THE poet Iqbal dreamt of a world of stillness that could be the envoy of speech. Painter, sculptor and architect Satish Gujral dreamt. And found the reverse of Iqbal's dream. On June 13 this year, Gujral, one of India's foremost artists, regained his powers of hearing after 62 years of silence. Deaf since the age of 10, after he accidentally fell into a turbulent river, the 72-year-old artist says: "I may or may not get back what is called normal sound. But just entry into the world of sound is something like being born again."
Recuperating in Sydney, Australia, where he was operated upon for a Cochlear Implant, Gujral talks about how, despite his many artistic achievements, the desire to break free from the shroud of silence remained. "I had been making enquiries about Cochlear Implants ever since it began to be talked about in medical journals more than a decade back," he says.
Gujral's hearing impairment, described as 'nerve deafness', was in fact not the failure of the hearing nerves, but the failure of the middle ear to convey, by electric waves, sound impulses to the hearing nerve, which may have remained undamaged. The Cochlear Implant is a set of electrodes, in Gujral's case 24, that carry electrical impulses to the hearing nerve to revive its functions. While the part containing the electrodes is surgically implanted, a computerised speech processor, similar to a hearing aid, is placed outside.
"It was only early this year that I decided to take the plunge," says Gujral. 'Plunge' because the treatment, apart from not promising any definite results, involves risks like facial paralysis or losing the sense of taste. Wife Kiran had misgivings, believing that the possible side-effects and pain might not be worth the risk. But says daughter Raseel: "I was all for it and put the chances at 80-20. But what has happened is unbelievable. It's great news."
Gujral's faith in the treatment was buoyed by the fact that the implant at the Mater Hospital, Sydney, would be performed by the renowned surgeon Professor Gibson. He has performed the largest number of implants and not one of his patients have reported permanent side-effects. It was a challenge for Gibson too, as none of his previous cases had suffered from such a lengthy duration of deafness as in Gujral's case.
The artist describes the night before the surgery as one of sleeplessness. "I had doubts about my capacity to undergo the painstaking process of audiological training that follows the surgery and comprises 75 per cent of the treatment," he says. The hearing part of the brain, having remained dormant for so long, ceases to identify sounds and has to learn all over again. "All I had was a chance. And it was this chance that I was trying to hold on to for I did not want to live my remaining years with regret," he recalls.
It was on June 22 that William Woytowych, the audiologist, placed the outer part of the implant behind his right ear and a coil on the spot which had on its inside the implanted electrode. As Woytowych buttoned the Speech Processor on, the inrush of sound was instant. "It was a jumble of noises, at times sounding like thunder, at other times like a traffic mess of sounds, and at times even like loud firecrackers though the room was absolutely quiet," he says. The sounds which his microphone or speech processor was picking up were those which normal brains learn to filter, a choice Gujral is still tutoring himself in as he convalesces. What was overwhelming though was when he suddenly realised he could hear his own voice when he put a question to the audiologist. He repeated himself thrice unable to believe his ears.
He's been in Sydney for four weeks now, and is presently learning to recognise different sounds. So far, he has begun to identify the ring of the phone, the rush of water down a drain, the tinkle of china and cutlery and while the rest is still a jumble, Gujral's world today is marked by the momentous absence of silence. "I have broken out of the vault that had encased me for 62 years. I cannot forget it—I still get a taste of it whenever I button the microphone off and fall into a deathlike silence."
The auditory training will continue for another six weeks. To be followed by quarterly visits by the audiologist to India for a year, the time required to reach a reasonable stage of comprehension vis-a-vis a larger number of sounds.
Says the artist: "At the end of it all, I asked my wife how she felt about my recovery. 'Recovery from what?' she asked, 'for me you had never been deaf'."