“THE MEDAL ALLOWED ME TO BE HEARD”
Feeling sorry for those who could not see beyond her disability, Deepa Malik has made it her life’s mission to prove them wrong. She has four Limca World Records (three for motorbiking, one for swimming) to her credit, she is an award-winning restaurateur, a motivational speaker and mother of two daughters.
At seven, my first tumour was diagnosed in the spinal column and operated upon. For the next two and a half years, I was bedridden, scared to go to school in a wheelchair. But my parents transformed these days into a time of learning, giving me a strong dose of self-belief and self-esteem. Soon the shy Deepa became a bold, outdoorsy kid, playing basketball in the college team, representing Rajasthan in cricket, borrowing bikes from boys and coming to be known as ‘Biker Deepa’.
The turning point in my life also came at a very trying time. My husband was fighting in Kargil in 1999 when I was diagnosed with the spinal tumour again. The doctor told me I could either live with the tumour and walk, or get rid of it, live longer but lose all sensation in my body, trunk downward. As a mother of two girls, I wasn’t ready to give up just yet. It was hard to adapt to the new body, the wheelchair and the physical disability. In the next 14 years, I would get 183 stitches between the shoulder blades and three spinal tumour surgeries. But facing the pity of society, their queries of how I would manage to be a mother with my disability made me realise that people could not see beyond sympathy and look at the courage I showed in the face of adversity. One day, a school teacher checked the tiffins of my daughters to see if their mother could provide them with a decent lunch. That was when I decided to give society much-needed shock treatment, to tell them that disability doesn’t mean having to spend the rest of your life in a room, waiting to die. The second phase of my life started with a small delivery service in the army cantonment area in Ahmednagar, Maharashtra, with the help of retired army cooks. The venture soon turned into an award-winning restaurant and successful catering service—Dees Place. But to me, this wasn’t enough. I decided to take up biking yet again. It wasn’t an impossible task, all I had to do was gain strength in my upper body. I undertook a rigorous six-week hydrotherapy rehabilitation programme at the Indian Spinal Injuries Centre in Delhi, learning the practical way to handle my disability. From floating in water to swimming laps, it was only a matter of time before the paralympic committee came to me, offering me a chance to represent India in swimming.
At 36, I became a national sportsperson. From swimming to becoming a javelin thrower to finally winning silver for the country in shot put at the Paralympics, the combination of a hunger to win and habit of giving it my all worked in my favour every time. As for the bike, I finally bought it, struggled to get a driver’s licence (a fight that took 19 months) and then set a record of being the first disabled woman to cross nine high altitude passes in nine days on the highest motorable pass in the world.
To the naysayers, I want to say, Deepa is still rocking and happy. I am elated to be the first Indian woman to win a medal at the Paralympics, but the fact that it took 70 years and a 46-year-old woman to do so tells us a lot about the lack of infrastructure for disabled sports in our country. We need to move on from the stereotypical way disability and disability sports are viewed to investing in the potential disabled people have.”
“The Paralympic silver isn’t just a medal, it is a movement. It has helped people see disability sports differently.”