It is a day he does not like reliving. Not just because of the pain, but because he has left it so far behind. He was a 21-year-old civil engineer, on his way back home to Balod from Bilaspur on a train. As the train set off, he slipped and fell, right into the gap that train and metro announcements make public warnings about. In 24 days, he lost both his legs. Five-and-a-half years later, Chitrasen Sahu has set up the state wheelchair basketball team, fought for his right to drive, and on September 23, became India’s first double amputee to climb Mount Kilimanjaro. All on his two prosthetic legs, and an iron will.
On June 4, 2014, Sahu boarded a train from Bilaspur, where he had just passed out of the Government College, and was heading home to Balod. He was thinking of the upcoming examinations for the defence services that he had been preparing for, and was standing near the door. “The handle was slippery that day…The train had just started and I fell…One leg got amputated immediately. Twenty-four days later, my second leg too got amputated, due to medical negligence,” he said.
His family and friends never let his morale fall, and that was tonic for his mental health. “They never let me feel that something bad has happened. If you can’t say something positive, don’t say something negative either,” he said.
An employee with the Chhattisgarh Housing Board now, Sahu attended a camp set up by the Wheelchair Basketball Federation of India in 2017 in Rajnandgaon. “They did selections and left the team from that point. There were lots of financial issues. The first time we went to play on a national stage, we did so with a lot of difficulties. Then that group helped me connect with others, and I got involved in rehabilitation. In the second year, I set up the women’s team and then I took them to national events…People who can’t get out of their homes after such an accident, often get inspired by sports…There are many parents who do not have strong financial backgrounds. It is important to convey to them that they will have support. So when we train for basketball, we also focus a great deal on career counselling,” he said.
But even as Sahu began helping others like him to find ways to negotiate life with pride, there were roadblocks in his own. Like when he had to fight in court for his right to drive. “In November 2017, I purchased a car. I had all the documents. The RTO denied me registration and license out of fear. They said we will not look at any central government circular and just refused. We tried to talk to the government but nothing happened. I put in a petition to the Chhattisgarh High Court in April 2018, and the judgment came out on July 3, 2019.” The judgment, reviewed by The Indian Express, directs the authorities to inspect the vehicle of the petitioner, and if the modifications are found to be within the rules, to be declared an “invalid carriage” as Sahu had applied for, to enable him to drive.
In May of 2018, Rahul Gupta, who goes by the moniker “mountain man” in the state, was holding a press conference after a successful climb of Mount Everest. It was a press conference Sahu had attended, and it was then he asked the question. “I approached Rahul Gupta and asked him if a double amputee can climb mountains. We slowly started training. Small mountains and climbs first. The full training took close to a year-and-a-half,” Sahu said.
Gupta, who climbed Kilimanjaro with Sahu, said that training was a focussed and arduous process, culminating in a week-long trek in Himachal Pradesh at 14,000 feet above sea level. “The good thing about him is that he is a slow mountaineer. However slow you are, the acclimatisation process is that much easier. But it is dangerous too,” Gupta said.
At 11 am on September 23, Sahu took the last final steps to Mt Kilimanjaro. “Since then, so many people have messaged me saying that I have an amputation on one leg, and I want to do something like this. If anyone has been positively affected, what I had set out to do has been accomplished,” Sahu said.
As he returned to India with Gupta, Sahu already knew the answer to the question of what next. He wants to scale Mount Everest. But that is a project that will not just need his mental and physical fortitude, but also financial assistance. “I need new equipment for it,” he said.
But financial help is not the only thing he seeks. Sahu also wants people around him, especially from India, to understand the personal space of those that are amputees. “If you want to offer help, do so with consent. Those stares you get from people are the most upsetting. At the Indian airport going to Tanzania, people would without any warning come up and ask what happened… Sometimes it’s important to understand that you don’t want to go back to that dark place,” he said.