Losing limbs but not hope

June 17 morning, Rajesh Laxman Pille was a tad nervous. The monsoon had arrived in Mumbai. Just a day ago Rajesh, like all soccer-crazy kids in Mumbai, had played a match of soccer with his friends, knowing that life after June 17 may not be the same again.

Like thousands of students who had written their school-leaving exams in Mumbai, Rajesh too was awaiting his results.

At around 3 pm, one of the teachers at SUPPORT (Society Undertaking Poor People’s Onus For Rehabilitation), a non-governmental organisation that rehabilitates Mumbai street children, told him he had secured 71.82 percent.

Rajesh, who has no hands, had written all his papers algebra, geometry, science and technology, English, Hindi, Marathi, history and geography by holding pen, pencil, and the geometric compass by the toes of his left leg.

That he plays soccer (his favorite is Portugal’s Cristiano Ronaldo, who he desperately wants to meet), carom and chess, though incidental, is amazing too.

Overnight, Rajesh went from oblivion to limelight.

I was very scared of my results. Though I had studied sincerely I expected about 60 percent,” says Rajesh, 18, who only joined school when he was 7, in fluent Marathi.

Though he speaks good Hindi he is in a spot of bother when somebody uses a difficult word. When you ask him about his mother tongue, Rajesh is not too forthcoming. While his last name ‘Pille’ suggests he is from south India, his fluent Marathi makes you think otherwise.

Rajesh doesn’t remember his age when he was crippled.

“I was running after a kite. I accidentally touched a live electric wire with both my hands. That was it,” he says with a shrug of his shoulders.

Though he lived with his parents when tragedy struck, he doesn’t say how he ended up on Mumbai’s streets, addicted to cigarettes, for which he begged at the city’s famed Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus, home to scores of abandoned street children.

But then Rajesh, who was born July 26, 1992, remembers what he describes as his rebirth, which happened sometime in 1999. He eagerly narrates that story.

Sujata Ganega, one of the founder trustees of SUPPORT, who Rajesh today fondly calls ‘mummy’, saw the limbless 7-year-old smoking a cigarette, holding it in his leg. She immediately wondered: If this boy can smoke with his leg, he can surely write using the same technique.

After completing the legal formalities and ascertaining that Rajesh was an orphan, abandoned on the streets, she brought him to SUPPORT’s office in Vakola, Santacruz, north-western Mumbai, where 180 street kids get detoxified, educated, de-addicted and then rehabilitated.

“There was nobody on the streets who helped me to get over my smoking addiction. But here the volunteers and Mummy gave me affection, warmth and confidence to abandon my bad habits and achieve what I have done today,” says Rajesh.

“For the first few days at SUPPORT I would just throw tantrums, refuse to eat food, and abuse the volunteers with expletives [he knew plenty of them]. The pangs of tobacco addiction was just too difficult to ignore,” he says.

It took almost three weeks of detoxification, counseling, medicines and persuasion about the fruits of good life that helped Rajesh wean himself away from his addiction.

It was just the beginning.

The next challenge was to learn to write using his leg.

It took almost three years of dogged perseverance before Rajesh could write legibly. The real fun, he says, was learning to draw geometrical sketches using a compass. One day, when he was in Class 6, Rajesh saw Sandeep Kashyap, a teacher at SUPPORT, use a compass to draw geometrical figures for his pupils. That set the ball rolling.

In the beginning I’d hurt my legs because of the pointed needle. After practicing for two days, for more than seven hours, I managed to draw a smooth circle. My confidence soared,” he recalls.

Rajesh would need a lot of this confidence when students ridiculed him about his handicap and taunted him for being favored for his disability.

“I studied in the Vakola Municipal School till Class 6 and always stood first,” he says proudly. “However, some students would often ridicule me and taunt me for this. They suggested the teachers gave me good marks out of sympathy.”

All those bad memories are part of Rajesh’s past. The present is he has scored 72 percent marks in his school-leaving exams and has dreams for a bright future.

