguishable personality.
Mom nudged me and said softly, “Look at Sir’s face when he is speaking”.
I merely nodded in compliance to her order but couldn’t help noticing that the Principal had noticed what she had done and said. I felt a little irritated for I was not prepared for her action and utterance. I needed my time for people to come to terms with my impairment and I was not prepared to be the centre of the conversation and all that would follow as a result. I could best be described at this juncture of my life as a person who needed doors to be opened rather than to break them down.
“Welcome to Graham’s, we’ve all been waiting for you all. I hope you had a comfortable journey though I’m sure you all must be feeling tired and jaded.” He spoke clearly and slowly which was comforting for me.
Dad spoke on our behalf, “Thank you. We look forward to a happy and long stay here. I’m sure my sons, here will benefit from boarding life in the same way that I did. And, to be frank we cannot wait to freshen up and stretch our weary backs and limbs”.
The Principal rang a bell on his table and an attendant walked in. “Take Mr. Court and his family to their quarters”.
“After you have freshened up you can join me and my family for a cup of tea. I shall send someone to bring you. Would half an hour’s time be sufficient?”
“That will be perfect”, said mom in reply.
“Good!” he then walked ahead of us to the door, the attendant leading the way.
Our home was on the second floor of a newly constructed building just beyond the playing field which I could hardly imagine anyone playing on for instead of having a covering of turf it was covered with stone chips. This place was full of surprises and I wondered what to expect next. That too however, did not take too long to discover for as we began to climb the stairs, which ran around from the side of the building all around it before leading to the verandah or balcony as many would call it, onto the front of the building, and instead of having curious neighbours to welcome us we found a gang of wild monkeys, hissing loudly and bearing their yellow teeth at us. One look at them and I decided I wasn’t going up those steps, not now nor ever.
“Pay no attention to them. Pretend as if they don’t exist and they won’t harm you”, said dad to me, when he found that I was not with the rest of the family.
I did as instructed but looked instinctively in the direction of where the monkeys were, which sent them into a sort of frenzied chatter. I ran, no not upstairs but back down again shrieking, “Help, help!” Once back on flat ground I stood like a lamp post fixed to the earth and then started to cry in fear and embarrassment.
Soon heads began to appear in every window that the building possessed. I was certain I was the reason for it. I had made a dramatic appearance. Now everyone knew me. Perhaps, I would be known as the boy who had such a loud voice that he could stir the neighbours out of their siesta.
Getting used to life in a boarding school is never easy for any youngster even if he is blessed with having all his senses to serve him. For those like me with an acute hearing impairment it was even more challenging. Ninety percent of the knowledge acquired by a young child is learnt incidentally and a hearing loss is a barrier to overhearing and learning from the environment. In boarding schools, students have to learn to adapt to learning and then learn to follow rules as not doing as you were told was unpardonable. There was a routine scheduled for the day and every student was compelled to learn the routine and follow the routine. Excuses were not expected, nor accepted. If you were given an order you followed it or there were consequences. No one had the luxury of getting up late or hitting the sack later than was scheduled. ‘Shape up or ship out’, was the religious commandment of this secular institution.
“Luxuries are for sissies and for those who cannot fend for themselves! You have not come here to become sissies, but gentlemen of value to yourselves, your family and your nation!” The warden would repeat these words whenever a student was found wanting. “When I tell you to do something I expect that you obey me”, he shouted loud enough for everyone to hear, but not loud enough for me. How many actually heard his daily jargon often crossed my mind, for almost ninety percent of the students were physically present, but mentally in their warm beds.
“What is waking us up so early in the morning, in the freezing cold, while everyone around is comfortably and snuggly asleep under their thick quilts, going to achieve?” I asked Shannon, when I was sure we were out of earshot of anyone around.
“I’ve no idea and hate having to get up so early myself, but I do so. Guess we’ll never understand, why!” he exclaimed.
There was a lot that I needed to get used to, for this place was completely different from where I had grown up. There were no McDonalds’ outlets or KFC restaurants or of any restaurant of repute. There wasn’t even a single shopping mall! All that the town possessed was a road known as Mall Road where cheap, homemade products were sold at prices more than they were worth. I couldn’t believe it when I came to learn that the people of this place still used the snail mail service to communicate. I couldn’t help but feel like I had, as if through some miraculous way been transported back in time, maybe fifty or a hundred years, I don’t know how many, to be precise.
