When Prasanta Parida from Baliput in Odisha’s Puri district tells us, “Many people in our village know Sign Language,” we can’t help thinking that 12-year-old Sonali was responsible. Hearing-impaired Sonali, the eldest of three girls born to Prasanta and Kuni Parida, often serves customers in her father’s small grocery shop. Wouldn’t they be obliged to learn Sign?
Sonali, an eighth standard student of a school for the Deaf, seems to have become a ‘point source’ of Indian Sign Language (ISL), inadvertently and singlehandedly disseminating it in her village! Her friends whom she plays with in the evenings also communicate in Sign. Her parents and sisters Rupali and Mitali, who were keen on formal training in ISL, attended classes at a private centre in Chandanpur and a government centre in Ogalpur in Gop district.
When Rakesh Pradhan of Jogamaya Charitable Trust took photographer Vicky Roy to the Parida household, Sonali was around because her school has remained shut since the onset of the pandemic. However, teachers come home every morning to take tuition and “she insists they eat lunch before they leave, otherwise she gets upset”, says her father.
By keeping shop and cultivating rice, Prasanta supports his family which includes his mother and his father who is disabled with paralysis. His store also sells cold drinks and betel-leaf paan. “Sonali knows how to manage the shop, hand over the items customers ask for, and prepare varieties of paan according to their choice,” he says. “Her only difficulty is when someone gives her a large note; she cannot quickly calculate and return the change!”
Prasanta characterises Sonali as a cheerful child who is always smiling. “When she was younger she used to throw tantrums when her wishes were not fulfilled,” he says, “but now she is mature enough to understand that I cannot buy her everything she asks for, like a new dress on every festival.” Art keeps her engrossed: she draws images she sees in books or on TV and uses pencil, pen or paint to colour them.
In this family, Sign has taken precedence over aids and appliances. Four or five years ago Prasanta and Kuni, looking for a ‘cure’, took Sonali to doctors in Puri, Cuttack and Bhubaneswar. They recommended cochlear implants that cost lakhs of rupees, which Prasanta could ill afford. He got her a hearing aid which she tried on and rejected. She can lip-read when necessary and even verbalise, though not distinctly. At 7 p.m. every evening, when the family gathers to chant verses from the Bhagavad Gita, Sonali reads from the book in sync with the others although she cannot chant.
“What she is now is her ‘normal’ and she is used to it,” says Prasanta simply, adding, “Nowadays disabled people are becoming IAS officers and excelling in different fields, so I hope God has some big plans for her.”