For children: In these retellings of classic fairy tales, the protagonists are disabled women

The great king and his queen were married for five years and were still waiting for a child. The mother often prayed for a girl whose skin and heart would be white and pure as snow. In their sixth year, their prayers were answered and they finally got a baby girl. However, the queen died a month after the birth of the child. The king was left to care for their only daughter and put his heart and soul into it. He named her Snow White in remembrance of his wife’s wishes.

As the years passed by, Snow White blossomed into a beautiful girl fair as snow. She had a gentle heart and a soothing voice. She grew up playing in the gardens of their palace, and most of her friends were the plants, bushes and her favourite three little birds – Brownie, Bluie and Ruie. She talked to them endlessly as her father presided over his court. Days turned into months and months turned into years. In the blink of an eye, Snow White was ten years old. It was then that she started losing her hearing. Her father knew that he would not be able to care for Snow White alone now. So, he remarried – primarily to provide care to his deaf daughter. But no one knew what fate had in store for Snow White.

Over time, Snow White realised that her new mother was not really her friend. Snow White received kindness from the queen only in her father’s presence. Whenever her father was away the queen made Snow White her personal caretaker. She would make Snow White clean her special gowns, give her body massages and tend to her personal needs. The favourite pastime of Snow White’s two stepsisters was to make fun of her. They would pull her frock or hair if they wanted to get her attention. Once, Snow White gave them a disdainful look. But one of the stepsisters made an innocent face and moved her lips slowly for Snow White to read, “Sweet Sister, that is the only way to get your attention with your deafness, no?”

Many times, Snow White wanted to go to her father and tell him of her true plight. However, the queen would often move her lips to say, “One word to your father about this and I will make sure that the palace knights abduct and devour you the next time your father goes away.” This scared Snow White to no end and she would keep a smiling face in front of her father all the time.

If Snow White ever happened to try and make new friends, her stepmother would cruelly remind her of her deafness and her inability to communicate.

“So, what if I can’t hear? I can speak and express myself to people. My friends can listen to me,” Snow White once tried reasoning.

But the queen made a face. “Who would want to listen to a disabled person!”

This tore Snow White’s heart to pieces. Self-esteem and confidence were alien terms to Snow White as she grew up. All she knew was to dream and wish and talk to her birds, “How I wish I could live a jovial kind of life like those girls in the neighbourhood.” The birds would sit on her shoulder and chirp in an attempt to comfort her. Snow White was thankful that the birds at least understood her and gave her such serene communication.

Snow White started sensing that her stepmother was using her deafness to fill her father’s ears against her. She observed that her father had become sterner towards her. He once came and sat beside her to talk. She saw his lips moving: “My dear little child, you need to work harder and make sure you treat your mother and your sisters fairly.”

For a moment, Snow White almost burst into tears and blurted out the truth, “Am I the cruel one, Father?” But she recalled her stepmother’s threat and restrained herself, “I am sorry, Father. I will be more careful in the future.”

Years passed, but nothing improved. One day, while her father was out on yet another long trip, the cook fell sick and the whole responsibility of the kitchen was handed over to Snow White. One morning, while Snow White was busy with some work in the backyard, a bucket of water fell with a thud in the kitchen. Snow White did not hear the noise and continued with her work. The queen got angry and lashed out at Snow White mercilessly. She yelled at her, “You have become too lazy. Your deafness deserves this.” Snow White ran out of the house. She had no idea where she would go. But she was so scared that she kept running in whichever direction she could see.

After running for almost an hour, she came across a small but beautiful cabin in a forest. She stopped at the door huffing and puffing. Despite being breathless, the beauty of the house mesmerised her and her heart skipped a beat. The door of the house barely reached her waist. She wondered who could live in such a small house. At first, she was sceptical of approaching anyone. But her fatigue soon took over her fear. She rang the bell of the house, hoping someone would open the door. But there was no response. She rang the doorbell five times before she decided to check the doorknob. To her surprise, the door wasn’t locked. She opened the door and crawled inside the tiny hole of a house.

The house looked neat and tidy. Everything was of shrunken size. It looked like the dollhouse that Snow White always saw her stepsister playing with. As she moved her gaze around, she saw a shelf with many books, a spic and span kitchen, and a dining table full of food. The meal was laid out on seven tiny plates. Snow White could not resist the temptation. She had been working the whole morning and had forgotten to eat. After having run away from her cruel stepmother, she had forgotten all about her hunger. But now that she saw food, her stomach growled. She ate almost all the food and moved ahead to see what lay in the other rooms. As she moved, she found a room with seven beds. She was so big that she alone could occupy all the seven beds and still have no room to stretch. Exhausted, she curled up on the beds anyway and quickly drifted into a slumber.

So it was that seven little people came home and found their dinner plates empty. “The maid must have let some of her friends in and finished our dinner,” snarled one of them. Yet another said, “The maid has been cooking for us forever and this has never happened before. It must be some witch.”

Tabish, the eldest of them spoke, “The bedroom door looks open. There might be someone in there. Let’s check.” When they all entered the bedroom, they found Snow White sleeping.

“An intruder! Let’s kill her!” shouted one of them.

Tabish stopped him. “No! She looks harmless. Had she wanted to harm us, she would have been hiding somewhere, waiting for us.” They started making noises to wake her up, but to no avail. Tabish advised them to cook dinner while waiting for the girl to wake up. So everyone went about the house preparing dinner.

Snow White woke up to the pecks of her little birds on her body. “How did you find me?” she asked. They rubbed their beaks against her nose sweetly. Suddenly, Snow White realised that someone was in the house. She peeped out of the bedroom door to find seven little people sipping wine by the fire. She was scared of what awaited her and wanted to run out. So, she tried tiptoeing, only to realise that she was too big to escape the house unnoticed.

She spoke up hesitantly, apologising to them for her intrusion and tried walking away. They moved their lips but they were too tiny for her to read. That is when she had to tell them about her deafness. While many of them did not believe her and accused her of lying, one of them, Sheram, gestured to her to sit and explain her story. Tabish and Sheram listened patiently. By the time she finished her story, her fear had turned into grief and she sobbed inconsolably.

Excerpted with permission from ‘The Deaf Snow White’ by Kanika Agarwal in And They Lived…Ever After: Disabled Women Retell Fairy Tales, edited by Rising Flames, HarperCollins India.

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