Women are warriors in their truest forms. When a woman believes she could do anything, nothing will stop her and that is exactly what Priya Ravichandran, the Joint Director of the Fire and Rescue department, Chennai, did. She stays confident, beams with enigma and most of all, she is a superwoman who saves lives of people, literally. In conversation with Radhika Ramesh, this courageous fire officer elaborates on her journey which may sound heroic but not without immense struggle, motivation, and support.
Where it all started:
Priya has always known that she wanted to be a part of the Government. Her petite frame doesn’t quite match her job, and she laughs saying, “Though I had that inclination since childhood I never really did anything like joining the NCC or being an active participant in sports, to take it forward. In truth, I was the dainty sort, being more interested in dance and drama.” Hailing from a conservative family she adds, “My father is my strongest support system as he has always backed me in whatever I aspired to do. He was unique himself. In my community, he was probably one of the very first Chartered Accountants. We both loved breaking the glass ceiling. He was by no means hesitant to send me to JNU, Delhi for my higher studies, a very rare thing in those days. She worked towards her intent only after she went to Delhi for her higher studies, completing her Masters and M. Phil in Sociology, while simultaneously preparing for the UPSC and TNPSC exams.
However, Priya did not clear the UPSC and her TNPSC results came right before her wedding day. “Though my results came out on that day, the decision about my post was made only later on. In fact, I was called for physical training, just a month after delivering my first baby,” she added. “Both the families; the one I came from and the one I was married into, were very understanding. My husband, who is also a government official, encouraged me wholeheartedly to go ahead, and my family did everything they could to make it easier for me to complete the strenuous physical training.”
She knew she would be working for the government, but never knew she would be in public services, that too a heroic one. She continues, “I was very reluctant in the beginning to wear my uniform and step out of the house, but as years passed by and I began to be a part of many fire calls and drills, and was able to do so much better, I realized I was making a whole lot of difference and began to wear my uniform with pride and dignity.”
Remembering the spine-chilling accident
Priya remembers the first time she went to a major accident spot as an officer for the first time. “I remember workers stuck at the Temple premises as a result of a ceiling that collapsed. Since the cement was wet, we had to act quickly before it dried. One worker was stuck with him stuck in the cement until his hip. It was the hardest to rescue him.” Priya believes that a higher officer’s presence always helps the team perform better with greater motivation and encouragement and this is how this rescue turned out to be a success. “I remember meeting one of the survivor’s families. They held my hand, the they thanked me with happy tears. That is the reward I love.”
Priya has ever since believed in rescuing another person’s life before hers. That is when a major fire accident gave her a massive 45% injury. She had to attend a fire call at the dead of the night on a public holiday in the month of January 2012, in Kalas Mahal, Chennai. “Though we called in all the fire tenders and a good number of metro water sources to put out the fire, we couldn’t stop it as we could not identify the source from where the fire was originating. The panic started rising in everyone as the fire kept spreading and I decided to go in and find out what the source was, as I realized that without knowing that the fire cannot be stopped.”
She went in to just give it all but little did she know that the ceiling would collapse leaving her injured under the debris. While her fellow colleague tragically passed away, she had it in her to just get out of the area somehow, after which she was immediately admitted to an intensive care unit initially at Kilpauk then Apollo. “I made it alive but I was out of my senses for quite a while, and I am sitting here like this after suffering 45% percent burns across my body, only because of all the support. The late Chief Minister J. Jayalalitha came down to the hospital immediately after the incident to offer my family words of comfort and the government-funded all the medical expenses involved. On top of all that, the heartfelt prayers of thousands of nameless, faceless people who heard of the incident are undoubtedly the reason for me being alive right now”, she states. As a result, Priya had bagged the President’s Award for Gallantry in 2012 for this life-altering incident,
In conversation with another strong woman
Remembering the late Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu Ms. J.Jayalalitha, Priya vividly remembers the conversation with her. I remember being in the intensive care Unit when Amma (Jayalalitha) walked in, spoke a little to my family, looked at me and said “I have seen your pictures, I know how beautiful you look. It was she who gave me such motivating words despite taking care of my financial needs.” After all, Priya was the first woman fire officer recruited. “She was highly inspiring and she said “Do not worry, it is the government’s responsibility to meet your needs in every which way possible. You have done a terrific job. We will see to it that you come out the way you looked in your pictures.” These words, they were just not words. She would constantly follow up with my health and I was given the best of the treatment. That’s why you see me what I am today. I dedicate everything to her and my family. They were my pillars of strength.”
The emotional process is always challenging
It is never easy to watch someone die tragically, one needs to put on a brave mask to be a rescue officer, emotional distress never helps, adds Priya. “I have seen various deaths even through small rescue operations. I have seen an old woman die in the fire. Emotionally I have learned to accept. It was extremely difficult, it still is. But, we have, over the years learned to put on a brave face. We would have stern look from the outside, but only we know how hard it is to be that way from the inside. You are no layman to emotionally react,” she quips.
The Sujith incident
Officer Priya was heading the operations of one of the most sensational news in Tamil Nadu – Rescue of 2-year-old Sujith. “I understand that there was a loss of life but the effort put behind this to save the child was really tremendous,” says officer Priya. “We received a call at around 5 PM with regards to Sujith’s fall. We rushed there as soon as we could. We found the child at a depth of 24 feet initially. But, there’s something one needs to understand, no one has got expertise in this field. There is not enough technology for a bore well rescue anywhere around the world and not just here. So, the team comes up with innovative ideas depending on the severity of the situation, the position of the child, depending on the soil of the bore well and the diameter of the bore well and many other influencing factors,” says the officer. “You need to understand something, certain things are beyond our power. We have done around 12 borewell rescue operations and only two were successful.” However, this was sensationalised (negatively) beyond belief on social media. Those who did not know what was actually going on-field had opinions that wouldn’t be of any help. Why was this blown out of proportion? “You need to tell me why,” she says.
Priya had the chance to talk to Sujith’s parents. “The mother, obviously she was devastated beyond belief. But, the father, he was extremely strong-hearted. He prepared himself for the worse long back and stayed there to support the family. He is an inspiration, truly.”
A mother of two, a role model
A mother of two children, she explains that she couldn’t have done half of what she had, without her family. “Fire officers have postings during all government holidays and during those days, my family comes over to keep the house full and in good spirits, so that the children never feel my absence”, she beams. “Even during my unforgettable fire accident, my husband was my rock-solid support. He would constantly tell me how I would always get back up on my feet no matter what. I was on medication but my husband was the one who required all the strength, he managed me, my children, and stayed positive. He is terrific. Besides, You need that kind of push and encouragement,” she adds. Very much attached to her family, she smiles and says, “My children help me unwind every weekend, and we go off to some hill station or other, whenever there is a break”. Juggling so many things all at once, and pulling it all off without breaking a sweat, Priya Ravichandran is certainly a topnotch example to all women, as she proves that as long as the mind is set, the sky is the limit.
Women of the hour
Women can do what they want and if they aim for it, they could achieve anything is what Priya believes in. “The women in my family have always been the decision-makers. I was brought up in a household where there has always been gender equality. My mother and my grandmother would handle all the finances and take important decisions with regards to literally anything that runs around. I was brought up to be very courageous and very strong. When I learned driving, my mother said: “only if you practice on a daily basis will you master it”. The women and their mental strength always boggled my mind,” she adds. Today, she feels women are victimizing themselves. “Women can achieve anything they want, anything. Obstacles are just excuses, if one truly believes they need to achieve their goal, nothing is impossible. Believing in yourself is crucial. That’s what takes you and your ambition a very long way.”