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“Legs are overrated!”

Words: Corina B Manuel
Photography: Sameer Belvalkar
Hair & Make Up: Mahendra Dhanawade
Location & Hospitality Courtesy: Westin Pune
Fashion Direction: Corina B Manuel
Stylist: Shourya Jain
Ensembles: Marks & Spencer, Phoenix Marketcity, Pune Accessories: Sheetal’s Creations
Production assistants: Rahul Karandikar, Sandeep Wakade, Megha Musale & Abhijit Kal Shoot Coordinator: Shyla Bhagwagar

When you begin to take yourself too seriously, a meet up with the dynamo Deepa Malik is a much-required reality check

Circa 2008, A slender-bordering-on-frail 17-year-old girl walked into my office at Femina and sat in front of me with nerves visibly jumping like a trout at the end of a fishing rod, and announced in a voice that was a surprising contrast to her wraith-like appearance: “Hi, my name is Devika Malik and my mother, Deepa Malik, is the most amazing woman in the world. I want you to cover her in your magazine.” I was compelled to play the Devil’s Advocate and muse aloud: ‘Everyone, including I, thinks that their mother is the best. So, why is yours?’ Devika stared at me for a whole second, and then quietly declared: “My mum is paraplegic; she is paralysed from chest down; her fourth to seventh vertebrae are damaged and she hasn’t walked in the last four years but she has swum the Yamuna river and was featured in the Limca Book of Records for her achievement. She’s also the captain of the Indian Paralympics team.” I don’t think I’ve ever been put in my place ever so nicely. Or enjoyed it more! Before long phone numbers were exchanged, a date was fixed and a detailed address with directions were being doled out. A month later, en route to Nagar we received a call. “Good morning, ma’am,” said the baritone, politely, “My name is Col. Bikram Malik, I’m Devika’s father. She just informed us that you’re planning on visiting us. Are you really coming over?” he asked apologetically. Indeed, we were, I assured him.

I could hear a hurried whispered conference before he came back on the line. “I am so sorry but Devika didn’t tell us about the meeting; she said it was a surprise for us… this girl…” he sighed at his daughter’s impulsive behavior. “What do you need us to do? I am afraid we haven’t prepared for your visit. But we do look forward to chatting with you over brunch,” Bikram said graciously. Ninety minutes later, we were pulling through a pretty driveway of a bungalow that was a throwback to the Raj. As we stepped out of the car, the entire Malik clan—parents, grandparents and Devika and her younger sister—showed up to welcome us. Talk about no pressure! We stepped through their veranda and saw a lovely woman with bright eyes, shoulder brushed mop of curly hair and a vibrant laugh looking up at us. “Hi, I am Deepa. I am sorry I can’t stand up to say ‘hi!’ As you can see, I am a bit grounded…” she grinned impishly. “Come on in! You must be starved after that insane, pot-hole riddled journey. We’ll talk while we eat, both my favorite pastimes,” Deepa grinned and rolled in while we followed a trifle dazed and absolutely charmed. This was 10 years ago. It’s strange how one can suddenly recall an episode from the past with such vivid clarity. But then some people have the innate ability to leave an indelible imprint on you without even trying. Padma Shri and Arjun awardee, and the recipient of a host of awards and holder of world records, Deepa Malik, is one such woman. As I walk into her well-appointed suite, I see her grinning at me gamely with arms thrown wide open.

She eyes the plaster on my fractured foot and drolly scolds, “You’ve hurt yourself again? Seriously, I know you are an empath but must you take it to another level?” She bursts into peals of laughter at my exasperated expression and pulls me into a bone-crunching hug. Just like that the years fade away as we sit and play catch up in between makeup and wardrobe calls. Incidentally, those arms of hers? They are bloody strong. “Please don’t photo-shop my arms, I am very proud of them; I press 45!” she proudly declares and flexes her biceps at Sameer and his team. But I am getting ahead of myself. Deepa was not always wheelchair bound. However, turning challenges around has always been her thing; right from the time she was a little girl when she first contracted a viral infection, which would have rendered her bedridden forever.

Receiving the Padma Shri in 2017

Instead, thanks to her alert father, veteran Infantry Colonel BK Nagpal, her never-give-up mother and a team of army doctors, she got back on her feet. However, the doctors warned her parents that her condition might return. What they didn’t take into account was Deepa’s indomitable spirit or her family’s unflinching faith in her. By the time she turned a collegian, Deepa was not only the belle at the army balls but was also representing her college sports team and making waves. Before long, a young officer in the cavalry, Capt. Bikram Singh Malik took one look at her vivacious personality and asked her father’s permission to marry her. While her father was thrilled for her, he cautioned the young cavalier of her medical condition. In the true unconquerable spirit of the Indian army, the officer and a gentleman gently reminded her father that there was also a possibility that the disease wouldn’t recur. They settled into marital bliss and were proud parents to two daughters, Devika and Ambika. “I was very busy wearing branded clothes, decorating the house, getting into the typical rat race. Then all hell broke loose when the Kargil insurgency broke out and Bikram was called away for duty. ” Back home, Deepa was diagnosed with a spinal tumor that would make walking impossible for her. Devika was only eight then and Ambika, three. Whilst their father was fighting the war in Kargil, their mother was fiercely battling one of her own.