He plans to become a psychologist some day. “When I was a kid I wanted to become a ‘scientist’,” he says. “Actually I wanted to become a psychologist but thought that those who read and analysed people’s behavior were called scientists. Mummy and other volunteers here helped me understand the difference between a ‘scientist’ and a psychologist,” he says with a grin.

“I have the ability to read other people’s minds from their behavior, body language and the words they speak. I want to harness this strength by getting an academic qualification.”

He is confident that his disability will not impede his future.

He always sees two scenarios. One where he is handicapped and the competition easily excels over him because of his disability. The other where he sees himself as handicapped but winning over the competition through his grit and gumption.

“It is all in the mind,” he says. “Without doubt I love the situation when I imagine myself as better than the best.”


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Inspiring Lessons to learn from Sachin Tendulkar

Tendulkar’s truest talent—the one that has just seen him hit his 50th Test hundred and brought him close to a 100 international centuries— is not his ability to see the ball early or to pick spin out of a bowler’s hand or to hit through gaps in the field or to pace his batting. It is his ability to want to do these things over and over again, to better how he does them even when he has seemingly perfected them.

This is the talent that helped him avoid the pitfalls in any lengthy career. When this particular ability is called hunger, it sounds grand and magnificent. The more accurate word—discipline— is also the less sexy word. Discipline involves tirelessness and incremental improvement, and how can that be worthy of awe and admiration?  Yet, over the last two decades, if Tendulkar’s batting has shown us anything, it is the sheer virtue of discipline—of the extra half-hour spent in the nets, even after younger, spryer colleagues have hit the bars. That discipline is why, even at 37, Tendulkar can pile up 1,500 sublime runs in a calendar year, enjoying a purple patch that eludes not only freshly blooded youngsters but even comparable peers like Ricky Ponting. Such is Tendulkar’s effect, in fact, that for many of us who have watched him over his international career,his discipline is even more attractive than his straight drive; the latter is only the mastery of a cricket ball, after all, while the former is the mastery of a formidable mind and body.

The sheer longevity of Tendulkar’s career offers an object lesson in staying focused. His 22-year-long career, with 50 test centuries and 46 one-day international tons, is not just a source of joy for his fans and followers, but can also be veritable handbook on excellence, leadership and management for businesses.

What are the lessons Tendulkar offers? We spoke to some cricket crazy CEOs for an insight.

“The most important lesson is the fact that talent without discipline is useless tinsel. It takes you nowhere.. Companies and entrepreneurs who do not bring in a certain discipline and rigour can never succeed. Tendulkar is maniacal about his preparation for every single innings he plays be it a crucial test match or an inconsequential ODI,” says K Ramkumar, executive director and HR head,

He recollects watching him during the 2003 World Cup match against Pakistan at Centurion Park when Tendulkar sat alone with his gear perhaps visualising the match-winning knock of 98 he eventually played.

“When Australia toured India in 1998 with Shane Warne at his peak, Tendulkar realised that his ability to counter the legspin coming out of the rough would be crucial. Several weeks before the tour began, he got the former India leg spinner L Sivaramakrishnan, who had retired by then, to bowl around the wicket and into the rough in the nets,” adds Ramkumar.

Although Tendulkar’s two stints as captain proved joyless, he now seems to lead the team through his performance without being designated as a leader. “Cricket is a game that involves decision-making in the shortest possible time between the time the ball leaves the bowler and reaches the other end in a fraction of a second.
Sachin has honed his skill at taking decisions to the finest possible level. It is a quality essential for successful leadership. Also leaders need to have capability to have more than one solution to a given problem. Sachin has many, says Harsh Goenka, chairman of RPG Enterprises .

“The first and foremost lesson for entrepreneurs is to start young, as Tendulkar did. You give yourself that much more time and opportunity to succeed. And if you can remain focused and humble, the sky is the limit,” says Raghavendra Rao, the CMD of Chennai-based Orchid Pharmaceuticals.

“Tendulkar epitomises the mindset of wanting to grow from scratch even after achieving the greatness threshold. He never tends to cool his heels. Companies and CEOs too must always think of starting from scratch even when they hit their targets of say $1 billion revenue. His greatness is that he does the same thing that he has been doing for the last 25 years, but with greater passion every time he takes the field. He has never tried his hand at anything other than cricket. He feels most secure in his 21/2 square foot home called the batting crease,” explains R Suresh, CEO of the executive search firm Stanton Chase .


