The Extraordinary Story Of Deepa Malik, Silver Medalist, Rio Paralympics 2016
I can never forget meeting Deepa Malik during my series on athletes training for the London Paralympics — she was the only female athlete in the contingent, and was generous enough to give me an interview while a beauty assistant applied a face pack on her.
"People write me off because I’m an upper middle class colonel’s wife, because my story isn’t one of poverty and because I’m in my 40s," she said, and in many ways, Malik had it harder because people saw her disability in a gendered way — neighbours and relatives thought she was incapable of caring for her family, and regularly advised her husband to remarry; when Malik began to train as an athlete, people gossiped about all the "intimate tasks" her coach would have to perform while training and traveling with her.
All the bullshit only drove Malik to become more 'able' than her critics: this is a woman who rode the first bike adapted for paraplegics, swam a kilometre against the current in the Yamuna, drove 3000 km to Leh and back through high altitude passes, and equipped her house with intercoms and walkie talkies so she could oversee all the daily chores people thought she'd never be able to perform, as a good wife and mother should.
So thankful for sports women in India like Malik, who raise the bar for every single one of us. This is what I wrote for Tehelka magazine after I met Deepa in 2012:
Paralysed from the waist down, Deepa Malik went on to set records for biking and swimming. Now she wants to drive her point home with a javelin at the 2012 Paralympics, says Nishita Jha:
DEEPA MALIK is not remarkable because she is an army officer’s wife who loves bikes. Nor is it uncommon for a 42-year-old parent to love high-altitude driving and swimming in rivers. While it is amazing that Malik does these things without her legs, as this piece goes to print, she is waiting for a decision that will make her truly unique. This year, Malik may become the first female athlete to represent India at the Paralympics, since our debut at the games in 1968.
An F 53 category (wheelchair-using) javelin-thrower, Malik missed qualifying for the Paralympics when her best throw did not pierce the ground; the one that did, missed the qualifying mark by 4 cm. As per the rules, a javelin’s tip must touch the ground first, but not necessarily pierce it. However, since the attending judges could not take a call, and there was no video documentation available for review, Malik must now await a decision on her wild card entry.
Malik was six when she was diagnosed with a tumour in the upper spinal column — the first of many to come. In the past 36 years, as the tumours reappeared and were operated upon, seven of her vertebral discs degenerated. In 1999, post-surgical trauma left her paralysed from waist down. For someone who has spent much of her life visiting hospitals, she is remarkably cheerful. “I think the only way multiple surgeries affected my life,” she says, “was that I could not wear clothes with low backs”
An army kid, Malik refused to allow her condition to keep her indoors. Her mother often complained that Malik spent all her time running around, playing sports and riding bikes when she wasn’t recuperating from surgery. This was how she met her husband, Rtd Colonel BS Malik, then a serving officer. “He was the only man apart from my father, who didn’t think it strange that I was obsessed with bikes,” she says. The two married in 1992. Seven years later, as she came to terms with the fact that she would never be able to use her legs again, her husband was away fighting in Kargil. “I’m glad it happened when he was away, because I was emotionally distracted. I couldn’t afford to give up.”
Despite receiving the best medical care, Malik found a total lack of emotional support for paraplegics in India. She began scouring through support groups and medical dictionaries online, learning about her condition (spastic paraplegia). “I adopted technology, equipped the house with intercoms and walkietalkies, kept myself occupied,” she says. Malik also found that she now had all the time in the world to spend with her daughters. “She’d instruct us on errands to run. She became the brain and the heart, my sister and I were her arms and legs. Other people read books for inspiration, we had our mother,” says her 22-year-old daughter, Devika.
When her success began to attract attention, Malik discovered that personal tragedies rapidly turn into grist for public speculation and gossip. Army wives, neighbours, family friends would often question whether she was capable of looking after her family. She grew obsessed with proving how ‘able’ she was.
It was no longer enough to merely be functional, she had to constantly set precedents. Obsessed with the idea of getting back on a bike, Malik showed up at corporate conclaves with a PowerPoint presentation about her condition, until 2007, when liquor baron Vijay Mallya invited her to attend Kingfisher’s anniversary celebrations. “He came to me with vodka in one hand and said, ‘I want to make your dream come true’,” she smiles.
Now the owner of a custom-made motorcycle (for which Kingfisher footed the bill), Malik set a Limca Book record for riding the first special bike for paraplegics in 2009. When she received a special licence to drive a hand-controlled car, she undertook a record drive of 3,000 km from Delhi to Leh and back, through high altitude passes.
After undergoing hydrotherapy at the Spinal Injuries Centre, she became the first disabled person to swim for a kilometre in the Yamuna against the current.
Republished with the author, Nishita Jha's permission. First published here:
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