Speaking. A simple thing that 99% of the people in the world can do without even thinking about it. But I am a person who stutters (PWS) and speaking doesn't come that easily to me. And as if that is not hard enough, the world made it worse for me, especially when I was a child.
People laughed at me and mimicked me. "H-h-hello Sh-sh-sh-Shruthi!"
They assumed that I was stupid. "You got the first rank? No way! Show me your report card ... wow, but how? You can't even speak properly!"
Strangers gave me ridiculous advice. "Chew this miraculous pungent leaf and your stammer will be cured in seven days." Cured! As if it is a disease!
A majority of stammering characters [in films] were portrayed as nervous, clueless and empty-headed. Or else, they were not quite right in the head (like Shah Rukh Khan's character in Darr.)
As if people weren't insensitive enough, the movie industry made things worse. Many movies have characters with grotesque stammers, inserted in the story just to elicit some laughs. Viewers duly laughed, came out of the theatre, and then laughed at us, real, struggling PWS. Not just that, a majority of these stammering characters were portrayed as nervous, clueless and empty-headed. Or else, they were not quite right in the head (like Shah Rukh Khan's character in Darr.)
Movies happily perpetuated stereotypes and made money, and it is us, real people, who suffered the consequences.
Withstanding all this was difficult for me particularly when I was a child. I cried (why me?) and raged (elaborate plans of torture on those who laughed at me)—but two things sustained me through this period. One, I knew I was loved and cherished. With family and friends who thought that I was the bee's knees, it was hard to feel sorry for myself for too long! Two, I developed a thick skin very early, and insensitive comments bounced merrily off it.
In my 20s, I had gained enough confidence in my abilities to know that they would carry me through life irrespective of my stammer. Besides, I had concluded that stammering is nothing to be ashamed of. It is a quality of my speech, and though I can try to attain some fluency, it will always be a part of me, and that is okay. It also helped that my stammer didn't hurt my ability to find a job or find love. It had anyway never affected my ability to make friends.
I have absolutely no stage fear. But I didn't take on speaking situations just because I didn't want to cause people the agony of listening to me.
I had found my niche by the time I reached my 30s. A career switch brought me joy and success, and life was good. I was comfortable in most ordinary speaking situations, except that I couldn't bring myself to speak in front of a group of people (terror!) and I couldn't talk on the telephone especially to strangers (extreme terror!).
And then, my daughter happened. She turned out to be extremely inquisitive and a story-gobbling monster. And it became imperative that I talk non-stop all day, answering her questions, narrating stories, providing running commentary. For a quiet person like me, this was new territory. I got a lot of practice speaking, even if it was in front of a non-judgemental, adoring audience of one.
Even though I still stammered, I was now speaking more confidently, but my husband noticed that I was slyly palming off all telephone-related chores to him. Long story short, he helped me face my terror head on. He was gentle (some of the time—ok, most of the time) and firm (always). It took years, but I woke up one morning to find that I had completely lost my fear of the telephone.
But the final frontier remained. To stand in front of people and talk. Here's the funny thing—I have absolutely no stage fear. But I didn't take on speaking situations just because I didn't want to cause people the agony of listening to me.
Then, out of the blue, I got an invitation to conduct a storytelling session based on one of my books. My first instinct was to say no, but I said yes. And guess what? I loved it, revelled in it! Besides, my audience didn't pelt rotten tomatoes at me.
I got an invitation to conduct a storytelling session based on one of my books. My first instinct was to say no, but I said yes. And guess what? I loved it...
Around this time, I wrote a story about a girl who stammers, but wants to act in a play. I'd wanted to write a story like this for a long time—to change in my own little way the perception of PWS in books and the movies. The story was published by Duckbill Books as Manya Learns to Roar. During the making of the book, as I went through the story again and again, it struck me how Manya, my protagonist, was like me, but yet, unlike me. Both of us like the stage. But she doesn't care what people think; she wants to go on stage because she likes it. And I didn't want to go on stage because I imagined that other people wouldn't like it.
It made me think.
In the months that followed, I started taking on speaking situations, conducting storytelling sessions and writing workshops. Not only was my audience listening to me with rapt attention, some little ones even asked me to come back and conduct more sessions! Had I been needlessly worried all these years?
I'd just conquered the final bastion, and discovered two things that I never thought possible.
One, that I would be inspired by a character that came out of my own head. And two, that I would one day stand voluntarily before a bunch of strangers and speak confidently, and enjoy it.
Yes, anything is possible!