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Malik of her para destiny

P Anima | Updated on March 10, 2018

Silver belle: Deepa Malik, the first Indian woman to win at the Paralympics, took to sports at 36, an age when athletes contemplate retirement. Photo: Kamal Narang   -  BusinessLine

Challenges do not deter the 45-year-old Paralympic silver medallist Deepa Malik. Instead, they made her, ever since she became a wheelchair user at 29

“Kaisa mahaul hain gaon mein?” (What’s the mood in the village?)... Bhainswal, in the hinterlands of Sonepat, Haryana, is hardly a newsmaker. Last month, however, it was crowded with journalists trying to coax a soundbyte from the sarpanch after poster boy wrestler Yogeshwar Dutt’s hopes second Olympic medal were dashed to the ground. The sarpanch had apparently insisted that the game was not yet over. “Abhi dat jao. Hamara ek aur baaki hai.” (Wait for a while. One more is left). That one — Deepa Malik — has brought back joy to Bhainswal.

Malik revels in recounting this anecdote, her voice alternately modulating as the grave television reporter and the nonchalant, heavily-accented sarpanch. She is glad to have kept the village’s faith. But it is Bhainswal’s warmth and quiet confidence that she deems the greater. “They were concerned with sending an athlete to the Olympic-level games. Not that she is a woman, disabled or the bahu.”

Forty-eight hours ago, Malik had returned from the Rio Paralympics with a silver in shotput (F-53 category). Bhainswal residents had turned up in hordes at the Delhi airport.

The wee hours hardly mattered. The bikers were there too. So too army friends. Someone got a dholki. Another brought a band. Little girls in gymnastic costumes ran around. “That’s when I felt I have actually won a medal. We are not used to people celebrating our medals like this,” she says.

Malik’s medal, along with the golds of Mariyappan Thangavelu and Devendra Jhajharia, and Varun Bhati’s bronze, is altering the narrative around para-athletes. The first Indian woman to win at the Paralympics, Malik hasn’t rested much since her return. Television channels want bytes. Her elder daughter is juggling interview requests. Yet another TV crew walks in and Malik whispers, “When do I sleep?”

She may be sleep-deprived, but isn’t complaining. A Paralympic medal had been elusive... even after 17 international medals and participation in three World Championships. Once she made it to Rio, returning empty-handed wasn’t an option. On the field, she had saved her best for the last shot. The medal-winning throw of 4.61m is her personal best. Her third throw of 4.49m had kept her in the medal loop. Malik could have been content. But she wasn’t. Consistency hardly spurred her, excellence did. An inspired athlete rises to the occasion and Malik delivered. The throw left her ecstatic. The line between a medal winner, an ordinary sportsperson and a loser is stark in Malik’s head. She had found her place.

Exacting episodes define Malik’s journey to the Paralympic podium. Challenges do not deter the 45-year-old. Instead, they made her ever since she became a wheelchair user at 29. Paralysed chest down, Malik has not let disability impede her life. She went about setting daunting targets for herself and consequently built a formidable curriculum vitae. It includes swimming a kilometre against the tide in the Yamuna and into the Limca Book of Records. She also became a navigator and driver for Raid-de Himalaya, one of the toughest car rallies in the country. In a society that thoughtlessly marginalises the disabled, Malik had to fight to live a life that was otherwise routine. She went to court and won her right and licence to drive a modified rally vehicle. She is in the Limca Book of Records for the longest pan-India drive — from Chennai to Delhi — in a four-wheeler by a paraplegic woman. Malik also holds the official IPC Asian record in javelin throw in the F-53 category.

“I do better when I’m challenged,” she says. And challenged she certainly was in the run-up to Rio. She had qualified by the skin of her teeth at the World Championships at Doha. The throw of 3.67 m left her at the bottom of the table.

When the Paralympics quota was announced, there was just one berth for Indian women where four had qualified. At the trials, Malik delivered a mighty 4.48m to book her place. But her selection was challenged in the Delhi High Court by another aspirant. “When I should have been in the final leg of my training, I was fighting for my dignity.” Eventually, on August 12 — the last day of entry — the court ruled in her favour.

Malik left for Rio with much to prove. “I didn’t want to be in the ‘selfie group’, happy just to be there,” she says. She stayed away from the crowd and kept her focus.

Her team had pointed out her susceptibility to noise. So Malik practised her throws against thumping music and boisterous conversations. The effervescence of the Brazilian crowd was no more a distraction.

The tumour on her spine had first manifested when she was eight. Malik had recovered well enough to play amateur cricket for the Rajasthan women’s team. A tall teenager — “I’m 5’9 if I stand up” — Malik always adored bikes. “Being tall, I could handle those vehicles from a young age.”

