July 2005. The world was Prerona Roy’s oyster. Born and brought up in Kharagpur, a small town in West Bengal known primarily for the IIT there, the bright student had completed her graduation in physics from Kolkata, and had returned to her hometown to stay with her parents while pursuing her MSc.
A consummate dancer, Hindustani classical singer and sportsperson, Prerona had always been active in school and community events, and was well-known about town. At 24, she was attractive, popular and hard-working: the perfect ‘package’ as an eligible bachelorette.
She was also in love, but it was complicated. Though her parents themselves had had an inter-religious marriage (her father is Hindu, her mother Christian), they were opposed to the match because the boy was from another community. Her love life was in trouble.
But what kept Prerona busy at the time was her three-month job training. True to form, she outscored 200 freshers in performance, and landed herself a full-time job in Wipro.
Her first official day at work was July 11, 2005. That day, Prerona’s mind was restless: boyfriend, parents, new job, old dreams… She was confused about her choices. Conflicting thoughts buzzed around her head. She struck a lighter on the stove to brew tea. There was no flame. Caught up in her own mental distractions, she leaned forward and blew on the burner.
In a split second, a huge flame leapt out at her, setting her dupatta on fire. Prerona screamed.
Her mother rushed into the kitchen and tore off her blazing clothes. But within just one minute, the burns had already spread across her body. Neighbours rushed in, but no one knew what to do. Potato paste? Burnol? What does one apply to extensive burns?
No one thought to drench her in water – which would have limited the damage. At the hospital, the nurses, too, bungled up and bandaged her all over. The heat was trapped in, leading to second-degree damage. Infection took root.
Prerona hovered between life and death for a month, with her mother Sukla Roy by her side 24 hours a day, holding her hand continuously. Every day, the doctors made new pronouncements: “She will live for just another 20 minutes,” “She will not leave this hospital alive.” Finally, the medics gave up. “Take her to Kolkata,” they said. “That’s your only chance.”
When Prerona had arrived in the Kharagpur hospital, she had had 35% burns. By the time she reached Kolkata after a month of mismanagement, she had 82%.
What came next was an ordeal of unimaginable proportions. Prerona had two skin grafts, made all the more difficult because there was no healthy skin to graft. She was bedridden, had bed sores, and her right hand was a mass of meat. Her temperature would rise to 107-degrees. Nurses would peep into her room to check if she was alive.
Her brother took four months of unpaid leave from Army service to be with her. Kolkata’s best doctors – including one who worked with former cricket captain Sourav Ganguly – were flummoxed: not just about the extent of the damage but also the positive attitude of the patient.
“Why did this happen to my daughter?” Sukla cried.
“Don’t ask such questions, mother,” Prerona chided, “God didn’t make any contract with you.”
Three months, 200 bottles of saline solution, 26 bottles of blood, and numerous surgeries later, Prerona went home. But by then, the muscles in her limbs had contracted. She would need extensive physiotherapy – and 25 surgeries over the next 12 years – to be able to still move. But Prerona’s indefatigable spirit to survive kept her going.
At home, the family faced more challenges. Sukla took out her oldest, softest cotton saris for Prerona to lie on. Everything was sterilized before use. Baby nappies were used to wipe her. A mosquito net was always on top. She was fed orange juice since she could not eat – indeed, anything with salt would burn her up inside.
Painkillers, alcohol, nothing lessened her pain. Her body swelled and oozed pus in bucketfuls. But no one in the family complained, not even her brother’s young wife, who assisted her devotedly every day. Prerona healed, slowly, driven by the love of her family and faith in her own destiny.
The only person who left was the boyfriend. Prerona was too strong for him.
Nine months after her accident, Prerona made up her mind to work again, though she was far from healed. Her treatments had cost her family most of their savings, and she wanted to pay for her own upkeep.
Since she could not wear normal clothes, and was not ready to step out in public, she began conducting tuitions for about 40 kids at home. It was a therapeutic experience for Prerona, as she was a gifted teacher. Her scars, clumsily draped dupatta and skirt, and twisted fingers were immaterial to her devoted students. She was the most beautiful woman in the world, regardless.
Prerona’s physiotherapist encouraged her to write her own story. “One day you will go with your story to the world,” he told her.
Prerona’s natural exuberance took wing again. The strong-willed girl decided to complete her Master’s. “It doesn’t matter if people stare at me,” she steeled herself, limping to her classes every day. The next year, she signed up for MCA from Manipal University. But she knew she had much more potential left in her to realise. “I will get a job,” she vowed to her mom.
Her first application was rejected once they saw her in person. But Prerona refused to lose hope: “They don’t know what I’m made of.”
In 2008, Prerona got an online job teaching mathematics to US students. Working nights, she continued with her tuitions in the daytime, and with her visits to the gym, which were a necessity to keep her muscles moving.
Three months later, her VP, Saptarshi Mukherjee identified Prerona’s potential and promoted her to a trainer. “He is the first person to look beyond my looks,” Prerona told her family.
With full faith in her abilities, he gave her more and more responsibilities, and Prerona said ‘yes’ to each project, leading him to praise her to colleagues: “This girl never says no to any kind of work.”
Prerona was given bigger and bigger projects and was promoted almost every year, until 2011, when her US boss visited Kolkata and met Prerona for the first time. He did not judge her for her scarred neck, shaking hands and distended body.
Instead, he called her to the office, and addressing a room full of her seniors, threw a bombshell: “Meet your new assistant general manager.” A few months later, she was further promoted to general manager – the only woman leading a team full of men. She even got her own car.
The next few years were a dream come true; Prerona travelled between US and India, raking up 12 million dollars worth of business in 25 US states. She was the only employee the bosses ever asked, “What do you want to do?” before taking crucial expansion decisions. She consulted with other companies, earning a hefty sum. She started driving.
Her fingers were still stiff, and walking or standing for long took a toll on Prerona, whose name means ‘inspiration’. But she learnt that work of value doesn’t happen with one’s hands, but with one’s mind.
Certain questions, however, left her sleepless in California: “Why did I go through such an accident? What is God’s message for me? Why did I survive?” All she wanted to do was coach people, change mindsets. She spent her savings to get a certification from Dr John C. Maxwell, one of the world’s top leadership gurus.
In 2014, she quit her job and moved back to India. In 2016, she started her own company, Inspire Excellence, to coach teachers and corporates nationwide, while based in Kolkata. She wants to bloom where she was planted.
She has learnt how to swim, and is dancing once again. “Personal transformation is a 24/7, lifelong process,” says Prerona, who is now 35. “My journey has just started.”