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September 9, 1998


The Rediff Interview/Satish Gujral

'When the first wave of sound hit me, I screamed out: I hear firecrackers!'

E-Mail this story to a friend Satish Gujral From when he was ten, Satish Gujral has not heard a single sound. But that did not stop him from emerging as one of India's greatest living artists. A renowned painter, sculptor, architect who did not allow his deafness to stop him from having his say. Now, suddenly, after 62 years of silence, Gujral has undergone surgery Down Under to restore his hearing. What is it like, to suddenly find oneself in the midst of all this cacophony, this noise? The former prime minister's sibling tells Pritish Nandy.

What exactly is this surgery you have undergone in Australia, to restore your hearing?

They have installed in my inner ear, a little distance from my cochlear, a coin-sized implant with 24 electrodes. With wires. Each wire is connected to the hearing nerve. That is how sound now reaches my brain.

Rather complex surgery, it appears.

Not just complex but also dangerous, because it is difficult to reach the inner ear. It is a spiral. A tunnel that goes very deep in. It is supposed that the hearing nerves have about 150 cells. The cochlear is very small. So at very best there is space for only 24 electrodes on the implant. These 24 electrodes are wired to cope with the 150 cells that work the hearing nerves. That is the limitation.

Like a piano with limited strings may not always get the right pitch, these 24 electrodes send electrical signals to the nerves to try and reactivate them so that a person who is deaf can hear again. They are not always adequate to get the entire pitch right but that is how I have started hearing again.

How do you manage to interpret sounds after 62 years of absolute silence? Do you have to re-learn what each sound stands for?

The sounds that I hear are electronic. The nerves discharge the sound through the same wires to the computer outside. There is this magnet. It is placed outside, on the very spot where the implant is inside. It stays there by magnetic force. The computer interprets the sounds for me.

This implant needed, I would imagine, delicate intra-skull surgery.

Satish with brother Inder Gujral Well, it took over three hours for the surgeon to drill a hole in my skull. Then came the rest of the surgery and the implant, which took another half an hour. It requires very special equipment and that is why I did not agree to do it in Bombay even though the Hindujas asked me several times. The doctor wanted to do it with his own team, in his own hospital.

He warned me about three possibilities. One: facial paralysis on the side where the operation was to be done. In five per cent cases, it has happened. Second: losing all sense of taste. In the tongue. This usually lasts six months to one year. Third: vertigo. After years of silence and incomplete functioning, the brain feels disoriented. It loses balance at times. I had to give in writing that I was willing to undergo these risks.

How do you know, how do you identify what the sounds you hear mean?

It is difficult. The nerves have been inactive for years! I have to learn the speech process like a child. On the other hand, I am helped by the fact that over the years I have learnt how to lip read. This gives me an approximate idea of what you are saying right now. I am helped along by the speech processor in my computer which processes the raw sounds and sends them to my brain in a codified manner. This helps me understand, analyse sound.

You are right. My brain has not heard for so long that it has forgotten how to identify sounds. I am like, they say, a child of two years. Who has to be taught the basics all over again. This is the sky. This is a tree. That is how the child identifies the sounds with what you show him. That is why, slowly and slowly, I am learning what stands for what, which sound indicates what. It is a learning process. Learning from scratch, Pritish.

For example, three days after the surgery, I was first able to identify the sound of a telephone. Once I did that, every time thereafter it rang, I could recognise it. One day, in Sydney, early in the morning, I was sitting in this totally soundless place, when I suddenly heard a strange sound. So I asked Kiran what it was. She laughed and explained to me that it was the chatter of birds. Now I can recognise it wherever I go, whenever I hear it. That is how I am acquiring knowledge, understanding, experience.

Sound byte by sound byte?

Absolutely. I am slowly coming to terms with a world I am unfamiliar with. The world of sound. Frankly, I do not expect to ever reach a stage where I can totally do without the chip that interprets sound for me. But who knows? I may even learn to do that one day! Technology is an amazing thing.

Tell me, how did you speak when you did not understand sound? Most people who do not hear cannot speak. How did you maintain partial contact with sound?

That was my peculiar case. That is why the doctor agreed to do this operation. Not many cases have been accepted for this kind of surgery. He studied my case for a long time and, despite the fact that I had not heard sound for more than six decades, agreed to do the operation because he saw that I could speak. I was, in fact, the only case they had with speech intact after deafness. I had, as you said, some partial familiarity with sound. That was a great help.

Today I can hear and understand hundred per cent those whom I know, I am familiar with. Like, say, Kiran. Now that I have been speaking to you for so long, I will possibly understand most of what you say. But I do not think that I can fully comprehend what complete strangers say. I have to go through this learning process every time.

Like the laptop that responds to speech? It takes time before the chip understands the user's accent.

Absolutely right. The chip in my hearing computer will also take time to understand new, unfamiliar sounds and accents.

You speak English with a pronounced Punjabi accent. My English is accented like a Bengali's. How does your computer handle this variance in sound? How does it differentiate when different people say the same thing in different accents?

I never knew English before I became deaf. I was only 10 years of age and English was not taught in the school where I studied. I learnt English only when I was 31. Till then I knew only Punjabi. But I can lip-read any language I know.

You mean you learnt English -- which you have been speaking for all these years -- without ever having heard a single word of the language! That, too, at 31?

Satish Gujral You are right. There was no other way I could interact with the world. I was forced to learn English when I was travelling and staying abroad. In Mexico, I realised that if I did not know English, my communication skills were even less.

What was your first reaction when you gained consciousness and opened your eyes after the surgery?

They put me in a room with all kinds of monitoring equipment and then quietly stood in another room, watching. To see what happens when the first wave of sound hits me.

It was like firecrackers! When the first wave hit me, I screamed out aloud and said: I hear firecrackers everywhere! But before I could hear their reactions, I was stunned to hear my own voice. So I repeated it again and again and again, to hear myself speak.

But how did you know what firecrackers sounded like?

I had heard about them. It was verbal memory. Not audio.

I also realised that I could actually control the volume of what I was saying. So I started saying it in different ways. Slowly, with total control. Faster. Louder. Softer. It was like a game I was playing with myself. I could not believe it! I could not get used to it for a while. Like a child, I played with my own voice -- till I discovered that I could actually hear better and more than most people around me.

Yes, that is the difference. Today I hear better than most people but it will still take me some time to interpret what I hear, to understand what each sound stands for, means. That is where the computer chip comes in. It is my friend, my ally, my interpreter. Together, we are now ready to face the brave new world of the future.

'Inder realised that such disregard for others is manifested by people who suddenly breathe the intoxicating draughts of absolute power'

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