I took a cab from the railway station to the university. The admission process took several hours of waiting in lines. While I waited, I realised that a lot of students already knew each other. I talked to a group who told me they knew each other from studying in the same Bachelor’s college. A few waited by themselves like I did. Once I was done with the admission formalities, I headed to the hostel building that was assigned to me and showed my admission slip to the warden. I asked her if I could get a single room.
“Not possible. We only give single rooms to PhD scholars.”
“I need it because I have dyslexia. I can’t study when there is a lot of noise around me. I got admission through the disability quota –”
“Oh like Taare Zameen Par?” She said, her face lit up.
“Um, yeah, I have issues...like that boy.”
She asked me to wait. She probably thought I’d wait for 20 minutes and leave, and she could stall for another day. I sat in her room and started reading a book like I had nowhere else to be. Now, I am writing.
Fucking Taare Zameen Par. Every person asks me if I am like that boy in the film when I tell them I am dyslexic. It’s as it is hard to explain what dyslexia is and that film made it harder. The boy in the film probably had a combination of attention-deficit hyperactive disorder (ADHD), dyspraxia, dyscalculia, and dyslexia and the film swept it all under dyslexia without giving each condition any
individual attention. The scriptwriter/director was probably too busy adding melodrama. My mother cried buckets watching that film, she felt so bad for the poor dyslexic boy. A few years later when I told her I showed symptoms of dyslexia, she was in denial and as unsympathetic as the boy’s father in the film. She said I can’t have dyslexia because I’m not dumb.
Anyway, it doesn’t matter what she said. It matters that I studied in four schools, at least 50 teachers taught me and nobody noticed I wrote g instead of d. I used to love English class, especially when it involved writing essays. I always expected the teachers to give me feedback on my flair for writing and ideas, but I only got feedback on my spelling mistakes. I stopped showing anyone what I wrote.
When I first watched Taare Zameen Par, I didn’t know I was dyslexic and the film didn’t help me realise it one bit. I realised I was dyslexic while studying for the Chartered Accountancy Intermediate course, also called CA Inter, which was the second-level of the three-level Chartered Accountant course.
I thought I could be a good accountant because I had a knack for bookkeeping which came as easily as logical thinking to me. But being an accountant also meant knowing tax laws – and I just couldn’t rote learn them. I couldn’t remember if the house rent allowance was exempt under section 10(13a) or 13(10a) or 130(a) just like I can’t remember if “fridge” is spelled frigde or fridge. I remember the house rent allowance rule is the minimum of actual allowance or x per cent of salary or excess of rent paid over x per cent of salary. I just can’t remember the “x” numbers in the rule because it is an arbitrary number that the government chose as appropriate for calculating taxes – nothing logical or sensible about it. And there were almost a hundred such rules like house rent allowance, all with their arbitrary numbers that I couldn’t remember.
I spent much of 2010 and 2011 at home studying for the accountancy exams. My father was unemployed for much of that time and he’d feel so worthless sitting at home on his own that he’d get drunk every night and rave about how I’d fail my papers and come crawling to him to help me make a career just to boost his own ego. My ego told me I should rather die than fail those papers and face my father in disgrace. I used to get panic attacks at 2 am thinking I’ll fail the tax paper, and I used to run on the treadmill we had at home for half an hour in the middle of the night just to tire out my flight or fight response.
I cleared the exams in the first attempt, and scored exact passing marks in the tax paper. But I knew there was no way I could pass the final paper that had even more tax laws to rote learn. All the while I knew others in my accountancy class thought tax was easy. Frustrated, I searched online if others found tax laws difficult too. I found a quote by Albert Einstein: The hardest thing in the world to understand is the income tax. I don’t know what he meant by that, but I remembered that Einstein was thought to be dyslexic.
So I searched for dyslexia symptoms and suspected I could be dyslexic too. I approached a hospital to get tested, but they needed my parent’s signature to test me even though I was 20 years old. I told my parents and they thought it was an excuse to quit accountancy. Thankfully the test was cheap so they agreed to let me take it just to shut me up.
I was nervous before my dyslexia assessment tests. I read that dyslexic people don’t do well in standardised tests, just like me, and I didn’t know if taking a standardised test to assess dyslexia was an effective strategy. After a psychiatric evaluation, the assessment involved an IQ test and a language skills test. But already after the psychiatric evaluation, the psychiatrist told me that I probably don’t have dyslexia because I didn’t exhibit the classic dyslexia symptoms like confusing left from right, wearing the left shoe on the right feet, etc, the way my brother did. He diagnosed me with general anxiety and clinical depression, and he was more concerned about those issues. But he prescribed the remaining tests for me anyway just to be sure.
The remaining tests included one to measure my intelligence and compare it to the average human intelligence and one that compared my language skill levels with the average skill levels of each age group. A person with dyslexia would score much better in the IQ test than the language skills test which would mean that their language skills, like reading and writing, don’t reflect their actual intelligence.
I took the Wechsler Adult Intelligence Scale IQ test. My verbal IQ that measured my ability to analyse information and solve problems was 131. My psychiatrist said that it meant I had a gifted intellectual capacity that only the top 2 per cent of the population shared. My performance IQ that measured my ability to process and interpret symbols was 114, still well above the average IQ of 100 points. It was clear that parts of my brain weren’t doing as well as the rest. It was also clear that I wasn’t as stupid as I felt when I spelt the word “and” as “ang”.
Excerpted with permission from Homeless: Growing Up Lesbian and Dyslexic in India, K Vaishali. Simon & Schuster and Yoda Press.