Ramu watched the screen in disgust. His background, his bedroom wall, green and dirty around the switchboard, the boxes of people staring at him and at the grimy wall, the automatically generated subtitles, large and accessible, and most of all, the conversation, all of it bored him. In a sudden surge of irritation, of late alarmingly frequent, he wanted to fling the laptop across the ten by ten (‘periya bedroom’ madam, the broker said, as if big, like all adjectives, wasn’t always relative), across the dark blue bedsheet with white checks, newly laundered by Sharada, as if the night had bade the stars to align themselves in straight lines, so the laptop would hit the wall opposite, and crash on the window sill, with the ample dust on it collected slowly and imperceptibly, like a long-married couple’s litany of woes.
He knew he wouldn’t do it, of course. Someone on the panel was droning on about research into accessible technologies. He gulped down whatever was rising in his throat and switched off the camera. He clapped, then pressed the buzzer in the room. Sharada came in, bustling. He gestured for a drink and she left, and even his useless ears could hear her long sigh.
When he was little, Somu was his sole connection to the world. Tall, lean, shining-eyes Somu helped Ramu through anything and everything in their village, Vempoondi. When they raided mango trees in summer, Somu was the lookout. Ramu would sit in class, clueless, like most of the other kids, and Somu, a year older, would help him after school, by the Mariamman koil. They’d managed to create their own language, and spoke for hours.
High school was more of the same, only they had to travel further. Somu, taller, bigger, stronger, would not be trifled with. Like the police car that precedes an MLA’s, Somu cleared the way for Ramu’s breeze through high school. He didn’t learn much, only dreaming of a life with the prettiest girl in class, knowing very well that it would never come to be, knowing that he would likely be a “pity” hire at his mama’s groundnut business, just doing enough to keep out of everyone’s way.
It was on a slow September day that his life turned upside down. An anna, whose name he had by now shamefully forgotten, came to the school. He was a social worker of some sort from an NGO. He gave a talk on careers, which Ramu didn’t understand, of course. He was seated too far away to lipread.
So, when the vice principal called him during the first period, he was sure that his worst fear was to come true. Now in 12th, without the umbrella called Somu, he was sure he would be kicked out, for surely, his was a wasted seat in the classroom.
What awaited him instead was the anna from the NGO, who flailed his hands about to him. Even now, when he thought about it, he smiled. Anna did look crazy—and so confident that Ramu knew sign language!
When Ramu showed no sign of comprehension, he told him, slowly, about this thing called sign language. He wrote down, on a piece of paper, eager to get this knowledge to Ramu: ‘He knows Tamil, another person knows Hindi, but everyone can learn sign language. Wait and see, this will be the language of the future.’
Ramu visibly straightened his spine. The anna taught him two phrases in the language: My name is Ramu, and I love you. ‘Will come in useful,’ the anna had said, and winked his eyes.
Suddenly, like figures out of clouds, dreams started taking shape in Ramu’s mind.
This discovery couldn’t have come at a more perfect time for Somu, who had, by then, been tethered to Ramu for years as his ears and tongue. His hormones had kicked in and his association with Ramu had sort of yielded results: he had a sort-of-kind-of-girlfriend in Mullai, with whom he could dare to think of a future beyond the walls of a classroom. Not that anyone could cast any aspersion on Somu, but he could not see any honourable exit, like his own mother, who just didn’t like her well-meaning, nice, non-wife-beating husband but couldn’t get out of the marriage for that. Now, here it was, his ticket to freedom in all its glory, in the steps of the Mariamman temple, in Ramu’s unsure signing of the only two things he knew: his name, and that he loved Somu.
Ramu logged back on to the seminar. The presenter was still not done. On the side, there was a chat message: Are you ready for the presentation?
Otha dei, I have been ready for years. Nee ippo dhaan ready.
On chat, he typed, ‘Yes sir.’ ‘Please call me Madan.’ As if Madan wanted the equation to change even a wee bit. What if he gave him his real feedback on the stupid software and technology? The screen share slide changed to “Thank You” and the boxes emanated claps like kusus from a happy behind.
Here it was. The app that would change the world of the deaf and the people who were with the deaf. ‘Kekkudha: Technology for the Hearing Impaired’ the slide came on. The show was about to begin. Ramu got ready.
Ramu remembered the day that he first saw the technology. It was Somu’s birthday. It had been three years since the two of them had reconnected. If you had to nitpick, you’d say three years since Somu sent a friend request to Ramu.
When Ramu had clicked through Somu’s Facebook page, open to all like a public toilet, he witnessed the depravity of Somu’s life as if he were standing right by him, even through the smiles and the filters of the pictures: a degree from a college in Chennai, followed by a couple of businesses gone bad, various women on his TL, and now, of late, nothing. He felt a pang of guilt: for having been the kite that soared, instead of the tying line that tethered. He didn’t realize when their roles were reversed, and how. When did the seesaw change places?
