Tejas Jaishankar beat all the odds to become India’s strongest man.
Doctors believed Tejas Jaishankar wouldn’t survive his injuries from a horrific accident, but he healed his body— and mind— through exercise
Tejas Jaishankar smiles as he looks around his well-equipped gym in the posh Vasant Vihar area of India’s capital, New Delhi, before settling down on a machine to do a set of bench presses. He fixes the weight at 80kg – 2kg heavier than himself – then, lying flat on his back, he lifts the weight smoothly 30 times. He hardly breaks into a sweat. Next the 22-year-old jumps up, strolls over to the barbell, loads it with 140kg of iron plates, and cleanly and effortlessly raises it above his head, before dropping it back down. “I did that 23 times in one minute at the India’s Strongest Man Championship in March this year to win the gold,” he smiles.
Not bad for someone who just two years ago had 42 fractures along his spine and ribcage, three shattered vertebrae and several other internal injuries following a horrific road accident that doctors thought he wouldn’t survive. If he did, they were convinced he would never walk again. “I’m so happy to be alive and walking and talking, especially after I actually overheard doctors say that the chances of me recovering or even surviving were slim. In fact, they
gave me just a few hours to live,” says Tejas. “While I lay in that hospital bed listening to the doctors discussing my imminent death, I resolved that if I did manage to survive, I’d usemy experience in physical training to rebuild my body.”
His life-changing accident happened on June 17, 2012, after the business management graduate set off on his motorbike to the house of his best friend, Sukanya Banerjee, to wish her a happy birthday. He was cruising along, when a pedestrian ran across the road. “To avoid hitting him, I braked but, unfortunately, the bike skidded and I fell off,” he says. Before Tejas could get up he was run over by a Toyota Innova SUV that was speeding down the road.
“Although I knew a vehicle had hit me, I don’t know why but I didn’t feel any pain at that time,” he recalls. Tejas struggled to get up, but then, incredibly, was hit again as the driver of the SUV panicked and in trying to check out what had happened, reversed his vehicle over Tejas’s upper body a second time.
“This time I got wedged between the rear tyre and the vehicle’s chassis and I was dragged for about 15 metres,” Tejas says.
It was only when some onlookers started screaming and gesturing that the driver realised something was wrong and stopped. Stepping out he saw Tejas’s mangled body lying under his car.
“What surprises me is that I still wasn’t in pain,” he says. “I guess my body had gone into shock.”
With the help of an onlooker, the driver dragged Tejas out from under the vehicle, unaware that he had life-threatening injuries. “I remember them putting me on to the back seat of the car and the driver racing off to the nearest hospital, just a few kilometres away,” he says.
“I was awake and fished out my mobile phone from my jeans’ pocket and found it was still working. I called Sukanya to tell her that I’d had an accident and was being taken to hospital. I then called another good friend, Mahendra Pratap, and gave him the same news. ”
At the hospital entrance, the car driver tried to help Tejas into a wheelchair, but the young man brushed him aside, saying that he didn’t need it. “Holding on to the shoulder of the SUV driver, I walked about 25 metres to the emergency section of the hospital,” he says. “Surprisingly, I had very few external injuries, so there were no blood stains on my clothes. In fact except for a minor bruise on my left arm, there was no sign of any injury.
“By now, though, I had begun to feel a throbbing pain all over my body and guessed I’d sustained some internal injuries.”
Because of the lack of any visible injuries, the doctors didn’t consider Tejas an emergency case, he says. “When I started complaining about the pain I was experiencing all overmy body, one doctor did a regular check up and said that I probably had a headache! And it wouldn’t even require a painkiller, he said.”
The driver pleaded with the doctors to attend to Tejas. “The pain was slowly becoming acute but I was still awake and spotted Sukanya and Mahendra rushing in,” he says.
Sukanya was alarmed when she saw her friend. “The first thing Tejas said on seeing me was ‘Some birthday you’re having.’ He then smiled and closed his eyes. I could see that his body was bent at odd angles and he was clearly in pain. Not wanting to disturb him, I asked the driver what had happened and was shocked to learn the details of the accident. In fact it made me nervous to see Tejas so calm.”
Sukanya immediately called the Army hospital – Tejas’s father Major General G Jaishankar is an officer in the Indian Army – which was a 30-minute drive away, and told them that they wanted to bring Tejas there for treatment.
Once the Army hospital agreed, they rushed him there on the floor of a van as they didn’t want to wait for an ambulance.
Tejas underwent tests including an MRI, CT and ultrasound scans. “It was only then that we realised the seriousness of his condition,” says Sukanya.
Tejas adds, “By now, my entire body was frozen in a very peculiar, contorted position and I was unable to move even my head. It was as though I was paralysed.”
He was moved to the ICU and placed under observation.
“Incidentally, I was aware of all that was happening to me because I was not sedated as I had not complained of severe pain,” he says. “I could overhear the doctors discussing my condition. One of them was saying ‘no one survives with such injuries’.”
After much discussion, the panel of doctors decided against operating on Tejas immediately as many of the injuries were close to his heart and lungs.
“I was put on the DI [death imminent] list, as they felt that with so many fractures along my spine I would die any moment.”