I made my observations and feelings known to the family one day when the lights went out, which was pretty frequent and which I was coming to terms with also. “It’s only when you see the other side of life which you have not experienced before and therefore find so different that you begin to enjoy what you had before. People out here live a simple life and enjoy the simple pleasures that life offers them.” “Believe me, after a couple of years of life here, you will miss all this and want it then”, dad said, sounding like a sage. “Even a diamond at first is nothing but crude and simple, an ugly form of rock which you would not even want to hold, but once cleansed, polished and cut becomes a treasure. You too will become a diamond, a rare beauty and desire of many some day, but for that to become a reality you have to become discovered, which you will”, he said wisely.
As time went by I started making friends and spending a lot more time outside my home. I had difficulty a first as I knew no other language but my mother tongue, English and since it was not everyone else’s mother tongue in which they mainly communicated with each other and as a result I was found lacking in the communicating department. Naturally I was labeled as being either an introvert or of being pompous, which were both rather negative traits. It was that period of my stay at Graham’s that was extremely difficult for I felt very alone somewhat like an outcaste. I longed for friends and for company, but most of all I wanted to feel accepted and to behave like all the other normal children did. Another reason why I was not accepted into any of the friend circles perhaps was that I did not always give any reply to the few boys who did try speaking to me, because they either spoke too fast or were not looking at me and therefore I could not read their lips as was the case in my previous school. Either of the reasons was not healthy for my own self-esteem or social fabric. I needed to make at least one friend or else I would self destruct.
Then one day when the skies had opened up and there was no way anyone could go outdoors to play and I was stuck in one of the dormitories, having gone there to locate dad as someone had come to meet him at home, a boy who was not from my class came up to me. I, who had been ably compensated for my hearing impairment with the ability to observe splendidly, noticed that he had a hearing aid in his right ear. That tiny item or machine as many would call it gave me immediate comfort and I felt like a swan rather than an ugly duckling. He came real close to me and asked, “Why are you alone, don’t you have any friends?”
I did not know him well enough to express my true feelings and so I avoided his question by saying, “I’m looking for my dad. You know him, don’t you?”
Everyone knows your dad; he’s one of our favourite teachers, even mine! If you want I can help you find him?” he said in a friendly and sincere manner.
From that point we became best friends and soon he helped me join his group of friends and in less than a week I had a number of boys who would not just talk to me but also let me in onto the secrets of many of the secret happenings and unauthorized haunts that they all visited. I soon realized that life in a boarding school was an eye opening and learning experience and though there were rules, there wasn’t any way that a rule could not be broken. I was getting an education on life which could not be learned from sitting in the classroom and by mugging each line of those monstrously, thick books.
My handicap became common knowledge on the campus and was accepted pretty well by my peers which helped me feel more comfortable in the classroom. Unfortunately, this public or common knowledge did not go down well with my Geography teacher who actually made her displeasure towards me evident through a visit to my home where she met my mom. We had assumed that her visit was a cordial and friendly one and were pretty upbeat to have her over.
She had chosen the time when dad was away in Delhi on some school work, to visit our home. During the course of the rather trivial conversation came the curse of her talk. I could have cursed her were I a sorcerer for her observations and comments on me and my mom, and though I was always taught to be forgiving she would never find forgiveness from me.
“Sabrina, I hate to tell you this and I don’t want you to take what I say the wrong way but as I consider you a friend I feel I need to say it. Are you sure you won’t let it get in the way of our friendship?” she asked in a sheepish manner.
“You’ve no need to hide anything from me. I assure you”, mom remarked reassuringly.
“It’s about your son, Sherwin, the one who is deaf,” she said, bluntly.
“He has a hearing impairment, but is not deaf,” mom said as if to make her aware of her incorrect statement.
“Well you see Sabrina he is unable to cope up in class and it is difficult to teach as he keeps interrupting the class by asking me to repeat whatever has just been said,” she informed my mom.
“I’m sorry that he does that, I empathize with you but he does have a genuine reason for doing so, you know,” mom said in an apologetically.
