Word search

How comic Sindhu Vee cured her stam­mer

The Guardian - Weekend - - Contents - Pho­to­graphs by Richard Saker

My par­ents are hav­ing a din­ner party. One of the guests, a tall, blond Ger­man woman, Mrs Kohler, comes out of the guest bath­room. She is ac­costed by a six-year-old girl in a short white cotton vest and bloomers.

“Hello! Shouldn’t you be in bed?” Mrs Kohler asks.

“D-d-d-do y-y-y- wanna h-h-hu-” replies the girl, “-h-h-hear a juh-juh-juh-” Mrs Kohler: “A joke? Do I want to hear a joke?”

“Yes!” shouts the lit­tle girl. Both she and Mrs Kohler are tremen­dously re­lieved.

“D-d-d-d-o y-y-y-…”

Mrs Kohler, now to­tally clued in to what’s go­ing on: “Sure.”

“So, w-w-w-wuh-n-one time, there wa-wa-wa-was a mu-mu-mu-” Twenty min­utes later, Mrs Kohler is lean­ing on the wall while I tell her about the mummy frog with the big wide mouth, my favourite joke from the age of five. (I still think it’s great, by the way. And yes, my mother made my sis­ter and me wear home-tai­lored vests with bloomers to bed. No one knows why.)

When­ever I think of my­self as a lit­tle kid, I re­mem­ber

I had a stam­mer. It’s part of my iden­tity as lit­tle Sindhu, along with very short hair and over­sized hand-me-down un­der­wear. I didn’t al­ways have one. It de­vel­oped when I was about four and a half, when we left In­dia for the Philip­pines. Ac­cord­ing to my mother,

“It hap­pened on the flight to Manila. You were al­ways talk­ing, talk­ing, and then, when we got down in the air­port, you started buh-buh-buh.” That’s right: turns out fly­ing made me stam­mer. Who knew?

Of course, it’s more com­pli­cated than that. And I’m pretty sure it had some­thing to do with an il­lit­er­ate Nepalese woman with a nose pin, sep­tum pierc­ing and thick gold hoops in her ears.

When I was born, my mother was deep in grief af­ter the sud­den loss of her brother, the sib­ling she was clos­est to. The way she tells it, she “could not feel any­thing. I was like a stone.” One day, the veg­etable ven­dor who came to our home daily told my mother about his sis­ter, newly ar­rived in Delhi from a vil­lage in Nepal and in need of work. He said she could do any­thing, apart from care for a baby, be­cause she had lost two of her own shortly af­ter they were born. She had been la­belled a “witch” by her hus­band, who had thrown her out. My mother, im­plic­itly un­der­stand­ing the hor­ror of in­fant mor­tal­ity in the vil­lages, and sym­pa­thetic to a woman who was be­ing blamed for some­thing that was no fault of her own, sensed an op­por­tu­nity. She told the ven­dor his sis­ter was hired.

So Narmi Devi, of in­de­ter­mi­nate age, not young but also not old, came to our house, think­ing she was a cleaner and to­tally un­aware there was a new­born in the house. My mother took one look at her and an­nounced, in a com­bi­na­tion of sign lan­guage and Hindi (a lan­guage alien to Narmi Devi), that she was leav­ing for a few hours. “This is the house. Here is where we keep stuff to clean. Here is some milk. Here are some bot­tles. Oh, yes, and here is a baby.” Then my mother sim­ply cleared off for the day.

“Were you out of your mind?” I’ve of­ten asked her. (About many things. But es­pe­cially this.)

“Yes, I was out of my mind,” she says. “Def­i­nitely. With grief. I thought I had noth­ing to give, that I never would. But I knew this woman, when I saw her, had been sent by God. Also, I knew she would not agree if I asked her first. So I just had faith and left you with her.”

When my mother re­turned, I was fed and asleep. In the hours she was alone with me, Narmi Devi, or Ammah as

I called her and she was for ever known there­after (Ammah means “mum” in Nepalese), had wrapped rags around her hands as a bar­rier against her, in her mind, “killer touch”, and then taken care of me.

