Kolkata: She can't bend her fingers and so holding a pen between her thumb and forefinger to write is a challenge in itself. The joints in her frail body are so stiff that she needs callipers to walk and assistance to climb a couple of steps.
Anusha Lihala, 18, has grown up with medical conditions that have ravaged her body but failed to break her spirit. In November, she topped the A-Levels (equivalent to Class XII) Cambridge International Examinations in the country with 95 per cent (aggregate of best three scores), taking a step closer to her dream of going to the UK to study at the university that shares her school's name: Cambridge.
A certificate from the Cambridge International Examinations mentioning her national rank will be given to Anusha during a formal presentation by The Cambridge School at Uttam Mancha on Saturday.
For all her achievements, Anusha remains firmly grounded. She doesn't even consider the national top rank in her A-Levels a feat, just as she never considered being the first girl in class throughout her school life a big deal.
Ask her about the hurdles she has had to surmount along the way and the Ballygunge girl is almost reluctant to admit she has done anything special. "I don't remember when I started writing. I don't find it more difficult (than others) because I don't know what the other way of writing is," she told Metro .
Anusha, currently studying computer applications at the Birla Institute of Technology's Kasba campus, had a bone marrow transplant at the age of two for thalassemia major and contracted the rare graft-versus-host disease (GVHD), a condition in which the donor cells start attacking the host body.
The first symptoms had showed up within a few months of the transplant, starting with severe skin reactions like "darkening and tightening" along with weakening of the muscles. "She seemed to be shrinking and was reduced to a bag of bones," recalled mother Abha.
Scouring the Internet for treatment options, Abha had discovered that Johns Hopkins University was conducting drug trials for GVHD. A series of emails followed to enrol Anusha for the programme and the Lihala family was soon on their way to Baltimore in the US for two months of treatment for her.
"People were sceptical and questioned whether what we were doing was correct. But I decided to go ahead with it because she was deteriorating in any case," said Abha of the difficult decision.
Anusha underwent grafting after returning to India and although her health remains a challenge, the little girl who not many would have given a chance a decade-and-a-half ago is still fighting and winning.
While all her joints are stiff and she cannot bend her fingers, knees and elbows, Anusha is touchy about getting special treatment. Any offer of a favour is instantly rejected.
"If the bell rings at 1 o' clock for everybody, so does it for her," Abha said of her daughter, who has just completed her first semester examination at the Birla Institute of Technology.
Anusha recounts how an invigilator had once offered her extra time to complete writing a test and how she politely refused to accept it. "In my terminal exams before my O-Level (Class X equivalent), a new invigilator asked me if I needed extra time and I refused. I told him, 'There is no guarantee that I would get extra time later on in life, so I better get used to finishing on time'."
Gita Murthy, administrator at The Cambridge School, vouches for Anusha's independent spirit. "She would never ask for favours or want to be treated as a special student. Anusha is mentally strong and extremely confident."
Sunita Chowdhary, principal of The Cambridge School, said Anusha's biggest attribute was her mental strength. "She has never allowed disability to come in her way."
In school, computing was her favourite subject, borne out by the 96 she scored in her A-Levels along with 93 in maths. She also topped the national merit list in chemistry with 96. "I chose computer applications not because I scored well but because I like the subject and also programming," said Anusha, who likes to play computer games and swim in between studying.
According to the Cambridge International Examinations, 96 in computing denotes "high achievement."
Anusha had started formal schooling in Class III and joined The Cambridge School after the then principal Nanda Chatterjee took her in following "an interview." There was a period when her vision was failing but she didn't give up.
"There was a brief period when I would need to read out to her. She grew up listening to stories and I would tell her that she would be able to read them herself when she was able to see again. She has done that," said mother Abha, who has an older daughter.
"She is a fighter, much more than me. Had she not gone through all this, she perhaps wouldn't have been a topper. She would perhaps have been a naughty girl in school and bunking class," smiled Abha, wiping her tears.
In my terminal exams before my O-Level (Class X equivalent), a new invigilator asked me if I needed extra time and I refused. I told him, ‘There is no guarantee that I would get extra time later on in life, so I better get used to finishing on time’
All-India topper in Cambridge A-Levels
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The Telegraph, Kolkata