Chirping of birds, occasional bark of a dog in the distance, and then, there was a little glow at the window. The magic hour!
Yes, it was morning. But Golu shuddered at the thought of going to school – yet again. Why do we have to do it every day? Wont once a week or once a month be enough? – He wondered in his little heart and rolled over to the other side, holding the lumpy quilt tight, over his head.
But mother came at the right time and pushed him out of the bed. She gave him two rotis and milk. He loved it, with a little homemade jam. Mother could always sense his reluctance to go to school for last few days but Golu would rather not let her know the real reason. How could he? He was so uncomfortable with his stammering that he just could not talk about it, let alone seek help.
In fact, when his teacher asked him a few days ago: Do you stammer? Golu simply denied it with a resounding NO! Afterwards he himself was surprised how he could so clearly reply to the question in the full class! Normally he had lot of problems saying even his name and responding to roll calls. What made things complicated was that he never stammered at home.
So, he knew that if he talked about his difficulties with parents, no one would believe it! His father may simply say that he is inventing excuses to stay at home and play with Bakru! Well, Bakru was a young goat kid who thought that it was a dog and stayed indoors and spent a lot of time with Golu, just like a pet.
And this stammering was such a funny thing: He may stammer on his name in the class- but not in the play ground! He will stammer saying the name of the Indian Capital- Delhi, but not Dehradun, which was the capital of Uttarakhand, where he lived! He will stammer with his friend Ramesh so much- but not at all, with Ramesh’s sister, Bina, who studied in the same school!
It was so difficult to understand what was happening to him. He was losing control. He would neither raise his hands to answer any question in the class, nor will he ask any questions, even when his Math’s teacher could see it in his face clearly that he hadn’t understood a single thing. Do you think dealing with class eight is easy? Ask Golu: he will tell you how difficult it is. Sometime, he will go home and cry quietly in the backyard. Golu often thought that only Bakru understood him and his problem, none else.
Today, as he dragged his feet towards the school, which was just across the stream that separated his village and the mountain, he thought about other ways of keeping quiet and keeping away from all attention, from teachers, class mates and the class bully, especially, who loved imitating his stammer.
But, It seems that even God conspires against children who stammer! Everything was going fine till the last class. When it was reading practice in the English class, he had quietly slipped off to the toilet and returned only when the danger had passed away. He had successfully avoided all talking, answering etc. so far, by just looking down in his book and by nodding his head. Suddenly the teacher asked everyone: Have you done your home work which I gave you last week? Of course not!
Everyone was quiet because no one had done it, as the teacher had guessed. But instead, everyone looked at Golu. He had the reputation of being a serious student. Even the teacher looked at him expectantly- and asked: Golu, what about you? Have you done it?
Golu had to just stand up and say ‘yes’. But he was having a lot of difficulty saying any word starting with a vowel sound for last so many days- yellow, yes, Europe, your, yummy...
He stood up, looked at the teacher, opened his mouth but no sound came out. It seemed as if time had stopped...
He could say ‘No’ to escape the misery - and that would not have mattered much because no one in the class had done the home work; But he could not even say ‘no’. He just stood there, blinking his eyes. Some students in the bank benches snickered. The English teacher made them quiet with a stern gesture. Then he looked at Golu with a gentle expression as if he had figured out what was wrong. But he said nothing except a short command: See me after the class.
Golu went to the staff room. Fortunately, it was empty. Only the English teacher was sitting near the window. Golu was afraid that it will be the same story again: Do you stammer? Just slow down. Think before you talk. Take a deep breath. Eat almonds etc. He had been given such advices so often. Since it never worked, he preferred not to talk about stammering at all. If he could just hide it or mask it, what harm was there? And he had evolved many clever ways. Being lost in thoughts, as if trying hard to recall, was one of his best tricks. Another one was: to act shy, quiet and retire to the back of the group. Teachers usually left such students well alone.
But as he entered the staff room, a thought crossed his head: what if.. what if I just said that yes I stammer? Yes, there are times when I just can’t say the word, even when I know it so well? What if, the teacher gets mad and reports to his father? Suppose he starts laughing? What if he doesn’t believe him and calls him a liar?
Golu swayed as he entered the room; the rush of all the possibilities exploded in his head, like a multi-stage rocket. He went straight to the teacher and stood at attention, with his hands to his sides and legs firmly planted apart. The teacher kept making corrections in the copy, lying in his lap. The wait became intolerable and Golu blurted out excitedly:
“I stammer. I can’t talk.. E-e-even when I know the answers…”
The teacher raised his head, pushed his glasses back up his nose and smiled at him. Then, he said:
“Yes, I know…”
Golu was wondering, how the teacher could know, when he never actually stammered in his class - ever. Has he been told by other students? Tattlers…
The teacher carried on,
“I know because I too have stammered and I know all the tricks!” The teacher smiled gently.
Golu had huge surprise writ large on his little face. I mean, how can a teacher stammer? And even if he did, how could he talk about it? To me, a child, of all people? Golu wondered, was it just a pep talk?
“No, I stammer even today. Haven’t you seen me repeating words sometime? Haven’t you seen me take a long pause, when someone asks a question suddenly in the class? Don’t tell me you have never noticed…” The teacher smiled and pointed to a chair nearby.
Golu took the offered chair and sat down – still very surprised.
“Golu, you see, I too passed through this stage. I also believed that if I don’t talk about it, the problem will go away. It seemed to work till…” The teacher had a faraway look. He suddenly seemed like a little child himself.
