In the two hours that I spent chatting with Deepa Malik, I learnt some astounding things about the human anatomy.
The same hands that toggle a wheelchair, can also rev the gear on a bike, cradle an Arjuna Award, send a javelin stick piercing into the skies, while they hold the hands of little daughters and sons and guide them into an equally limitless future.
The same legs that can rest lay lifeless on that wheelchair, can also manoeuvre you in a pool with the impeccable form and style of a mermaid, walk you in and out of enough flights to fill up two passports, and even prop you up behind the counter of your dream restaurant business.
Here’s the secret – the wheels that are keeping those limbs bound to them; they aren’t really the wheels of a wheelchair; they are the Ashok Chakra, the wheel of fortune; the sign of continuity and eternity.
Deepa, paraplegic, with paralysis chest down, is not yearning for normalcy. She knows she isn’t going to be normal. “Being normal isn’t all that cool, you know,” she says. Meer normalcy isn’t for Deepa; excellence is. And it is while accepting the imperfections in herself that she aims for perfection.
She is no stranger to physical disability, and clamouring her way through it was no trial of her spirit – for she never gave herself the option to fail.
“I was always out to prove myself. That became a habit – just to prove to the world that my medical condition has not let my life slip away from me.”
As a six-year-old tomboy, a tumour detected in her spinal cord, although caught and contained early on, taught her some important things about the way life deserves to be lived in the face of adversary. Her recovery took three years, and in an ironic turn of events, life in turn threatened the ‘bully’ to take away from it everything that defined her.
“A tomboy and bully like me, who lived for the outdoors, who used to climb up trees and steal friends’ bikes and ride them into the sunset, couldn’t be confined to a room to draw and paint. I wouldn’t have been able to do that,” says Deepa, who was born feisty.
“When you have mastered the art of gratitude, you have learnt to look at the positives of life. Even on that bed, I decided I had to enrich my mind and prepare for the future, for I knew life awaits me on the other side.”
Hand me the keys, and I’ll show you how it’s done
A young officer with a state-of-the-art Japanese bike caught her fancy one day. To the officer’s astonishment, it was not him, but the bike that had the lady ogling.
He asked her what she knew about bikes, and she replied, “Hand me the keys, and I’ll show you how it’s done.”
Not only did he hand her the keys, but the next day the officer showed up all suited up and requested her hand in marriage. “Sir, may I marry your daughter, so we can ride our bikes together blissfully?”
History repeats itself
They built a wonderful life together. Their first little bundle of joy, Devika, wasn’t far along. But, as fate would have it, history threatened to repeat itself.
”My daughter was hit by a biker when she was barely one. There was internal bleeding in her brain, her ventricles dilated, and as a result, her left side was paralyzed. We carried her back to the Pune command hospital. And it was the same ward and same bed as mine, from all those years ago.”
“There were rumours that I passed on my disability to my daughter. I got to know the stereotypical images of disability in the eyes of the society. As a child I was sheltered, but now, I felt the venom. My father would tell me – god distributes his challenges wisely. You’ve been chosen for this one.”
Indignant, she and her husband relentlessly began helping her daughter, day and night, like her parents had, and even had another daughter, Ambika, who was a beautiful distraction for the family from their reality. “But it seems that god hadn’t exhausted my share of challenges, yet. In 1999, my husband was summoned to Kargil. And no sooner did he leave, than my tumour relapsed. There was no communication with him and half his family was in shambles.”
“But god has packaged these challenges, and he has packaged them well, too! I underwent this predicament when my husband was at the war – casualties and fatalities were coming in everyday. I was so emotionally spent and distracted, I was adamant of living through this, as I had no idea what my husband’s fate was. The mother in me was dominant, I had to stay alive for the children.”
Full of war casualties, the entire hospital had turned into an ICU. “I was getting operated among the kind of people who had lost their arms, eyes, limbs, for no fault of their own, due to no illness, but out of valour for the country. I had no reason to complain. My mind was trained to look at things like that.”
She was operated, followed by a severe complication where her entire brain tube had leaked. Being taken into her third surgery, she was in coma for 25 days. And this wasn’t the end; some might even say it was the beginning of the end.
“Before I went into my next surgery, I asked for the raw deal – and they told me I will be wheelchair bound for the rest of my life. I was given seven days to celebrate walking.”