However, this time round, the tumor won. Before Bikram returned home a year later after the war, Deepa was informed by her emotionally-wrought neurosurgeon, Dr. V K Batish that she was a paraplegic, paralyzed from chest down; she’d never walk again. Post his return there would be at least two more spinal tumor surgeries, 183 stitches between her shoulder blades and being confined to her bed.  “It was a nightmare of gigantic proportions. The girls were little and needed me and I was confined to bed and required help for every little thing; I couldn’t even visit the restroom,” she remembers the trying times. But Bikram was ever the supportive partner. “He took over the roles of both parents and refused to give up or let my waning spirit get the better of me,” she recalls. “During one of his morning walks, he came across this roll of cable wire lying discarded by the roadside.

On inquiry, he discovered that it was supposed to be carted away by the municipality. He wondered if he could have the cable wires and along with a strange look for a stranger request, they were happy to offload it on to him. Once home, he strung the wire from their bedroom to the bathroom; from the kitchen to the dining room; from the children’s room to the drawing room. He encouraged me to use the wire and the pulley attached to it to make my way across the house.” That one act alone gave Deepa a semblance of normalcy and a modicum of freedom. Being a sportsperson deep down, Deepa started building up her stamina and her health by swimming. “That one act alone served as such a boost to my flailing confidence. My upper torso and arms were slowly becoming stronger,” she reminisces, “Soon I was relearning small, everyday activities and one day, I was asked if I would swim the Yamuna river and I was like ‘Huh?!’ The idea was not only preposterous but audacious as hell. So of course, that resident rebel in me wanted to give it a shot.” She did. And how! In 2008, at Allahabad, the feat was recorded into Limca Book of Records for swimming in the Yamuna, against the current, for a kilometer. Deepa has never looked back since. Deepa went on to set up a series of ‘firsts’.

Receiving the Arjuna Award in 2012.

She is the first ever paraplegic Indian sportsperson to represent her country as the captain and flagbearer at the Paralympics and the first female Paralympics swimmer, javelin thrower and shot putter. As a sports person,n she has won 54 national gold medals and 13 at the international level in swimming, shot put and javelin throw. If that isn’t enough to impress you; she is the first female paraplegic biker and car rallyist. In fact, she was the first person ever, to receive a license for invalid (modified) rally vehicle, a case she consistently pursued for 19 months in Maharashtra. Deepa is also the first physically challenged individual in the country to receive an official rally license from the Federation Motor Sports Club of India (FMSCI) and became a navigator and driver in the toughest car rallies of the country – Raidde- Himalaya 2009 and Desert Storm 2010. In addition to this, Deepa is also an entrepreneur and a much sought-after motivational speaker.

Greeted by the Prime Minister after winning a Silver Medal at Rio Paralympics 2016

As we were wrapping up the shoot, Deepa let on that actor-filmmaker Farhan Akhtar and his partner at Excel Entertainment, Ritesh Sidhwani, were making a biopic based on her life. Apparently, last month, Ritesh met the Paralympic champion and discussed the project after she narrated her whole journey. He was familiar with the lady’s work after having “watched videos of her and I knew that her life story was unreal, but when I met her and she let me hold her medal, the sheer weight of the silver gave me gooseflesh. As she sat in front of me, there was nothing differently-abled about her. She was empowering, a pillar of strength, and I knew that we needed to take her fight to the big screen.” The casting for the film is yet to be finalized, and the filming is scheduled to start early next year.

The woman who has always believed in the philosophy of inclusion refuses to be anyone’s idea of an invalid. “Disability gave me focus. I am now on a mission called ‘Ability beyond Disability’,” she smiles ruefully. “Right at the onset, I refused to become the ’60s or ’70s movie mother in a wheelchair with a green shawl draped across my lap,” she says disdainfully, “I love my wardrobe, makeup and yes, even shoes—though I think legs are overrated!” she laughs out loud as she signs off before heading off for a European trip as a part of a shoot for a Cox & Kings’ campaign, #EnableTravel, about Accessible Tourism. She is traveling through France, Switzerland, and Italy. On their behalf, Deepa is conducting first-hand inspections of hotels and tourist places so that together they can prepare a tourism guide for people in wheelchairs who want to travel to those dream destinations from India.

    

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