He was reminded of the copious tears that followed Somu’s immigration to Chennai after school, leading their parents to heave a sigh of relief that the two were separated; Ramu’s determination to make good his life; learning sign language through books; getting into a college; and then, by a stroke of luck, meeting a professor who understood his passion to succeed. As he ascended, now the founder CEO of a technology business, he had often wondered where Somu would be. He had imagined him making good his life, now that he had no Ramu to take care of. Never had he imagined that like Yayati, their fortunes would be so easily switched.
When he finally met Somu, who had obviously dressed for the occasion, his eyes watered of their own accord. He knew he would give him a job in that first minute. He also knew that his action would end in disaster, and yet, like all of humanity in the face of climate change, he knew he would keep him on, and rather hurtle towards inevitable annihilation.
Somu, for his part, readily eased himself into his role as Ramu’s ears and tongue. He learnt regular Indian Sign Language, even if he found it difficult to pick up speed. He accompanied Ramu to all meetings. He sometimes reverted to the old language that they had shared, to Ramu’s annoyance.
Ramu hadn’t cc’ed Somu on any of Madan’s emails. Hell, his company’s tagline was: “Complete independence for the disabled.” Here it was, the beginning of the end. He had known it for some time now, as automatic captioning and AI leapt and bounded away, and as Somu spent more and more time chatting with the ladies in the office. Somehow, Somu seemed oblivious to it all. The burden of foresight was too heavy on Ramu.
That day, when they met Madan and his team face-to-face, they had just cut Somu’s birthday cake. Ramu decided and ordered the birthday cake for every member of his staff, but this one had been Somu’s choice. ‘Black forest da,’ Somu had said, a week before his birthday. ‘Like Harini’s bush.’ And had laughed like he had gone mad.
After the cake cutting, feeding, eating, and Harini’s exit, everyone else had left Ramu’s room. Everyone other than Somu, that is. ‘That was an amazing party,’ Somu signed, and Ramu smiled, barely covering up the veneer of irritation that was building up.
‘When is the meeting?’ Somu continued, and Ramu remembered the meeting with Madan.
‘In another hour.’
‘Well, I’ll wait here. What is this about, anyway?’
‘You come back and sign da. It is something new. You don’t need to know this.’
Somu looked up sharply and left the room.
In an hour, the folks from Madan’s office came. Tall, dark, and moustached, Madan had the air of knowing everything. One felt like confiding in him; asking him about the secrets of the universe. He had come with a young suited corporate-type woman who took the lead on the discussion. Somu had brought them in, and Ramu did not meet his eyes, instead focusing on his hands, although there was really no need. He could lipread very well.
As the woman presented their company’s vision, one of the deaf being unshackled through technology, Somu’s signals slowed down considerably, and Ramu had to keep asking her to slow down. And then, the comments began.
Between the woman talking about the technology and how it will be implemented, came the phrase, ‘You cheater.’ When the woman talked about how it would revolutionalize sign language interpretation, there was only one sign, one that didn’t need an interpreter to understand: You fucker. And then, Somu stopped interpreting.
The woman looked from Ramu to Somu, and back at Madan, wondering if she should go on. Madan looked up from his phone briefly, before returning to it.
When the duo left a few minutes later, the air was pregnant with words that generally hung around like roadside Romeos.
Ramu and Somu sat in front of each other. Their hands were mute. It had come to this.
‘I didn’t expect this of you,’ Somu had returned to the language that they shared, one that had cemented their roots together.
‘It’s the future. You must grow wings da. Don’t be tethered here to me.’
Signlessly, his hands now mute by his side, Somu left the room. Ramu was sure he would return; it had happened several times earlier, in a fit of anger, alcohol, or both. When he left the office that day, he looked for Somu, but couldn’t find him. The receptionist signed that Somu had left the building right after the meeting.
The next year was a flurry of development. With technology taking centrestage, Ramu did not even have to replace Somu, but he missed him every day. There were no sneaky messages sandwiched between interpretation, no discussions after a meeting, and certainly no unsaid thoughts translated.
Technology, like a skin graft, cleanly replaced the older systems of communication.
Ramu was the consultant on the product. He was in countless webinars, displaying the product and what it could mean for the future of deaf people. He messaged Somu several times, but never got through. Every day, peered at pictures in the newspapers, on the net, on TV. Where was Somu? He wasn’t in the village, nor in the paying guest accommodation the company had got for him.
Just like that, out of the blue, he got a message. ‘All is well. Don’t call me.’ Ramu didn’t know what to feel—it was relief and worry, anger and love, all rolled into one. He finished the last of the Royal Challenge, not knowing what else to do.
That night, he reached for the phone and messaged Somu again. There were two blue ticks. He had seen the message. There was silence on the other side, followed by “typing”.