“Sabrina, I agree with that, but the boy seems to lack is the ability to grasp concepts and his spellings too are awful. I feel sorry for him, I really do!”
“Perhaps I should spend some more time with him at home and teach him. That’s about the only thing that I could think of doing,” mom said in reply.
“Sabrina I don’t see that as a solution, he has a genuine problem and I don’t know how to tell you this, but I must. Your son suffers from dyslexia,” she said it as if she were a qualified diagnosis of the subject.
Mom’s face turned the colour of the moon; pale white. She seemed to freeze and the only movement that I noticed came from her eyelids which moved and joined, causing her beautiful eyes to disappear. Her hands engulfed her pale-looking face in them. She sat in that position for a few seconds to absorb like a sponge all that she had just heard. She did not utter a word and I doubt she even heard a word that was spoken after that. She just nodded in agreement to every word thing the teacher had to say, till the teacher finally left.
I was almost trembling with anger, not because of what the teacher had said, but because mom was hurting! I had never seen mom so shaken up and so upset ever before. She was a strong woman but now appeared frail and vulnerable. It was better being deaf in this cruel world, at least the deaf did not have to listen to words that brought them pain and suffering. Sometimes words could be compared to Japanese torture wherein the death was slow and painful!
Mom said to me, “Son you are different, but certainly not dyslexic. I’m your mother and I know, and even if you were I’d still love you no less than what I always have. As long as you have love you can overcome anything, and you have that in abundance. Always look at the things you are good at and work positively at excelling in it. Love what you like doing and enjoy yourself doing it and laugh when you stumble.”
I walked up to mom, put my arms around her shoulders and embraced her. “I love you too mom and I never want to see you unhappy, ever again”.
I was reminded of a proverb I once learnt, “A man who makes trouble for others is also making trouble for himself”. I did not wish ill for the teacher but the proverb made me pity her ignorance.
“Go and complete your homework and give me a call if you need any help”, mom said before she left me to warm up the dinner in anticipation of my two siblings’ arrival.
“I’ve completed it already”, I said. “Could I watch the Michael Jackson video, instead”, I asked her.
She came back into the room so that I could see her and said, “You’ve seen it about a thousand times already, why don’t you see something else for a change?”
“It’s the only one we have of him and he really fascinates me with his dancing. I wish I could dance like him someday”, I said in all earnestness.
“I’ll request your dad to buy you some new CDs, the next time he goes to town. Just remind me in case I forget”, she replied.
“I’ll do that mom”, I promised.
I watched the CD as if I were watching it for the first time, as I always did till, the rest of the family returned. I was contemplating of telling dad about the sad event that occurred earlier on his return, but then decided against it. I decided to let mom handle it.
It was nearly three months in the school and I was nick named, Firangi meaning foreigner due to the fact that I spoke only in English. It is not like the others did not know or speak the language; it was just that they preferred to speak in Hindi which was the mother tongue of the majority. This nickname sort of, made me feel as though I was not a part of the rest and conjured up in me a feeling of being an alien. It was similar to a feeling that perhaps a black man has to endure when he resides in a predominantly white neighborhood during the age of Apartheid. Even though I had my so-called friends and I had a loving family I felt I was alone in this life. I felt like I’d had too much of this life to hang on to any longer. I was hurting inside, deep down in my soul where no one could see, while tears would come streaming down my face whenever I felt that I could not change the mindsets of the people who stabbed me through the heart and killed me so many times with their murderous remarks. I felt myself being crucified like Christ was, and the words uttered by Him while he was dying came to mind, “Father forgive them, for they know not what they do”.
I needed something, some light to show me the way forward so that I could move forward. I had been harboring these negative feelings for too long and needed to find my silver lining, my rainbow or harbinger of positivity. I needed to take control of my own life and needed to start loving myself and shaping my future. The seeds needed to be sown and I couldn’t wait for others to do that or expect them to do so. If my life was to blossom like a flower, colourful and beautiful I needed to feed on the environment and energy that it provided.