Growing up in the ’80s, her unconventional ways did trouble her parents. In a quiet moment after the tumult of her Rio return, when the family cuddled under a bedspread, her father looked at her from across and said, “All the things we thought were wrong in you have turned out right. You’re making us proud for the things we asked you not to do.” Malik also changed the way her parents approached parenting. “Now when they meet young parents, they advise them to give their daughters all-round education, cultivate hobbies and outdoor skills.”

Malik isn’t sure if she always loved sports. But she loved the outdoors. “I never wanted to be contained in a room.” But when that eventuality presented itself after the tumour returned, Malik decided to take control. Her husband Bikram Singh Malik, who retired as a colonel from the army, was fighting in the Kargil War. Her elder daughter’s left hemiplegia required regular physiotherapy. And her younger daughter was little. “The Almighty gave me the tumour at a time when I was emotionally distracted. Anything could have happened to Bikram. I would not let anything happen to me,” says Malik.

The surgery brought her to the Army Research and Referral Hospital in Delhi. Malik didn’t have to look further for motivation. “The war-wounded were coming in. Some had lost an eye, another a limb. They were all in their early 20s, but were spirited despite the accident in the line of duty. If these people were cheerful after an unexpected accident, I, who have always lived with the tumour, had no business to sulk.”

Taunts only served to strengthen her resolve. Comments such as “Hai, bechari ko pahiya pasand the… wheelchair mil gayi” (She liked wheels, but ended up in a wheelchair) made her more defiant. She made the wheelchair her ally and the wheels the insignia of her life. “The Paralympic rings are a different kind of wheel,” she points out. If she were to write a memoir, Malik says, she would call it ‘In Quest of the Right Kind of Wheels’. She also firmly abides by the voice in her head. “I don’t let the paralysis of my body paralyse my soul.”

Malik took to sports at 36, an age when athletes contemplate retirement. Having started out a swimmer, she realised she could never make a headway with her dysfunctional legs. She turned to athletics — javelin and shotput. “But not before swimming in the Yamuna for the Limca record,” she quickly adds. At 43, she became the oldest government employee to be hired under the sports quota.

Malik’s strength is her family, one which gives her the space to dream and helps her realise it. She still gets asked if her parents-in-law “allowed” her to be a para-athlete. “I didn’t have to ask anybody’s permission to succeed,” she says. Instead, her family and friends worked as a team. They did everything to not distract Malik, ensured she slept well and were at hand 24x7.

“As the Games drew close, my daughters didn’t even allow me to cut vegetables, worrying that a small cut will ruin my hard work. My husband took away the car keys, so that I may not be entangled in any legal issues that could interfere with my Rio trip.”

The team always backed her. But the first step was always hers to make. And Malik never waited around for things to happen. Cash-strapped for training initially, she gave motivational talks and raised funds. The government soon pitched in with support. She didn’t insist on an all-facility training venue. “All I need is seven metres for my throw. That could be the corner of a park.” Many in her apartment complex little suspected that the paraplegic woman they’d often seen practising in the park was a champion. “Humein ab pata chala hai ki aap kya phainkti rehti thi (We now know what you were throwing all the time).

Her 46th birthday on September 30 will cap an eventful year. She will be in Bengaluru, the city of her birth, as also the one she returned to become a para-athlete and rally driver. “My birthday will be spent with some senior Paralympians.” The celebrations have not quietened yet. But Malik is already rearing to start over again. “I begin practice tomorrow. The World Championships are in July.”

Leap of self-belief

Varun Singh Bhati finished fifth at the Asian Para Games at Incheon in 2014. A year later, at the Para World Championships, he found himself again at number five on the medal table. To have a medal within reach and lose it — twice — could be disheartening.

“When you lose like that, you feel like quitting. But I fought to keep that feeling away,” he says. The 21-year-old high jumper appears to have fought off that niggling feeling well. The testimony to that is his bronze at the Rio Paralympics in the T-42 category.

Bhati has had an engaging year, winning gold at the IPC Athletics Asia-Oceania Championships at Dubai. But the Paralympic bronze came with his personal best of 1.86m, enough for him to redeem his pride and enter the big league. “I have got this victory after a lot of patience. So it has given me a new zeal to do better,” he adds. ‘Better’ is a word Bhati uses often. He is happy with his performance, but not the medal. “It could have been better. The colour of the medal will surely change.” He is already timing his jumps for the World Championships in London next year.

Growing up in Greater Noida, Bhati did not allow polio to come in the way of his love for sport. He was determined to become a sportsman, he says. A basketball player for long, he later moved to high jump. “I got the knack to jump from the basketball court.”

Bhati is grateful to the Sports Authority of India, the sports ministry and their Target Olympic Podium (TOP) scheme, which allowed para-athletes to train abroad. “India’s Paralympic success is because of them.” As he returns with the medal, he can’t thank his family enough. Though he is the eldest son, his parents took care not to burden him with responsibilities. “They allowed me to focus on my goal.” And at Rio, that goal inched closer.

Published on September 23, 2016

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