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An Extraordinary Indian: Risking his life to save others

Last updated on: February 07, 2014 09:44 IST

An Extraordinary Indian: Risking his life to save others

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S Saraswathi

Venkatesh, all of 19 years old, has saved over a hundred lives at Chennai's Marina Beach. The school dropout puts his life in danger almost every day for the sake of others, discovers S Saraswathi.

He is a familiar sight at Chennai's popular Marina Beach, bobbing about in the strong undercurrents and high waves that are characteristic of the waters along this stretch of the coast.

He is a big help to the beach patrol officers and is said to have saved more than 100 people who were in danger of drowning.

People may risk their lives in the line of duty, or for glory or money. But rarely does someone risk his life to save others simply because it makes him happy.

The people young Venkatesh, who is all of 19 years old, saves are total strangers. He says there are no complex reasons for his unselfish actions.

"It makes me very happy," he says with a wide grin. "It was never about money and neither do I expect gratitude or praise."

"It does hurt when people do not even acknowledge you. Some just walk away. But whatever they say or do not say, it does not affect my jumping in the next time someone's life is in danger."

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Image: Venkatesh at the Marina Beach in Chennai.
Photographs: Sreeram Selvaraj

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S Saraswathi

At the Anna Square police station overlooking Marina Beach, Constable S Dhanalakshmi says Venkatesh is "like family. Most of us are posted here for a maximum of three years, but Venkatesh has been a permanent fixture for the past six or seven years."

The young lifesaver, Dhanalakshmi says, is at the beach most mornings and is the first to jump in during a crisis.

"It is purely social service on his part. We buy him an occasional meal, but otherwise he is not paid."

Venkatesh is said to have saved over a hundred lives, but he keeps no record. "There's no need to keep an account. What difference would that make?" he asks.

Small built, barefooted and bareheaded under the scorching sun, with bloodshot eyes due to his long hours under water, Venkatesh says his mother's brother taught him how to swim when he was six years old.

"By the time I was 12, swimming in the ocean came very naturally to me. I can stay in the water for over six hours without any strain."

He was 13 when, walking along the beach with a police patrol, he effected his first rescue.

"We noticed about 20 youngsters swimming near the shore. Suddenly, a huge wave dragged three of them into deeper waters. Instead of saving their friends, the rest rapidly swam towards the shore," Venkatesh recalls.

"A couple of fishermen and I jumped in to save the boys. Unfortunately, we could only save two of them; one young boy lost his life. Since then, I instinctively jump in whenever I see anyone in trouble," says this saviour of many an unlucky or foolish swimmer.

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Image: Frolickers at the Marina Beach in Chennai.
Photographs: Sreeram Selvaraj

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S Saraswathi

Sub-Inspector Panneerselvam of the Anna Square police station acknowledges the debt the police owe Venkatesh.

"Besides saving lives, he also helps us recover the bodies of drowned victims, despite their decomposed state. Sometimes bodies float in from many kilometres away and are in a really bad shape, but Venkatesh never complains," says Panneerselvam.

Venkatesh's life is in danger when he sets out to help others.

"I almost lost my life a couple of years ago. Three youngsters were caught in the rough waters and when I reached them, all three held me in a death grip. One caught hold of my legs, one my hands and the third tried to climb on to my shoulder, holding my neck."

"We all went under together. Luckily, that day, my brother, who owns a fruit shop near the shore, jumped in with a wooden board to save us."

"People panic so much that it is very difficult to reason with them, they just want to hold on to you tightly, which makes it a very strenuous task," he says.

"Two months ago, I fractured my elbow. One of the inspectors paid the hospital expenses. Nowadays, I use a surfboard, " he says. "It is much easier to help people onto the board and then guide the board to safety."

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Image: Venkatesh, left, with Sub-Inspector Panneerselvam of the Anna Square police station, centre.
Photographs: Sreeram Selvaraj

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S Saraswathi

Doesn't his family object to his heroics?

"Until recently my father was not aware of what I do. My mother died some years ago. She immolated herself due to some family issues. After her death, I stopped going to school and moved in with my grandmother."

"My father feels once you are 15, you should learn to fend for yourself. I have been mostly on my own for many years now."

At least five people die every month off this stretch of coast, the police say. Swimmers don't heed the warning signs of danger.

"I frequently advise people to be careful," says Venkatesh. "But no one listens. Some boys even get into a fight with me."

And then there are the pranksters.

"They pretend to be drowning and scream for help. When I reach them, they laugh and say that they wanted to fool me. This makes me very angry, but there is nothing I can do. I cannot risk ignoring a cry for help."

For a few hours every day he sets up speakers and plays songs at political meetings and other gatherings to make a little money.

"I would be happy to have a small shop close to the beach like my brother, which will ensure that I stay at the beach and continue my work. But that requires quite a lot of money and I don't want to ask my father for help," he says.

"Sometimes, I dream of becoming a police officer, but there are exams to be written and procedures to be followed and I have not even completed my high school."

Fate has not dealt young Venkatesh a good hand, but that does not deter him from doing selfless service.


Image: Venkatesh at the Marina Beach.
Photographs: Sreeram Selvaraj
Tags: Venkatesh

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