I labored on the following weeks listening to the various teachers come and go after delivering boring lectures and whether it was Mathematics, Physics or French it made no difference since they all sounded French to me. Most of the time I would dream in class, wherein I would be the star dancing on a stage, mesmerizing my adoring fans with my every swivel and my every flying leap. My fans would be applauding me and screaming for an encore performance. The classroom was my dreamland, the place where I could fantasize about what I wanted to be, some day. Then after classes were done with I would I follow the daily schedule like a well-trained dog which had been taught to do the same tricks over and over again. I’d changed into the P.E. uniform which comprised of a House coloured tee shirt, white shorts and running shoes or soccer boots. Those who had roller skates carried them to a cemented portion of the campus which served as a skating rink and since I possessed a pair of my own I often spent the hour scheduled for games, doing just that. This was followed by a refreshing shower which was bravely done by so many, in freezing water and under dipping temperatures. I, like the rest of my family had the luxury of bathing with hot water and as long as the water was dripping onto my body it was pleasurable, but other than that it made me feel like I was in a freezer. Then I would complete my homework assignments with as much disgust as a boy being forced to put on makeup. I’d eat if I wished at home or in the Mess with all the other students whichever I preferred and by then I’d be so tired I would hit the sack.
This mundane existence needed a spark to ignite my already boring existence in this world and as fortune was soon to be on my side henceforth, it presented itself as well as the spark to me shortly after the Independence Day celebrations were completed.
It was a mild early autumn afternoon. In the shade it was chilly but in the sun which was able to penetrate through the wispy layers of clouds made it permissible to go without wearing any heavy woolen attire. As most of the boys were away, availing of the ‘optional town outing’ the campus wore a semi-deserted look. My brothers had gone with their friends to the town but I remained on campus as I felt like being alone that day. It was not unusual for me to feel like this as I seemed to lack the zeal for socializing, unlike them on whom God had showered it upon in abundance.
I was wearing my favourite red and white, Ralph Lauren jumper and a pair of blue Levis denims. I had just purchased a packet of Lay’s potato wafers from the school canteen and sat down on the uppermost rung of the steps that ran all along one side of the playing and doubled up as a sort of viewing gallery for the events that were held on the field. There wasn’t anyone around and so I sat there all by myself munching at the wafers and merely idling away my time.
The boy with the hearing aid, Asjad came up to me and informed me that my House Master, Mr. Mayank wanted to see me in the Foyer. I was surprised, but without seeking a reason from him got up and started walking towards the Foyer. “Aren’t you coming too?” I asked when I noticed that he was not following me.
“Nope, he wants to see you, not me,” he replied. Perhaps, he might have felt that if he came with me he might be compelled to run some other errand, for some teacher.
I wondered what he could be wanting from me as I was confident that I hadn’t done anything wrong and was not one of the stars that could warrant his interest in me. Unsure of whatever the reason was I thought, I would cross the bridge when I reached it. So, there was no need of worrying about it, I concluded. Thus, having put my perspectives in order I marched forward confidently to meet the man, a bald, stocky-built fellow with a peaceful and pleasing demeanor.
He was sitting on an armchair reading something when I entered the Foyer. He continued reading whatever it was, unaware of my presence. “Excuse me, Sir! I believe you wanted me to see you”, I said softly so as not to alarm him.
“Yes, you are Sherwin, Mr. Court’s son aren’t you?” he asked me.
“Yes, Sir, I am”, I answered.
“You are in my House and from what I hear you are very good in English”, he said in a complimentary manner.
“Thank you for the compliment, Sir! I exclaimed.
“There’s the Inter-House English Elocution Competition coming up soon and I want you to represent the House in it. Would you be interested?” he queried me.
“Yes! Sir, I don’t know any good ones, but I can learn one”, I said, honestly.
“You could ask your mom or dad to help you. I’m sure they could do that”, he said as if he had already knew of what to say. “I’m sure they will, and thank you for giving me this chance,” I said, excitedly. I turned around and walked away from him, towards my home. There was a skip in each step I took and the adrenalin in my veins began to increase in intensity as I neared my destination. I ran up the steps faster than I had ever done before and in my eagerness to reach home and deliver the wonderful news that I was to take part in the Elocution Competition I did not notice the gang of monkeys that used to terrorize me whenever they had the opportunity to do so. Perhaps, they too could sense my excitement and new-found zest for life that they did not want to rob me of my moment of happiness. I did not stop running till I entered the hall room and when I did I could not say anything because I began to pant and so stood, bent over like an old man with my hands on my hips, gasping for air.
