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At the peak of his career, thrice national table tennis champion V. Chandrasekhar suffered irreparable brain damage during a botched surgery. He is struggling on as a coach
By Shevlin Sebastian
At the Rajiv Gandhi indoor stadium, former national table tennis champion V. Chandrasekhar, 50, is giving tips in rapid-fire Tamil to his ward R.S. Raja during his first round match against West Bengal's Jayanta Sarkar in the South Zone national ranking tournament. Raja nods happily, as he has just won the opening game of the seven-game
At first glance, it seems there is nothing wrong with Chandrasekhar, except for the striking look of melancholy on his face. But a closer look reveals an occasional trembling of the body, an unsteady walk and oscillating eyeballs. "This is called Nystagma," he says. "I can't focus on an image for too long. I can see the ball during play most of the time, but, sometimes, it gets blurred."
Chandrasekhar's life turned topsy-turvy in 1984. At that time, he had been a thrice national champion. He was 27 years old, handsome and articulate, a gold medalist in economics and law from Madras University. On the court, he showed the most amazing reflexes, smashing balls coming at him at 100 km per hour with style and finesse. Then,
on September 14, he went in for a routine knee surgery at Apollo Hospital in Chennai.
During the surgery, proper anaesthesia was not administered, and he suffered irreparable brain damage. After 36 days in a near coma, "when I came back to my senses, I realised I had become 90% blind. I could not move. At that time, I did not know the seriousness of it all." The doctors kept assuring him that everything would be all right, but after six months of physiotherapy, there was no improvement at all. "I finally realised they were taking me for a long, long ride," he says.
Raja plays a good shot and Chandra says, "Well done." However, the lad loses the second game.
"It was the most horrific time of my life," says Chandra, as he continues his story. "I sank into a deep depression. I wanted to commit suicide."
But as a player, Chandra was a fighter and he slowly began picking up the threads of his life. Publicity in the media enabled him to get the funds to go for an operation in Canada. His physical condition improved a little.
In 1985, he filed a lawsuit against the hospital. It took three years for the case to come to trial. Finally, in 1993, after interviewing ten witnesses and amassing more than a thousand pages of evidence, Justice S. Pratap Singh found the doctor, H. Ranganatham, and the anaesthetist, Monica De, guilty of negligence and awarded a compensation of Rs 17 lakh. Apollo Hospital appealed, the case went to the Supreme Court, but two years later, the hospital settled out of court by paying Rs 16 lakh.
"The compensation was not much," says Chandra. "But, in those days, a medical suit for negligence was unheard of. Things have changed today. No organisation could have escaped with this sort of blunder, because there is so much of television coverage."
Indeed, there was not much of television in those days, but the print media did give him a lot of support. “I agree,” he says. “The press has always stood behind me. Imagine if such a thing had happened to a clerk in a bank or an office. He will simply lie down and blame destiny and fate. Then somebody will read out some verses from the Bhagwad Gita and he will be very happy."
Chandrasekhar has also got a chance to be happy in the midst of all this suffering. Nine years ago, through a friend, he met Mala, who, like him, works in The State Bank of India, (he is an assistant manager) and she agreed to marry him. They have a seven-year-old son Sanjay. "He is a fine boy and I hope that he comes up in life," he says.
Chandrasekhar is helping other children to come up in life. He runs a coaching centre called the SDAT-Chandra TT Academy. (SDAT stands for Sports Development Authority of Tamil Nadu). He has about 70 students and nine of them have come to play in Kochi.
Meanwhile, young Raja, after tying the match at three games each, loses the decider.
Chandrasekhar shrugs his shoulders and says, "Raja is capable of playing brilliantly, but he can also play some bad shots. That is why he lost the match."
Chandrasekhar, on the other hand, has lost very few matches in his career. And you can understand why when you read this paragraph from his book, 'My fightback from death's door', published by East-West Books in 2006: "Every opponent can be beaten and has to be beaten. Do not be overawed by reputation. Don't underestimate yourself. Study the opponent's strength and prepare. Mental preparation, along with fitness and training, can take you to the top.''