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Studied +2, But Now World leader in Cloud Computing

Suresh Sambandam seems to have a knack for being present at the right place at the right time and more importantly, with the right set of skills to make full use of opportunities life throws at him. Today, Sambandam runs a software product company, OrangeScape – the only Indian firm listed in Gartner’s Global Top 10 ‘cloud specialists’ along with giants like Microsoft and Google. The journey to the clouds was not without twists and turns.

After class 12, Sambandam’s father gave him two options: join a medical college (with a burdening capitation fee of 5 lakh), or join the family’s realty business. He hated medicine. So opted to help his father. “I used to go to the registrar’s office as a 17-year-old to get some work done, only to get puzzled looks from them,” says Sambandam.

With evenings free, he joined a neighbourhood institute to learn typewriting. The year was 1990. It’s at this institute where he first came in contact with computer.  He was hooked when he started learning D BASE 3+, a database management system. He went to the institute at odd times to access the only PC. “

I bought McGraw Hill DBASE 4 book from Puducherry at a huge cost of 800 in 1992 and learnt it on my own, finishing 100 pages a day. I loved computers and had a feeling that this was going to be something very powerful,” says Sambandam. With the self-acquired knowledge, he made a small demo of airline reservation system which baffled his friends and teachers. And he realised his future lied in computers.

Soon afterwards, Sambandam started his own software training institute. “My father gave 25,000, but he did ask me when will I return the money,” says Sambandam, smiling. After couple of years, and with the business not picking up, he quit, returned his father’s investment and headed for Bangalore in search of a job.

In 1994, Bangalore was yet to get the IT tag and he landed a tech job for 5,000 per month. In the two years with the firm, he picked up Java, a programming language, and that helped him get a call from industry giant Hewlett-Packard. “They (HP) were looking for someone who knew Java. I can say that I learnt everything from HP. It was here that I was introduced to Rulebased computing that was going to play a major role later,” says Sambandam.

In 2000, he left HP to join Selectica, a new Silicon Valley company. Within an “open and free environment”, Sambandam rose from a position of software analyst to director of e-insurance product division in a matter of two years. “Here I got the experience of building up a company. Also, I met Ayee Goundan, whose support has been extremely crucial in my journey,” says Sambandam. They made an insurance product which was considered one of the finest then.

The product was soon bought by Accenture. But the IT biggie made the mistake of acquiring only code and not the team behind the project. “I knew right then that an opportunity was staring me. This was the best chance to star a company,” says Sambandam. As expected, Accenture came back and made a deal worth half a million dollars for the ‘insurance team’.

From the 50 people who worked with Sambandam on the project, he hand-picked six of them for his new company, which he named Orangescape. “My idea was to bring Rule engines, which have been traditionally used in complex enterprise projects, to the masses. Of the six people I asked, four agreed to join me,” says Sambandam. One of the four, Mani Doraisamy, has made such an impact that he is currently the chief technology officer and also referred to as founder within the company.

Orange scape, today, is recognised as a leading company in cloud computing globally and No. 1 in India. OrangeScape has more than 50 customers including global brands like Unilever, Citibank, Pfizer, AstraZeneca, Fullterton, among others. OrangeScape has also been featured as ‘India’s Rising Tech Stars’ by Forbes magazine. “After India, we have set our sights firmly on the US and the UK. We should do great,” says Sambandam.


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Success stories of small town girls in Asian Games.

Women were the big reason behind India’s impressive show of India in Asian Games, bringing ten of the team’s 11 medals and also four of the five golds.

Incidentally, the medals were brought by India’s small town girls, who fought through poverty and poor facilities to rise to the fore.

Preeja’s story is a classic case. Her father died when she was very young and her elder brother had to discontinue his studies after the eight standard and work as a carpenter at Rajakkad in Kerala’s hilly Idukki district. And her mother had to slog in nearby homes on daily wages.


