As she awaited the results for her civil service examination, Dr Surya Lakshmi Chellapilla’s heart thumped loudly inside her chest. While she was confident of her performance in the Mains and interview, self-doubt hovered — and why not? This was, after all, India’s toughest competitive exam.
“It was a gamble,” she re-assured herself while her father, C Somasundara Rao, rummaged through the final list. “Even if I don’t clear it, I can always go back to teaching.”
The next few seconds were a blur, and it was only when thundering applause rippled through the room did Dr Surya realise she was going to be a bureaucrat.
While this is a common scenario in the lives of most civil service aspirants, the 2000-batch officer had one more reason to be nervous. Dr Surya was born with Cerebral Palsy (CP), a neurological condition that results in poor motor skills, stiff or weak muscles, and tremors, which can make simple movements painful and small tasks time-consuming.
Yet, here she was, beaming with gratitude and embracing her identity — something people around her were struggling to come to terms with. Just a couple of years before she cleared UPSC in her first attempt, she had submitted her PhD in History from Andhra University. An overseas post-doctoral fellowship and part-time teaching job awaited her as well.
“After submitting my thesis, I was doing nothing for another year. I was looking for something to stimulate my intellect, and that’s when my uncle and dad suggested I try out for civil services. I was 28 at the time, so I had only one attempt. My thirst for knowledge was such that I didn’t even think of what people had to say about a disabled officer,” Dr Surya, who is now the Additional Divisional Railway Manager (Operations) in Visakhapatnam, tells The Better India.
Living with cerebral palsy
Dr Surya has never been one to be bogged down by circumstances. From crying quietly to herself due to people’s ignorance of her CP and staying home to save herself from embarrassment, to being in-charge of government employees and having her own office to herself, she has defied many odds.
Dr Surya was four years old when she learned about Hemiplegia, a type of CP caused by brain damage or spinal cord injuries, which leads to paralysis on one side of the body. It also causes weakness, problems with muscle control, and muscle stiffness. In her case, she can walk on her own, but only for short distances. Climbing stairs is excruciating for her, she says.
“I was aware that the left side of my body was different from the right. Things fell out of my left hand all the time, and climbing even one floor was painful. I was never wheelchair-bound, but that never stopped people from staring,” she recalls.
People were curious, but what they lacked was empathy. Brutal questions were often thrown in her direction – “what’s wrong with her?” and “is her left leg shorter than the right one?” – which left her upset. She distinctly recalls one incident, which took place when she was around 10 years old.
While she was out shopping with her cousin, one salesperson asked, “Is she defective?” The cousin simply nodded her head, instead of standing up for her. “I came home and cried into my mother, Ratna Durga’s lap till I fell asleep,” she remembers. “People don’t realise how damaging even whispers and silence can be.”
While such incidents were frequent, Dr Surya remained undeterred. She credits her parents and sisters for their unconditional love, support and encouragement, and for never treating her differently. “While growing up, I had a lot of self-doubt, and always wondered why God gave me CP. But my parents would patiently address all my questions, reinforce that they were blessed to have me and never stopped me from going for whatever I wanted to achieve,” she says.
Fortunately, she adds, she didn’t experience bias during her school and college. Dr Surya was always among the top performers, and says she had an incredibly sharp memory.
Her father, a History professor, and aunt played an influential role in firing up her interest in academics. “My bed-time stories were tales about the independence movement, and of social reformers like Raja Ram Mohan and Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar. From very early in my life, I was thirsty for knowledge, which was something that helped me crack UPSC without any coaching.”
“I did not study 24×7,” quips Dr Surya when I direct the most commonly asked question to civil officers. Preparing bullet points and focussing on current affairs is the key to scoring high marks, according to her.
She recalls how back in 1999, rainwater harvesting was aggressively being promoted by various state governments. A night before her civil service interview in Delhi, Dr Surya sat with her sister Lavanya and discussed water conservation methods. Coincidentally, the next day, she was asked about her take on the matter during the interview.
Talking about her routine, she says, “I never prepared time tables and read-only when I felt like it. I absorbed information without pressuring myself to remember it. Also, having a backup career reduced the overall pressure.”
Dr Surya only took coaching for the interview process, as she didn’t want to fail the final leg. “Mock interviews helped me shed my inhibitions, and gave me exposure to the world outside Vizag. My only advice to aspirants would be to fill the form carefully. Whatever you write, be sure of it, as the examiners will question you,” she says.
A life of many accomplishments
Dr Surya’s first posting was in the Visakhapatnam Railway department as a junior accounts officer in the construction office. Here, she largely had to focus on internal checks of various railway bills. While this was uncharted territory for her, she made the work easier by studying extra during her training period.
The journey has been upwards since, and Dr Surya has held several positions, including Financial Advisor and Chief Accounts Officer (IT). She has lived in various cities like Chennai, Bhubaneshwar and Hubli.
One thing that strikes about her is that she never let go of her penchant for academics, and managed to pursue the Post Graduate Programme in Public Policy and Management from IIM Bangalore, even between all the transfers.
As an Indian Railway Accounts Service (IRAS) officer, she introduced several initiatives and achieved multiple milestones over the years. Even in areas that demanded her to be on-field, she never shied away from her duties.
“Of course, I’ve had a bumpy ride, and setbacks due to my condition. But I’ve also had steely-eyed focus on my goals. Due to the immense support and cooperation I received from my team members at all my postings, I have been able to include digitalisation in multiple arenas. Way before e-payment became popular, we had introduced it in a workshop in Bhubaneshwar. Even during the lockdown, my team and I worked round the clock to meet targets. Their enthusiasm keeps me going,” she says.
Ananta Lakshmi, who was Dr Surya’s stenographer during her stint at Chennai in 2019, tells The Better India, “Under her leadership, I learned a lot about my profession. She is an amazing teacher who guided me down every path I took. She pushed me to do better, and helped me with everything, including improving my English.”
Dr Surya’s jolly nature and positive outlook are a testimony to concrete changes that have taken place in terms of inclusivity and awareness over the years.
“The government always had schemes and scholarships for differently-abled people, but people couldn’t avail them due to lack of awareness. Now, with more concrete laws that favour the disabled, more people are leading their lives with fewer difficulties. Their voices are being heard, and I couldn’t be happier,” she says.
Dr Surya is living proof that a fulfilling life is for everyone, irrespective of abilities and hardships.
Edited by Divya Sethu