Shruthi Rao: Going Silent

Shruthi Rao’s Susie Will Not Speak, a hOle book, will be published in April 2018.

Sometimes, just sometimes, it pays to get distracted.

More than a year ago, I was immersed in the first draft of Manya Learns to Roar for the Children First contest, a story about a girl who speaks with a stammer, and wants to act in a play, but is ridiculed and discouraged because of her stammer. I was writing a scene where the character Manya went through feelings of rage and sorrow and frustration. And then in a moment of anger, Manya decided that it would be better if she completely stopped talking.

Here, I stopped writing and went into flashback mode.

When I was 5 or 6 years old, my mother made me read out from a book (The Little Red Hen, I think) and made an audio recording of it. She played it back to me. It was a bit of a shock. Until then, I had no idea what I sounded like when I stammered. My mother’s intention, no doubt, was that it would motivate me to want to go to speech therapy and work towards getting over my stammer. But instead, it made me want to completely stop speaking.

I often thought it would have been better to be born without the power of speech at all. At least, then, people would understand, and leave me alone. But now, nobody understood why I stammered, when I could speak fluently (frequently) and sing beautifully (all the time).

But though I often thought of going silent completely, I never actually got around to doing it. And neither did Manya, in my book.

But what if there’s a child who makes good on his resolve to stop speaking? What would this child do? How would others deal with it?

I had to find out.

So I put Manya aside. (If you have read Manya Learns to Roar, I bet you can pinpoint the exact moment when this happened.)

I opened a new word doc, and clattered away at the keyboard, writing about this child. When I started, I had no idea what would happen, how it would end. But in the next couple of days, the resolution dropped neatly into place, and I wrapped up the story, polished it and sent in my entry to the same contest, in the short, illustrated story category.

Then I went back to Manya, finished that, and sent that in too.

To my never-ending delight (I still beam when I think of it) both stories were shortlisted. Ultimately, Manya turned out to be one of the winners.

Soon after, Duckbill reached out and asked me if I was willing to expand the I-will-just-not-speak story so that they could consider publishing it as a hOle book. Whoa! I loved hOle books, and I always had an unvoiced desire to write one someday. And now it was within reach!

I said yes immediately. Before I started, I had a couple of discussions with Duckbill, in which we talked about the possibility of exploring some other speech impediment instead of a stammer. It made sense; after all, Manya was about stammering, so this could be different. I did some research, I talked to people in the field. A lisp sounded doable. It would fit into the current framework of the story.

But would a person with a lisp feel as strongly as a person with a stammer? Enough to want to stop speaking? After all, a lisp isn’t as ‘taunt-able’ as a stammer, is it? Is it?

I trawled the internet and lurked around chat forums for people who speak with lisps. ‘I hate my lisp’, most of them said. ‘Why don’t people leave me alone?’ said one. ‘Why did I have to be born with this terrible lisp?’ said another. ‘I want to just stop speaking,’ said a third.

There it was. Proof. (Later, I would learn that this was very common. The actor Boman Irani, for instance, didn’t speak in school because he was taunted for his lisp.)

This was a revelation. So consumed was I with my own burdens that I had forgotten that other people’s struggles can be as hard, as real. Not tauntable enough? How wrong I was.

I got to work converting the stammer into a lisp and expanding the story. It was both hard work and fun at the same time, but the result was satisfying. When I sent it to Duckbill, they said they loved it.

And now the book is almost here! As always, the lovely people at Duckbill have been a dream to work with. The illustrations by Lavanya Naidu (Have you seen her work? Prepare to be stunned!) are just adorable. And such an attractive cover. Can’t wait to hold the book in my hands.



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