A profile in courage

GRIT & DETERMINATION

A road accident when she was 21 left her immobile below the shoulders. That hasn’t deterred Sujatha Burla from becoming a successful anchor of elebrity-chat shows, counsellor and motivational speaker, writes Aruna Chandaraju

SPREADING OPTIMISM Sujatha Burla. PIC by bala gollapudi.Young, talented, ambitious and pretty, Sujatha Burla was full of dreams and on the threshold of a beautiful life, when her world came crashing down on her.

A road accident when she was barely 21 left her a paraplegic which meant she was immobile below the shoulders.

A lesser person would have been devastated for life. Not so, the gritty and amazingly strong-willed Sujatha. With an unrelenting optimism and tremendous mental strength, she rebuilt her life. Today, 11 years later, the Hyderabad-based Sujatha is an anchor of celebrity-chat shows, counsellor and motivational speaker for students, stock-market investor, faculty motivator at a leading executive-training institute, and founder-managing trustee of an NGO, Shraddha, which aids those with spinal injuries. Sujatha, also fondly called Suzy, has not only rewritten her own destiny but is changing that of many other disadvantaged persons!

But behind all this success and fame and the charming smile Suzy constantly wears, lies a story of heartbreak, desertion by “so-called” friends and a long and still-continuing fight against tremendous odds. Sujatha was a bubbly young girl — the youngest of four siblings — who was running a photo-studio of her own when she set out on a road-trip in 2001 to Shirdi. “I met with a terrible accident and four months later, my doctors and physiotherapists told me I would never walk again,” she says smiling, without a trace of sadness.  

At first, though, she was shattered. She understood that many things girls of her age aspired for were now near-impossible for her. Moreover, friends she counted on gradually moved away. Many others around her also behaved negatively. “It was depressing and made me bitter, initially. I understood that if you are successful and famous, people mill around you. But once you are down and out, people begin avoiding you, and even try to take advantage or harm you because you are helpless. Dealing with the physical disability was easier than handling such emotional issues with family, friends and society. But such is life, I realised. And once I accepted this fact, it was easier to move on.”

The gutsy Sujatha did not waste much time brooding. A born optimist who was always very brave even as a child, she began thinking constructively. “First, I decided, I needed to acquire physical, financial and emotional independence.” So she chose a livelihood which she could pursue even while being bedridden. She learnt the nuances of stock-market trading and began working using a laptop, while propped up in bed with pillows. She made substantial money — adequate for her needs. “Now, however, I have stopped trading and turned investor,” she reveals. She opted to use an electric wheelchair which provides maximum physical independence for someone in her condition.

Using the help of her fashion-designer sister, Suzy set up a small textile unit in 2002. In 2007, she founded Shraddha, which began by creating awareness of spinal injuries and how to cope with life while being bedridden. It also helped find jobs for the disabled. Later, an orphanage was added. Her extraordinarily successful fight against disability became inspirational. Sujatha was invited to give motivational talks at various institutions. She was also appointed faculty motivator at the Administrative Staff College of India.

Along the way, Sujatha faced much negativity — pity, some who took advantage of her disability, and a few who betrayed her trust. Her father’s death in 2004 was another blow. “But I always conveyed through my body language and attitude that I was fine, and in no way lesser or inferior to others and so people stopped pitying or looking down on me.” Luckily, she had loving parents who stood by her. And she always held on to her self-confidence and positive thinking.   

Here was a physically-challenged woman, who was not only courageously fighting her condition, but becoming a support-system for the less fortunate. This courage and admirable attitude soon attracted awards (four at the national level, several state awards) and media attention. In 2010, Sujatha was invited by Andhra Pradesh’s leading Telugu TV news channel to host a celebrity chat show, interviewing film personalities. It became wildly popular and ran for about 40 episodes. Sujatha became India’s first paraplegic to host a celeb show.

For the first 14 episodes, few knew that the pretty lady seated in a chair interviewing superstars was actually paralysed, shoulders-down. The channel let that out only subsequently by showing behind-the-scenes clips of her being carried to the chair, and someone easing her into it and then crossing her legs for her. Today, Sujatha hosts a live chat show and phone-in programme for the same channel.

Lying down in bed, propped up on her left elbow, while talking to us, she flashes that charming smile again: “I don’t even think about my disability. I believe mental strength matters more — if you are mentally fit, you are physically fit.”  Way to go, girl!

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