By Jamuna Rangachari
From a sports champ to a quadraplegic can appear to be two ends of a spectrum. But what if the end actually became a new beginning? This is the destiny of the exceptional among us. Those who can mould any challenge no matter how mammoth, into a new and better life, a new and better person.
Preethi Srinivasan not just overcome her challenge but chose to devote her life to the aid of those who are in a similar or worse state, thereby coming around a full circle, from victor to victim and back to victor. Game, set and match!
In a country where women are seldom encouraged to focus on sports, Chennai-based Preeti Srinivasan was a diehard cricket fan right from the age of four. She was just eight when she played for the Tamil Nadu Women’s Cricket Team. She also captained the U-19 TN Cricket team to its only victory in 1997. She was also a champion swimmer.
Life suddenly turned topsyturvy in 1998 when she was just 18. She had had a wonderful college trip to Pondicherry and was returning to Chennai, when they stopped to spend some time at a private beach owned by a classmate’s father. Soon, they went to the shore and with the other girls, she started to jump on the waves in thigh-deep water while the boys swam and played in the deeper portions.
A receding wave churned up the sand from under her feet, tripping her up and sending her spinning to the ground. She felt a shock-like sensation travel through her spine, and found herself unable to move. Everyone panicked. Even in such a dire situation, Preethi kept her cool. Even though she felt faint, she got others to conduct her first aid. She was first taken to the JIPMER Hospital in Pondicherry in an ambulance where she was made to wear a spondylitis collar without proper diagnosis and sent to Chennai for a thorough check-up. It took four crucial hours to reach Chennai for proper treatment, where she was diagnosed not with spondylitis but with quadraplegia (paralysed neck downwards).
The tonic of love
For two years, she was severely depressed and refused to move out of the house. Her parents showered her with love. She tried studying further but gave it up as hopeless because no institution or systems was disabled-friendly. Her wise father, however, used Vedantic logic to motivate her: “Everything keeps changing and the body’s deterioration is inevitable. Look within, and try to find that within you which is eternal, constant, unchanging,” Her mother too staunchly stood by her and stopped her from giving up. Gradually, she began to accept the situation and develop a faith that she would be shown the way.
Pradhakshinas of faith
In 2000, they moved to Tiruvannamalai. She had, and still has, deep faith in the immense positive vibration of this place and has even had a miraculous experience there. The family used to go for pradhakshina on days where there was no crowd as Preethi did not like people looking at her with pity. In 2002, a man came to them, introduced himself as a neighbour’s friend, and asked them to go during the full moon, saying she should think of the people as praying for her, not pitying her at all.
He asked them to go there for 11 consecutive full moon days. On the next full moon which happened to be karthigaideepam, the most crowded day of all, they were at their guru, the late Yogi Ramsuratkumar’s ashram.
Something made Preethi say, “Yes, I will go”. It had become like an adventure, and they did not only 11, but 19 consecutive pradhakshinas. After they returned, they found that the young man was actually not known to anyone.
With the fear gone, nothing could stop Preethi. She started living completely. In fact, after she got her motorised wheelchair in 2013, she has done 10 pradhakshina on her own. She has survived two near-death experiences, one in 2001 and another in 2008. In 2001, she could breathe only while lying down.
The moment she would get up even a little, she would start choking. She even became blue all over the body. One day, her mother lifted her out of the bed, to clean up the sheets and put her down. At that time, she felt she had died as all her breathing stopped. Her mother panicked, ran out and came back with her grandmother. An avid devotee of Paramacharya, the Shankaracharya of the South, her mother placed his photo on Preehti, praying to bring her granddaughter back. And indeed, Preethi revived and resumed normal breathing. In 2008, her spasticity spread to the lungs and she once again could not breathe. Again, it was her grandmother and mother’s prayers that revived her.
“You must come to Thiruvannamalai. It is truly a spiritual space,” Preethi Srinivasan had told me when I spoke to her on the phone, full of verve and energy. I now feel inspired to go there, not just to pay my respects to the saints and gods, but also to meet the positively abled Preethi.
By Jamuna Rangachari