My eyes danced with excitement when I said, “Mom, I’ve been selected to recite a poem”, I gasped, before continuing, “You need to teach me a poem to recite at the Elocution Competition, next week”, I rattled on.
Mom could make out my excitement and was excited herself. She was happy that I was happy! I could see it in her eyes. I had heard it said that our eyes are the windows to our soul and I could tell that deep down in her soul she was happy. And, then it occurred to me that this was a special moment for me, one to cherish and value for it had given reason for me to bring happiness to someone else, most importantly, to my mom.
It suddenly dawned upon me that a single word could create completely contrasting effects on an individual and could bring out completely contradictory emotions. The word, Firangi, which had borne a very negative impact on me and caused me to break out into bouts of depression now made he feel special and filled my heart with ecstasy. I had realized that I was given this life-changing opportunity only for the fact that my nick name had given my House Master to believe in me. Life, nicknames, emotions and the mysteries of life were all teaching me about a truth of life – nothing is permanent in life, except change.
Mom gave me a hard copy of a poem entitled, No Monkey Business which after an entire and thorough reading gave me another perspective of the monkeys that often terrorized me. Learning to recite the poem was in a certain way related to monkeys or their relatives in a certain way as I had to ape each and every expression made by mom in a bid to bring out the humour, wit and sarcasm that the piece contained. It became a part of my evening routine for the entire week practicing it, over and over. I could recite it in my dreams while asleep, if requested. And, when dad complimented me on my recital for him on the eve of the competition I felt like the string of a bow that had been stretched to its limit.
While I was anxiously waiting in the wings of the stage for my turn to be the centre of attraction I was tempted to peep through the curtains, and when I did so I noticed that the auditorium resembled the auditorium as I had seen so often in my day dreams jam-packed. I noticed through my keen observation powers that even the aisles were filled. In my dreams I never suffered with nerves before my events and I had never pictured myself waiting to perform, somehow my dreams always started with me performing on stage. This part did not fit in and perhaps resulted in me suddenly being attacked by a fit of nerves. Even though it was cold it began to feel just the opposite and my heart began racing as if had suddenly developed the urge to display its speed. “Why was I shivering when I was feeling warm? What was happening to me? Perhaps, this is what a panic attack is”, I found myself, talking to myself. Then I tried remembering the opening lines of the poem and to my utter amazement, couldn’t remember even the first line. I had only one option left, to flee. I turned instinctively when I found myself being pushed on to the stage by a teacher who was given the duty of ushering the participants onto the stage. There was no turning back now. I was the chicken with its neck on the butcher’s chopping block.
I stood at the centre of the stage with the microphone before me. For a fraction of minute, in which I noticed some of boys snigger and also the look of disbelief on the faces of others. I read one senior boy’s lips and it said, “What, is this a joke?” l instinctively introduced myself and then to my surprise I felt my muscles loosen and I was overcome with a feeling of ease. I could see each and every word, every punctuation mark, and every line; in fact the entire poem was there in front of me as it appeared on the paper on which it was typed, which I looked at so many times, every day. Everything became crystal clear and I said:
No Monkey Business!
As I sat in the cool of the morn
By the shade of the old coconut tree
Some monkeys above me
Kept jabbering on
About people like you and like me!
One grumpy old monkey,
He stormed and he frowned
And gosh! How he started to fuss!
Said he, “Have you heard,
There’s a rumour going round
That man has descended from us?”
“The nerve of the guy,”
The old monkey replied.
“To think such a thing of our race,
To say that man has descended from us.
The very idea’s a disgrace!”
“Whosever heard of a monkey so drunk?
That hardly a word he could utter.
Starve his children; beat up his wife
And spend half the night in a gutter!”
“We must do something soon!”
said a husky baboon.
“To stop all this bother and fuss,
Man said he descended,
Well, maybe he did
But it certainly wasn’t from us!”
I stood waiting to read the audience’s reaction and for a minute second there wasn’t any. Then, there was applause all around and a number of shocked faces too. I looked in the direction of my House Master and I was delighted to see a huge smile on his face. He gave me the, thumbs up, sign and then began clapping. Everyone in the audience was clapping which for a second overawed me! I bowed and soon disappeared from the stage like a bird with wings that could soar.
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