Life on Stutter Island

First Person

Life on Stutter Island

Illustration: Sushant Ahire

I’m stuck at the window of an immigration officer, holding up the queue behind me, unable to respond to the officer’s straightforward question. He looks irritated, but I am frozen with an icy terror, aware of the arrested words that will take their own sweet time to slip off my tongue. I start – haltingly – and trip on one, my anxiety rising along with the colour in my cheeks. But unexpectedly, the officer softens, and asks me to take my time with the sentence.

This happens to me often. When you’ve lived with a lifelong stutter, you realise that everyone you talk to seems to have immeasurable patience. To listen to you. To wait for you to complete a word you’ve been trying to say for a minute, even when you do not.

The most enduring memory of my childhood, does not include hours of unstructured playtime. It does not include poring over books, or being locked in a steady staring contest with the television. What I remember instead, is sitting on an uncomfortable wooden stool, an alien object scoping the landscape of my mouth, trying to ascertain where the potholes were.

I must have been six when I was first dragged to a speech therapist to cure my stutter. My mother looking at me, with a combination of hope and dread, as the doctor dredged what looked like a wooden ice cream stick from the tip of my strangely forked tongue to somewhere beneath it. Against the jaw, reaching the juncture from where speech emanates. There was an anomaly of a fibre that separates my tongue from its base.

If you ask a man of medicine, it is ankyloglossia. If you ask a man of suffering, it is loneliness. I knew that I wasn’t in the grips of a life-threatening disease or a terminal illness with a finite, foreseeable end to my miseries. I knew this was my lot – the burden I had to bear on my own throughout life.

My many pauses have been instructive in the profound beauty of silence. Where words falter, or where there are no words, there is always meaning.

So I spent my days alone, in and out of the wooden-stick-and-toffee sessions – colouring inane figures long into the afternoon, breathing the miracle of the words I could not say into their supposed utterances.

The fibre of ankyloglossia is a vengeful syllable: When you do not allow its utterance, it stifles voice, meaning, even your life. Speech therapy deserted my stutter with a slew of exercises. If you rhythmically twist your tongue to the sounds of pee-tee-kay, the ankyloglossia will either be fooled unto symphony, or understand that the narrator is as desperate to speak as it is to inhibit. The trickery of pee-tee-kay is the effortless hope of the disability.

In the hope of the same trickery, I would put myself through conscientious practice. But even the rigour of pee-tee-kay fails in the face of real-life situations. Phone calls necessitated excruciating rehearsals. All forms of public speaking, including rudimentary academic presentations, were unadulterated dread. The battle is not merely procedural – it is potently emotional. My classrooms would be redolent with a sense of inadequacy; “shy kid who does not speak much or at all” was a seasoned description whose burden lasted a childhood.

You read the stutter in the eyes of your mother, ruthless and tender in improving you. She tells you that excellence is a prerequisite to have people ignore your stutter. You believe her. You read the stutter in the eyes of your father, vociferously reminding every relative who will listen that the smartest people in history have stuttered – Churchill, Nehru, even Hrithik Roshan. Have you heard him singing? There is not one pause, and how he sings! Ankyloglossia is not your disability, he tells me; it is normal speech that cannot parallel the dazzling ferocity of your thought.

You read it in the eyes of friends. They will, more often than kindness happens, wait for you to complete your sentence, even as your eyes, like your heart, have dropped in familiar mortification.

And then, one day, you stop feeling sorry for yourself. You stop trying to beat the stutter. You stop trying to deal with it. You even stop trying to live with it. Instead, you become friends with it.

As someone who has stuttered for nearly two decades of their living and working life and was very nearly defined by it, it was only when I refused to accept the narrative of my life as that of exclusive victimhood was a I truly able to let go of it. My stutter might have been my humiliation, but it has also been my vulnerability. And in being vulnerable, we are rendered human.

My stutter has taught me that language is fallible, too finite, too rarefied to inhabit the messiness of the world and its other tongues. My many pauses have been instructive in the profound beauty of silence. Where words falter, or where there are no words, there is always meaning.

Having established a semblance of control over my stutter after years of trying, I am asked if it has, like the proverbial ghost, “left” me now. To this, I can only answer with another question. Of course the stutter leaves, but does it ever leave? I do know, however, that I want to remember it beyond the sting of victimhood.

Yes, to write that we suffered, and that we suffered very much. But as a friend recently reminded me, write also that we were warriors.