There are several Rufous Treepies in Chennai. During winter, many of them visit the guava tree in my neighbor’s backyard. They sound like singers with speech impediments. But people just don’t seem to notice them.
I struggled with a severe stammering problem for about two decades. I could barely speak a few words without a prolonged stutter. Unlike the treepie, I drew attention to the muffled staccato notes. It was the first and last impression that I left people with. Nobody could see past the stuttering, including me.
I never thought of it as a major issue. But it was a time when stammering was poorly understood in India. People assumed that this condition was a malady of the mentally-challenged.
Kids would poke fun at me every single day. It wasn’t their intention to hurt my feelings. It was just a mad scramble to the top of the social totem pole. And some were going to get stepped on. Some of the jokes were funny. I would laugh begrudgingly. Adults were the worst. They assumed I was stammering on purpose. Or they had neither the patience nor the tolerance to deal with it in a sensitive manner. Their jokes were never funny too.
When I was 15 years old, I was sent to a summer camp in Coimbatore. The banner displayed above the front gate was unmissable. I saw it as soon as my mother dropped me off. It claimed to be a “Treatment center for patients suffering from sexual problems, impotency, stammering and other mental problems”. Most of the other attendees were adults with issues.
The counselors were an odd bunch but most were nice enough. I had a huge crush on one of them – Sandhya. She was about 15 years older than me. She wore thin-framed glasses and had a smile that made my heart yelp, like a happy puppy.
She had to sit me down in a room every morning at 6:30 AM, hazy with half-lit incense sticks, and ask me to read aloud the same Billy Goat story over and over again. She didn’t look like she was having any fun too. There was a yoga session before lunch, followed by meditation. During evenings, I had to chant om for 45 minutes. The day ended at 6 PM with a counselor talking to us about spirituality. The camp lasted for 30 days.
On the last day, the chief counselor asked me to write a list of ten things I wanted from life. I only remember three of them – a Casio keyboard, a motorbike and a garden. I was a dreamer back then. As I was leaving, I felt this incredible sadness. I knew I would never see Sandhya again. I was the 90s version of an emo teenager.
I remember coming back to disappointment at home that I wasn’t healed. I was upset too. As ridiculous as the whole experience was, a part of me expected some last-minute miracle. But I continued to stammer for another 15 years. I kept missing out on several opportunities to improve the quality of my life because of it. Meaningful connections with people too. Insecure and distracted, I said very little.
I tried again to overcome it when I was about 25 years old. There wasn’t a particular moment. It wasn’t anything that anyone had said. Just one of those days when I woke up and decided that things had to change. Only this time, I chose to go about it at once. I was looking for a change in my career at that point. And so I decided to apply for a PR role in corporate marketing, knowing that public speaking would be a major part of it.
I had nearly a month’s break before joining the new company. Every day I would spend a few hours reading aloud articles from newspapers and magazines. I enunciated every word until I would get it right. I knew that something had to be done. and this felt like a fighting chance.
About three months later, apart from a few hiccups, I stopped stammering like I used to. It helped that I started putting myself in pressurizing situations. I offered to make sales presentations and lead discussions. I demanded that my closest friends heard the length and breadth of my rants – most of which were against them.
In 2013, an independent filmmaker asked me to be the narrator for a re-recording of his documentary – That Fired Soul. It ended up winning a national award and was showcased at film festivals across India. I was proud of myself. And I still haven’t been able to shut up about it.
These days, as I have shamelessly promoted on this page, I work as a part-time voice-over artist for corporate videos.
These days I keep in touch with people worse than chickenpox does. Hence, most of the time I find myself surrounded who are just starting to get to know me. And it feels strange not being identified as that guy who stammers. It almost doesn’t feel right.
I know that I wouldn’t have turned out the way I did without dealing with a bad speech impediment for nearly 20 years. It gave me courage, strength, and a confrontational attitude. But I can’t say I turned out to be a decent human being because of it. That’s a matter of perception.
I know only that I have been talking a lot since then. Unless I hit my head on a lamp post and start stuttering again, I don’t think I can stop. I don’t want to.
It’s my turn.
(Photographs – Chennai, Vedanthangal)