As she stands on stage, facing a cheering audience, Rajani Meloor is in a trance. There she is an actor, playing a character and nothing fazes her. Being on stage gives her an adrenaline rush and that is what she lives for. It is only when she leaves the stage, as she strips off her makeup that a painful reality suddenly reappears- her prosthetic leg, the result of a fatal road accident on 1994, December 23rd that literally changed this stage artiste’s life. She was only 32, when a lorry hit the bus she was travelling, spiralling her life into depths of doom.
Ironically, when she debuted on stage in a play called 'Kannuneer Muthugal' (Tear drops) she had no idea that life would imitate art. But not quite. Or she did not allow the setback to take over her life. Rajani battled with her destiny and came out victorious. And last year, she won the Sangeetha Nataka Academy award for Theatre.
It was her brother who introduced her to the theatre. She made her theatre debut at the age of 12 and became a member of Palayad Kairali Theatres, one of the primary regional Art Centres in Kerala. Her first play was Kannuneer Muthugal and entered the amateur theatre through Manushya Bandham. Then there was no looking back for the young actor who married her neighbour Meenothu Sukumaran, a toddy tapper in 1985 and became a mother a year after. Life sailed smoothly for the couple and by then Rajani had appeared in over 1500 theatre stages. But then came the accident and her life turned upside down.
December 23, 1994
Rajani clearly remembers that day. She was only 32, her daughter Harsha was studying in 4th grade. She was on her way to perform Iruttinde Athmavu when a speeding lorry overthrew her life. Rajani had a strict schedule planned, including a show the next day at Perambra. Considering how she always squeezed some time in between to be with her family, Rajani had planned to spend some time at home, between schedules. That was the plan when she was dropped at her Dharmadam, Meloor house and the very next day she took a bus to Perambra. The accident occurred at Kunjipally near Mahi. And Rajani was sitting adjacent to the Driver’s Seat and a co-passenger was leaning over her, napping.
“I could see the lorry come towards the bus. We thought the driver would overtake the bus. But the lorry crashed through the driver's seat to where I was sitting. And I was stuck in the middle. The rest of the passengers immediately alighted from the bus. But no one was coming to help me, and I could not even move my legs. I could feel my leg falling apart,” recalls Rajani, her voice breaking at the memory of that fateful day.
When the driver fled the scene, Rajani was crying out loud in pain but she got no help. Finally, it was her co-actor at the Amateur theatre group who assisted her into a taxi and took her to the Vadakara Thaluk hospital. Rajani remembers imploring them to inform her drama company. Her colleagues came to the hospital and took her to Kozhikode Medical College Hospital in the same drama company van that she had travelled the previous day.
The days after
She spent 52 days at the hospital and was told that there was no other option than to amputate her right leg. Her mind went blank even as her husband stood by her like the rock of Gibraltar. And for almost a year she was limping around in one leg. It was a doctor at the Kozhikode Medical College Hospital who suggested a Prosthetic leg as an alternative. In 1995, May, she was fitted with a prosthetic leg and from then on Rajani started thinking about returning to the stage. She knocked on the doors of various stage groups for an opening, walking with the support of crutches. When she eventually got an opening, the next step was to plainly walk the talk.
During rehearsals, Rajani grit her teeth in pain and yet determinedly persisted, after all this was a matter of life and death for her. The stage was her life and that is the only thing she knew. But looks like fate was not done punishing her. Days before her drama was to be staged, Rajani realised that she had ulcers around her prosthetic leg. It was beginning to bleed. How can she perform? Though she was back in crutches after the treatment, they had already found a replacement. Rajani who was accompanied by her husband felt ignored and dejected. She felt maybe this was the end of her theatre career. But then fate was laughing again.
A determined Rajani again started her rounds around drama companies and got an opening at Sneha Theatres. That turned out to be a great comeback for Rajani. Rehearsals were not easy, but she continued in crutches. When she could not take it anymore, she would slowly move to a corner, make sure no one was watching, and carefully remove her prosthetic leg. Every time, she could see the corners of her leg hemorrhaging. That wooden leg was a constant reminder of her fate.
At home, they were struggling to make ends meet. Rajani’s income was crucial for their sustenance. That was the thought that kept her going during the rehearsals. Her first surgery was not successful, and it added to her woes. They went to many doctors but to no avail. She was admitted to a private hospital in Palakkad. In 1997, they again did surgery and that was when she could stand on her prosthetic leg without pain. But Rajani admits she had to keep removing the prosthetic at home as it gets dirty while doing housework. She recalls with gratitude the help of many organizations and govt in helping her replace her prosthetic leg.
Two years ago, at the Thalasseri Railway station, her prosthetic broke into two pieces. She had a show two days later. She performed with a damaged prosthetic leg. For two years she was on stage with the same damaged (a cloth was stuffed at the broken area) prosthetic leg. After the accident, she has performed on over 3000 stages. It was while performing Parayupetta Panthirukulam last year that the pandemic news hit them. But she continued her performances till March 10. Some of her much-feted stage dramas include Nishkalangan, Mooka Narthakan, Swantham Snehithan, Thumbolarcha, Veluthambi Dalava, Kudumbanadhante Shradaykku, Karinkurangu, Kadathanattamma, Paavam Manushyar. In 2007, she got the State Sangeetha Nadaka Academy’s Special mention, apart from various other regional awards.
Today Rajani is well-equipped or rather has equipped herself to deal with any crisis in her life. Life has always taught her to get up from every setback and walk ahead with her head high. As Bob Marley said--“You never know how strong you are until being strong is the only choice you have.”