But despite his condition, Tejas was optimistic – and apologetic for the trouble the accident had caused. Says Sukanya, “When my father came to see him in the hospital, Tejas actually apologised to him for ruining his Sunday! The same evening, he told me, ‘I know you have gone through a lot today. In case you want to break down, you can do so now!’ The way he said that was rather amusing. Despite all the pain he was going through, he was full of fun and cheer. And he was extremely positive – sure that nothing would happen to him and that he would survive.”
Meanwhile, Sukanya got in touch with Tejas’s family in Sikkim, and they began making plans to rush to Delhi to be with him. Unfortunately, bad weather and landslides had
blocked roads and with flights cancelled, it took the family three days to reach his bedside.
Tejas’s mother Reji and sister Kanchana were expecting the worst, but were relieved to see him smiling and talking, although he was unable to move. “By the time we reached the hospital, Tejas had been shifted to the hospital’s general ward,’’ says Kanchana, a grade 12 student. “Except for painkillers, no other medication was being administered to him. Bed rest was advised.”
Although he was unable to move, Tejas was upbeat. “I was making the most of my ‘second life’,” he explains. “I will never forget the look on the doctors’ faces when I was smiling while being wheeled into intensive care. They were puzzled that I had not only survived the accident, but was able to remain positive.”
The time he spent in the hospital, he says, was the most difficult because he had to simply lie in bed. But just three weeks after the accident, X-rays revealed a near miracle: all his fractures were healing. “I believe in the power of positive thinking,” he says. “I refused to believe that I would end up bedridden and kept willing my mind to get my body in action and make it healthy quickly.”
Two months later, Tejas was taken off the DI list. “During those months, doctors advised me not to get out of the bed, but I decided I had to move so I would go to the bathroom and try walking around a bit. I was in pain, but I did not allow it to overwhelm my body. In fact, I even started doing some minor exercises right from the hospital bed to encourage my body to get better quickly,” he says. “I think the only reason I survived the accident was because I was in such good shape. I’d been exercising all the time for two years prior to that. It meant my body could bounce back.”
Tejas’s interest in strength training began when he was in his early teens and went on an Army training session. Afterwards, he researched the topic online and created his own training programme. “I would spend a lot of time in the gym and working out, maintaining my body and keeping it fighting fit,” he says.
So quickly did his body recover that within three months, he was discharged. And from the moment he reached home, Tejas began exercising. “I’d do pull-ups and pushups and although I did experience a bit of pain initially, I refused to stop. I consulted doctors and they told me to take it easy, but I felt I knew my body better. It was the best way to get back into shape.”
He also devised a diet for himself – after consulting some experts – which focused on plenty of water, fruits, vegetables, nuts, proteins and unprocessed foods. Occasionally, he would also go on one-day fasts to toughen himself up.
When Tejas was on the mend, he took a consultant’s job at an HR company. “Around that time, I would often feel low. Probably the pain that I’d borne for months had left me fatigued. But I continued to exercise. I would do one big workout a week every Friday. It comprised two to three exercises that were truly punishing. I would then just rest over the weekend to recover. Throughout the week, I did light callisthenic exercises and every week I would increase the weights I was handling.”
It was at this time that Tejas met Parag Mhetre, a Pune-based karate exponent and fitness consultant, who runs a gym that focuses on core strengthening exercises.
“I was impressed with the gym and immediately signed up for a course,” says Tejas. He exercised with kettlebells, which weigh around 8kg each and are used as training tools for wrestlers and people who practise martial arts.
Tejas soon became so proficient that Parag suggested that he open his own training facility in New Delhi.
“By then, I had begun to feel physically stronger and started developing my training system, so I decided to quit my job and set up something like that.”
In June last year, Tejas started Calisthenics 75, a training centre in rented premises in Vasant Vihar.
“Callisthenics is the art of training the body without equipment. I am a big advocate of body-weight training so named it Calisthenics [the American spelling] and added 75 as a random number! Initially I had two students, now I train more than 50.”
In addition to training with his students, he decided to train himself for the 2014 Ironsports Powerlifting Championship. But after the event got scrapped, Tejas decided to enter India’s Strongest Man competition. “I was in great shape and in a great frame of mind.”
The competition was held on March 20 – almost two years after his accident – and Tejas lifted his way to two gold medals and one bronze in the 70kg to 90kg weight class. This gave him the overall title of India’s Strongest Man.
“Many contestants were, without a doubt, stronger than I was, but they did not have the conditioning to do the events well. More importantly, they lacked the mental fortitude. I did 35 repetitions with 120kg in a minute, while the person who came second did only 14 reps.
“I did not win despite my accident; I won because of the accident,” he says. “My ambition now is to win the title five years in a row and completely destroy all the competition in India. Thereafter, I will move to international competitions and some day participate in theWorld’s Strongest Man competition,” he says.
“The importance of health and fitness is something that cannot be overemphasised. I often tell my students, I was able to overcome my horrific accident only because I was healthy and fit – not just physically but mentally.
“And of course there is no substitute for positive thinking. If you decide to work on your dream then it no longer remains a dream – it becomes a reality. After all, our destiny is what we make of our life.”
Doctors were convinced that even if Tejas survived his injuries, he would never walk again, but he proved them wrong
Tejas’s friends Sukanya and Mahendra (below) fought for him to get the right medical treatment
Kanchana was frustrated by how long it took to get to the hospital to see her brother