Deaf in DC
A Memoir
Madan Vasishta
(Gallaudet University Press)
Madan Vasishta was born in northern India, in a village named Gargret. When he was eleven, he came down with mumps and typhoid and "became deaf overnight."

    I had never met a deaf person in my short life and not being able to hear made me feel less than human.

"That was in 1952. The idea of spending my whole life as a behra ('dummy') for the rest of my life didn't seem very palatable." His family stopped Madan's schooling, sent him out to herd cows and sheep ... but then something weird happened.

Madan got the idea that he wasn't going to spend his life herding; that he was going to learn to communicate; that he was --- even more --- going to learn to communicate in English and --- even more --- he was going to learn to communicate in English and someday go to America to be something in the world.

Reading was the key, and he taught himself to read, and he read and read and read. His brother helped: the boy would think of something in Hindi, Narain would translate it into English. "I wanted to learn English and learn it well as it was the ticket to big things." Madan heard about a photography school for the deaf that had just opened up in Delhi and he was on his way.

    This is where I met other deaf people for the first time and saw them using signs. I could not believe two people could communicate by moving their hands around. ... Within a week, I was signing fairly well. A whole new world opened up for me.

He begged, schemed and demanded that those with the influence and the money make it possible for him to go to the best school for the deaf in the world --- Gallaudet College in Washington, D.C.

§     §     §

Madan is driven. At the end of Deaf in DC we find that our narrator has not only moved to the United States, gotten himself the best education possible, taught himself signing (not only English signing, but Indian signing), has found himself teaching and administrative jobs in deaf studies and education ... and now teaches at Gallaudet.

And, equally important, he has taught himself the strange customs of these strange people who call themselves "Americans:" he has to learn such niceties as making his own bed, figuring out the meaning of "garage sales" (where they don't sell garages), and "yard sales," (where they don't sell yards).

His first day in the university cafeteria, he sees his roommate Godsey getting "some round brown chapatis" and pouring "thick syrup in them. "Then I learned how to ply the milk machine. The milk was ice cold. I wondered if I could get it boiled [most people in the world boil their milk for fear of getting brucellosis, undulant fever]. Since there was no stove around and everyone appeared to drink the milk cold, I decided to follow suit."

Madan's story is refreshing, and charmingly told, and candid. I can't think of anything more dismaying than arriving here from 10,000 miles away and trying to make do in Washington D. C. all the while being (1) stone broke, (2) unable to hear (or even to sign), (3) unable to communicate in this strange language: "Whatzup?" and "Whatcha doin?" "Howzit hanging, man?" "See ya later, alligator."

People who don't know better might say that Madan was brave, but you are only brave when you have enough choices. I see him more as being a man who just would not stop.

Deaf in DC may tell us more about Madan than he wants. For once he gets the hang of things, he, like most Americans, turns somewhat intolerant. When his wife Nirmala finally arrives after six years, he complains about her language skills. "Her biggest problem was, and is, mixing up the 'b' with the 'v' sound ... Her adventures in freestyle spelling (that's what I call it) were fine if it was just one word and it was just us talking to each other."

    This became a major cause of possible cardiac arrests for me whenever she interpreted while dealing with salesmen, lawyers, doctors, and other professionals. For example, "go get me a drink from the w-a-r" requires some time to absorb.

What Naran becomes here is what we call, in American English, a "fussbudget." And he's tough. Those who don't live in the deaf world have no idea of the deep conflict that exists between the lip readers and the "signers." In the deaf hierarchy these conflicts go so deep that at one point Madan goes to a conference in India ... and no one will speak to him.

Although he has asked for ten minutes to make a presentation on signing, they give him a microphone without sound (a profoundly ironical situation for a deaf person). "I noticed that no one was paying attention to me. There was a lot of talk going on. Sister [Rita Mary] was still on the stage brandishing her own wireless mic, so I couldn't be heard."

    She had ordered the technician to turn my mic off. I smiled a mock smile and gave the mic to her and walked down the stage steps.

§     §     §

The most fascinating parts of Deaf in DC don't treat the politics of the deaf, but, more, its complicated culture. In the deaf world, there are "deafies," "heafies," "dearies," and "hearies." The first are "Deaf with a capital D. They have their own cultural and linguistic identity." The second are those who have partial hearing, "half deaf, half hearing." The third are those "who by birth or by association have binding ties with the Deaf community."

The last, the "hearies?" "That is the hearing people. No need to define them. They make up 99.99 percent of the world population."

--- Lolita Lark
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