If your life were a movie, what would the title be? For Rajeev “Raj” Nirmalakhandan, the answer is simple: I’m Screwed.
Now, Raj’s answer is clearly tongue-in-cheek. In the little time he’s spent on Earth, he has managed to accomplish more than most could dream of. However, getting to where he is today was anything but easy.
Raj’s Childhood and the “Head-Scratchers”
Born in Sri Lanka—an island country located off the coast of India—Raj’s childhood was not what you’d call idyllic. Growing up, he had a multitude of “head-scratchers,” aka health issues that no doctor could quite get to the bottom of. Additionally, growing political tension in his native country forced his family to move to America in search of sanctuary. His life was an uphill battle from the beginning.
Being in a new country, learning a new language, looking different from his peers, and attempting to make sense of serious medical conditions were no walk in the park. In fact, even walking took immense effort. He was eventually diagnosed with a condition known as Syringomyelia. This is a rare disorder in which fluid-filled cysts form within your spinal cord. Over time, these cysts compress and damage parts of the spine. Its symptoms are chronic pain, stiffness, and weakness in the back, shoulders, arms, and legs.
Raj Shows Resilience
Following such an extreme diagnosis, many would become engulfed by feelings of despair. Raj, on the other hand, was unwavering in his efforts to achieve contentment. How could this be? What silver lining could be found with news like this?
At the time, he was learning how to drive. It occurred to him that since driving with his right foot was not an option, he needed to find another way. This lesson would soon serve him for the rest of his life, as he soon began to drive using his left foot.
By the time he was in his late teens, Raj had experienced more hurdles than most will in a lifetime. However, these events were only the start of his journey. He soon had his first spinal surgery. Around the same time, he was graduating from high school and applying to his dream college, UCLA.
How do you keep a clear head and good spirits at such a pivotal time in your life? Luckily for Raj, he was already a veteran at overcoming challenging times. He tells us that when writing his application letter, he would have to write for five minutes at a time because, after his first surgery, the pain from sitting was so excruciating that he had to lie down for relief. Despite the agonizing writing process, his application was completed. He was accepted into UCLA.
Raj Dives Head-First Into the Arts
From an early age, Raj was passionate about creating art. So when he began his college education, his natural inclination for creativity led him to UCLA’s world-renowned fine-arts program, whose alumni includes James Dean, Steve Martin, and Francis Ford Coppola. While studying filmmaking, he even landed an internship at DreamWorks. However, he soon had to endure yet another procedure.
An LA-based doctor who specialized in Raj’s condition suggested another surgery. Because of the pain of the first surgery, Raj was understandably reluctant for quite some time. However, he knew that it needed to be done.
Throughout his life, Raj has continued to undergo spinal surgeries that require him to re-learn how to walk, as well as perform other essential motor functions. He tells us the story of a conversation between him and an orthopedic surgeon. It goes like this:
Raj: Can you explain to me what you are going to do?
Surgeon: Do you want it in medical terms or layman’s terms?
Raj: Give it to me in layman’s terms.
Surgeon: I’m going to break your back then put it back together.
Anyone can see the absurdity of the things Raj has had to go through. But no matter what, his humorous positivity defies expectations. It’s inspiring, heartwarming, and entertaining to hear the unfolding of someone’s seemingly tragic life and listen to them recount it as a coming-of-age comedy. It makes one take a step back and not take life so seriously.
Raj Today: an Acclaimed Filmmaker
Today, Raj is an acclaimed filmmaker. He states, “I write. I direct. I edit. I design. I don’t do stunts. I can’t cry on cue.”
His resume includes directing The Odd Way Home, a feature film starring Rumer Willis, Chris Marquette, Veronica Cartwright, and Brendan Sexton III. The film scored an Audience Choice Award at the Albuquerque Film Festival. His portfolio also includes a dozen other credits for various short films and documentaries, not to mention a background in commercial video. Raj is also a respected film instructor with over 15 years of experience at New Mexico State University.
Most importantly, Raj is a husband and recent father. He claims this new world of parenthood has opened up his mind and has allowed him to see everything from a different perspective. It has jogged his creative mind and become a leading source of inspiration for the work to come in the future.
Raj on Heroism
Considering all that Raj has been through, he no doubt has a few things to say on the meaning of heroism. So we asked him the simple question, “What does it mean to be a hero?”
“I think that even the smallest positive impact that we can have on other people’s lives can make us heroes,” he tells us. “Because they may be very small for us, but that small thing could be huge for the person you do it for. It could be even just listening to someone. It could be a kind word or kind gesture that to that person can mean so much more.”
Did you miss Daniel O’Rourke’s Featured Showcase?
We agree with Raj’s point-of-view. Heroes act in the best interest of others, not just themselves. While our culture propagates the notion that heroes must perform extraordinary actions, this is not always the case. Heroic actions can be as simple as making others feel better about themselves.
What Message Does Raj Have for the YEDH Audience?
After hearing Raj’s take on heroism, we wanted to pick his brain apart even further. We asked him what message he had for the Your Everyday Heroes audience, and, of course, he had plenty of wisdom to impart.
“I try my best not to judge anyone,” he says. “I think that so many issues in the world stem from the fact that we are isolated within groups, yet we have so much in common. I was this small brown kid from Sri Lanka, yet I found so much commonality with people in America. Instead of focusing on what’s different, let’s find our commonalities, and we’ll find ways to connect with each other.”
After hearing the full story of Rajeev “Raj” Nirmalakhandan, we can see the irony behind his “I’m screwed” joke. Instead of succumbing to self-pity as a result of his disease, he chose the heroic route: he made something of himself. And now, as a teacher, he is helping to make something of others. Your Everyday Heroes has been proud to spotlight his inspiring story, and we hope that he continues to get the attention he deserves.