If you happen to visit the campus of Bethany Society in Shillong, Meghalaya, you might come across a young woman quietly tending the vegetable garden in the greenhouse. To speak to her you would have to know Indian Sign Language (ISL), or request Ridahun Khriam to interpret for her, as we were obliged to do.
Suroi Dozo (35) wasn’t born deaf. She grew up in Kohima, Nagaland, enjoying a happy childhood with her parents Gaujang and Khalolu Dozo, brother Jalan and four sisters Eva, Chonchon, Lily and Kuvesalu. Her father was in the police force – his last position was as superintendent of police. One day, when she was around seven, she was walking on the road when workmen who were cutting down trees shouted at her, “Go fast!” The sudden warning confused the child who proceeded at her usual pace. A tree came crashing down on her. Fortunately she didn’t lose her life, but she did lose her hearing.
Since she could no longer hear her own voice or those of people around her, she simply stopped speaking. She continued studying in her mainstream school since there were no deaf schools in Kohima at the time. She struggled with her studies but her father egged her on and also encouraged her to mingle with her classmates. “My father was a huge support for me,” she says.
In 2003, during Suroi’s eighth standard exams, her 51-year-old father passed away. She had an exam on 5 February, the day he died. Understandably, she couldn’t answer the paper successfully, nor could she concentrate on any of the other subjects. She failed Standard Eight. She mourned her father deeply, crying over his grave every day as she placed flowers on the tombstone. The sadness lingered for several months. “I used to keep praying to god to give me strength to continue my studies,” she recalls. Her prayers were answered. In 2004 she set her mind on studying for her eighth standard exams and cleared them.
It was Suroi’s uncle who then made a decision that would alter the course of her life. He took her to the well-known Deaf Biblical Ministry Secondary School in Dimapur to join Class Nine as a hosteler. Imagine Suroi’s shock when she was told that she would have to sit with the First Standard tots since she didn’t know ISL! But she rapidly acquired Signing skills and was able to complete Class 10 through NIOS, the open schooling system, without missing a single year.
Hostel life continued when she moved to Shillong to study in Bethany’s Jyoti Sroat Inclusive School for children with different disabilities. She experienced some initial hiccups in communication since the Sign she learnt in Dimapur was a little different from the ISL taught in Meghalaya, but she quickly adapted and completed Class 12 through NIOS.
Suroi joined St Anthony’s College in Shillong to do her B.A. in Philosophy. Since it was a mainstream institution with no other Deaf students she felt out of place at first but was happy to find that a boy with low vision from Jyoti Sroat had also joined the course. They used to sit on the same bench and he would help her with the notes; there was also a teacher who paid special attention to her to make sure she understood the lessons.
While studying she was also living and working at Bethany, slowly forming bonds with her colleagues. “I have made friends with so many teachers and students now,” she tells us. “At Bethany they treat everyone equally. There is equality between deaf and hearing. I am very happy to work here.” Suroi is as busy as a bee – besides tending the garden she is occupied with making orthopaedic shoes, stitching, tailoring, baking (she has done a catering course at the Institute of Hotel Management), making greeting cards and other objects out of craft paper, and of course teaching ISL. She has also completed a one-year computer course. Her pastimes are reading, travel, and watching football and cricket.
Suroi has a few simple yet profound words for the world: “Love one another. Help one another. Don’t fight. And everyone should communicate in just one Sign Language. It is so easy to learn, and it can unite us all.”