Monday, January 23, 2023

Swimming Against the Tide - Madhavi Latha

Madhavi Latha Prathigudupu is the founder of 'Yes we to can' a trust committed to help the disabled improve their health by participating in sports. A Paralympic champion herself, she overcame severe disability to and a time in life when she was told she had a year to live, to become the national Paralympic swimming champion, an ambassador for Paralympic sports persons (and for human spirit), President of the Wheelchair Basketball Association, of Paralympic Swimmers. As a sports administrator conducting events for the disabled she has done what most cannot even dream of. To top it all she has been an executive in a MNC bank, a speaker, an author and a wonderful example of what human spirit can do when driven by a cause.  

Madhavi Latha was born in 1970 in a village called Sattupally as the youngest of five siblings, 3 older sisters and one older brother, to Pardhasaradhi Raju, the much respected and loved Head Master of the village school,  and Varalaskshmi Devi, a homemaker. When Madhavi was seven months old she had high fever, a polio attack, which was not treated right. Her entire body except her left hand was paralysed, she struggled to keep her head steady in the worst of times. Over time she regained some control but her left leg remained fully paralysed. When the doctors at the Guntur Hospital diagnosed her later they felt that her survival was considered a miracle. Despite her circumstance, she remained cheerful and happy and detested the sympathy she got. With the loving care of her parents and her siblings she went to school, had supportive friends, and showed an aptitude for academic study, topping her class.  

When she was 7 years of age an ortho surgeon from Hyderabad operated on her - one surgery on one leg went well and other did not. Her description of Hyderabad its double decker buses, Charminar etc is one thing but there's perhaps a greater motivation from that trip- a memory of a woman scooterist who wore dark glasses waiting at a traffic signal -  a sight that made her make up her mind that one day she would also drive a scooter in Hyderabad like that lady. She did, twenty years later. Sometimes we wonder where such inspirations come from, who that lady was and whether she even realises how much she has impacted Madhavi and through her hundreds. Life indeed is amazing.

Back to the surgery - the second surgery on the other leg was unsuccessful and the doctor suggested that she wear callipers (for the rest of her life). That disappointment that she  would not be normal despite the surgeries, the doctors rather unemotional and distant behaviors, the pain of wearing callipers, all led to her never really wearing them. Madhavi went back to life in the village with a cheerful disposition. But she remembers the nurse Raghavamma at the NIMS Hospital where she had the surgery being kind to her (never can underestimate the power of kindness). She remembers reading books by the dozen, getting the one toy that her parents bought - ever.

In her memories of her childhood she remembers the house they built vividly and I really wished I could see a picture of it, the new Humber cycle they got, the radio, the cinema hall behind their house, sleeping under the sky and stuff. Then, incredibly, they lost their house to a fire and then again suffered during the cyclone which threatened to blow their half constructed house away. They survived it all though. She remembers being curious about death - what happens after we die etc.

Madhavi was always a good student and her progressive father encouraged her to study - he wanted all his daughters to study and they studied and acquired high qualifications. Despite doing well in school she could not study in a regular college because there were no facilities for the disabled and unlike school, she could not crawl from class to class. She chose to study Math, Economics, Logic (MEL), privately and scored well in an exam with no formal tutoring. She recalls that she had invigilators only for her for that exam. Madhavi started taking tuitions, even teaching students older to her. 

When she wanted to study BA (Math) in Osmania Univeristy her supportive parents moved with her for the exam period to Kodad, and she successfully completed it. Her father wanted her to be independent (she herself had a strong desire to be financially independent) and they applied for jobs at LIC as an assistant - and was told she was ineligible. Then some relative told her that there were exams for bank jobs. The exam that she wrote had her seat on the fifth floor and her father , fifty years old then, carried her for five floors. Madhavi says how moved she was by the sight of her father who was very tired with the physical effort but it went well and she was selected - only to be told that she was medically unfit. They appealed to the bank, got letters from a doctor that she was fit and finally got the coveted job. One can see how much of a struggle she had to face at every stage and how unhelpful and biased people and institutions were towards the disabled. That she never gave up nor did her parents was the difference. 

Madhavi learned at every job she was assigned- dispatch onwards. She writes about how helpful and friendly her colleagues and officers were, how much she learned from the good officers and their methods of working. One lady boss told her that she should leave her  desk everyday in such a fashion that if she does not come the next day, the work should not suffer! She wrote more tests and got promoted. One more disappointment because despite acing the exam, the chairman of the committee rejected her because she was disabled. She wrote again, cleared it and got her promotion. This time she had to move to Hyderabad where she worked in the Nallakunta, IFB and OU branches. Here she bought a scooter with the required adjustments, and rode it in the OU campus, to work. She writes about how once she and her colleague Neeraja got drenched in the rain on their way back and it was fun. It is with such love for life that she carried on. While at the Industrial Finance Branch she picked up a lot. She planned to do her MBA from IGNOU. This was the time when they also bought a flat. She got her room painted with radium on the roof so it looked like the sky. That was how particular she was about what she wanted. Sometime then she got herself a car too.

