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'I have seen both heaven and hell'

Last updated on: October 25, 2013 21:53 IST

'I have seen both heaven and hell'

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Shobha Warrier

Former cricket champ Preethi Srinivasan was denied admission into the University of Madras for a distance education course after an unfortunate accident left her quadriplegic for life. Srinivasan who's fighting a lone battle has also started an organisation to help people like her get a fair chance at life. Read on to find out all about this wonder achiever's inspiring story so far.

Seventeen years ago, Preethi Srinivasan was the Under-19 Tamil Nadu state cricket team captain. She was also an accomplished swimmer.

Today, she is a quadriplegic confined to a wheelchair, needing her mother's help for everything in her day-to-day life. But her disability hasn't dampened her fighting spirit.

Srinivasan has recently launched Soulfree, an organisation that aims to be the strength, voice and face of all those with spinal cord injuries.

In this interview, which lasted almost two hours, Preethi speaks about her yesterday, her today and her dreams for tomorrow.

Read Preethi Srinivasan's story in her own words:

It was a fairytale childhood

An only child, I was born nine years after my parents' marriage. I am happy I was born out of their union as they were so much in love.

I had a fairytale childhood.

I was born in Chennai but we travelled a lot. I studied in nine different schools, across three different continents, as my father was transferred to different places every year.

I completed my schooling in the US.

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Image: Srinivasan with her mother
Photographs: Sreeram Selvaraj

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'Cricket is in my blood'

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The 1983 World Cup was my introduction to cricket.

I was just four years old, but I supported the West Indies as I was a big fan of Vivian Richards. So fascinated was I with the game that, at the age of seven, I went to a cricket camp that was organised for around 300 boys.

There, the boys were scared to bowl to me as I used to hit the ball so hard. I also bowled fast but slowly became a leg spinner.

I was so good in the game that I was selected to play for the Tamil Nadu State Women's cricket team at the age of eight. I don't think anybody has achieved this distinction. As I was the only child in the team, the other members would wash my clothes and take care of me.

I still remember the match against Indian Railways that had Diana Edulji. I was 12 then and was asked to open with Hema Malini, who is the current coach of the Tamil Nadu team. She was 11 years older than me. Later, I lifted Diana to the mid-wicket boundary!

I cherish these memories fondly; they will never fade.

I thoroughly enjoyed playing cricket. It was my passion. As an only child, it gave me the chance to be a part of a group.

The best days of my life were travelling with my team by train for tournaments. We used to sing, dance and make merry. 


Image: Srinivasan playing cricket in her younger days
Photographs: Courtesy Preethi Srinivasan

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'It was my father's dream to be a swimmer, he fulfilled it through me'

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A swimmer at age three

I started playing cricket at the age of four, but I began swimming a year earlier!

I learnt swimming for my father.

It was his dream to be a swimmer and I guess he fulfilled his dream through me.

I stood first in the state in the 50 m breaststroke; in all the other events, I was second.

Though I didn't enjoy swimming much, the sport helped me develop strong shoulder muscles.

Once, when we practised cricket for the state team at the beach, many were surprised to see me throw the ball from the boundary straight to the wicket keeper's gloves.

The onlookers didn't know I was only eight, they thought I was a short woman.

They were shouting (West Indian Augustine) Logie, Logie, as he was very short!


Image: Preethi Srinivasan with her father
Photographs: Courtesy Preethi Srinivasan
Tags: Logie

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'In grade 12, I was in the Who's Who of America's list'

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I dreamt of Princeton

When we moved to the US, I had to leave cricket behind. But I was soon part of the softball and swimming teams.

I was good in whatever I did, including academics.

In grade 12, I was in the Who's Who of America's list, which names the country’s top two per cent students.

If I wanted, I would have joined any Ivy League school. Which, in a way, is such an irony.

Today, I am finding it difficult to join a university's distance education programme.

If we had stayed there, I would have gone to Princeton.


Image: Preethi Srinivasan during her teenage years
Photographs: Preethi Srinivasan

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'I was interviewed on Doordarshan'

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Captaining the Under 19 cricket team

In 1997, I returned to India mainly because I wanted to continue playing cricket.

There was this Under-19 national cricket tournament that was scheduled to take place and I was the captain of the U-19 state team.

We won the nationals and it was a big thing for all of us!

I was interviewed on Doordarshan; I still have the taped interview with me.

I have no doubt that, in a couple of years, I would have played for India. But fate had other plans.


Image: Preethi Srinivasan with her mentor
Photographs: Courtesy Preethi Srinivasan

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'The moment my face went underwater, a shock went through my body'

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In a split second, everything was over

The first 18 years of my life was like a fairytale; I feel have seen both heaven and hell in this life.

I joined the five-year consolidated MBA course in Chennai so that I could continue playing cricket while my parents stayed back in the US.

On July 7, 1998, just a week before my second year at college was to begin, we students went on an excursion to Pondicherry.

On our way back, we decided to play in a beautiful stretch of private beach owned by one of the boys.

We girls were holding hands and playing in two-and-a-half feet of water.

Suddenly, the waves receded. I lost balance and stumbled.

As I was a swimmer, I dived face down.

The moment my face went underwater, a shock went through my body.

