By Manvi Pant
Sunita Kulkarni was in class nine when she was detected with rheumatoid arthritis (RA), a chronic autoimmune disorder that impaired her walking ability and left her with shattering pain for the next 14 years.
But after studying and following the right nutrition and lifestyle, she not only healed herself, she also became a successful wellness consultant and recently fulfilled her childhood dream of winning a beauty pageant.
Based in Pune, the 39-year-old looks back at the first time she was diagnosed with RA: “It was Christmas day in 1996. I felt as if all my dreams and ambitions died that day.” Anxiety, depression seeped into Sunita’s heart, and she feared for the future.
“Then eventually, I stopped making any long-term plans, and instead I started planning short-term six-to-10 month goals, like focusing on clearing my exams,” she shares. She also trained her mind to “stop thinking anything” if she couldn’t think positive thoughts.
All that while, Sunita’s family stood by her like a motivating force and kept her hopeful. Both her parents were from a small town of Chhapra in Bihar, and later moved to Ranchi where Sunita was born and raised. Her father worked in a public-sector company and Sunita and her two siblings spent their childhood with minimal resources but received the best of education.
With brilliant academic credentials, Sunita took up chartered accountancy (CA) and got an all-India rank of seven at the foundation level. Soon, however, she fell severely ill and her condition rendered her incapacitated for three years.
Her “so-called well-wishers” suggested she leave her CA exams as she wasn’t likely to pass them and even if she did, who would marry her or give her a job, anyway?
To pass her time while bedridden and sorrowful, she took to watching movies. “I happened to see Phir Milenge (2004) starring Shilpa Shetty. Though it was about an HIV-positive woman fighting discrimination, it somehow left me with the message that this is my life and I have to be strong enough to face whatever comes. It gave me the inspiration to move on,” she narrates.
Beating all odds, Sunita gave her CA intermediate and final exams and cleared both in the first attempt. Research suggests that early experiences of life influence the development of one’s character.
By now, Sunita had developed resilience in the face of adversity. “You always have a choice – whether you consider yourself helpless and do nothing or take your problem as a challenge to change whatever situation you are in,” she says.
She also believes that God has plans for everyone and what looks ‘bad’ today can turn out to be for one’s good tomorrow. She cites her own case in point: “My father would never have let me leave Ranchi to work in Bengaluru if he hadn’t seen me study so hard to become a CA despite my health issues.”
It was while working in Infosys, Bengaluru, that Sunita met her husband and fellow chartered accountant, Atul Kulkarni, and they became the best of friends. “Atul knew that I was an RA patient, and that I couldn’t walk properly. Just after three months of friendship, he proposed to me,” she beams, calling it her ‘Yash Chopra’ moment of “true love and soulmate and all”.
Like in many inter-community and inter-caste Indian love stories, their families opposed their alliance initially, but eventually gave in. The newlyweds relocated to Pune and were blessed with their son, Arjun. Reeling with post-natal baby blues, Sunita tried everything from allopathy to naturopathy, but to no avail.
Her husband had been diligently searching for new treatment options when, one day, one of his colleagues referred a nutritionist who prescribed cellular nutrition for Sunita. “Working with certified advisors, I started my journey to adopt a healthy lifestyle and began providing my body the right combination of nutrients,” she shares.
Sunita also enrolled for a course to become a nutrition advisor. “The idea was to cure myself first and keep my family healthy,” says Sunita, who did not think about making it a career option until much later. The study of holistic health through food opened her eyes.
“I hooked on to it. I pursued it relentlessly,” she says, adding, “I learnt that the body has an amazing mechanism to recover from any kind of damage but it needs the right raw material – nutrients, exercise and attitude. The focus has to be on eliminating the cause rather than just the symptom.”
Within two years of her new healthier lifestyle, Sunita recovered completely from RA. “And now, for the past 12 years, I have been helping thousands of families across the globe to live a healthy life,” she says of her work as a wellness consultant.
After recovery, Sunita got a new lease of life. “I started singing with a band, made a few music videos, participated in charitable activities for various NGOs and old-age homes.”
But the real recognition came after Sunita was crowned second runner-up with the Mrs Shining Star subtitle at the Mrs West India 2020 pageant held in Goa. “That was a life-changing moment for me,” she says.
Sunita had been apprehensive about participating in beauty pageants because of the requirement of walking the ramp wearing four-inch heels, which was impossible for someone with her health history. Also, Sunita wears glasses and, due to RA, her eyes are too dry to tolerate contact lenses.
She gives credit to the company that hosted the event, Diva Pageants, for being inclusive. “This pageant has given me a different outlook towards myself and the work I do in the field of health and beauty. People who were earlier not aware of my work now know me thanks to this platform,” she says.
Sunita now aims to become a ‘messenger of health’ for people across the globe. She shares the biding motto of her life: “If you dream big, there is a chance that you may or may not achieve those dreams, but if you don’t dare to dream, there is 100 percent surety that you will not achieve that.”
First published in eShe magazine