She didn’t despair; in those seven days, she turned her house into a structure that was completely wheelchair friendly, spent all her free time in chat rooms to join international communities suffering from the same condition as her, who could offer her solutions and hope.
Her husband had returned from the war fine, but people started speculating if he would leave her. “In the eyes of the society, I was a dead body. But I had seen death. That wasn’t me. I had all the life left in me.”
Her two most lethal weapons to overcome her condition were her positive attitude and sense of humour.
“It’s not cool to be normal! Tomorrow if I turn a politician, I will never leave my chair! I don’t have to worry about long train journeys, or missing scenes in movies. I’m always packing, happily tucked into my diapers!”
And besides, she’s always doing what makes her happy. “I’m always on my wheels! Why do you call me wheelchair bound, I’m wheelchair liberated. The Ashok Chakra has a wheel; I tell everybody like me, you have your inspiration right there, under you!”
Of rumours and redemption
“I fell prey to a stereotypical targeting all over again – ‘how will she feed her daughters? She will always need external help.’ Something in me was struggling to prove them wrong.”
In the identity struggle sure ensued, the Sansad firing summoned her husband back. This time, as the wife of the Squadros Commander, she was caring for 30 families as the husbands left overnight.
In that duration, an idea struck her to start a take-out catering service, which wasn’t available in the army quarters before. Rounding up her domestic staff and some painters who were doing up her room, she opened a garden restaurant at the corner of her farmhouse, which started as a home delivery centre, but turned into a wildly popular restaurant.
“I started feeding 250 people in the restaurant, plus taking 100 home delivery orders every day.” She also helped the boys she employed, go back to school, and take their tenth grade exams. “Women had doubts about how I will feed my own family. Well, now I’m also feeding theirs.”
At everyone’s favourite D Place, the young officers would come and love to chat with their hostess. It was during one of those encounters that a young man told her, “You can be a biker again.” He Googled it immediately and showed her how people were doing it abroad.
“I gave him a reality check. Nothing below my chest level works. My injury is as high as T1. I have no torso balance, no proper sensation, imperfect lung functioning, no temperature control. My nerve endings are haphazardly cut. I don’t even have bladder or bowel control. It’s a miracle that I’m running a restaurant!”
The boy was adamant. He convinced her that it was possible, and a task cut out for a woman of her spirit.
She got back to exercising full time. An exercise she was given was swimming, extensively. Somebody saw her swimming on TV, and alerted the sports authorities for an upcoming Nationals tournament, and Maharashtra invited her to the nationals.
“I was 36. I thought, why not? Opportunity knocks on your door, and the winners are those who have the courage to walk through those doors. I did, and won my medals. In 2006, I went to Kuala Lumpur and even won a silver medal.”
Wearing the Indian jersey, getting a sportsperson title, built a brand for her CSR, and Vijay Mallya ended up offering her a sponsorship. But when nobody in India was ready to make a customised bike to suit her needs, the story got around, and the next day, none other than the Roadies team called her.
“You want to be a biker? You ride your bike on our show on national television, they told me.”
Anything she had set her mind on had come true. A big follower of The Secret, she truly believes that the universe conspires to bring to your feet anything you want passionately enough.
54 National Golds, 13 Internationally, three world championships titles, one silver medal, and at least a top five spot in all. Competing alongside the able-bodied, at the Commonwealth Games, she became the icon of para-sports.
“Biking and sports had become a good way to break the stereotypical images of people on wheelchairs. To be heard you have to be an achiever. If you have to send out a voice, you have to do some drastically crazy.”
So, she crossed the river Yamuna against the current, and created four Limca World Adventure records, by doing so. She also rallied on the Himalayan race and the desert storm, two of the most treacherous routes with the Himalayan Motorsports Association (H.M.A.) and Federation of Motor Sports Clubs of India (F.M.S.C.I.), where she biked 1,700 km in sub-zero temperatures in a span of eight days at an altitude of 18,000 feet.
“People said I am going to die in a room, in my own faeces – here I am, with two full passports, travelling the world! Riding alongside John Abraham on one day, or cradling the Arjuna award in my hand on another.”
As of early this week, she is all set to take on Rio next year and stun the world with her short put expertise. Let’s cheer her on @deepaathlete.