I tried to get up but I could not move. My friends pulled me out.

That was the extent of my injury. There was no impact.

I hadn't hit any object. I didn't fall from a height. I did not bleed. I was not unconscious.

In fact, I guided my friends through the first aid I needed.

Apparently, when I surged ahead in the water, I broke my neck.

It was one of those freak accidents. But, in that split second, everything was over for me.

Since one of my friends' father was a doctor, they quickly arranged an ambulance.

I was taken to JIPMER Medical College in Pondicherry.

They put a collar on my neck as it was broken and asked my friends to take me to Apollo Hospital in Chennai.  


Image: Preethi Srinivasan in her Chennai home
Photographs: Courtesy Preethi Srinivasan

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'I returned home, wheelchair bound'

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Life takes a new turn

As I lay on the hospital bed, I believed something had bitten me and I would be fine once the poison left my system.

At that time, I did not know the damage was permanent.

I would wake up every day thinking I would soon be all right.

That was not to be.

My life veered onto a different path.

My head was shaved so that they could put in two drills to support two tractions; this ensured I did not move my neck. 

I was in the hospital for a month before my father took me to Chicago.

I spent two more months in another hospital before I returned home, wheelchair bound.

My whole life changed.

An ascetic in Thiruvannamalai

Two years after my accident, my father quit his job.

We moved to Thiruvannamalai in Tamil Nadu in 2000 and stayed there like ascetics. We were totally cut off from the outside world. We lived in a cocoon.

Never once did my parents blame me or tell me, "Look at what you have done to your life and our lives."

They continued to love me unconditionally.

My parents are my biggest blessing.

In 2008, my father -- who insisted I should not worry as he would always take care of me -- passed away after a massive heart attack.

He was our connection to the outside world.

We didn't even know where to get vegetables from.

For two years, we struggled.


Image: Srinivasan after the accident
Photographs: Sreeram Selvaraj

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'My future stands before me like a huge question mark'

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A  witness to my own story

My mother, who had a complicated heart surgery recently, is worried about what will happen to me when she is no longer around.

Honestly, I am worried too.

My future stands before me like a huge question mark.

I feel like I am watching my own story unfold.

If it had been a happy story, I would have enjoyed it more.

I've had two near-death experiences.

Since I did not die, I felt I have been kept alive for a purpose.

That's when I started thinking death represents freedom from the limitations of the body and the mind; that both hell and heaven are here.

I have absolutely no personal desires now.

I only want to ensure there are long term care centres in India for people like me, especially women. 


Photographs: Sreeram Selvaraj
Tags: India

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'I do not want others to go through what I and my parents went through'

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Starting Soulfree

There is a reason why I decided to start Soulfree.

I do not want others to go through what I went through and what my parents went through.

They were left stranded, not knowing what to do with their quadriplegic daughter.

My first task is to identify such women in rural areas whose families do not know there is something called spinal cord injury.

These women are looked upon as a shame on the family. There is no statistics about many such patients exist in India and how many are dying.

I will send volunteers to the rural areas to identify such women and make a database.

I also want to make a database of volunteers, doctors and physiotherapists who are willing to help such people.

There is a lot that has to be done.

First of all, I want to spread awareness about spinal cord injury. The truth is, all it takes is half a minute of misfortune and you are stuck in a wheelchair for the rest of your life.

Soulfree aims to give such women a basic quality of life. I also want to give them financial stability and a livelihood.

If they can use their hand, they will be trained to stitch or cook or do whatever they like to.

If they are severely disabled like me and can only use their voice, they will be trained to use their voice. There are many avenues available like radio, audio books, call centre jobs, etc, for people like me.

Like Gandhiji said, the true mettle of a society lies in the way it treats its weakest link.

But look at the way we are treated.

One example is Madras University, which has denied me admission because I am a quadriplegic.

There are many others who are also treated like this.

I know this guy who was studying to be a chef before he met with an accident and became a quadriplegic.

Not only was he denied a seat, he was told they could not give him a scribe (writer) because his condition was not in their list.

As far as I know, spinal cord injury has not been recognised as a disability by the government of India.

Getting this recognition is my starting point. After that, there is so much more that needs to be done. 


Image: Preethi Srinivasan in her Chennai home
Photographs: Sreeram Selvaraj

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'Through my story, I hope to make society focus on people like me'

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Not 'why me' but 'why not me'

I have moved from the 'why me' stage to the 'why not me' stage.

It has not been easy but I know I have the strength to bear this.

I know I am more alive than many others who walk around me.

Even now, I can see so much beauty; I feel blessed.

All I want now is a voice for those who don't have one.

Through my story, I hope to make society focus on people like me.

Soulfree is the beginning of that struggle.

Our soul is always free but people like us are imprisoned in our bodies.

Many are severely stigmatised by their own families and force them to commit suicide.

By bringing them to a place like Soulfree, where they can live with dignity, I feel you can set their souls free! 

You can visit http://www.soulfree.org/ and contact Preethi Srinivasan at preethi@soulfree.org

+91-9952-656756 or +91-4175-237245


Image: A clipping of a news report on Preeti Srinivasan's achievements
Photographs: Courtesy Preethi Srinivasan

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