Kavita, who also won the Commonwealth Games bronze, is from a tribal belt near Nashik and took to running only because it could be done barefoot without spending a penny.

And Ashwini, who began hurdling only about six months ago and also figured in gold-winning runs in the 4×400 relay teams both in the Delhi Commonwealth Games and at Guangzhou, is from a farming family from a small hamlet in Karnataka’s Udupi District.

As the TV sets flashed the news of Ashwini’s Thursday victory, Gensale villagers made a beeline to Shetty’s residence, which is now flooded with water on all its four sides due to incessant rains in the region. The only approach keeping the house from becoming an island is a rattling and half-submerged bridge woven with paddy stalks.

Her parents could not watch their daughter’s victory in the CWG event as there was no power at home and the cable network had also been disrupted.

They remembered the tough days when the athlete used to practise barefooted at her middle school, about three km from their house.

She used to run barefoot all the way to the school, unmindful of the rough surface. Our financial condition was also not good. All we could manage for her nourishment was vegetables, ganji (rice porridge), and occasionally fish. We wondered from where she got all the energy from,” said Ashwini’s parents.

Not many gave them a chance of winning golds in Guangzhou but they proved that they had the will and the power to carry the country forward when the going got tough.


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Rags to Riches story of Lawrence Rajendran

It is the kind of stuff fairy tales are made of. From being raised by a single mother who was a government teacher, studying in a government school in the suburbs of Chennai and graduating from a college in rural Tamil Nadu to winning the most prestigious Breuer award for research in Alzheimer’s disease at the age of 35, Lawrence Rajendran has indeed come a long way in life.

Lawrence, who did his schooling and college in Chennai and is currently working as a co-director and assistant professor at the University of Zurich has won the Hans and Ilse Breuer Award worth 100,000 euros for research in Alzheimer’s in Germany.

The clich?, rags to riches, fits aptly in the case of Lawrence. A rewind into his childhood reveals an alcoholic father who abandoned his wife and three children, one of them Lawrence, who was just five. “My mother single-handedly brought us up and ensured that we got quality education,” says Lawrence.

Lawrence‘s interest in molecular biology and biochemistry began in Class X when he was introduced to it by a professor at the Madras Christian College whom he had met by chance.

“I decided to do my graduation in biochemistry. But back in 1995, there wasn’t a single college for men in the city which offered the course and enrolled for it at the Sri Sankara College for Arts and Science in Kancheepuram,” he says.

Rajendran who received the award for successfully deciphering that specific part of the brain which is the source of the Alzheimer’s disease and designing a drug which addresses the problem says he had always been fascinated by the biological aspects of the disease and wanted to pursue his research in this field.

“It was in 2004 that I decided to pursue my research in Alzhemier’s after my guide found out the connection between high cholestrol and Alzheimer’s. The disease fascinated me and from then on I have been doing research in Alzheimer’s,” he says.

Lawrence, who was a gold medallist both at the under-graduation and post-graduation level has been funded by stipends and scholarships all through his student life. “Thanks to all the grants and stipends I received I have been able to achieve so much.”

And now, its Lawrence’s turn to stretch out a helping hand to bright students from economically weak backgrounds. Three years ago, Lawrence started the Research Awareness in Student Environment (RAISE) programme to assist undergraduate engineering students from Tamil Nadu’s rural areas who have a passion for research and also to create awareness on research.

Five students are selected each year who are then sent to study in Zurich and Max Planck Universities. These students are funded by the universities and Lawrence. “I got the German Neuro Science Society award for 25,000 euros which I have set aside to fund students who are selected through RAISE,” he says.

Looking back, Lawrence has a lot to be thankful for, especially his mother and sisters who are all praise for him. “He is a gifted and brilliant child. He is a great actor, singer, dancer, orator and writer. He has varied interests and is a voracious reader. You will never find him without a book,” says his sister Florence Rajendran who works as a clinical researcher.

Lily Rajendran, his mother, is extremely proud of her son’s achievements. “Being a teacher I know the importance of education and wanted to give all my children the best education. Lawrence showed great potential even as a child and was excellent in studies as well as extra-curricular activities,” she says.

