When Nishtha Dudeja was an infant, her mother Poonam suspected something was wrong with her second child’s developmental parameters. Doctors in Guwahati’s medical college misdiagnosed the problem: they told her the baby’s hearing was fine, but her speech was delayed. So Poonam and her husband, a chief engineer in the Indian railways, began speech therapy for the little girl.
Two decades later, the mistake would turn out fortuitous: Nishtha, who was actually 100 percent deaf, can communicate verbally with relative ease. It was no doubt an advantage when she stepped up on stage at the Miss Deaf World beauty pageant held in Prague last year, where she was crowned Miss Deaf Asia 2018, the first Indian to earn the honour.
Nishtha Dudeja at her Delhi home
Of course, Nishtha also has other accomplishments to her credit that have more to do with her own grit, perseverance and never-say-die attitude. Her parents moved to Delhi along with their son for Nishtha’s sake when she was a child, so that she could have speech therapy in Hindi, their mother tongue. Poonam also studied the subject and practised with Nishtha at home.
Things weren’t easy: children at school would pull out Nishtha’s hearing aids and make fun of her. But her parents and class teacher worked together to make Nishtha strong and disciplined enough to brave all challenges, studying her syllabus in advance so that she could keep up with what the teacher taught in class.
“My mother was very tough with me, always pushing me to study and wake early in the morning and go for my tennis classes, even if I slept all the way in the bus,” smiles the animated 23-year-old Nishtha at her Delhi home. Despite her hearing impairment, she is a talkative and expressive young woman, and communicates with a confidence and radiance that is rare in people her age.
With her parents’ encouragement, Nishtha took up judo at age seven, and then tennis when she was 12. With the single-minded focus and hard work that would become her trademark, she soon reached the international platform. She represented India at Deaflympics 2013 held in Sofia, Bulgaria; World Deaf Tennis Championship 2015 held in Nottingham, UK; and Deaflympics 2017 in Samsun, Turkey. Alongside, she completed her B.Com from Ventakeshwara College in Delhi University.
Nishtha Dudeja with her parents
A jaw injury forced her to retire from competitive tennis in 2017. “I was extremely disappointed,” says Nishtha, who immediately began looking out for the next thing to do. That’s when she chanced upon the Miss Deaf India pageant. “My parents were skeptical – ‘From tennis player to beauty queen?’ my mother asked – but I convinced them that it would give me a chance to learn makeup, public speaking, ramp walk and other skills. It would help me in presenting myself better,” says Nishtha, who not only won her parents’ approval but also first position in the pageant itself, held in Jaipur in early 2018.
A few months later, she headed to the Czech Republic to represent India globally, and became the first Indian ever to win a title at the Miss and Mr Deaf World platform. The accolades came quick with the recognition: Nishtha got opportunities to meet the President and Vice President of India, and won the National Award for Empowerment of Persons with Disabilities under the ‘role model’ category.
Nishtha with her family at Rashtrapati Bhawan at a meeting with the President of India Ram Nath Kovind
These days, Nishtha – whose name is Sanskrit for ‘determination’ or ‘strong faith’ – is doing her Master’s in economics from Mumbai, and preparing herself for the job market. She loves driving and reading psychological thrillers in her free time. A brief internship at UNESCO in Delhi after her graduation taught her how to deal with the many challenges that the disabled have to deal with at the workplace, but also gave her hope in the goodness of people. “My boss was very supportive, and gave instructions to everyone about speaking slowly so that I could read their lips,” she narrates.
Nishtha’s experiences have only reinforced her parents’ guidance to do her best and be compassionate with others, especially the oppressed and less fortunate. “If I help others, then God will help me,” she says with an endearing innocence. She is now trying to create awareness about early detection of hearing impairment in babies so that they can be fitted with cochlear implants as soon as possible, ensuring their brain development and speech ability.
M. Venkaiah Naidu awarding Nishtha Dudeja the ‘National Award for Empowerment of Persons with Disabilities'
Poonam is no longer worried about Nishtha’s future. “The biggest accomplishment for me was when she completed her B.Com – I knew that she could now be financially independent. Everything else is a bonus,” the proud, pragmatic mother says, adding, “Difficulties are tests that God places before us. How we deal with it will dictate our grades.”
Nishtha looks on at her mother with bright eyes, absorbing her words silently. Behind her, her various medals, trophies and certificates adorn a full shelf in the living room. The girl is living up to her name.
First published in eShe magazine