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Silence is golden, but only if you have experienced the noise and din of everyday life. Sixteen-year-old Puja Shah has never experienced the contrast between these two extremes of life. She was born with a hearing impairment that allows her to hear only 10 percent of a normal person's hearing capacity. But even she could clearly hear her success story on Tuesday when she emerged as the topper in the Special Category with 91.69 percent in this year's SSC examination.
"I feel so happy," Puja said.
Puja is a girl of few words. Her hearing condition has left a cruel impact on her ability to speak also. Everyone learns to speak by hearing and repeating certain sounds.But fate never offered this option to Puja and she also accepted it with grace and dignity.
"We were expecting good results but we never ever thought she would become the topper," said Alpa Ketan Shah, Puja's mother. According to her, Puja used to spent at least six to seven hours a day behind her text books, right from the first month in Class X.
"She used to keep herself busy with her projects, assignments and homework and we supported her. Her teachers and classmates used to help her out," Mrs Shah said.
Manisha Arondekar, Principal of S Radhakrishna Vidyalaya said that she will never be able to forget Puja's fighting spirit.
"She never ever got depressed about anything. In fact, Puja accepted every challenge with a smile," she said.
The school had a special resource team comprising faculty members and a special counsellor, who were always ready to help out Puja with her academics and other problems. Puja was given the choice of opting for one language, ie either Hindi or Marathi. She had book binding and typing as alternative subjects.
Puja never shied away from any of the extracurricular activities at school. She used to take part in sports, dance competitions and simple skits.
"I still remember last year's Teacher's Day, when she became the Maths teacher for a day. We have this tradition of celebrating Teacher's Day by making selected students become teachers for a day," Manisha Arondekar added.
When she is not busy hitting her text books, Puja spends time by playing cards with her friends and family members. She is an expert in Rummy, her favourite game. She is also a voracious reader, but with a difference -- she prefers newspapers to books, and is updated on almost all issues, especially the ones taking place in Mumbai's social circles.
"She is very much interested in knowing about film stars, and devours every single word in the Mumbai tabloids, apart from the normal newspapers," Mrs Shah added.
Alpa and her husband Ketan Shah, an electrical engineer, did not know their daughter was born with a hearing impairment. It was diagnosed only when Puja was two-and-a-half years old.
"Initially, we thought she had something wrong with her throat. Unlike other babies she was having trouble making sounds, and trying to say simple words like 'papa'. We took her to a doctor, and then came to know of her actual condition," she said.
However, the Shahs took this news in their stride and decided to offer the best they could afford for their little daughter. Alpa Shah even went to California to attend a three week training for parents of special children.
"It helped me a lot in dealing with the situation. We decided to label everything in our house, so that Puja can read and understand what is what. We labelled our furniture, windows, common appliances -- almost everything," Mrs Shah recollected.
Puja's mother also used to accompany her to school initially. She would constantly interact with her daughter's batchmates in order to sensitise them toward Puja's condition. She also helped and encouraged Puja to master lip-reading, her only mode of communication with others.
"It was very tough. We had to repeat even the most simple words quite a number of times for her to pick up. But we did not give up; neither did she," she said looking at Puja, who nodded in agreement.
Neelam Patel, Puja's next door neighbour is the one who take cares of Puja whenever Mrs Shah has to go out. Neelam also spends considerable time with Puja, "Bahut smart hain, in fact, one of the smartest girls" she said of Puja, patting her on the back.
However Puja had to sacrifice her foremost ambition, as even hardwork and dedication have certain limits.
"Puja always wanted to take up MBBS and become a doctor, but we had to make her understand that it was not possible, since she would never be able to use a stethoscope, or hear a patient's pulse," Mrs Shah said.
But then nothing could wipe the smile off Puja's face, and she decided to follow in her father's footsteps and become an electrical engineer.
"Travel. I like to travel," Puja reminded her mother.
Since she was busy with academics, the Shah family did not take a vacation this year. But Puja is still kicked about last year's trip to South India -- they visited Bangalore, Mysore, Ooty and Kodaikanal. Puja has fallen in love with Ooty, and wants to visit the hill-station whenever she gets another chance.
The Shah family is taking it easy for the moment, as they are being bombarded with congratulatory notes and best wishes from all quarters.
Once the excitement dies down, Mrs Shah wants to invite all their close relatives, and have a family gala at their house to celebrate Puja's victory over fate -- over the deafening silence of her world.
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