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Amazing story of a train crash survivor

Last updated on: October 4, 2010 14:42 IST

Image: Shreya at her cousin's wedding, before the accident
Sanchari Bhattacharya
Shreya Sen, a survivor of the horrific Gyneshwari train mishap last May, has not let that traumatic incident rob her of her passion for life or her charming smile, discovers Sanchari Bhattacharya.

The next time you blame the government for that traffic jam or complain to God about that missed promotion, spare a thought for Shreya Sen.

In the wee hours of May 28, Shreya was on her way back to Mumbai, after spending a few heady days at her cousin's wedding in Kolkata.

In Bengal's West Midnapore district, at nearly 1.30 in the morning, the train jerked to a halt when some compartments of the train were derailed.

Minutes later, the compartment Shreya was traveling in with her mother and brother was hit by a speeding goods train.

Shreya's right hand was badly mangled in the accident and she received serious injuries on her legs, face and back.

She spent one-and-a-half months recuperating at a hospital in Kolkata and underwent four major surgeries.

The promising architecture student, among the toppers of her batch, lost her right arm in the accident.

When I meet Shreya at her home in Mumbai, nearly four months after the accident, it is impossible to believe that the talkative, chirpy and perpetually smiling girl has been through such a traumatic incident.

She could be just another college girl you know, waxing eloquent about her affinity for architecture and talking fondly about her friends.

But it is also impossible to ignore the flapping sleeve of her dress, the visible scars on her face and legs.

The effervescent 22-year-old will not allow you to feel bad for her, not for a second.

When she catches you looking at her sleeve, Shreya light heartedly rues, "I have had to give up so many of my clothes. Half of my wardrobe is defunct after the accident."

'I could feel no pain at all'

Image: Shreya, second from right, with her friends before the accident
This is how Shreya is: She manages to put a comic or positive spin on pretty much anything life throws at her.

The right-handed girl has now learnt to write with her left hand and manages to do all her chores without any help.

During her stay at the hospital in Kolkata, Shreya made a greeting card with her left hand and sent it to Railway Minister Mamata Banerjee, thanking her and the Railways for all its help.

This, despite being aware of the fact that had the rescue train arrived in time -- it reached two-and-a-half hours after the accident -- her right hand could actually have been saved.

By the time the rescue personnel arrived and Shreya could be rushed to a hospital, it was too late.

With her infinite gift of positive thinking, Shreya says she was 'lucky' that night; luckier than many of the other victims, 148 of whom perished in the accident.

"Somehow, by the grace of God, I could feel no pain at all. I knew something was very wrong with my right hand, I could feel the warm blood on my dress, but I couldn't feel any pain," she says.

"Imagine the pain of losing a loved one. There is no physical remnant of that. I was lucky; things could have been far worse," she says with conviction.

'How can I blame the Maoists?'

Image: Shreya during the Ganeshtosav in her house, after the accident
In the hospital, she stopped watching the news channels, which were showing the same disturbing footage from the accident site.

Meanwhile, the government blamed the Maoists for the accident, claiming they had orchestrated the derailment.

But Shreya refuses to join the blame game, choosing to exonerate the unnamed Maoist whose actions have forever changed life as she knew it.

"I don't know his story. I don't know why he did that, under what kind of threat, how can I blame him? Nobody does anything without a cause. How can I be angry with him," she says without the slightest trace of anger or even a grudge.

And just when I marvel at such unconditional forgiveness, she adds thoughtfully, "Although I do sometimes get irritated at the professors who don't take my designs."

Her proud mother Mala informs me that Leela Bhattacharjee, West Bengal Chief Minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee's wife, visited her at the hospital.

'Tumi shob theke boyesho choto, kintu tumi shob theke shroddheyo (You are the youngest among us. But you are the most worthy of respect),' the first lady of Bengal had said, moved by the youngster's courage.

Shreya was equally touched by the flood of warmth and support she received from her friends and acquaintances once she came back to Mumbai.

"Even juniors and seniors who didn't know me, who are abroad, they offered help," she says.

And the Sen family does need help, a considerable amount of it to be able to afford a prosthetic arm for Shreya, which costs a whopping Rs 44 lakh (Rs 4.4 million).

'My design sheets look like my design sheets'

Image: The design of a resort Shreya created
While explaining how the prosthetic arm is attached to the body, Shreya informs me that the appendage is heavy, larger than a human arm and highly sensitive to water damage and even sweat.

Strapping it on, carrying it around and learning to make it work according to one's will is going to be a Herculean topic which will need "a lot of determination," she says somberly.

And then in the same breath, the thin girl adds with a straight face, "Imagine carrying around such a heavy arm all the time. I mean it will be a part of my body, and which girl will opt for an increased body weight?"

Continuing her funny take on a non-funny topic, she goes on, "I will not be able to wear it all the time. I can only wear it in air-conditioned surroundings, and I can't travel in public transport with it. That basically means I will always need to carry a large bag, an assistant to carry the bag, a chauffeured and air conditioned car, a private cabin in my office, an exclusive changing room. Hmmm..."

But her levity can't hide her passion for her work or the creative instinct which she finds difficult to express with such precision any more.

The talented student -- she stood first in her class this year -- refused to use computer software to execute her designs. She always drew the complicated designs with her hand.

"Some of the computer designs tend to look the same. My design sheets look like my design sheets," she says as she proudly takes me through a meticulously drawn architectural design project of hers.

"If I had to explain my point of view to a professor, I could sketch it and show it to him. I mean, a wall doesn't have to look a certain way," she adds. "It can be drawn in 50 different ways. If a plan is in my head, I can't ask someone else to draw it for me. I have to use my hands then; and that's where I now go back, back, back."

'I don't consider myself a bechara'

Image: Shreya with her parents
A passion for sketching is not the only skill Shreya has. She also happens to be a good singer; a fact that provided her and her family succour during the toughest moment of their lives.

On the night of the mishap, Shreya's 15-year-old brother Saurabh managed to pull her out of the wreckage with the help of a kind co-passenger.

Lying on the ground, Shreya, Saurabh and Mala huddled together and waited for help to arrive.

"We could hear people crying for help, screaming in pain," recalls Mala. "Then Shreya told me, 'Ma, why don't you sing something? Anything... But I couldn't find my voice."

So, in that nowhere's land next to a wrecked train, lying in dust with her damaged and bleeding right hand wrapped in her brother's shirt, Shreya sang My heart will go on from the film Titanic.

The heart-rendering tale makes sense as you get to know her, for nothing, nothing can stop Shreya's heart, her creativity or her zest for life from going on, not even a perceived 'disability'.

After the accident, "I did cry initially," says Shreya, but adds with gusto, "But now, I don't consider this as a disability. I don't consider myself a bechara."

When I ask her where she finds such immense strength to tackle life full on, she says candidly, "Oh, you just need a little will. Nothing is that difficult."

If you want to help Shreya get the prosthetic arm, please send your donations to: Shreya Sen, account no: 20054037029, Bank of Maharashtra, Cotton Green Branch (IFSC code: MAHB0000316) or mail her a cheque at: D-4, Highway co-operative housing society, Shivshrusty, Kurla (East), Mumbai-400024. SWiFT address: MAHBINBRRD Bank of Maharashtra, Ranade Road.