Af­ter that, my mother used both charm and not-charm to keep Ammah around. Ammah wept a fair amount, from what I un­der­stand, and was ter­ri­fied that I would die. But I didn’t. In fact, I flour­ished. So with me tied to her back, as is the way in Nepal, Ammah just got on with it. I ate on her, I slept on her. It was her I saw first thing in the morn­ing, all day and last thing be­fore bed. I was a happy, chat­ter­ing tod­dler, my mother got her wits back and started work­ing, and Ammah’s faith in why she was put on this Earth was re­stored. Win-win-win.

By the time I was two and a half, I spoke flu­ent Nepalese, and of­ten told Ammah in our lan­guage that I liked these peo­ple we worked for – the sahib, the mem­sahib and their daugh­ter (though I wasn’t com­pletely sure of the daugh­ter, to be hon­est). I think she tried to cor­rect me and ex­plain that they were my fam­ily and that she was my ayah (nanny), but I’m not sure I un­der­stood. She still prayed to the sun, first thing upon wak­ing up, and when it was cloudy, she just prayed to me. Usu­ally while I was jab­ber­ing at her be­cause I loved talk­ing, even then. I was her world and she was mine. This is who we were. I now re­alise she was also my first and most ador­ing au­di­ence.

And then, I am told by my mother, “One day we went to the air­port and we had to take you from Ammah and ev­ery­one was sad. Ammah might have passed out also. It was all very chaotic. You were scream­ing and scream­ing, but needs must and such is life and we were not leav­ing for ever, just some years. It was very hard on ev­ery­one.” When­ever I have asked, “Did Ammah know that we were go­ing to leave?” ev­ery­one is very vague, even to this day. All I know is, I got off that flight many hours later with a new, very se­ri­ous and very ob­vi­ous stam­mer. →

I didn’t al­ways have a stam­mer. It de­vel­oped when I was four, on a flight from In­dia to the Philip­pines

For the first few years, I had the stam­mer all the time. I re­mem­ber it vividly, some­thing that was al­ways with me, but whose ap­pear­ance I could never pre­dict. I re­mem­ber the un­pleas­ant drama of speak­ing – my mouth gap­ing, words stuck some­where be­tween my chest and mouth. But most of all I re­mem­ber the look on the faces of peo­ple to whom I was speak­ing: the shock, the dis­com­fort and the re­coil.

The other thing I re­mem­ber is that I had some­thing to say all the time. And not just in “safe spa­ces” – even in class, by far the most glad­i­a­to­rial of are­nas in which to dis­play my weak­ness. Even be­fore teach­ers had fin­ished ask­ing their ques­tion, my hand would shoot up (pick me, pick me, oh please pick me), de­spite know­ing I was un­likely to be able to get the words out. I would then stand, mouth open, eyes dart­ing around, say­ing noth­ing (or, worse, gur­gling); de­ri­sive laugh­ter, along with the teacher’s ad­mon­ish­ment to the class, ring­ing in my ears.

I stam­mered a lit­tle less at home, but din­ner­time was al­ways tense. When my fa­ther asked my sis­ter and me about our day, I was so keen to tell him that in­vari­ably he’d ask me first and then, well, that was pretty much it. My poor sis­ter would have to sit there while I, in ag­o­nis­ing de­tail, down­loaded ev­ery iota of in­for­ma­tion (“m-m-m-y ba-ba-ba-nana w-w-w-was q-q-quite m-m-m-ushy”). I asked her re­cently what it was like to have so lit­tle air­time. Her re­sponse was sim­ple: “You and your con­stant need to talk were a mon­u­men­tal pain in my arse for as long as I can re­mem­ber.” Fair enough. My fa­ther did not once hurry me or try to fill in my blanks. He just lis­tened. He was the only per­son in my life who never shrank back or be­came im­pa­tient as I wres­tled with my stam­mer.

My mother was al­ways busy run­ning back and forth from the kitchen, and usu­ally joined din­ner three-quar­ters of the way through. This was my cue to pare back, be­cause in her typ­i­cal, no-non­sense style, she’d say, “Oh God, this joke is tak­ing too long. We will have for­got­ten how to laugh by the end. Tell your fa­ther later.”

