When Madan Vasishta arrived in Washington from India in the fall of 1967, he had $43 in hand and little else. A 26-year-old former cattle shepherd-turned-photographer, Vasishta was also profoundly deaf. He’d come to the District on a scholarship to Gallaudet College (now University), “the Mecca of the Deaf World,” as he puts it. But in this inspiring memoir, Vasishta says his arrival in the capital was even more disorienting than he’d expected. He could not read lips or understand American Sign Language, so he resorted to communicating in writing, “mostly with the index finger, scrawling words across a palm.”
Vasishta writes about such obstacles with aplomb, rarely expressing anger, even at the airline that lost the bag carrying all of his belongings. Humility and gratitude suffuse this slender if disjointed coming-to-America tale that just happens to be about a man who cannot hear.
“Deaf in DC” begins where Vasishta left off in his 2006 memoir “Deaf in Delhi,” which described his childhood in India. (At age 11 he lost his hearing after a bout of typhoid fever and mumps.) In this sequel, he occasionally reminisces about his life in India, where he left his family, including a new wife. Mostly, though, Vasishta thrills at his American experience as he acclimates, if awkwardly, to everything from soda machines (“The vending machine had a refrigerator built into it. I was amazed”) to the concept of privacy (“In India, almost everything one does is like an open book”). He also learns to be accepted as part of a deaf minority.
Initially, Vasishta had planned to stay here for only six years, but his ambitions and love for his new country grew. To make ends meet, he gave up cigarettes and coffee from those vending machines. He took odd jobs, including one at The Washington Post, where he inserted advertising supplements into the paper at night. Vasishta eventually earned a master’s degree and later a doctorate and began teaching, which allowed him to get a small apartment, bring his wife to America and start a family.
Now an associate professor in the department of administration and supervision at Gallaudet, Vasishta offers a rare window inside the deaf world and, in particular, deaf education. He chronicles the change in technology along with pedagogy, such as the development of schools where signing is taught along with speech. A longtime advocate of Indian Sign Language, Vasishta has written four books on the subject and is a believer in the deaf teaching the deaf. “Deafness,” he writes, “is all about communication or lack thereof.” With his book, he has found another way to be heard.
Hall writes about arts and education.
DEAF IN DC
By Madan Vasishta