March 19, 2001


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'I miss my right hand'

January 26 was a holiday. So 12-year-old Prutha Desai did not have to breakfast hurriedly and rush off to the Mount Carmel School in Ahmedabad.

She was lazing in bed that pleasant wintry morning when the earth shook.

We bring you the day that changed Prutha's life forever. And another that will make her life look up again: today, March 19.

PRUTHA was half-asleep when the earthquake struck. She heard her mother screaming and sat up to hear a deep rumbling. The room swayed. She wondered what was happening. Then her dad shouted that it was an earthquake.

He asked her mother to run out of their flat. But her mom wanted to get the house-keys first. Her dad said she should run out with both the children while he fetched the keys.

Khusboo, her 16-year-old sister, was already on the way down. Prutha followed. She managed to get down to the parking lot. The building was swaying from side to side.

Prutha was running between the cars, trying to get to the open, when her block of flats came down. The cars were crushed in a second, but they prevented the debris from touching ground. There was about one-and-a-half feet between the floor and the debris.

"Thank god for the cars," she says. "They saved me."

But a concrete slab crushed Prutha's right arm on to the roof of a Honda City car. The index toe of her right foot, too, mangled under the door of a car.

From under the debris, she could hear voices. There was a mother and daughter crying for help.

"I kept telling myself that I needed to be mentally strong. I kept shouting for help. But no one came," she recalls.

There was some water on the floor. She licked it to soothe her parched throat.

UNKNOWN to Prutha, there were hundreds outside trying to reach the trapped. But, to them, at that point, it seemed impossible -- there were mountains of debris to be moved.

Prutha's father Bakilbhai Desai found that his youngest was missing only hours later. His wife was hurt and only after he got medical help for her did he inquire about Prutha.

Khusboo, who was then in a state of shock, told him: Prutha was in the parking lot when the building collapsed.

"That was the worst experience of my life. I wish it never happens to anybody. My daughter was under the debris -- and I did not even know it!"

When he reached the site, it was well past noon. He located where his daughter was.

"I could hear her, but just could not rescue her. The helplessness of it was killing," Desai recollects.

After a long time, after the fire brigade, Rapid Action Force and a group of civil engineers worked in tandem, they managed to make a small opening. Desai's brother Hetal crawled in and spoke to Prutha.

"He asked me who I was," says Prutha. "I said I was Tinku. That's my pet name. Is it not a funny name?"

Prutha could not see him, but he heard him all right. "I cannot tell you how happy I felt at that moment."

IT soon became dark. There was a ray of light filtering down to Prutha. She kept looking at it; it was her ray of hope.

Prutha was on her stomach, her arm pinned under a slab. There was a body next to her, of someone she had never seen before. Dried blood coated her face.

She knew that an earthmover was working overhead. She kept speaking to the rescuers, trying to guide them. A rescue personnel told her to shut her eyes.

Finally, 30 hours after the incident, they reached her. They used crowbars to free her legs. But her arm was still under the slab. There was no way they could move it. A doctor gave her local anaesthesia. Then he began a 45-minute operation, severing her arm.

AT the hospital, when Prutha woke up to the reality of having lost her right arm, she broke down.

"But my mama, she made me see it the way I should," she says. "She told me God took away only one hand, but He gifted me my life... I am grateful."

Says Poonam Sharma, her maths teacher: "Prutha is just amazing. She is already writing with her left hand! Now she wants the school to hire a writer for her exams."

Prutha is a bright student. Her teacher Reshma Karna says the school could easily promote her without any tests. But Prutha will have none of it -- she will, she says, sit for the exams.

"Prutha will overcome," says Suvritti Singh, a classmate. "She has the ability to rise above everything. We always expected her to do well. She is good at drawing, dancing, painting, singing... she is a top-ranker."

Prutha, for her part, is wasting no time. She does physiotherapy, which involves half-hour stretches of playing basketball, carrying a half-filled bucket, practising writing, drawing and painting and trying to master precision -- all designed to strengthen the co-ordination in the fingers of her left hand.

A few days ago, Sunil Handa, the chairman of the Eklavya Education Foundation, an NGO involved in relief work, took her to Akhilesh Pathak, a professor at the Institute of Rural Management.

Pathak does not have an arm either. The visit was magical. Prutha was happy to hear Pathak's wife say that she married him because he was a much nicer man than many others who had two hands.

Prutha now has three options: a simple cosmetic arm, a functional mechanical arm, or a myo-electric arm. The first is not of much use except psychologically. Prutha's right shoulder ball is intact and there is an inch of bone there, which will grow as she grows. So it is possible for her to have 'an arm that swings', can bend at the elbow, and have fingers that can open and close.

Today, March 19, her world will change. Again. Vijay Naik, a well-known doctor in Bhavnagar will fix her a functional arm.

There is only one thing that angers Prutha: "I want to face the world like a normal person. I get angry when people treat me like a helpless, handicapped person."

Is there anything that she misses? "Yes," she smiles, "I miss my right hand."

Design: Dominic Xavier

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