Though Lawrence only visits his sisters and mothers twice a year, family has always been his first priority, says Lily. “It is because of his hard work, determination and God’s grace that he has achieved great heights,” she said.


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How ‘Magic’ Johnson’ fought back AIDS?

Earvin ‘Magic’ Johnson has the repute of being one of the most successful players in the history of the basketball game.

In November 1991, Johnson encountered the most challenging moment of his life. During a routine physical examination for an insurance policy, he was detected to be a carrier of the HIV virus. In order to undergo treatment, the team physician advised Johnson to quit basketball immediately. Johnson first shared his medical condition with his teammates and then decided to make a public announcement.

In a press conference held on November 7, 1991, Johnson acknowledged that he had tested positive for HIV and that he would retire immediately. He brought in on record that his wife, Cookie and their unborn child were HIV negative.

Johnson was determined to face this threat and dedicate his future life to overpower this fatal disease. His announcement led to rumors proclaiming Johnson to be gay or bisexual but he denied being either. Johnson’s confession stunned the Americans and brought him in the limelight right through the country. In fact, the ESPN declared it as the seventh most memorable moment of the past 25 years. The media praised Johnson for his courage and the U.S. President, George H W Bush called him a ‘Hero’.

Overnight, a basketball player became a spokesman for AIDS awareness. Johnson continued to speak out and raised millions for research to combat the disease. It was during this phase that he founded the Magic Johnson Foundation for HIV/AIDS education and co-authored the book, ‘What You Can Do To Prevent AIDS’.

Johnson retired abruptly in 1991 but still hoped for a future in basketball. He made a comeback to win the Most Valuable Player of the 1992 All-Star Game. His fellow players protested and forced him to retire for the second time. Johnson’s passion for the game got him to return once again in 1996 to play 32 games for the Lakers. By May 1996, Johnson formally announced his retirement – this time for good. He cited the other players’ concerns about the possibility of being infected while playing. Actually, he had discovered that the current players on the team did not look up to him and would not give the ball exclusively to him.

Johnson’s optimism and his desire to remain healthy for his family have astonishingly brought down the AIDS virus in his body to untraceable levels, as notified by his physicians in 1997. They accredited the improvement to the use of powerful drugs, including protease inhibitors. His wife, Cookie, of course gives the credit to God.


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Inspiring story of India’s Only News paper for AIDS

Maragatham, 35, is a daily passenger on the train to Chennai, which stops at Karur, a textile town, 430 kilometres south of the metropolis. She trades in readymade garments. Every 15 days, she waits eagerly for a newspaper distributed free on the trains she boards to get to Karur.

For Maragatham, the eight-page colour newspaper, Positive +, is interesting because for the first time she is able to read openly about HIV/AIDS in her own language. “I learn new things about this dreaded disease with every issue,” she says. After Maragatham has read the paper, she makes sure that she hands it over to someone else, even students of a college in Erode, who commute regularly on this train.

But, why would anyone want to start a newspaper in a country that has almost 62,500 registered newspapers, of which about 2,130 are dailies? Furthermore, a newspaper in the age of Internet newspapers and recession, that deals with just one subject and which is distributed free of charge seems a losing proposition.

So what made Asma Naseer, the person behind the great idea, take the plunge? “Well,” she says, “we had been thinking about doing it for several years, but never really put our minds to it. Now it has at last happened.”

Four months into operations – the first edition was out on December 1, 2008 – it takes about Rs 50,000  to print and distribute each edition of Positive +, as the advertisements are few. But money has been trickling in. The Tamil Nadu Aids Control Society has taken advertisement space for six months, which is worth about Rs 12,000 per edition, while some shopkeepers and well-wishers are now coming forward with small advertisements.Several generous friends have also contributed, which includes an initial private gift of $1000 that enabled the project to take off.

“The very fact that four months into the experiment, we are facing demands of up to 50,000 copies, which we are unable to print at the moment, shows that people find the paper useful,” says Asma, who is in her thirties. It will need at least Rs 400,000 every month to print and distribute 50,000 copies door-to-door even in the small area it now covers. That is Asma’s dream.

