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Travel and World Culture   
 Photo: VJ Sathish
 Photo: Michael Chen

Searching For Silence In India
By Audrey Bellon

Ramakrishna is twenty minutes late; all I manage to do in that time is wrestle a blank reservation form from Counter Number 1. I have forgotten the first tenet of living in India: always bring a pen; so, unwilling to give up my place in line, I stand with the blank form in hand, listening to the fans churn endlessly overhead. Finally Ramakrishna arrives carrying an oversized brown envelope. He has no pen.

“What happened to the one you keep around your neck?” I ask.

“It’s hot,” he signs, waving his hands against his face like a swooning Victorian. Summer has just started in this city of three seasons: winter, summer, and monsoon, and everyone has done away with their pashminas and wool caps in favor of short-sleeved shirts and cotton trousers.

Ramakrishna gestures to a man in a suit who pulls a shiny plastic pen from his inside pocket. He hands it to Ramakrishna with a flourish. Ramakrishna offers him the South Indian thank you, a slight tilt of the head. I have not yet learned to distinguish this from “yes” or “no.”

Ramakrishna starts to fill out the form in his angular, childish scrawl. “DFDB,” he writes next to his own name.

“Doesn’t that bother you?” I ask.

“I get half off,” he replies.

“But it says ‘deaf and dumb.’”

Ramakrishna just shrugs. “Yeah,” he says, “Deaf and dumb.” He signs this last word by thumping his fist against his head. Then he shrugs again. He is used to the terminology, and as a hearing foreigner I can’t really argue. The railway concession only applies to deaf people who do not speak, not to people who lose their hearing late in life or to those congenitally deaf people who communicate orally and read lips. I ran across a letter to the editor in a national newspaper complaining that this policy encourages deaf children not to learn to speak. Ramakrishna is like most of the other deaf people in Bangalore; he was born deaf and went to a school for the deaf where speaking was encouraged; but all the kids communicated with each other in sign language.

The line isn’t moving, so we decide to try the “disabled” window, where there is no line at all. Ramakrishna walks up to the glass, but the man turns him away. “Next window,” the man says.

Ramakrishna points to the “disabled” sign. The man shrugs and waves him back into line.

The man in the suit lets us back in line. We give him his pen back. When we reach the front of the line twenty minutes later, Ramakrishna hands over his giant envelope: an audiogram and a doctor’s letter proving he is deaf. It turns out I also get to travel for half-price as a “Deaf and Dumb Companion.” The woman at the counter has to look up the special code for this in her thick, battered directory.

We walk out into the glaring sun. Ramakrishna hops onto his battered motorcycle, saying he will meet me in front of the train fifteen minutes before it leaves. I arrive at the station at 9:30 PM; Samar, who has traveled down from Delhi for the trip, is waiting, a heavy backpack on his shoulders. He is hoping to stay in the villages for a long time.

Pessimistically, Ramakrishna and I booked tickets to come back the night after we arrive. “We can always change them,” I explain to Samar. He still believes the “deaf villages” are real although several people have told us they are a myth. We have shared our respective archives of information: the articles from Indian newspapers about charity projects to “cure” deafness in the villages; a documentary on the “silent villages;” an article with the headline “They Could Hear the Birds Singing Again.” I believed it enough to come to India. Samar believed it enough to write about it in his PhD dissertation proposal. Ramakrishna has heard the rumors and wants to see for himself.

It is my first time riding sleeper class. A hijra, part of the transgendered or “eunuch” community, comes into the car to ask for change. Ramakrishna gives him a rupee. “It’s good luck,” he explains. Two little boys come into the car, begging for food. The younger boy has one white, glazed-over eye. They hold out their hands, but Ramakrishna goes on signing about the hijra. The boys giggle. The younger boy starts to imitate Ramakrishna’s signs, then branches out into his own, over-dramatic gestures. He moves his arms like an airplane landing, or an eagle. He points at us, makes a few more gestures with his hands, then giggles. He asks for food again. Samar tells him to go away in Hindi. The boy probably understands that word in several languages, but he doesn’t leave until the train sways a little, preparing to move.

When the train finally leaves the station, a cool breeze floods the car. Our neighbors are mostly merchants and businessmen. They talk incessantly on their cell phones. A few Buddhist monks in burgundy robes settle in early for the night. Samar places all of our shoes in a plastic bag and ties it to his bunk. He uses his backpack as a pillow, so that he sleeps sitting up.


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