Conversations with Shalini Saraswathi, we’ve learnt, are filled with laughter interspersed with wisdom. We had the chance to chat with her at IIS 2017, and we knew hers was a story worth telling!
Prior to her illness, Shalini wouldn’t have described herself as athletic. In fact, she laughingly proclaims, “I didn’t want to run. I think anybody who is sane and intelligent should never run. And it’s not something that the human body is designed to do. It’s a stupid idea. But I just happened to get into it.”
An All-New Chapter
After contracting an extremely rare bacterial disease, Rickettsial with morts, while on holiday in Cambodia, Shalini was forced to amputate all four of her limbs. An undeniably devastating situation, regardless of how lightly she addresses it.
Her recovery took an unexpected turn when she discovered a new passion – running. She admits that at the time she had no idea what she was actually feeling. Her new hobby gave her something to focus on. She jokes, “I had gained lots of weight and wanted to lose it. It was sheer vanity.”
But running also had the added benefit of making her more comfortable in her own skin. She says, “When you wear prosthetics for the first time you tend to walk awkwardly. So I wanted to get rid of that. I wanted to climb upstairs. I would walk 10 steps and I would really huff and puff and I just wanted to get rid of those basic things. That’s the reason why I even started it. But somewhere along the way, my coach kind of pushed me along, and I figured that I enjoyed it.”
The Making Of A Bladerunner
Like most good coaches, he wasn’t content with allowing her to rest on her laurels. Shalini says, “And one thing led to another and he said you know let’s do ten kilometres. And I thought it was a really stupid idea but with coach – he’s a coach – it’s really difficult to get out of anything and I really thought I’d run to just get rid of him!”
She grins and says, “And then, of course, the newspapers happened, and then I came under pressure to actually run. Because it was in the papers before the day of the run. At that point, I actually planned to fake something on the day of the run. Who was going to know about it? But because it was in the papers – I really didn’t have a choice. That’s why I almost killed myself running the first time. I took more than two hours and I went to the hospital after that.”
Though it sounds like a disaster, that first run was proof enough for Shalini that she was capable of more. Before long, she had signed up for her second run, and she had fallen in love with the sport.
She explains, “Because you lose control of your own limbs, and you feel like there’s not really much you’re able to do in your life, when you’re able to push yourself physically, which is also a challenge for somebody who is able-bodied, it gives you a certain sense of confidence. It gives you a certain sense of control over your own destiny. And I think that’s what running did for me. Just gave me a lot of confidence and built up the person who I was again. And then I just continued because it gave me a high.”
Finding Her Balance Again
Because her amputation didn’t cause any nerve damage or other complications, Shalini never had any physiotherapy. Instead, she re-taught herself how to walk before engaging her coach, Aiyappa, to help her run.
She admits that his no-nonsense attitude helped her find some balance. She says, “Coach is great that way because he doesn’t give you any slack. I would sometimes tell him that my leg was hurting – sometimes I’d fake it – but he just wouldn’t care! Sometimes it’s refreshing to be treated that way. When you’re treated like everyone else around you, and you’re not given any slack for having four limbs missing.”
Shalini says, “It was difficult. There have been days where it was just painful. But now I feel like it’s always like wearing a pair of new shoes. There’s some discomfort and then you get used to it. Then prosthetics become almost an extension of you. Now I don’t even call it a prosthetic leg – it’s my leg.”
The Right Fit For You
The prosthetic market in India is a growing one, hampered by extremes. Shalini says laughingly, “I have access to great legs. I’m privileged that way. I think I’m part of the one percent of India’s population that can access it. It’s not the easiest thing for somebody to have. I spent about 7-8 lakhs on both of them. My blades cost me 15 lakhs. I got them free but mine is an extended loan. They didn’t take them back!”
She continues, “I’m very, very privileged and I know that it’s not an easy thing for everybody to get access to. Most people have an issue with residual limbs. That’s your biggest challenge when you wear prosthetics because they tend to hurt you, they hurt your stump. And mine are designed to ensure that your stumps are protected.”
Shalini muses, “It’s a lot for anybody who is middle class to afford. I had insurance which helped. There’s a lot to do in the Indian space to make it easier for people to get access to prosthetics. There are things available though – I can say that Jaipur does a great job.”
She addresses the real issue, “I think the problem is the spectrum. You have Jaipur which is at one end, which is almost free or hardly anything, and then you have these extreme ones. I don’t think there are too many in the middle. And even if they are there, I don’t think they are the most comfortable and I don’t think they protect the person. It’s like having a branch cut off and given to someone. It works but is that the best thing for a person or not? And that’s a difficult choice for you to make.”
Changing Attitudes In India
How did people react to her disability? She says, “I think that the options now in India are limited if you’ve lost a limb. Nobody is even talking about wanting to put a prosthetic leg on. Because they’re just saying you’ve lost your leg and that’s it. They aren’t talking about why somebody needs a prosthetic limb. I think that’s the attitude, unfortunately.”
Though she found the initial reactions jarring, she quickly adapted. Shalini says, “Of course, the initial part when you go out and people stare at you wasn’t great. But I figured my way around it where I’m equally cocky about it. I just see the whole thing as people looking at me because I’m a movie star in my head except that I don’t have the money. I wasn’t ever discriminated against because I was disabled.”
Her hard-won optimism is inspiring. She says, happily, “I’m very lucky! You’re interviewing the wrong person. I have no bad stories at all! I haven’t had anybody illtreat me. My husband didn’t leave me. I had no drama whatsoever, which is really sad! I have nothing to talk about when somebody tells me ‘give me a really sad story’. I have nothing! I’ve just had a brilliant life. I work, I run, I do corporate talks, I do a lot of things. I’m very lucky. I didn’t face any stigma.”
A true champion, Shalini’s boundless optimism and determination are qualities worth celebrating. And one thing is for sure – whether it’s at work or at play – we can all learn something from her!
Takeaway – Habits That Help
We asked Shalini if she had any traits or habits that have ensured her success. She says, “Discipline. Sometimes you have to stick to it. I wake up every morning at 5. I know I have to do my running. It’s something that I enjoy and there are no two ways about it. It’s about asking yourself every day – what more can you do? And sometimes being very greedy for life. It’s important. I think that’s what gets me to wake up every day and push myself. If you ask what the purpose of your life is – it should be: how can you be the better version of yourself. And I think that if you can do that every day, you can become the better version of yourself.”
KnowYourStar.com (KYS) interviewed Shalini Saraswathi as part of the India Inclusion Summit(IIS). IIS is a platform that brings awareness and drives the inclusion of specially-abled people in corporate organisations, schools, policymaking and NGOs. KYS is the official blogging partner for IIS, and backs the event wholeheartedly. Let’s build a more Inclusive India!
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