Currently, 5,000 copies of the publication roll out of a small press to be distributed free in areas like Adayar, Besant Nagar and Thiruvanmiyur in Chennai by volunteers or newspaper boys for a token sum. Three hundred more copies are given out on trains in the Karur-Trichy section, mostly among vendors and daily wage earners.

There is also a free online version at http://positivecommunications.org/

But what’s so special about this newspaper, one might ask. Well, besides the kudos due to a single woman’s effort, it is the manner in which HIV/AIDS is treated that is striking. What immediately impresses people as they turn the pages is the commitment it displays to building up a friendship with the reader. And it is bilingual. In fact, the newspaper design is quite innovative. Both Tamil as well as English material appear on the same broadsheet, which is then folded into tabloid size, with every reader getting access to both languages in a single copy.

The newsprint is grainy – it is composed and designed on a tiny laptop on a dinner table. But one cannot miss the bonhomie it exudes, issue after issue. And yes, with Tamil Nadu considered an HIV/AIDS hotspot, it is only appropriate that Chennai should be home to India’s first newspaper on HIV/AIDS.

However, Positive + is not a scaremonger, for it does not churn out dull statistics on HIV/AIDS, nor does it wave the red flag of fear. The reassuring phrase is: “It is not our concern how someone contracted HIV. We are only interested in seeing that the infected person has a life of dignity. And, in preventing fresh infection.”

In the very first issue, filmmaker and activist Ajit Hari, the managing editor of Positive +, put it this way: “Everyone – simply everyone – who is infected has just one refrain, ‘If only I knew’.”

With concerted nation-wide awareness campaigns, most people have heard of HIV/AIDS. But knowing about AIDS, coping with HIV, dealing with the associated trauma – that is an entirely different ball game, Asma points out.

“Even I, who thought of myself as a fairly intelligent, educated, well read and aware person, was surprised by how little I actually knew about HIV/AIDS and how it actually affects lives,” explains Ajit.

Yes, the alerts are all there in the paper. Little boxes containing the India and state figures of the affected; the long AIDS guide column; the hotlines to help; and the addresses of hospitals, blood banks, counselling centres, testing centres, ART centres and positive networks. It contains information about community care centres and outreach programmes, as well.

From publisher-editor Asma’s desk comes a little note. In a recent issue, it was titled boldly, ‘My AIDS Story’. In a chatty style, it took the reader through a journalist’s first encounter with HIV/AIDS and the typical warnings from friends and family, “Oh! You were covering an AIDS assignment…wash your hands, change your clothes…”

Week after week, the pages narrate the tales – of HIV-positive Padmavathy, who is president of Tamil Nadu Network of Positive People; of Anandy’s bold initiative (she sought an HIV test before an arranged marriage), making the reader believe there is hope and that it is always better to be safe than sorry.

The paper captures the story of India’s tryst with AIDS and wise words from respected community leaders. An early edition carried Mother Teresa’s thoughts on AIDS. On one cover there was a message from the Archbishop of Madras, Rev A M Chinnappa, on the occasion of Christmas, and from Sadguru Jaggi Vasudev on Pongal. There is sometimes anecdotal caution against stigma – a little story about Mary of Magdalene, with Jesus telling people, “Let one without sin cast the first stone”. One recent edition had the picture of the most powerful man in the US, President Barack Obama and the First Lady, taking the HIV test.

“There are 2.44 million HIV stories from India to write about,” Ajit says. “Each story is a lesson in what not to do, how not to let it happen to you.”

Inspiration needed, anyone? Take it from Asma, Ajit and their Positive + attitude.

Women’s Feature Service, April 2009


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Success story of physically challenged Chess champion

Her world has revolved around the black and white squares, for more than a decade now. For 23-year-old Jennitha Anto crossing hurdles in life is similar to making her way across the chess board — one square at a time.

This physically-challenged girl from Tiruchi, dreams of being a grandmaster some day and a chartered accountant. She has distinguished herself by earning the FIDE Women Candidate Master title with her performance in the recently concluded 39th World Chess Olympiad at the Russian town of Khanty-Mansiysk.

