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The man who wouldn’t be silenced
- Loss of larynx to cancer prompts rail officer into developing a speech of his own

“The agony of cancer and the post-operative helplessness in a voiceless dungeon was terrible. I was desperate to overcome the horrific realisation that I would never be able to speak again. I was dead…”

But Bibhuti Bhushan Chakraborty has lived to tell a tale of trauma and triumph, having defied nature’s law, no less. For, the 71-year-old just refuses to be silenced, despite the loss of his voice box.

Chakraborty was detected with cancer of the larynx in 1972. Two years later, he went under the knife for the removal of his voice box. The railway officer was “stunned” when doctors told him he would never speak again, but he refused to give up without a fight. So, he developed a speech of his own with the muscles of his food pipe. Medical science terms it “oesophageal speech”.

For battling all medical odds and symbolising the spirit of human endeavour, Chakraborty will be presented the Endurance and Bravery award by the Indian Cancer Society in New Delhi on Saturday. “After my surgery, I did not know what to do, but the fear of losing my job gave me the determination to find a way to talk again. I read about people who had overcome the odds in life and that inspired me,” says Chakraborty, who retired as deputy chief controller in the Indian Railways in 1990.

Recounting the tedious and often painful process of mastering oesophageal speech, Chakraborty said for the first few weeks, he would “swallow air as one swallows food” and then exhale it slowly. “After months of practice late into the night, I perfected the technique. Then, I started on sounds, simple phonetic ones to begin with, followed by a combination of words and then short sentences.”

Within months, Chakraborty started participating in conversations, leaving cancer specialists stunned. He was soon approached by experts at the Thakurpukur cancer hospital to teach fellow-patients the art of speech after voice-box surgery. “Many patients had tried to commit suicide once they learnt they wouldn’t be able to speak again. So, I took up the challenge of counselling these patients before the surgery itself,” says Chakraborty.

After retiring from the railways, he found it tough to make both ends meet and support his three children. But then, Bengal Oncology Centre (BOC), near Deshapriya Park, threw him a lifeline. “A person of his calibre can help us a lot,” says BOC director and cancer surgeon, Gautam Mukhopadhyay.

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