“A hero is somebody who is selfless, who is generous in spirit, who just tries to give back as much as possible and help people. A hero to me is someone who saves people and who really deeply cares.”
It’s a job in which the call of duty normally entails a difficult choice between life and death. Not for Venkatesh. The 19-year-old lifeguard has always risked his life to save those who love the high tides so much. He is a big help to the beach patrol officers and is said to have saved more than 100 people who were in danger of drowning. People may risk their lives in the line of duty, or for glory or money. But rarely does someone risk his life to save others simply because it makes him happy.
Young Venkatesh, who is all of 19 years old, saves strangers. He says there are no complex reasons for his unselfish actions. “It makes me very happy,” he says with a wide grin. “It was never about money and neither do I expect gratitude or praise.” It does hurt when people do not even acknowledge you. Some just walk away. But whatever they say or do not say it does not affect my jumping in the next time someone’s life is in danger.”
At the Anna Square police station overlooking Marina Beach, Constable S Dhanalakshmi says Venkatesh is “like family. Most of us are posted here for a maximum of three years, but Venkatesh has been a permanent fixture for the past six or seven years. “The young lifesaver, Dhanalakshmi says, is at the beach most mornings and is the first to jump in during a crisis. “It is purely social service on his part. We buy him an occasional meal, but otherwise he is not paid.”
Venkatesh is said to have saved over a hundred lives, but he keeps no record. “There’s no need to keep an account. What difference would that make?” he asks. Small built, barefooted and bareheaded under the scorching sun, with bloodshot eyes due to his long hours under water, Venkatesh says his mother’s brother taught him how to swim when he was six years old. “By the time I was 12, swimming in the ocean came very naturally to me. I can stay in the water for over six hours without any strain.”he adds.
He was 13 when, walking along the beach with a police patrol, he effected his first rescue. “We noticed about 20 youngsters swimming near the shore. Suddenly, a huge wave dragged three of them into deeper waters. Instead of saving their friends, the rest rapidly swam towards the shore,” Venkatesh recalls. “A couple of fishermen and I jumped in to save the boys. Unfortunately, we could only save two of them; one young boy lost his life. Since then, I instinctively jump in whenever I see anyone in trouble,” says this savior of many an unlucky or foolish swimmer.
Sub-Inspector Panneerselvam of the Anna Square police station acknowledges the debt the police owe Venkatesh.”Besides saving lives, he also helps us recover the bodies of drowned victims, despite their decomposed state. Sometimes bodies float in from many kilometers away and are in a really bad shape, but Venkatesh never complains,” says Panneerselvam.
Venkatesh’s life is in danger when he sets out to help others.”I almost lost my life a couple of years ago. Three youngsters were caught in the rough waters and when I reached them, all three held me in a death grip. One caught hold of my legs, one my hands and the third tried to climb on to my shoulder, holding my neck. We all went under together. Luckily, that day, my brother, who owns a fruit shop near the shore, jumped in with a wooden board to save us.” People panic so much that it is very difficult to reason with them, they just want to hold on to you tightly, which makes it a very strenuous task,” he says.
“Two months ago, I fractured my elbow. One of the inspectors paid the hospital expenses. Nowadays, I use a surfboard, “he says. “It is much easier to help people onto the board and then guide the board to safety.” When asked “doesn’t his family object to his heroics? Venkatesh said “Until recently my father was not aware of what I do. My mother died some years ago. She immolated herself due to some family issues. After her death, I stopped going to school and moved in with my grandmother. My father feels once you are 15, you should learn to fend for yourself. I have been mostly on my own for many years now.”
At least five people die every month off this stretch of coast, the police say. Swimmers don’t heed the warning signs of danger. “I frequently advise people to be careful,” says Venkatesh. “But no one listens. Some boys even get into a fight with me.”Ironically enough, Venkatesh also has to deal with the pranksters. “They pretend to be drowning and scream for help. When I reach them, they laugh and say that they wanted to fool me. This makes me very angry, but there is nothing I can do. I cannot risk ignoring a cry for help.”
Saving lives by the seashore doesn’t fetch him his bread and butter, so for a few hours every day Venkatesh sets up speakers and plays songs at political meetings and other gatherings to make a little money.”I would be happy to have a small shop close to the beach like my brother, which will ensure that I stay at the beach and continue my work. But that requires quite a lot of money and I don’t want to ask my father for help,” he says.
When asked about his dreams he said “Sometimes, I dream of becoming a police officer, but there are exams to be written and procedures to be followed and I have not even completed my high school. “Fate has not dealt young Venkatesh a good hand, but that does not deter him from doing selfless service.
He deserves to be honoured with a national award for his bravery and service to humanity. I feel people like Venkatesh should be awarded’ Bharat Ratna’ for the selfless service they are doing to society. Rules should not come in the way of the government, if it wants to recognize his services, and create a post of Life Guard, for him which meets his extraordinary courage. Salary should not be a constraint for a person like Venkatesh who is saving lives which are priceless!