Jennitha bagged the silver medal in the women’s section at the eighth IPCA (International Physically disabled Chess Association) World Chess Championship in Wisla, Poland. In a tournament that had 70 physically challenged players participating including a number of International Masters, she managed to hold her own.

She was the only non-Russian invited to represent the women’s IPCA team at the 38th World Chess Olympiad in 2008, where she exhibited her prowess winning seven games in a row (against players in the general category), including one against a Woman International Master (WIM).

She stands testimony to the triumph of mind over matter. For the girl struck by polio at three, disability has never been a handicap in courting success. “It’s all in the mind,” she says. Uncomplaining and contented, her soft-spoken veneer conceals an invincible will power.

Notable is her father, G. Kanickai Irudayaraj’s contribution to her success in the sport. Her first coach and constant companion, he introduced Jennitha to the world of pawns, knights and queens.

“I happened to read the Will of Steel which records accomplishments of the differently abled in sports. It led me to believe Jennitha too can do it. I told her I would teach her a sport,” recalls the father, a retired school teacher. “She was reluctant and reminded me she could not run, let alone walk. But she was excited, when I told her she could play chess.” And that was how Jennitha got her first tutorial in chess. She soon discovered her talent when she won her first tournament at the district-level in 1996.

“During my first tournament, I was trembling all over; I was worried that so many people were watching me and I wondered what they thought, seeing me in a wheelchair. But after winning the tournament, I was all confidence,” she says with a bright smile.

And she did not stop there. She went on conquering opponents in a battle of brains. Jennitha was district champion under different age categories six times in a row. Her highest ranking in an open tournament at the State level was No. 5 while she was ranked 16th in the country in the under-15 category and competed in international tournaments to become a rated player by 2002.

Though she took a break to concentrate on her Board exams, Jennitha returned to her first love — chess — while doing a degree in Commerce through correspondence.

Lack of infrastructure or special arrangements have never been impediments in her way forward. But the only disadvantage she points out is missing chances to watch the games of other players during tournaments. “Apart from giving you a break, it can largely improve your game. I feel I have missed those opportunities,” she rues.

Coached by International Master and Olympic team captain, Raju Ravi Sekhar, Jennitha says he shaped not only her technique but also her temperament. Something that she has imbibed from her idol Viswanathan Anand.

The computer has been an asset for Jennitha to improve her game through online coaching and long hours of practice. The biggest obstacle that stands between Jennitha and her ‘Grand’ dream is the lack of funds.

“Jennitha is about to start coaching under a Grandmaster which requires Rs. 1,000 per hour. Besides, her travel expenses are more because she needs to be accompanied,” says her father.

Both father and daughter are thankful to private organisations and the Tiruchi District, State, All India Chess Associations and the State Government who have made the journey so far possible.

Jennitha’s hero, Bobby Fischer once remarked, “You have to have the fighting spirit. You have to force moves and take chances.” Jennitha has that and more. The sunniest of optimists, she also believes in miracles. Her life may be chequered but she has never been check-mated.


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Inspiring story of school dropout with a PhD

V Kathiresan had to drop out of school to support his family. Years later, working for A P J Abdul Kalam as his driver, he was encouraged to restart his education.

Today he has a PhD, has written two books, and is a college lecturer.

Anything is possible or shall we say nothing is impossible. V Kathiresan’s story proves that. This school dropout, who used to work as a driver for A P J Abdul Kalam, ensured that his dream turned into a reality at the age of 47.

A native of Vadachennimalai in Tamil Nadu, Kathiresan has come a long way with sheer determination. From being a school dropout, he went on to complete a PhD in history and was appointed a lecturer at the Arignar Anna Government Arts College in Vadachennimalai last year.

“I can never forget the role played by Kalamayya (sahib). I worked as a driver with him for five-and-a-half-years and during those long drives, I used to talk to him about my aspirations and dreams.”
“One day while driving, Ayya suggested that I should resume my studies. He told me that the best way to go about it was through long distance education. Ayya used to lecture several students about the importance of education. I used to listen to him speak and got inspired.”
It wasn’t easy for Dr Kathiresan. After working at a 10 to 6 job, he would come home and study to catch up on all those lost years.
His struggle against the odds has become an example for his students. Santhosh Mani, a student at the college, says his teacher’s story is like a fairy tale. “We complain so much about work load and the other burdens of life,” says Mani. “Today I look up to him and tell myself that anything is possible. It is just a matter of dedication and effort.”

