In 1975, the urge to join the Navy took S Ramakrishnan to a selection centre where a fall during the fi tness test paralysed him from the neck downwards. Today, he runs one of the countries largest centres for people with disabilities. Nandini Murali meets the man.
Your whole body, from wingtip to wingtip, is nothing more than your thought itself, in a form you can see. Break the chain of your thought and you can break the chains of your body too…
‘Jonathan Livingston Seagull’, Richard Bach
How do you react when you hear of a person who at the threshold of a promising career learns he’ll never be able to walk again? For most people traumatic quadriplegia (loss of sensation and paralysis of all four limbs after a spinal cord injury) would mean a life doomed to frustration, dependency, and selfpity.
But this is not the case for S.Ramakrishnan, 57, the founding president of Amar Seva Sangam (ASS), one of the country’s largest disability centres that off ers comprehensive services for people with disabilities in rural areas. Ramakrishnan is a prisoner of his body, but his unfettered mind and spirit soar like a kite into the realm of transcendental consciousness that make him a channel for the Universal Spirit. Amar Seva Sangam is testimony to Ramakrishnan’s ability to live a life of the soul, beyond barriers and boundaries.
S.Ramakrishnan was recently one of the 18 fi nalists honoured as CNN Heroes of the Year (2007). Th e award celebrates the strength and courage of ordinary people leading extraordinary lives. Th e fi nalists were chosen from over 7000 nominations across the globe and awardees received an individual cash award of US $10,000.
“Namaskaram” greets Ramarishnan when I call him up for an appointment. Th ere is little in his assertive and warm voice that suggests disability. Mention the CNN award and he downplays it with characteristic modesty. “All of us are heroes. I just started an organisation and it happens to win an award. Th ani maram thope aagathu (a lone tree can never become a grove). Amar Seva Sangam is team work”, he remarks.
“My hands are missing”
Once upon a time, very long time ago, Ramakrishnan was like anyone else. Th e fun-loving mischievous youngster grew up in Ayikudy, a village 5 kms from Tenkasi in Tirunelveli district. His grandfather, A.K.Ramakrishna, Iyer was a role model.
As a fourth year Mechanical Engineering student of the Government College of Technology, Coimbatore, 21–yearold Ramakrishnan, an adventurous student and NCC cadet, was enthused by a prospective career in the Navy.
In early January 1975, Ramakrishnan attended the gruelling Naval selection interviews and endurance tests at Bangalore. Th e fi nal endurance test required him to negotiate ten obstacles in three minutes. Th e fourth obstacle required him to leap 15 feet from a tree on to a mid-air platform and then jump ten feet to the ground below. Ramakrishnan swung from the tree to the platform with simian grace and agility, but a minuscule error in judgement in leaping from the tree to the platform occured, and he slipped. He crashed to the ground on his back. Amidst the hushed silence and agonised faces of the spectators, he lay crumpled on the ground. Although there was no visible injury, the fall dislocated and fractured his cervical spine.
Ramakrishnan and his wife
Ramakrishnan said to the jawans who carried him on a stretcher, “My hands are missing. Please get them for me. They raised my hands which were still a part of me and showed me. I realised I had lost sensation below the shoulders”.
“Your body may be disabled, but your mind is perfect” Ramakrishnan was rushed to the Air Force Command Hospital at Kirkee, Pune. In the emergency ward he battled medical complications such as the loss of control over bladder and bowels, and medical procedures such as cervical traction. For the next ten months, until September 1975, the antiseptic clinical world of the hospital was his personal Kurukshetra: He battled inner demons as he struggled to come to terms with his life as a person with an acquired disability. He frequently oscillated between hope and despair.
At the Military Hospital Kirkee, orthopaedician Air Marshall Dr Amar Sing Chahal emerged as a friend and mentor. “Your body may be disabled, but your mind is perfect,” he counselled his young patient. At the occupational therapy centre, Ramakrishnan met people with diverse disabilities from all walks of life. Th rough group discussions, and the sustained motivation and support of the doctors and staff , he was able to come to terms with the mew realities of his life, such as the imminent need to acquire wheel chair independence. To put it simply, he’d never be able to walk again, or perform any of the million things that defi ned his autonomy and independence that he once took for granted, like passing urine and motion himself, or drink a glass of water, or even shoo away a pesky fl y. “More than the treatment, the place prepared me to understand that for the rest of my life my body would be dysfunctional below the shoulders and I would have to live with it,” recalls Ramakrishnan matter-of-factly.
Goodbye old dreams
Ramaktrishnan returned to Ayikudy after his discharge from the hospital. Th e next fi ve years were traumatic as he had to negotiate the realities of living with quadriplegia. His family off ered unconditional support. “Even to bathe, my family members had to carry me to the bathroom. As my sweat glands were non functional, I could not tolerate even slight variations in temperature. For instance in summer, I had to be frequently sprayed with cold water to keep my body temperature cool. My father used to struggle to get a barber home to shave me,” recalls Ramakrishnan.
The social isolation and boredom were even more diffi cult to come to terms with. “I would call out to passers to chat with. Th e radio was the only companion. Many times I wanted to commit suicide, but my helplessness was such that I needed someone’s help even to die,” says Ramakrishnan wryly.
‘I have a dream’
The accident rang a death knell to his promising career, but it also sparked a new dream: to reach out to the disabled. On the advice of one of his relatives, in 1981,Ramakrishnan started a school for children with disabilities in a thatched shed on a piece of land donated by his parents. He began with fi ve students. Th e initiative was registered as Amar Seva Sangam, in honour of his friend and mentor, Dr Amar Sing Chahal. Initially, ASS conducted polio and measles vaccination and awareness camps in rural villages. Gradually, people began to trust the organisation. In 1984, well-known writer Sivasankari did a feature on ASS in a leading Tamil weekly that won public support for Ramakrishnan’s cause. In 1989, ASS purchased four acres of land that today has spread in to the 30 acre campus.” We grabbled every opportunity to work with other associations to promote better living conditions among rural folk,” recalls Ramakrishnan.
“I’m a dreamer, he’s the architect!”
In 1992, Ramakrishnan‘s spirit of service and commitment attracted S.Shankar Raman, a brilliant charted accountant with a fl ourishing practice in Chennai. Aff ected by muscular dystrophy and a wheel chair user, Shankar Raman decided to join ASS because being an aff ected person he identifi ed with the cause and also felt that he “was putting his professional capabilities to good use.” Currently Shankara Raman, as secretary of Amar Seva Sangam is responsible for introducing elements of professionalism and standards of excellence at ASS. “Ramakrishnan’s eff orts in self-rehabilitation make his disability seem nonexistent,” remarks Shankara Raman of his friend and colleague. On the personal front, Ramakrishnan’s lifeline is his wife Chitra, a former teacher in ASS, whom he married in 1994. Chitra and Ramakrishnan are bonded by a spirit of service. “I fell in love with him as a person. Not because I pitied him. If I look after him, he can look after several others,” adds Chitra.
The best is yet to be
All that I planned has not happened but then I should also recognise that much of what I never planned has also happened in my life”, says Ramakrishnan .Th e best is yet to be…. Th is includes a vision for Amar Seva Sangam as a model township for people with disabilities. Psychiatrist Viktor Franknel, a Holocaust survivor, said, “It is not what happens to us but how we react to what happens that makes all the diff erence.” Few know it better than S.Ramakrishnan.