Ashla Rani’s life changed on August 1, 2010 when a freak accident on a train to Chennai left her paralyzed below the waist.
However, the watershed event in her life was her entry into the Thiruvananthapuram office of Pallium India, a charitable trust that focuses on palliative care. A modest crowd had gathered to welcome her as she rolled her wheelchair into the office on a Sunday. Her life was never the same again.
Ashla offered to help out Dr M.R. Rajagopal in running the palliative care institution. Now the institution is her home and workplace. She has been a pillar of strength for many people left indisposed by diseases or disasters. She was chosen as a “Youth Icon” by the official Kerala State Youth Commission.
Ashla lost her father, an airman, when she was just eight years old. The girl from the Iritti hinterland near Kannur was brought up by mother Janaki and older sister Alsha. She pursued an MCA degree and went on to become a software engineer with a French firm in Chennai.
She was returning to work after a brief vacation when tragedy struck. She had just finished the dinner her mother packed in a plantain leaf. She washed her hands and threw the leaf out. Just then, the door slammed against her back in a gust of wind.
When she regained consciousness in a hospital two days later, she could not move her legs. Her spine was damaged. She was treated in hospitals in Vellore and Thrissur. She spent three years in a rehabilitation center in Ernakulam.
Her mother refused to leave her side but the aged woman could not manage everything for the wheelchair-bound girl. The family thought of hiring a caregiver.
Ashla, however, wanted to find a place where she could be of some help. The answer was Pallium India, the brainchild of Dr Rajagopal, a pioneer in palliative care. She emailed the doctor, offering to volunteer at the institution. The doctor said he needed someone to manage the Thiruvananthapuram center while his job took him across the country.
Ashla took up the offer. She was allotted a room at the center. They had to widen the door to let her maneuver her wheelchair to the room. The room was fitted with a small kitchen and washroom and more importantly, electricity switches where she could reach them.
“The inmates of Pallium India are people who found their lives changed suddenly, like me,” she said. “People also lose their livelihood when they fall from a tree or get involved in some accident that leaves them bedridden. Their families are also affected. I could understand their situation more than anyone else. They would open up to me. Pallium India is trying to find ways to rehabilitate them physically, emotionally, socially and economically.”
She said that the organization’s work is stumped by the attitudes of society. “We are faced with questions that could weaken you. Society will not let us believe that we are not sick people. There are parents who do not want to take out their paralyzed children. I was lucky to be amid people who did not constrict me.
“We have to make them believe that they could come back. We have many people who could make soap, oil, candles and paper bags. There are people who could make umbrellas. Even painters. We are trying to help them earn by marketing those products.”
The right to seek help
“We are dealing with people whose lives have been changed by misfortunes. We cannot live without help from someone. I was not comfortable seeking help initially. But Rajagopal sir made me realize that I had a right to access help. I no longer viewed me as a burden to society and I sensed a responsibility to help society.”
Pallium India was started in 2003 as a national organization which draws from the support of the social justice department.
Ashla completed a course in counseling to join the group of official counselors in the organization. Pallium India has a wing called ‘Unarvu’ to work for the families who have lost their dear ones. Another group, ‘Kuttikkoottam’, makes sure that the children of bedridden or deceased people get a decent education. About 50 children benefit from the group. They are assured of compulsory education up to plus two. Those who want to study further will be helped to find sponsors.
“I used to tutor children when I was in Chennai. I had thought of it as a big work. That was nothing compared to what we do here. I have a lot more to do.”
It took three years for Ashla to lead a normal life without anyone’s help. She learned how to use a typewriter with her knuckles because she had lost control of her fingers. It took half a year more to be able to hold a pen. “Everything is headed to a happy ending no matter how you struggle,” Ashla Rani shares her life’s lesson.
Sopra Steria, the company she was working with, allowed her to work from home. She could work in the same team. The company allotted funds for her treatment. She was sent a gift and bouquet the day she completed 10 years with the company. The job was an integral part in bringing her back to life, she said.
She works for the company from 6 pm to 10 pm, after working at Pallium India from 9 am to 5 pm.
The road ahead
“Nobody has to limit her universe just because she got involved in an accident. Anyone can move around freely if we have roads and establishments that allow wheelchairs. The world belongs to them too. The government should make the world a better place for them.
“All of us are faced with difficult questions regarding future. The answer is optimism. We don’t have to settle for a bedridden life. Some people have been working to lift us out of that existence. Rajagopal sir’s emotional support and my mother’s physical support helped me fight back. My mother is always with me, except when she makes short visits to our house in Kannur.