Dr Kathiresan lost his father very early in life and had no choice but to support his family. Though he was always fond of studying, financial problems compelled him to drop out of school. “It was one of the most painful decisions of my life, but I accepted it as a way of life.”

He trained as an electrician and joined the Indian Army in 1979. His first posting was in Bhopal, then Sikkim followed by Hyderabad.
He first met A P J Abdul Kalam at the Defence Research and Development Laboratory in the 1980s. Kalam was DRDO’s director at the time and Kathiresan was deputed as his driver.

I must thank the Almighty that I was given such an opportunity,” says Dr Kathiresan. “If not for Kalamayya’s inspirational words, I would have never been able to achieve this. Even after Ayya left DRDO, I continued to ponder over what he said about the importance of education.”

He started working towards completing his school education. He appeared for the Class X and then Class XII examinations privately and obtained a BA from Madurai Kamraj University through distance education. He then went on to do an MA in political science.
“I noticed that as the days passed, the urge to pursue higher studies started creeping into my system. I did my BEd followed by an MEd from Madras University and then an MPhil from Kamraj University. I then did law and finally a PhD from Manonmaniam Sundaranar University.”

In 2001, he passed the teachers’ recruitment exam, and was selected on merit. His first assignment as a teacher was at Kovilpatti where he worked for eight years. Apart from this he has written four books on history and a travel guide for the Tirunelveli district in Tamil Nadu.

“After completing my PhD, I called Ayya and told him that I had got a job also. The kind words and the appreciation that he gave me are more important than anything else in this world. He had faith in me and I did not let him down.”

Dr Kathiresan cannot forget the role his wife Kasthuri played in his entire struggle. A teacher herself, she was a rock through his difficult times. The couple have decided to ensure that their son Raghavan, who is in Class XII, gets sound academic grooming.

Grateful that he had Kalam as a mentor he now wants to help other students who have not had a chance to complete their education. “I would be only too glad if I could pass this on to several students who have the urge to learn and strive to be the best.”


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100-year-old freedom fighter pursues PhD

Freedom fighter Bholaram Das marked his 100th birthday this weekend by announcing that he was going back to school.

Das has enrolled in a PhD program at Guwahati University in the northeastern state of Assam – making him perhaps the oldest university student in this country of 1 billion.

“In my 100 years, I have done many things in the sphere of society, politics, governance and religion,” said Das, dressed in a suit, tie and white Gandhi cap at his birthday celebration Saturday. “I thought I must work towards a PhD that could satisfy my hunger for learning.”

Das was 19 when he was jailed for participating in a 1930 protest against British rule. He spent two months doing hard labour and went on to study commerce and law.

In 1945, he joined the Congress Party that led India’s drive for independence, achieved in 1947.

Das worked as a teacher, a lawyer, a magistrate and a district court judge before retiring in 1971. With his wife Mandakini, he had five sons and a daughter.

For his doctorate, Das plans to study a subject close to his heart – how his native Bohori village helped in the spread of neo-Vaishnavism, a liberal and monotheistic stream of the Hindu religion credited with breaking down social divisions in Assam, one of India’s easternmost states.

The centenarian said he wanted to pursue his interest and belief in the religion’s philosophies of one God and humanism.

“It is indeed rare to find a student who is 100 year old,” said the university’s vice chancellor, O. K. Medhi.

    “We are thrilled because Das can be an inspiration for the youth with his formidable spirit and dedication to public service.”

Das, who now has 10 grandchildren and a great-grandchild, is being advised in his studies by one of his granddaughters, a university professor, and other family members. His wife died in 1988.

“It amazes me that, 40 years after retiring from service, my grandfather is still mentally strong and wants to do new things,” said grandson Abhinab Das, an engineer. “This is indeed inspiring for all of us in the family.


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