She was a helpless baby when polio ravaged her body. The raging fever left her paralyzed from the neck down. Two years of electric shock treatment helped her regain strength – but in the upper body alone. The next 15 years were punctuated by surgery after surgery. Parents, doctors and friends despaired. She fought on.
The metamorphosis from Malathi on a wheelchair to Padma Shri Dr Malathi K Holla, Arjuna Awardee with over 400 medals, is an extraordinary tale of grit. Today, she runs Mathru Foundation, a home for disabled children from rural India, in Bangalore.
Nothing prepares you for the unmistakable joy in Dr Malathi K Holla. When she wheeled, rather zoomed, into YourStory’s media lab at the India Inclusion Summit, it was if the warmth that exuded from her charged everything and everyone in the vicinity. “I don’t think I am a disabled person. Of course, I am disabled physically. But that is just one part of my body. My self-confidence is not paralyzed,” she told us.
Sports as medicine
Krishnamurthy and Padmavathi Holla, Malathi’s parents, could do little when their one-year-old baby was struck by polio in 1959. Malathi was the youngest of their four children. Krishnamurthy ran a small hotel in rural Bangalore to make ends meet.
Initially, for two years, Malathi was put through electric shock treatments. That helped her regain strength above the waist but not below. So with a heavy heart, they entrusted Malathi to the Ishwari Prasad Dattatraya Orthopaedic Centre in Chennai. She stayed there for 15 years, studying, undergoing surgeries and exercising hard to make herself stronger physically and mentally. This was when sports became a passion for her. “Sports was a therapy that allowed me to forget pain,” she recalls.
It was another world. Everyone she grew up with had physical disabilities. Dealing with pain, medical procedures and regular therapy was nothing unusual there. “Most of the children were from poor families and parents left them at the centre never to come back. Food, education and medical treatment were provided by the centre,” she recalls. “We got used to bearing physical pain and mental trauma. We would undergo surgeries, which were painful, followed by even more painful physiotherapy sessions. I just refused to give in to despair.”
Another fight awaited her when she came back home. Here, she was a fish out of water. The odd one out, she had to deal with a society that looks down with pity at the disabled.
“The biggest trauma about being handicapped is the inferiority complex that creeps in. That is what is crippling really. Sports gave me confidence and the strength to cope with my disability,” she says.
Haul of gold
Malathi continued to train while studying at Maharani’s College, Bangalore. She bagged medals regularly at the National Games for the Disabled conducted by the National Society for Equal Opportunities for the Handicapped, Mumbai, between 1975 and 1981. This came to the notice of the authorities and won her a clerical post with the Syndicate Bank in 1981. From then on, she would wear the bank’s colours at all the competitions in which she participated. Her medal haul continued in shot put, discus, javelin, wheelchair race and obstacle race.
In 1988, she took part in her first international competition — Para-Olympics at Seoul. The foreign atheletes who took part had personal coaches with them. She saw what a difference it made to their performances. She picked up cassettes by professionals and based her training on those from then on. In a year’s time, she began hauling gold internationally. At the 1989 World Masters’ Games in Denmark, she won gold in 200m, shot put, discus, and javelin throw.
She won the Arjuna award in 1996 and Padma Shri in 2001. Rajyothsava Award, Ekalavya Award, Dasara Award, Outstanding Disabled Sports Person in Public Sector Banks award, K. K. Birla Foundation Award, Pratibha Rathna … her list of awards is long.
At 56, she is still the fastest female Indian athlete on a wheelchair. “So far, I have won 389 golds, 27 silvers and 5 bronzes at national and international events,” she told us matter-of-factedly. The irony is that she won most of those on a rented wheelchair.
Starting up for disabled
“I lead a respectable life now, I am successful and popular, but there are very few people like me, who have had the opportunities to make it in this world.” This thought spurred her to start Mathru Foundation for physically disabled children in 2002. For a long time, she had been discussing it with her friend, Krishna Reddy, a para athelete like her. Other close friends – cricketer Venkatesh Prasad, Ashwini Nachappa and M.K. Sridhar – helped them.
In the beginning, the plan was to educate a physically disabled child. But like all entrepreneurs, her idea evolved quickly into a charitable trust for children with polio from rural areas, whose parents cannot afford to send them to school or provide medical treatment. “We started with two children. Now I am a proud mother of 20,” she said, talking about the children at Mathru Foundation. These children will stay with her till they get their first jobs. “We want them to stand on their own feet in this world.”
She is also a manager with Syndicate Bank. Her biography, A Different Spirit, released in 2009, and has been inspiring thousands of people to rise over their physical handicap.
Running Mathru isn’t easy. They operate out of a small house in Marathahalli. They have two permanent staff: Yashodamma, the cook, and Kumar, the Man Friday for everything else from taking the children to school to shopping. Medical expenses are covered by generous doctors to an extent. “The children at the Foundation suffer ailments like polio and cerebral palsy. This is very difficult. We pay hospital charges, but the doctors don’t charge us anything for surgeries,” she said.
A magnanimous donor has given the Foundation two plots of land in Sarjapur, where they are building a new home for the children now. “We don’t need any sympathy, rather we need empathy from society to prove our mettle,” she says.
To contact, Dr Malathi K Holla, write to firstname.lastname@example.org. She can also be reached at +91 98800 80133