After writing and passing a particular exam she was eligible for a promotion - when she got an offer from an MNC in Chennai and she took it up. It was a big move, new place, new language, no security of a government bank. But by now we know that Madhavi is not one to back away from challenges. One of the first things she mentions in the new office is that there were separate rest rooms for the disabled and how she loved it. All her life she had to hold herself because toilets were not accessible and suffered immensely. Finally she felt some people understood. One interesting thing here is the story of how a trainer from a foreign country came to take a session for her office and since it was on another floor that was not accessible they left her behind. After the program the trainer saw her sitting at her desk and when he found out why she had not attended, proceeded to  repeat the entire session for her.

Sometime then her pain increased and the X ray showed a spine that was curved badly.  The doctor pretty much gave her a death sentence and told she has 365 days to live. After the initial fear and the discomfort of her pain,breathlessness she and her family tried everything, explored surgery, ayurveda and homeopathy. That was when they met a physiotherapist Ananda Jothi who told her that she should go back to work and take up sports. (Her question to him was - can I work till i  die?) He told her to use a spinal brace, to take up hydrotherapy and taught her how to walk in water, swim, do exercises with dumbbells. Then she learned about Post Polio Disorder and wished she had known these things before.

As she started doing hydrotherapy she began to feel better. She could sit without a brace. That was when she gave her name for a swimming competition, and despite her apprehensions, completed it, and got an award. Everyone congratulated her on her gumption and spirit. That was when she decided she had to create awareness to children and people with disabilities that sports can change their lives. She started her 'Yes, We Too Can' movement inspired by Obama's "Yes we can". Her aim is to set up a sports school which she still hopes to at some point.

After that her life went into a hyper drive, driven by her purpose to help others and to spread awareness. She started the Trust, got help from the government, asked IIT Madras to design a pool lift. She participated in the State Paralympics (SDAT) and won gold. At the Kolhapur national Paralympics she won three golds and was a national champion at the age of  forty. At work she was awarded 'Woman of the Year' by her office. She got involved in organising the Swimming Nationals with support from her office (in her early attempts to raise funds she and her friend would visit jewellery stores!). Finally her office stepped in with their CSR Funds and they conducted it wonderfully. 

In 2013, she saw two other sports and was impressed by them - wheelchair basketball and blind cricket. This was also the time when she was very busy - she participated in a blind car rally (she drove). attempted rifle shooting successfully, gave a TEDx talk, joined the Toastmasters club, took up yoga. started going to the gym, doing aqua dance. She was on the Selection Committee for Khel Ratna and Arjuna Award with Sehwag and PT Usha. That same year she met Tendulkar, Dravid, Abhinav Bindra. 

Sometime then she met Rajasekharan, my friend from  IDBI who now runs this wonderful NGO called V-Shesh (and who is now part of the wheelchair basketball committee), attended an international conference, conducted camps for swimmers, saw swimmers lives being improved thanks to the confidence they got from sports. In the Wheelchair Bsketball she saw international coaches telling players to do their own thing including serving their own food and behave like normal people as much as they can and found that hugey empowering. They conducted camps for the wheelchair basketball players and to develop technical expertise. When they got the recognition from the world body of Wheelchair Basketball she was invited to Japan where she and Kalyani, the Secretary of the WBFI -and she wrote her experiences there very nicely. They conducted the nationals, took the team to Thailand where she swam in the sea at the Pattaya beach. She and Kalyani went to Hamburg to attend another event, to the USA with the team where she remembers ringing a bell in a temple for the first time. She addressed policy makers in Mussoorie. and wrote about her experiences in the Himalayas, at being able to touch the waters of the Ganga.

Madhavi has achieved much and sees herself doing much more. She writes about how people speak to the wheelchair and not her, about the lack of facilities and sensitivity among people and institutions (including many temples). At the same time she writes about every single person who has helped her on her journey (she has this amazing gift for thanking everyone in her life), including the tea boy who stopped traffic to help her drive easily, the truck driver who gave her a thumbs up sign for driving her car. The role of her parents, her siblings, her nieces and nephews, her friends and students, her colleagues and teachers - the whole world in fact goes to show that if we begin something with the right intent, the whole universe will help us to manifest it. Madhavi stresses on the importance of fitness and exercise. That sport is a powerful tool and can change lives. And from her life we can see that if we have a purpose, nothing can stop us.

Madhai wrote the book with a lot of care, honesty, sensitivity and detail. Her entire life comes alive and she describes small incidents - her joys, her disappointments, her anger, her frustration - with an openness and vulnerability that is endearing. The vision of her parents taking her to a male nurse who offered to treat her, in a bullock cart with their family dog following them all the way, reaching that place at 2 am, her joy at riding her scooter and going to Necklace Road, at being able to swim, at leading the movement comes through almost physically. She did a great job at writing it down well and has received letters from the Prime Minister Narendra Modi on her book as well. I was pleasantly surprised to see my name mentioned in the acknowledgements though my contribution has been next to nothing. But that's how she is, generous, thoughtful and with an eye for detail. Wonderful effort by Madhavi. This book is a must read for anyone who wishes to learn about the triumph of human spirit.    

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