No one ever said my stam­mer was a big deal, so I just as­sumed it wasn’t. It was ridiculed, it made me anx­ious about 95% of my wak­ing day, but no one ever said it was a “prob­lem” of any kind. So I tried to find my own way around it. By the time I was about nine, I’d worked out that:

1 I stam­mered at the start of a sen­tence, but once I got go­ing, I could man­age, un­less…

2 I came to a word that be­gan with a vowel sound. Then all bets were off. The word “and” was my neme­sis.

3 Words that be­gan with a con­so­nant were my friends. Even at the start of a sen­tence, where, if I drew a deep (very un­nat­u­ral-sound­ing, I should add) breath just be­fore the word, I could get it out smoothly and be on my way. I would like to tell you that I re­alised these trig­gers be­cause I am a ge­nius. Ac­tu­ally, I re­alised them be­cause my stam­mer never stopped me from try­ing to tell peo­ple stuff. And the more I spoke, the more I in­creased my chances of get­ting ku­dos for the cor­rect an­swer in class or, some­thing I cov­eted far more, a laugh af­ter one of my jokes (which, if you could sit through them, were of­ten amus­ing, even my sis­ter con­cedes). The ef­fect of one piece of praise was ex­po­nen­tial. My stam­mer notwith­stand­ing, I just prac­tised talk­ing so much that I be­gan to see the pat­terns.

Once I re­alised what they were, I wasted lit­tle time in try­ing to cir­cum­vent these trip­wires: on sev­eral oc­ca­sions, just be­fore I was about to im­plode on a vowel word, I swapped it for a con­so­nant one that had roughly the same mean­ing; and, hey presto, no stricken gasp­ing, no shame, just laugh­ter at my joke. I knew ex­actly where to find these words: my fa­ther was the proud owner of sev­eral leather-bound ref­er­ence tomes – the En­cy­clo­pe­dia Bri­tan­nica, a cream-and-dark-green-with-gold-let­ter­ing set of med­i­cal en­cy­clo­pe­dias (ex­plains my hypochon­dria), an A3-sized at­las and a leather-bound the­saurus. He en­cour­aged us to read all of these “at our leisure”. (He is still a power nerd, just fyi.)

I took my fa­ther’s sug­ges­tion to heart. Af­ter school, I pored over that the­saurus, learn­ing words to re­place the dreaded vowel words. Start­ing with that bas­tard “and” (more­over, plus, fur­ther­more). And it worked. Slowly at first, but it worked.

It helped that we moved back to In­dia when I was al­most 11, and I had to learn Hindi and San­skrit. I think be­ing un­sure in new lan­guages, but for rea­sons that no one mocked me for, made my dis­com­fort in English man­age­able. Also, I now went to a very English con­vent school and my in­cred­i­ble vo­cab­u­lary made me quite the clever clogs.

Oh, and one other thing about re­turn­ing to In­dia: Ammah moved back in with us. We re­sumed our close­ness as if I’d been strapped to her back and she’d been pray­ing to my face on cloudy days for the last five years.

When I was 13, I en­tered the con­vent’s mono­logue com­pe­ti­tion. It was my first time on stage: hands clasped, el­bows at right an­gles in front of me. I’d writ­ten my speech my­self, care­ful to avoid the words that would trip me up. When the ap­plause broke, it felt so elec­tric and so per­fect that I would hap­pily have walked over burn­ing coals while recit­ing And As Ap­ples Ap­pear Ar­bi­trar­ily Above And Over Amidst Ar­maged­don just to have had a shot at that high again.

That high is the feel­ing of be­ing fully heard, and recog­nised by the lis­tener – a recognition best com­mu­ni­cated via laugh­ter. Which is why standup com­edy has ended up be­com­ing my home.

Through all the years that I in­sisted on talk­ing de­spite my stam­mer, it is this high I was chas­ing. I didn’t know it then, and I cer­tainly didn’t know it when, grin­ning in an­tic­i­pa­tion, I fi­nally ended my joke about the mummy frog, and Mrs Kohler burst out laugh­ing.

But I know now

Sindhu Vee: Sand­hog is at Soho Theatre, Lon­don, from 7-19 Jan­uary and tour­ing na­tion­ally un­til April. Tick­ets at sind­hu­vee.com.

I pored over the the­saurus, learn­ing words to re­place the dreaded vowel words, start­ing with ‘and’ (more­over, plus, fur­ther­more)

Vee with Ammah, her nanny, who looked af­ter her un­til she was four and a half. ‘I ate on her, I slept on her… I was her world and she was mine’

Sindhu (right) with fam­ily friends. ‘My stam­mer never stopped me from try­ing to tell peo­ple stuff. I cov­eted laughs af­ter one of my jokes’

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from UK

© PressReader. All rights reserved.