True grit: How two Malayali women with disabilities cracked UPSC exam

  • Onmanorama brings the stories of two women with disabilities who aced the elite civil service examination
  • Kajal Raju of Nileshwar and Sherin Shahana of Wayanad secured the 910th and 913th ranks
Sherin Shahana and Kajal Raju. Photo: Facebook & Special Arrangement

Kozhikode: Kajal Raju (24) had mentioned Theyyam as a subject of interest in her detailed application form for the UPSC interview, and the interviewers picked on it. "They asked me whether I perform Theyyam," said Kajal, who secured the 910th rank in the elite examination.

It might have been a trick question to test her knowledge of theyyam, or they genuinely did not know about the sacred ritual. The young woman from Nileshwar in north Malabar—the land of theyyam—delved into the subject. "I also told them it is usually not performed by women," she said.

'How hard will it be if you don't clear the test?" was the next "interesting" question she got. It was an easy question for Kajal, who was born without her right forearm, a rare congenital anomaly called phocomelia syndrome. "I will try again," she told the interviewers of the Union Public Service Commission (UPSC).

It was her first attempt, and Kajal said she would try again if she was not selected for the Indian Administrative Service (IAS).

"When I was a little schoolgirl, I wanted to become the district collector. But it was just that—a childhood fascination. I started working hard towards the goal when I joined IIT-Madras," said Kajal, who has a PG in Development Studies from IIT's Department of Humanities and Social Sciences.

Born to Sheeba M and Raju P, an NRI turned rubber grower, Kajal did her schooling at Divine Providence, a CBSE school, a 10-minute walk from her home.

After scoring A1 (the top grade) in all the subjects in Class 10, she joined the Government Higher Secondary School, Hosdurg, in Kanhangad, a town 10km from her home. She cleared Class 12 with a 99%. But she was immersed, not just in books. She is a trained classical vocalist, dabbles in painting, and was part of a band that belted out movie songs at ganamela (concerts). "That was my school life," said Kajal. She still sings.

But at IIT-Madras, there was "an ecosystem of civil service aspirants", she said. After completing the integrated course in June 2021, she moved to Thiruvananthapuram to prepare for the civil service examination. "I did not rest from June 2021 to June 5, 2022, when the civil service examination started," she said.

To the schoolchildren, she has some advice: "Enjoy the school life, but keep reading newspapers and following current affairs. Observe society."

'My life restarted after the accident'

Three ranks below Kajal Raju was Sherin Shahana (26), a native of Kambalakkad, 8km from Kalpetta in Wayanad.

On Tuesday, she received the news of her making it to the UPSC rank list from a hospital bed at Perinthalmanna in Malappuram district. On May 16, she met with a car accident while on the way to Thamarassery from Kozhikode, said her elder sister, Jalisha Usman. She is awaiting shoulder surgery. "She will be fine soon," said Jalisha.

Five years ago, in 2017, Shahana slipped from the terrace of her house, where she went to collect clothes from the washing line. The fall broke her two ribs and injured her spinal cord, paralysing her arms and the lower half of her body. Today, a motorised wheelchair gives her mobility.

"My life restarted after the accident," Shahana said. Both Shahana and Kajal Raju had attended the mock UPSC interview programmes in Thiruvananthapuram organised by Knowledge Resource Empowerment Activities (KREA), an initiative of Perinthalmanna MLA Najeeb Kanthapuram.

In a video shared by Kanthapuram after UPSC declared the results, Sahana said she was not able to do anything she was able to do before the fall. "I was not even able to turn the pages of a book," she said.
"The first thing I did to overcome my disability was to accept my disability," she said. That gave her confidence. "I noted down what I can do and what I cannot do." That helped me continue my studies," she said.

Shahana did her schooling in a government school and then completed her bachelor's and master's degrees in political science from St Mary's College in Sulthan Bathery. She fell from the terrace on the day after her PG examination in 2017.

Two years before, her father, Usman, died. She was cared for by her mother, Amina, and sister, Jalisha. The doctors did not give her much time. But after two years in bed, she started making progress.

She was supported by Muralee Thummarukudy, an expert in disaster response and Director of the Coordination Office of the G20 Initiative on Land. He gave her assignments such as data collection and political analysis. That instilled confidence in her that she could also work. She started giving tuition to children in the neighbourhood and went on to clear UGC's National Eligibility Test to teach in colleges, said her elder sister. She used a scribe to write the exam. She recently joined a PhD programme at Calicut University. The learning never stops for her.

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