Six months ago, Sonam Kejriwal’s mother Nisha was murdered by their 20-year-old neighbour in Kanpur. The Kejriwals had known the family for decades, and had watched the boy grow up. He had taken advantage of Nisha being alone at home in the afternoon, and had entered the home with the pretext of working on their laptop.
When Nisha went to the kitchen to get him something to drink, he broke open her cupboard and stole a large amount of cash and jewellery. On seeing what he was up to, the stunned middle-aged woman asked him, “Kya kar rahe ho beta (What are you doing, son)?” Those were the last words she ever spoke.
Afraid that she would tell his parents, the boy Aditya ‘Raghav’ Narayan, the scion of a wealthy cinema-owner, battered Nisha with a hammer he had concealed under his clothes. As she fell on the floor, Raghav smothered her with a pillow. Still not satisfied that she was dead, he took out a knife and slashed her face and body, and crushed her face with the hammer. Then he coolly left the home with his stash. The next day he fled to Mumbai.
Sonam had last spoken to her mother at 2 pm – “Mummy always made it a point to call me post lunch to check if I’d eaten.” In the evening, her father called her, “Come home immediately.”
Rushing from Lucknow – where she works with Indian Oil – to Kanpur, Sonam was struck with an ominous feeling. Nothing would ever be the same again.
Until July 2017, the biggest challenge in Sonam’s life had been her hearing impairment. She was fitted with hearing aids at a very young age, something that made her mother uncomfortable. “People can see my baby has a problem,” the gentle, old-fashioned homemaker mourned.
But Sonam’s father, a businessman who had been through much struggle and the loss of his own loved ones early in life, was unfazed. His daughter’s hearing impairment was a minor issue for him, and he always made sure to get her the best hearing aids money could buy. The technology got better as she grew older, and she can now wear aids that are customized to her needs.
Even so, Sonam struggled through childhood not just due the physical hindrance but also social ostracism in small-town Kanpur. Trained to read lips and correlate it with the sounds in her ears, she could not pick up loudspeaker announcements, or what her teachers said with their backs turned, or movies without subtitles.
With the support of her parents and two siblings, besides her exceptional intelligence and photographic memory, she managed to complete her schooling with top marks, and made it to engineering college in Pune.
Sonam’s younger sister Sonali had a major role to play in helping her cope: speaking out movie dialogues to her, re-playing hit songs to help Sonam understand the lyrics, being her personal jukebox and partner.
“My family was always focused on me, and Sonali got very less attention all through childhood,” recalls Sonam. “When I went to college, I told her, now go live your own life.”
Working twice as hard as her peers, Sonam graduated as a chemical engineer, and then did her MBA. She joined Indian Oil in 2012, where she is now part of the team implementing the government’s much acclaimed Ujjwala Yojana.
Workplace challenges – such as needing to look at colleagues face-to-face, and intolerance for noisy environments (which jumble up the sounds in her ears) – have been smoothened out over the years, for which Sonam credits her colleagues and India’s public-sector HR policies that mainstream the disabled in many ways.
But, at 32, the struggle to find a life partner continues with matrimonial ads yielding only humiliating results. “My mother constantly worried about getting me married,” says Sonam, sadly. She is no longer bothered about her relationship status: “Whoever I marry will be the luckiest guy in the world.”
After her mother’s death, Sonam and her family were caught up in police business and dealing with the media in what turned out to be a high-profile case that shook up Kanpur. Though the police caught Raghav just days after the murder, the family have yet to come to terms with the fateful tragedy and immense grief.
And yet, talkative and confident as always, Sonam has made disability and loss “a fuel to her fire”: “I got acclimatized to overcoming obstacles early on in life. I can now handle anything.”
This is how you can tell if a child or adult has a hearing impairment:
- They tend to look at your eyes and lips when you speak
- They frequently ask you to repeat what you said
- They have difficulty talking on the phone (since they cannot read the lips)
- Their speech is not clear
Sonam suggests these ways to deal with someone with hearing impairment:
Speak slowly: Just slowing down your pace can help them comprehend your words better.
Minimize background noise: Hearing aids often jumble up ambient sounds so the noisier it is, the more headache-inducing for the hearing-impaired.
Speak a bit louder, but don’t shout: It is amplified in their ears and is somewhat demeaning.
Don’t cover your mouth when you speak: Lips don’t lie! For the same reason, don’t speak while looking away from the person. Wait until they are positioned face-to-face.
Don’t talk with your mouth full: There’s a reason the hearing-impaired can’t stand those who chew pan masala!
Communicate through writing: That’s what WhatsApp is for.