Susie Will Not speak
Author: Shruthi Rao
Publisher: Duckbill Books, Penguin Random House India
Published November, 2018
Price: Rs. 139.65 Kindle Edition / Rs. 175 Paperback
A Review by Arthya Pandey
Susie Will Not Speak by Shruthi Rao, centres around the titular character who is adamant to live life on her own terms. Peeking over the wall of her house to glance at the world surrounding her, Susie loves to observe rather than be observed and scrutinised. When we first meet Susie, she seems to be a recluse who doesn’t like going to the park to play or intermingle with other kids of her age. She is often mocked for her speech impediment-a lisp. She dislikes the leader of the neighbourhood kids-gang Mukund who ensures to sing the Thuthie song whenever she is in sight:
“ Thuthie Thuthie Thoothie
Poori and Kachori
In Mythore and Muthourie”
( Rao, 13)
Already sensitive to bullying she takes offence when her new neighbour, Jahan-an ‘accident-prone’ (Rao, 9) boy with thirty-seven stitches (and quite proud of it) calls her Toots. Her initial interest in him vanishes in seconds as she stomps away. While reading this book I was particularly intrigued by this scene as it coerced me to think about the intensity of bullying and mockery that Susie was constantly subjected to, if Jahan, a new kid in the neighbourhood called Susie by her supposed name, the kids in her vicinity and school must have made her life miserable by calling her by various names.
A word that often makes an appearance in the next few pages of the book is ‘grumpy’, an epithet almost pinned to Susie’s identity, she is constantly told to not be grumpy and ill-tempered and advised by her parents to handle the situation in a mature manner. Her complaints are not taken seriously and often laughed off. Refusal by the adults to acknowledge her discomfort, pain and anger while expecting her to adjust has a negative impact on her psychologically. She withdraws from every public space where she would not be allowed to remain silent but would be expected to speak properly. Her reclusive nature can be read not as a choice but as an imposed state of being, she wants to be seen and heard but only by those who accept her lisped voice and do not make attempts to constantly remind her of her difference by either correcting her or mocking her.
Hardships take a special interest in her and ill-luck chooses Susie as her favourite child (or so she believes). Apart from the myriad words in everyday usage with ‘s’ in them her own name makes her the butt of all jokes, her classmates go to an extent of labelling her as the “baaaaaby of our clath”(Rao 17), this extra adage to her difficulties has enraged her. In one of her interviews published by the Trotters Club Shruthi Rao specifies that “My story demanded that the protagonist have trouble saying his/her name”. This was a deliberate attempt to delineate the difficulty of a child growing up with a lisp as she would be reminded by the society to practise the correct pronunciation of her own name repetitively. Susie who expresses her rage over her parents for choosing a name for her with two ‘s’ in her names, “ My parentth!… They had to name me Thuthie. With two etheth! There are so many nithe nameth without even one eth” (Rao, 18). She demands to be heard and accepted but all she receives is mockery. Her parents do not seem to take her troubles seriously and push her towards attaining appropriate social manners and expect her to be reasonable. It is interesting to note that although the text is replete with instances of Susise being subjected to mockery in implicit and explicit manner however, there is not even one incident where any adult intervenes to stop other kids from bullying her. Even in the classroom the teacher(s) do not seem to pay any heed to children mimicking Susie. Thus, her mockery and the refusal of the adults to admit it troubles Susie intensely as she is constantly forced to believe that it is just a phase of her life which will be over once her speech is “fixed”.
Susie is vulnerable but suffused with courage and grit; and at times sprinkled with vendetta. So, when her friend Diya’s father imitates her at Diya’s birthday party and in addition to calling her rude she decides to have her own share of fun by turning off the ringer of his phone. The triumphant look on her face is enhanced with the samosa and red chutney on her plate – a delicacy that waters Jahan’s mouth- who is too busy gobbling down his own plate filled with cake and samosas to notice Susie’s triumphant face. This episode reveals the vindictive behaviour which constant provocations can instigate in a child. Susie, who was already aware of the possibility of Diya’s father mimicking her at the party, was both embarrassed and angry when he wanted her to repeat after him : “She sells seashells on the seashore”(25). She was furious both at Diya’s father who was mimicking her and herself for coming to the party. Here, Rao meticulously portrayed the dilemma of a child who wants to be included in the public events but simultaneously detests the idea due to an inherent fear of being mocked.