“You want to know?” The teacher prodded him again.
Golu wanted to say ‘Hold on, I have enough of my own problems!’ But he was really curious. What happened to the teacher? How did he come to grips with his problem? The teacher put the bundle of copies away, settled in his chair and leaned back, looking at the distant mountains and continued in a reflective monologue:
“You know, I loved my father, as much as, I am sure you do. He worked in a cloth mill. He worked very hard to pay my school fee every month. I had a little sister too. My mother cleaned other people’s homes. We were poor. No one else in my extended family ever got a chance to go to school. But I was good at studies and therefore both my mother and father worked hard to keep me in the school rather than put me in the mill as an apprentice…”
Everyone in the school knew that the English teacher was the only teacher who personally checked all their answer sheets, even if it took an extra month. No student could ever complain of unfair marks. Not only this, he was always available for extra class for weak students. Golu began to see where all that sincerity came from.
“I too managed my stammering by hiding it. By denying it. Then, one day my father had a bad attack of Asthma. His face was blue and he was not even able to cough towards the evening. My mother and some neighbors took him to the hospital. I was in class seven and was back from the school. I was playing in the street, when I heard the commotion and noticed the little crowd emerging from my home…”
Golu wanted to ask, “What happened then, sir?” – but kept listening quietly.
“An hour later, my mother phoned from the hospital, to our neighbor. I was called on phone, along with the drug my father was taking regularly. My mother could not tell the name of the drug, in the hospital. She had handed the phone to the doctor on duty…”
The scowl teachers normally have on their face, as a teaching aid, was no more there on his face. He was recalling that troubled evening many years ago.
“You see, my father was taking a medicine regularly and the doctor wanted to put him onto a more powerful drug to control his asthma attack. For this, he wanted to know what drug he was taking at home. My father was struggling every second for breath – as I could guess as a child. I used to buy it for him every month. It was Asthanil. I knew it by heart. But I just could not say it on phone. Can you imagine?”
After a pause, full of pain, he carried on, “I could imagine my father wheezing and holding his sides, while the doctor on phone waited for me to say the name of the drug… Guess what? I panicked and put the phone down. The call came again and the doctor this time asked me to spell the name. He thought I had difficulty saying the name of the drug. I was so nervous.. I just could not say A, S, T, H, A.. I trembled. Broke in a sweat. Finally the phone got cut, after what seemed like an hour! I crawled back to my cot, crying through the night. I kept on dreaming of my father vividly: sitting up in a hospital bed, veins in his neck sticking out like ropes, struggling to breathe… I was almost sure that he won’t survive the night…”
“Then?” Golu interjected weakly, fearing the worst.
“I was sweetly surprised when he did return from the hospital after three days. Weak but alive. He or my mother did not say anything to me about that phone call. But I continued to feel very rotten. Very bad. Ashamed. I felt I had almost killed my father… I began avoiding him, I felt so guilty…
“As it turned out, the doctor gave him the necessary injections and he was better. Of course the doctor had later asked him: Is your son mute? Does he ever talk? My father was puzzled but he did not want to force me into a conversation. He must have interpreted the incident in his own light. A few days later, my sister and I fought about something and I went to him complaining. He listened to me very nicely and then said: what happened that evening? You just had to say the name of the drug… Words just did not come out, I guess, right?..
“I was caught unawares. I was quiet and looking down, quite embarrassed. My father continued: I think I know your problem. But how long are you going to run away from it, my son? If you run, you will keep running all your life. Right? He looked at my face with a very sad expression. I felt very bad. I was causing so much concern and worry to my father! But he continued: I think, when the traffic light is red, you should just stop. Full stop! Wait for the green signal. Then, start all over again. And if you do stumble, so what? It is OK. Try again. How long are you going to beat yourself because you stammer? My father, even though unlettered, had caught on to me pretty accurately. I was surprised but then, I also knew that he loved me so much… Finally he came up with a plan. He said: From tomorrow, after your school, come straight to the mill and help me…
“Believe me Golu, I did that, even though initially I found it very embarrassing! My job was to attend to inquiries from the customers, show them cloth and thread samples, offer them tea, pay for snacks at the canteen etc. I was the chore boy! Every day, I was talking with so many strangers! My father would watch me from behind his work desk, and give me thumbs-up sign occasionally. Some customers will ask me the same question twice on purpose. But father taught me to smile rather than get angry…
“He died three years later; I had cleared class ten by then. Not only that, I could talk to anyone about anything. I had become a very different person in those three years. I was given a part time job in the mill. I continued my studies and made sure that my sister also got educated…
“I did MA and B. Ed. There has never been red signal in my life ever since. I still feel deep pain when I think of that evening phone call and my father struggling for breath. My own discomfort and pain appears minuscule in comparison…”
A sombre silence and then, the English teacher looked at Golu and continued:
“Are you too waiting for pain, to push you out of your denial, Golu?”
Golu was silent. He thought of his mother, father and Bakru. Hope they never have to be in danger or pain, to make him understand that nothing is really impossible for him.
* * *
When he had entered the staff room a little while ago, he had thought that the conversation could go only one way. He would just deny that he stammered and life would go on as usual. But his teacher had opened his heart- and has now opened the world of possibilities for him: He is free to share his problem and seek help. Some will help him, some may not. So what? He is free to try and ask. He does not need to live in hiding and in fear. If a stammerer can stand up in front of a class day after day- and teach so well, Golu thought, what else may he not attempt and achieve?