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  who's who >> Verve >> Suniti Dixit


Living With Silence

My brother was the biggest influence on me. He was so self-confident, so blind to the reaction of the world around him. He didn’t need too much support or sympathy from anyone.

Two decades ago, Suniti Dixit and her team went from door to door, begging parents to send their hearing impaired children to the special school, Vikas Vidyalaya, instead of keeping them behind closed doors. Today, many years and several changes later, the Mumbai-based, National Award-winning institute continues to help rehabilitate the children of a lesser god. DEEPALI NANDWANI spends a day with the spunky principal and her winsome wards.

Ten-year-old Shivani wants to shake my hand. She is curious about this stranger who is paying a visit to her school on a sunny December afternoon.

Rahul, the six-year-old imp, a favourite with his teachers, is celebrating his birthday today, and expects me to take all the chocolates he offers.

Nishant is nervous. This is his first day at school, and he is not quite sure how to react to all the machines around him in the infant training room, where he is being tested for how much hearing capacity he has left.

It is just another day at Vikas Vidyalaya, India’s premier institute for the hearing handicapped or in politically correct terms, the hearing challenged. The 50-something Suniti Dixit is known as Sunititai, in the narrow corridors of the school that occupies the ground floors of two adjacent buildings. She knows each child by name and always takes time to smile at the children, play with them and talk to them. Outside and around the institute, sprawls the Maharashtrian-dominated neighbourhood of Dadar, which is oblivious to the work the school is doing in rehabilitating children who can neither hear, nor speak.

Dixit has been at the school for over two decades now and has seen it go through immense change and transformation. "The best year was 1992, when we received a National Award for doing ground-breaking work in the education of the hearing impaired," she ruminates. "It was one of the most emotional phases, since we had never thought we would get such recognition. Working with these children can be both exhilarating and frustrating; the latter, because of societal rejection and the lack of support from people."

Pune-born Dixit, presently the principal of Vikas Vidyalaya, has rewritten the fate of over 122 students, boys and girls with special needs. Though not founded by her, but by a group of women led by social worker, Rohini Limaye — who set up Jankibai Shikshan Sanstha, in 1996, the trust which runs the school — Dixit is the hands-on person, the woman in the driver’s seat as Limaye is no longer associated with either the school or the trust.

Dixit’s impetus to work with the deaf came from her own brother, Suresh Gokhale, and her sister-in-law, neither of whom can hear or speak. A commercial artist and an animator, Suresh has been honoured with the National Award for the Handicapped, for his ability to generate self-employment.

The initial years were not easy for the Gokhale family. ‘The first reaction is always shock," muses Dixit. "My parents went through this phase of disbelief and rejection, which was very painful." Luckily, for them, Suresh was a spunky child. He was insistent on getting a decent education, which forced their mother, Usha, to search for ways in which she could deal with his need to express and create.

"My dad, Shyamrao Gokhale, an artist himself, was a very simple man and had no clue what to do. But mom was more outgoing. She, along with a friend, Malati Joshi, approached the Pune Commissioner, H. G. Barve. He helped them set up the V. R. Ruia School for the hearing impaired."

Dixit, a child then, was closely observing all this hectic activity. Curiosity made her tag along with her mom on several trips to the commissioner’s office and later on, the school. "My brother was the biggest influence on me. He was so self-confident, so blind to the reaction of the world around him. He didn’t need too much support or sympathy from anyone."

It was natural, then, for her to opt to do a Diploma in Education for the Hearing Impaired. In 1981, she hit Mumbai’s shores after marriage to an engineer, Arun Dixit. Immediately, she joined Vikas Vidyalaya, which was by then a well-established institution. "When I stepped into the school on the first day, it felt like home," smiles this simple Maharashtrian lady, even as she sips on the masala tea that’s gone tepid.

Dixit’s own kids are grown up and have moved on, to live their own lives, which gives her time to run the school and raise funds for it.

She is full of anecdotes about the students, whom she refers to as her children. Sagar Patil, for instance, one of the most brilliant students Vikas Vidyalaya has produced, is presently studying for a diploma in Electronics and Telecommunications at VJTI, Mumbai. She reveals how they were one of the first few NGOs to approach corporates for funding, and count the Jindal family and the L&T group as their biggest funders, besides patrons like Jaya Bachchan.

Vikas Vidyalaya is set to move into its own building at Dadar itself. The school is well equipped with a computer lab and an infant training centre, where children upto the age of four years, as well as their parents, are trained and counselled.

Every child spends at least three to four years in the play group and what they call, the infant junior and senior classes, where they are provided with a hearing aid. The teachers try to speak to them as far as possible, so they begin understanding lip movement and pick up sounds, words and their meanings. Action, words, drawings, graphs, toys, pictures and other visual aids are used to teach the child. "The first four years are the most crucial," contends Dixit. "If the handicap is not detected early, the child is always at a disadvantage."

Once the child reaches the senior classes, say the sixth or the seventh standard, he or she studies regular school subjects along with computers, craft and dance. Training in vocational subjects like screen printing, book binding and drawing is also offered.

Obviously, Dixit has come a long way. Two decades ago, she and her team had to go from door to door and beg parents to send their hearing impaired children to the school, instead of keeping them behind closed doors. "I remember this girl whose parents refused to accept she was deaf. It was very painful. We could see that the girl needed special education. She could not cope with the normal school she was going to and was turning into a recluse. The psychological trauma was too much for the parents and the child."

It gets worse for the female child in a society that has a cultural bias working against them. Having a girl is bad enough; having one with a hearing handicap is catastrophic. "What really riles me is the society’s attitude towards the children. At times, even parents are ignorant about what’s good for their child. Or they don’t want to accept." Yet, Dixit clings on to hope. "It is a challenge, one that I enjoy thoroughly. My duties as a mother are over, my offspring are well settled. Now, my life revolves around these kids and their little joys and sorrows."