Preethi Srinivasan

Between Grit and Grace

"Just because I take everything in my stride, smile through everything, doesn’t mean I don’t feel pain, loss or get hurt, it just means that every day I make a choice to transcend the negative and use every moment there is breath in this body to positively impact the world around me."  -- Preethi Srinivasan

Born in 1979, Preethi was a very gifted and hard working child. She became the captain of the under-19 Tamil Nadu women's cricket team, and led the state team to the national championships in 1997 at the age of 17. She was also a gold-medalist national level swimmer. She excelled academically in her school life which spanned 9 countries across 3 continents, due to the frequent transfers involved in her father’s profession. In Standard 12th, she was among the top 2% of merit students in the United States. 

It was the perfect life that any teenager or their parents would dream of. And then, a moment of unimaginable misfortune turned her life upside down. 

She was returning to Chennai from a wonderful college trip to Pondicherry, when she and her friends stopped by to spend some time at a beach. Playfully jumping the waves in what was only thigh deep water, a receding wave churned up the sand from under her feet, she tripped. She stumbled a bit and fell face forward into the water. There was no impact, she didn’t hit any rock or anything hard at all. Not a drop of blood, just a split-second of a shock like sensation through the body, and she could no longer move her body at all. A champion athlete, now a quadriplegic, paralyzed below the neck, and now a wheelchair user for the rest of her life. All in a split second. 

Her identity was completely disrupted. “Is it from birth or did it happen recently? Is this a boy or a girl? Can she talk?” were questions she could hear well intending guests ask her parents. For the following two years, she could not bring herself up to come out of the house -- due to stigma and fear of being ridiculed. A child prodigy destined for Ivy leagues, now being denied admission even in correspondence course for graduation. Many friends and relatives who loved and adored her till yesterday no longer wished to be in her sight. And in her heart, she was asking herself  -- I have not changed. It’s my body that has changed. I didn’t have any control over it. Am “I” still not the same? 

It was the unconditional love from her parents that helped her spirit stand back. Her father N. Srinivasan, had eyes to still see the Preethi which had not changed. Lovingly, he would tell her -- ”Why are you so worried about this body? Body and mind are limited, seek the truth within which can not be destroyed. Seek yourself.” Her mother Vijayalakshmi, wouldn’t sleep for 8 hours straight for the next 20 years, so that she can help turn her daughter twice every night in bed, so that she doesn’t contract bed sores. 

With this unconditional love and support, Preethi has rebuilt her life with grit and dignity. From being denied admission to a correspondence course, she is now pursuing her Ph.D. from one of the world’s most prestigious institutes, IIT Chennai -- perhaps the first person with a severe 90% disability to achieve this feat. She uses voice technology, which some strangers gifted her and jokingly challenges people around her that she can type faster than anybody else on computers. She secured a full time job writing film reviews online. From being afraid to be seen to giving multiple Ted talks and speaking at some largest corporations and inspiring thousands. She taught herself to mouth paint and has created many stunning pieces of art. She became the first disabled woman to receive the Kalpana Chawla Award and many other awards too. This is the story of grit, the “never give up” side of her life.  

At the same time, she has connected to a deeper reflective spiritual side of herself - discovering the power of one and the power of “oneness”. While being physically disabled brings a lot of exclusion and “othering” in the society today, she says that this kind of othering and rejection is much more prevalent and not just limited to people with disability. If you aren’t good enough as per societal yardstick, you are left out. If you are too good, then also you are left out. She calls for a world of belonging where we can look past our surface level differences and be connected in our common humanity. “I and disabled people don’t need pity, they just need friendships, like pretty much everyone else”, she says.  

Her relationship to her own disability has also transformed from complaining “Why me” to questioning “Why not me”?  “The only real disability is a closed mind” she now says, and reminds us that we are all impaired at some level. 

“I feel that for every tangible I have lost, I've gained a lot of intangibles, but society has no yardstick to judge these, because collectively as a society we don’t yet know much about the value of intangibles.” From feeling that she “deserved” and had earned all her success in her teen years, her vision has shifted to one of unearned grace. “I feel really blessed. *Everything* that comes your way is a blessing. I take it as that,” she now says. 

With her cup of gratitude overflowing, she has done some remarkable work to support others going through similar challenges. When two girls she knew with similar disabilities died by suicide because of the social stigma and challenges, Preethi could just not ignore the suffering of others. She researched and found that in a country of 1/6th population of the world, there was not even one long term rehabilitation facility for women patients of spinal cord injury. 

Without any background in running organizations, and with the encouragement of her mother, whom she considers a Goddess in her life, she started Soulfree - a non profit organization to support people with spinal cord injuries. Soulfree today offers a broad spectrum of support from preventive awareness campaigns, to mobility aids, medical treatment, vocational support and quality of life counselling. 

Preethi at Soulfree Inspire rehabilitation facility, with sacred mountain Arunachala in the background With a heart full of grace, Preethi’s purpose in life is to add love, light and laughter everyday in the world, or as she puts it even more profoundly "Love others not because they deserve your love but because you deserve to have love in your heart."

We are inspired and grateful to Preethi for her courage and compassion. Join us this Sunday for a special conversation with her moderated by Arun Sreekumar and Drishti Trivedi.

Till then, soak-in these beautiful glimpses into Preethi's inner life --