Life seems a little too unfair to her and her speech therapy classes continue to rub salt on her wounds. She seems tired of keeping her tongue behind her teeth as she pronounces “ssssssss’, which still comes out with a force as “Tstssth’(34). With constant pulling of cheeks she thought that she “look thilly”(35). These classes instead of increasing her confidence made her even more self-conscious. The continuous reminders instilled a fear of speaking in her. What troubles her is her parents’ nonchalant attitude towards her predicament. She has only Jahan and his tail-wagging dog Splash to confide in.When nothing in her life seems right and the adults continue to aggravate her misery she hatches a new plan – she decides to stop speaking. Although Susie is derided by her parents and discouraged even by Jahan, she decides to execute her plan and gives up speaking. The choice is made and there is no turning back. Her silence cannot be read as an enforced one as she wields silence to force people around her to mould themselves according to her. Rather than giving in to the societal expectations she decides to ensure that the others learn new ways to communicate with her.
However, this choice too is not easy for her as she still needs to communicate if not with everyone then at least with her best friend and her parents. She has a messy handwriting – “It was like bird poop splattered all over the page”(Rao 49) – is bad at sign language and also a terrible actor. But, with Jahan by her side things are easier. He is invested in understanding his best friend and even googles sign language and shows it to Susie. He goes a step further and decides “to learn the whole thing. Besides, if he made a friend who couldn’t hear, he thought, it would be useful”. (Rao 55)
It is interesting to note that through her rebellious behaviour Susie exposes the ever-present fractures of the social world that she inhabits – a world where neither a lisped voice nor silence is accepted – a world that is governed by an unwritten code of conduct; a world that expects the child to fit in under all circumstances. Her denial to not speak even after meeting with an accident while reaching out for chips kept too high in the kitchen, further explores her travails and scars that constant corrections made to her speech have left on her mind; “Not my right hand. I can still write” (Rao 59 ) She was prepared to suffer further physical pain and be a victim of miscommunication than be mocked at. Her determination to give up speech completely was deeply rooted in her trauma of being alienated and isolated from the rest of her classmates due to her lisp.
Shruthie Rao, who herself faced multiple challenges while growing up as a child with a stammer has penned down this tale with a deep understanding of the needs of a child with speech disability. Through her pen she wants to sensitise the readers towards the trials of a child with speech disability, which is usually not treated with seriousness. The story is invested in inculcating an attitude of understanding and love towards children who desire to be accepted with all their differences and not be forced to fit in.
Moreover, this charming story is infused with witty dialogues dipped in sumptuous amounts of humour, and is bound to keep the readers engrossed till the last sentence. This is a richly written story of resilience, rebellion and an adamant demand to be heard and accepted. Susie wants her words to be understood whether spoken, written or expressed vis-à-vis sign language, by doing so she makes a huge attempt to expand the idea of childhood. She refuses to be infantilised and her silence speaks louder than her voice.
Rao,Shruthi. Suisie Will Not Speak. Duckbill Books, Penguin Random House,2018. Print
Fernandes,Kim. “Choosing Otherwise: On Disabled Refusal”. The Critical Childhoods and Youth Studies Collective, 2021. Accessed 26 Jun,2022. https://www.theccysc.com/post/choosing-otherwise-on-disabled-refusal
Rao, Shruthi. “Shruthi Rao: there’s very little understanding and empathy towards speech difficulties”. Interview by Harshikaa Udasi. Trotters Club, 2020. Accessed 28 May,2022. https://booktrottersclub.com/index.php/tete-a-tete/192-shruthi-rao-there-is-very-little-understanding-and-empathy-towards-speech-difficulties
Roy, Ritwika. “The Presence of Silence:Quietness and Agency in Contemporary Indian Fiction”. The Critical Childhoods and Youth Studies Collective, 2021. Accessed 26 Jun,2022. https://www.theccysc.com/post/the-presence-of-silence-quietness-and-agency-in-contemporary-indian-children-s-fiction
Arthya Pandey is a reader, thinker and dreamer. She is a postgraduate in English Literature from Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi and currently she is pursuing her M.Phil from the University of Delhi. Her research interest areas include gender & sexuality, Children’s Literature, Disability Studies, drama and film studies. You can often find her collecting stories and making friends over tea-cups.