T.Saraswathi is a survivor and has navigated her way through a difficult system, writes SOMA BASU
This year, T.Saraswathi got her best Pongal gift. On January 10 she received her Ph.D degree from Tamil Nadu Governor K.Rosaiah at the Mother Teresa Women’s University convocation held in Madurai. “It is an achievement to be the only physically challenged person among 350 Ph.D recipients,” she says, “but the real gift was the standing ovation from all and the special greetings from the Governor, the Collector and the Commissioner.”
The 38-year-old masks her bitter experiences of the past behind a smile as she settles in later for a brief chat. “I am happy for my parents, who have struggled a lot for me. I am happy that I was acknowledged today for the person I am,” she says.
For many years, Saraswathi suffered only humiliation and depression. Polio struck when she was 11 months old and left both her legs twisted and deformed. “Life has always been a struggle. I could never be normal or play with normal children. I decided I had to prove myself in studies,” says the daughter of a wire works daily wager.
Saraswathi always wanted to do something different that would put her ahead of her peers. “But I would never go out as my mother had to carry me in her lap and then people would stare at us curiously. Some made fun, some offered sympathy. We could do without both.”
She was a school topper in mathematics. When she completed her M.Com in 1996 and started scouting for jobs, she encountered the injustice of the process. “It is unfortunate that disability is automatically regarded as a barrier to work, whereas Government policy is designed to ensure that support is available to help differently abled individuals find work,” she says.
Saraswathi remembers how with her father she would make the rounds of Government offices and political party offices and try to benefit from policies to help women and the disabled. “But everywhere, the security or the police would misbehave with us or treat us badly. Today, at the convocation, the same police clapped for me and even saluted me. This is my moment of pride.”
For her thesis, she studied service satisfaction levels of customers in eight nationalised banks in Chennai. She also simultaneously pursued an MBA in Madras University. For almost a decade she applied everywhere for jobs and at every step felt the system was in need of a radical overhaul. But she found no place to complain or seek solace. “None of the succeeding Governments in Tamil Nadu offered any help. I even sent letters of request to offices of Chief Ministers.”
While her family sank deeper into poverty, Saraswathi waged her own battle, drawing comfort from motivational books. “I live on hope, always. And finally God gave me an opportunity,” she says. With no job in hand, Saraswathi started taking tuitions and attended workshops on soft skills. It was at one such meeting that she met the project manager from Polaris, who was impressed with her short presentation and offered her a job.
From 2005, Saraswathi has been working as Consultant and Technical Writer (Documentation) in the company. “My colleagues are very friendly and supportive and encourage me. After my Ph.D today even if I get a better job, I will not leave them,” she says.
Saraswathi minces no words. Her latest read is How to Succeed by Irritating, Frustrating and Throwing Difficulties Off Balance by Abdussalam Chaus. She says it was her ambition to show to a negligent society what she is capable of. “Despite the challenges, I have proved myself today. My higher academic qualification than most of those who turned me away is the biggest proof.”
(Making a difference is a fortnightly column about ordinary people and events that leave an extraordinary impact on us. E-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org to tell about someone you know who is making a difference)