PERIYAVADUGAMPATTI (SALEM):Forty-six-year-old Saroja, unloaded the cloth bags, half-filled with unsold vegetables, from her bicycle and returned to her single-room house on Friday evening, after a tiresome day. Forced to work doubly hard since husband Thangavelu abandoned the family 16 years ago, she worked as a casual labourer at a farm and in a brick kiln before eventually becoming a vendor.
Suddenly, a clutch of youths rushed in and broke the news — T Mariyappan, her son, had clinched the gold medal in T42 high jump at the Paralympics in Rio de Janeiro. Only when Mariyappan’s mates, showed Saroja the proof on their mobiles and the 14-inch government-gifted colour TV, was she able to grasp the magnitude of the occasion.
Mariyappan (21), a resident of Periyavadugampatti village in Salem district, comes from a poor family. He is the second child after sister Sudha (26), who is married and settled in Salem. Brothers Kumar (20), a second year BSc student, and Gopi (16), a Class XII student of the local Government Higher Secondary School, stay with him and his mother.
Mariyappan completed BBA from AVS College of Arts and Science, Salem, this year. With father not around, they had difficulties in finding rented houses.
Outside, Saroja saw the villagers in a celebratory mood. Youths and elders crowded the square, cutouts were erected, a cake was cut and crackers were burst. “We’ve been following the Paralympics and waiting for Mariyappan’s high jump event,” said Gokulraj, his junior in school.
When he was five years old, Mariyappan was run over by a bus, which left his right leg permanently disabled. But poverty and disability were not a deterrent to Mariyappan’s enthusiasm for sports. He was an ace volleyball player in school and later took to high jump. “Though he had disabilities, he participated in regular sports and competed with sportsmen blessed with physical fitness. Because of disability, he could not stride a distance to jump. So he would take only four steps to clear the winning height,” says Physical Education (PE) teacher R Rajendran, who took Mariyappan to the Paralympic Committee of India (PCI).
Soon, Mariyappan participated in district, zonal, state and national level competitions and won first prize. Despite going from strength to strength, he could not participate in the 2012 London Paralympics due to a lack of funds. Although his trip was finally sponsored, he could not make it because it was too late to obtain the passport. The gold medallist that year cleared 1.74 metres. Mariyappan cleared 1.75m in the qualifying test conducted by the PCI at Bengaluru.
Saroja finally gained enough composure to face the media. She said that despite hardships, feeding and educating the children were her primary goals. “I neither encouraged nor discouraged Mariyappan. But when he started winning medals, I knew he was special. I could not do anything special for him but that did not discourage him,” she said.
With things finally looking up, Saroja recalled a time when she was in such a dark place that she contemplated suicide. “When Mariyappan was in Class VI, I decided to commit suicide along with the family. But he told me that he will protect the family. During holidays and weekends, Mariyappan went for construction work, earned money and bought rice for us,” she added.
“Hard times have come to an end, she (mother) too deserves being in the limelight,” the neighbours chimed in.