Eventually, after what seemed like ages, a message came: Ramu, hello.
He almost dropped the phone.
He typed and typed before giving it up. He wanted to really speak with Somu.
In the dark, the two of them spoke through their hands, in their own secret language. They traced their past, with many “remember when”s and “I can’t believe we”s. Within those stories were the ebb and flow of their relationship, itself morphing with each stage, like those logos in corporate videos.
‘Remember when you kept translating one early well-wisher’s sentences into jokes?’
‘I can’t believe I said all those things. What if someone understood? You know some of those things were on the news?’
‘Well, no one realized. That says a lot.’
‘Remember when we were both arrested for drunk driving? And the police thought you would not speak because you would slur?’
The two friends were like those musicians making beautiful music before the Titanic sank. Suddenly, like water from the lorry, the conversation stopped.
“So, is this it?” Ramu asked.
“Therla da. Battery is dying, but.”
There was now truly silence between them. Over the years, the silences had said a lot. During events, sometimes, Ramu didn’t even have to say anything, and Somu would answer for him. He was, in truth, Ramu’s senses. Whenever Ramu read stories where someone would pluck their eyes out, he would cringe. How could someone do that, he wondered. Now, he realized, people could.
After what seemed like eternity, Somu moved his hands.
‘Well, what about that woman da? Is she single, you think? Madan’s secretary? You think he’s banging her?’ ‘Dei, settle down. Enough is enough.’ ‘Settling is not for me machan. You have Saradha, make a family. I will be myself. Fly higher and higher, wherever the air takes me!’ ‘Yeah, right. How long since we flied kites illa?’ ‘Who said I stopped? One of my many techniques to attract women.’ ‘More like attract young boys to fight with.’ ‘You have no idea! Your father named you correctly only: Rama, of one wife.’ ‘What next da? Really?’ ‘Therla. I don’t have to know, see? Battery almost gaali da.’ ‘Take care. Stay on the line till it goes, no?’ ‘Cannot really squeeze any more … that’s what she told me last night, by the way. Hahahah...’
The call was cut abruptly, mid laugh. WhatsApp asked Ramu to rate the quality of the call. How could the software understand that it was the worst call of his life?
Now, this presentation. This was to potential investors and the importance had been drilled into Ramu for days now, as if he were a child.
When he finished his drink and switched on his camera, he could see Madan just wrapping up and saying, ‘Now, Mr. Ramu, our consultant, himself, um, hearing impaired, will demonstrate the product.’
How many times should he ask Madan to just call him deaf? He calmed down before aligning himself in front of the machine that would scan his gestures and translate it into words.
‘Hello,’ he signed, as always. At the other end, at Madan’s computer, a woman’s voice said, ‘Hello.’ More kusus from the Zoom boxes.
People could now see Ramu’s screen, where a pair of woman’s hands, replete with nail polish, translated Madan’s words to sign language.
‘I love this product,’ Ramu signed, ‘but I have some concerns.’
Madan, still playing along, and not knowing the churn inside Ramu, said, ‘Concerns? What are they?’
‘Yes, I wondered how this machine can replace my friend, my friend who doesn’t just translate my words, but understands me, mitigating my expressions where needed, amplifying where that needs to happen. How can your 2-D nail polish girl match up to those who have worked beside us for years?’
It took some time for the machine to get all of it. Madan, full of the confidence of certainty and science, took this as a serious question. ‘Well, you are asking me how effective this Kekkudha system can be. I tell you, in tests, it is shown to be 75% more accurate than people, in translating sign language.’
‘Mr. Madan, I am not asking you that. I am asking you if you would replace your friends with machines who tell jokes and eat with you.’
Suddenly, Madan understood. In the scheme of unrelenting mechanization, some ties were meant to be casualties. But he would not try and explain that to Ramu. It wasn’t necessary. Ramu had already told the audience about his life as a child, ignorant that there was such a thing as sugn language. That would do. That the machine could be taken to many Ramus across the country would have to be the focus.
After the machine translated that for him, he continued, ‘Mr. Ramu, these are important questions that need to be asked. Mr. Ramu, Mr. Ramu…? Seems like we have lost him.’
Ramu, booted out of the meeting and likely the revolution, closed the computer and walked over to the bed and lay down there. He took his phone and scrolled through the messages. The last one from Somu was a month ago.
It had simply read, ‘Tested positive da. Waiting for oxygen. I guess that is the kite’s destiny, to wait for air.’
Meera Rajagopalan is the author of ‘The Eminently Forgettable Life of Mrs. Pankajam,’ published by Hachette India. Her short fiction has been published in anthologies such as the ‘Helter Skelter Anthology of New Writing Vol. 6’ and Amaryllis’s 'Have a Safe Journey.' She works as a communications consultant for an NGO based in Pondicherry.