My heart swells with pride as I congratulate Sruti Mahapatra, the recipient of Nari Shakti Puraskar, 2021, awarded by our honourable President Shri Ram Nath Kovind. Every time she achieves something beyond my comprehension, I feel she has reached the zenith. Yet she defies imagination and gravity and rises up higher like the phoenix. Our response to the challenges and adversities, that life throws upon us, determines whether we have led an “Ordinary” or an “Extraordinary” life.
Growing up in the beautiful green city of Bhubaneswar, life was a walk down the Garden of Eden. Yes, my childhood and youth were happy, idyllic & sheltered from all the grim realities. Piki Nani ( Sruti Mahapatra) was a huge part of my childhood memories. It has been decades since I met her but her kind eyes and radiant ever-smiling face pops up every time I think of the word “Courageous”.
A stellar student with numerous academic accolades to her name Sruti Mohapatra dreamt to become an IAS officer. She cleared the exam in the 1st attempt but wasn’t satisfied with the Group A Allied Services she got. In 1987, her marriage was fixed and she had cleared the UPSC exam for the 2nd time. She was on top of the world when just a few days short of her interview, life spiraled down a tragic and inconceivable path. She met with a debilitating car accident that robbed her of her dreams & left her in a wheelchair with quadriplegia – paralyzed below the neck, with no movement or sensation. Everything that was to be rightfully hers crumbled down into a mass of debris- her future, her career, and the marriage on the horizon.
Most stories would end here on a tragic note – a beautiful life destroyed by a blow of fate. However, Sruti Mohapatra’s story was not defined by a freak accident. Sruti Mohapatra’s life was defined to its core by her courage – to defy fate. It was her immense patience and unbreakable resolve to stand for her right. After having dealt with the numerous surgeries following the accident, she fought for her right to get the position in IAS that she deserved based on her merit. The UPSC thought her incapable of handling the tasking work of an IAS officer and offered a demoted position. For Sruti Mohapatra these battles were only a practicing ground for a much bigger one that she is part of now.
Drawing from her successful experience in cracking the coveted UPSC exam, Sruti initiated a training program for IAS & Civil Service aspirants till 2006. The program received sponsorship from Union & State Government. Yes, Sruti could not become an IAS but in 2007 she became the director of Odisha IAS study circle.
Sruti was deeply affected by the inherent inequality with which the society viewed the differently-abled people. They were viewed as a burden on society. Sruti refused to ask for sympathetic treatment. She fought for equal rights in a society that had no understanding of the problems of the disabled people, no patience or empathy to treat them as equal contributing members. A small act of kindness was just out of sympathy or for charity. In 1995 after much lobbying and undeterred groundwork the Equal Rights Act was passed. Sruti views this as a small victory for all who saw this injustice and worked to eliminate it.
The war against inequality has only just begun but Sruti feels that each step is a climb towards that destination. In her talk on “Overpowering Disabilities- Chakravyuh on TED X XIMB she speaks about the love, support, compassion and kindness of all who stood by her as she demanded and fought for Equal & Respectful Treatment as well as Equal Opportunity that is the right of every Differently Abled Person.
I fumble to use the words disability or differently-abled for Piki Nani because this beautiful individual is full of extraordinary abilities far beyond most of us.