By Anuradha Varma
Like most people, 24-year-old Smriti Nagpal grew up hero-worshipping her elder brother, who taught her driving and sister, who parties hard and enjoys riding bikes. The only difference is that, unlike most others, her elder siblings are hearing-impaired. While her sister lost her hearing after a severe bout of pneumonia when she was barely six-months-old, her brother suffered from the impairment after a bad fall from the terrace at the age of nine. After the second mishap, her parents made a conscious decision to have another child, perhaps as a support system for the siblings. And that’s how Smriti came into this world. At first, she didn’t find her home any different from any other. She recalls growing up pampered and adored by her elder siblings, who are the coolest people she knows.
She remembers a classmate, who also had a hearing-impaired sister, keeping it secret at school for many years. “He would avoid calling us home, whereas I preferred taking my brother along instead of my parents to any school function.”
She turned interpreter for her siblings at a very young age, without any formal sign language training. “My mother remembers me as a child when I still crawled, gesturing to my sister whenever she was being called,” says Smriti, for whom the turning point came at the age of 16. She had accompanied her siblings to India Gate on the occasion of World Disability Day, when she was thrust on the stage to interpret the activities through sign language. Somewhat shy then, she still successfully managed to address a crowd of nearly 30,000. When she got off, she was surrounded by the deaf persons present there who told her that they felt involved in the proceedings thanks to her. A few then asked her to call their families to pass on messages. “That’s when I realised that something as basic as calling home to say when one would be back was so difficult. First, you would have to find somebody who understood sign language and then have them agree to do that for you. That’s when I decided that, whatever else I might do in life, this would always continue.”
Soon after, Smriti started volunteering with NGOs and working with Doordarshan, where she continues to read the early morning news four times a week in sign language. She also interpreted the Republic Day proceedings last year. But, before that, she has had some interesting experiences along the way. For instance, she has interpreted a warring couples’ intention to divorce to their family, matching their aggression in tone. She recalls, “I’ve been the interpreter for my siblings’ marriages as well as for an Islamic wedding for a runaway couple, even vocalising the ‘qabool hai’ for the priest conducting the ceremony.” (If you’re wondering about the warring couple, they are still nowhere near divorce!) For Smriti, sign language is just another language. “There’s nothing my sister and I can’t talk about. In fact, when some of us interpreters go out together, we prefer to sign instead of speak. It’s so much easier to be understood over the loud music.”
She co-founded the social venture Atulyakala after coming across artist Amit Vardhan, who then worked for an NGO. “His boss wouldn’t let me speak to him since it was during work hours. A fine arts graduate, he was given the task of pasting recycled paper into notebooks. He did that for three years. I decided to get together with other artists to give them a platform to aim higher.” Amit now creates quirky art, which makes its way onto art prints, notebook covers, tote bags and other products. If he’s around while you’re engaged in an animated conversation, don’t be surprised if he comes up with your portrait on his iPad.
The aim behind Atulyakala, with its office near Dwarka in New Delhi, is inclusion of the deaf in the mainstream. “For years, in the arts college, the deaf students would sit separately. After a Valentine’s Day art activity, where we paired the deaf with those who could hear, we are told that the groups now freely mingle with each other. Our job is to simply break the ice.”
And, being deaf doesn’t mean someone’s boring! Says Smriti, “My brother travels alone as well as with his group of hearing-impaired friends. I introduced my sister to Ladies’ Night at a pub at Hauz Khas Village and now she goes there every week with her friends. When I first had a boyfriend, it was my brother I introduced him to.” Amit, incidentally, is a huge fan of actress Raveena Tandon and a great mimic.
Atulyakala is coming up with several initiatives to change the perception about deaf persons in India. There are also plans to collaborate on a song for the deaf, with lyrics explained through sign language.
Reach out to Atulyakala at www.facebook.com/Atulyakala