Rufous Treepies, a member of the crow family, are commonly found in my city. However, not everyone has seen one. There is a chance, though, that many would have heard their loud musical calls.
To me, they sound like singers with speech impediments. Every time I see one, I think about my past.
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. It was the first and last impression that I used to leave people with. Nobody could look past it, including my family members, relatives, friends, and house guests. After a point, neither could I.
It was a time when speech impediments were poorly understood in India. The kids would poke fun at me every single day. Some of their jokes made me laugh, though. I found it comforting because they made my stammering seem like less of a problem and more of a punchline.
The adults were much worse. Most of them assumed I was either mentally-challenged or doing this on purpose to avoid answering their questions. More tragically, their jokes were never funny.
When I was a teenager, I was taken by my parents to Coimbatore during the summer holidays. I was told that we were going for a short vacation. Then, I figured out that it was a rehabilitation camp, for lack of a better description. I will never forget the first time I laid my eyes on the banner – as my mother dropped me off outside the front gate. It read, ‘Treatment center for patients suffering from impotency, stammering, and other mental problems.’
I was taken aback by the number of adult patients. There were only two other kids who did not seem interested in speaking to anyone. The counselors were an odd bunch, but they never made fun of me. Some would get mad at me for not speaking clearly despite their strange attempts at trying to cure my impediment. The day started at 6:00 AM with a prayer. It was followed by four two-hour sessions. During the evenings, I had to chant om for 45 minutes. The day ended at 6:00 PM, with the head counselor blabbering about spirituality. The camp lasted for 30 days.
If it were not for Mrs. S – one of the counselors, I do not know how I would have stayed sane that month. She was a sweet and gentle lady, with thin-framed glasses hanging precariously on her nose and jasmine growing in her hair. She would sit me down in a room, hazy with half-lit incense sticks, every morning at 6:30 AM. I was supposed to read aloud the same The Billy Goats Gruff story every single day. I doubt she had much faith in the camp’s treatment methods because I could sense her getting angry whenever the head counselor entered the room.
I would feel extremely embarrassed whenever I stammered in front of her. She would smile at me and tell me, “Don’t worry. Things will be okay”.
The last day at camp was a bittersweet experience. As much as I hated this camp, I felt sad that I might never see Ms. S again. I can vividly recall waving goodbye to her, as she stood on the terrace and smiled at me.
That was the last time I saw her.
I kept missing out on several opportunities to improve the quality of my life. I had trouble making meaningful connections with people. Now and then, I showed some signs of improvement, but I was always back to square one – angrier, moodier, and lesser confident than before.
When I was about 27 years old, I tried something I had never done before. I attempted to get over my speech impediment without anyone’s help. It was not an epiphany or anything like that. I was just sick of being that guy who stammers. I decided that things had to change.
Since I was looking for a job change at that point, I applied for a corporate marketing role, which had required me to regularly deliver marketing pitches to senior stakeholders. I wanted to put myself in a position where I had to succeed or screw up my chances of being gainfully employed.
I had a month’s break before joining the new company. So, every day I read aloud all the articles in every newspaper and magazine I could find. I enunciated every word until I got it right. After a few weeks, it dawned on me that I had a fighting chance.
The first few months were rough. Fortunately, my boss was a good person, and she helped me become more confident about my abilities. I also had the fortune of managing of a wonderful bunch of people. Two months later, besides a few hiccups, I started speaking confidently for the first time in my life.
When I was 31, an indie filmmaker had asked me to be the narrator for a re-recording of his documentary. I was shocked at first. It then occurred to me that he did not realize I had a problem. The documentary went on to win a few awards, and it was showcased at film festivals across India. Obviously, it had nothing to do with my voice-over skills. I have also since done some voice-over work for corporate videos.
A few years ago, my friend and I published our podcast on iTunes. I was skeptical at first, but he made it sound like a good idea. We recorded about 10 episodes. I eagerly looked forward to each one; so much that I even rapped in episode 9.
I have never told either of them about how much their vote of confidence meant to me. I get a sneaky feeling that one of them is reading this post.
Hey, man. Thank you.
I cannot say I am fully unaffected by the impediment these days. I still have not forgiven some people. It is why I have no childhood friends. A lot of the happy memories have been erased too. I continue to have a loose grasp on my mother tongue because I could hardly speak it when I was a kid. I also catch myself stammering on a few occasions, when I am really stressed out or desperately lying to a traffic cop to get out of a “my dog ate my insurance papers” situation.
But I do not think about it before going to bed. It does have me sweating when I wake up in the morning. No longer do I look in the mirror and panic about being the person I turned out to be. It played an important role in pushing me to become a writer.
Maybe, this is progress. Or maybe, I will start stammering again. Who really knows? The next time, though, I will not let it define my life.
Whenever I tell my story to someone, it gets a similar reaction. They congratulate me and tell me that I ought to feel proud. Yeah, I feel good. Mostly, I am just relieved.
I am also angry at myself for having barely helped others who face this problem. I wanted to do more for those who went through what I had. I guess I was a selfish person.
So, if you know someone who has a speech impediment, and if you want to help, you should start by telling them that things will be okay.
If they do not believe you, do share my story with me. It will not change their lives, but it may give them hope that things can be okay.
Perhaps, if they ever get to listen to Rufous Treepies, they will only think about how beautiful their songs are.