Soon after returning home from hospital in 1999, Deepa had to find a new purpose in life. An active kid who played every conceivable sport while growing up and was addicted to riding her bike, the reality of disability was a difficult one to adjust to. “I had fallen in love with Bikram because he was a biker,” smiled Deepa.

At the time, Bikram was a young major in the Army with a fondness for bikes. One day, Deepa walked up to him, asked for the keys to his bike and proceeded to roam the neighbourhood on it as if she was a pro. Bikram, intrigued and smitten, met Deepa’s father, who was also in the Army, the very next day. He asked for her hand and told her father that he wanted to buy his would-be fiancé a bike!

For an active sportsperson, life on a wheelchair was extremely difficult to come to terms with. Problems mounted for Deepa when her elder daughter, Devika, suffered a head injury and was paralysed for a while. She needed physiotherapy and constant care, which an ailing Deepa was unable to provide.

While staying in Ahmednagar, where her husband was posted at the time, she was struggling to find a balance between her treatment and the responsibilities of a young mother. “Sir, mere life mein tabhi sport dobara waapas aaya, said Deepa. (That’s when sport came back to my life.) “It started rather strangely,” she added. “One day a retired cook from the Army came to visit us and said to me ‘Madam aap toh itna active the. Mujhe aap koh aise dekh ke accha nahi lagta’.” (Madam, you were so active. I don’t like seeing you like this.)

Deepa, not one to feel depressed, asked him if he knew of any restaurants or eateries nearby where she could take her daughters in the evening to add a bit of variety to their lives and cut the boredom.

“That’s when it started. This man said to me that while there were no restaurants in that area of Ahmednagar, he was willing to start cooking for me if I was ready to fund him. Soon enough we started a home delivery service, which subsequently became a restaurant, and we called it ‘Dee’s Plate’. I was told that the Maharashtra government was giving loans for people with disability to do things on their own and it was with this loan that I started the food delivery service. To those who had said to me that my life was over and I couldn’t feed my kids anymore, I was now ready to feed them and their children as well,” she said with pride. “We soon started getting bulk orders and also did catering for school parties and birthdays.”

Army officers often frequented the restaurant for it was also a place to relax and Deepa, who loved biking, soon decided to write a piece on the officers’ bikes for a magazine. Once it was published, the junior officers asked her how she knew so much about bikes. One of them asked why she didn’t get a customised bike made for herself and apply for a licence.

“A junior officer said to me one day that I should go to the Spinal Injury Centre in Vasant Kunj in Delhi and do some strength training, for then I could ride a bike better. That’s where my world opened up. They allowed me to swim as part of my rehab and said it was the best way to build shoulder strength,” said Deepa.

Just as she was contemplating making swimming her sport, Deepa was told that she wouldn’t be able to train in water during the winter. The doctors said that her condition increased the chances of a cardiac arrest in the cold. “Given the absence of heated pools in India, swimming wasn’t an option. I had made the World Championships in Berlin and had come tenth. But I was unwilling to walk away from swimming without leaving a mark. That’s when I asked my coaches to think of what I could do to get recognised and one of my coaches who came from the Malhar community in Allahabad came up with the idea of swimming across the Yamuna,” she went on.

Rigorous training for four months got her ready for the challenge and she finally informed the officials of the Limca Book of Records to come and see her make history by crossing the Yamuna. “They insisted I have a lifeboat tail me in case something went wrong. We had a doctor and a medical team in the boat. We got a lifeboat from the Army but the ripples caused by it meant I wasn’t able to swim. What happened thereafter is not something you’d believe. Men from the Malhar community, most of them boatmen and known to my coach, stationed their boats every few metres so that they could come to my rescue in case of a medical emergency. The Army boat was following me at a distance and I managed to cross the Yamuna and conclude my swimming career with a flourish,” said a proud Deepa.

“By then, however, the sports bug had bitten me. Satyanarayana sir, who had seen me then, told me that I had long arms and I was tall so I should start doing throws if my medical team allowed me to. That’s how javelin started.” It was around the same time that her restaurant closed down in Ahmednagar with neighbours complaining to the police, citing a possible security threat. “The German Bakery blast had just happened and my neighbours, who weren’t very pleased with the success of the restaurant, complained to the police, who asked me to shut it down. Bikram too had left the Army by then and I needed to do something to stay occupied.”

The 2010 Commonwealth Games in Delhi were around the corner and Deepa was excited by the opportunity because every participant in the Para-Commonwealth Games stood to get Rs 2 lakh from the government of India. She entered herself in the javelin throw competition.

“I can’t deny that it was an attraction. I was nearing forty and I needed the money to support my daughters,” she said. “It was at the Commonwealth Games Village in Delhi that I learnt how a javelin was thrown while sitting on a chair. I had no idea for we had never been told or taught how. My friend Pratik, who was accompanying me, had to get my chair welded overnight in Delhi and it was no surprise that I did not win a medal. However, it was a real eye-opener in the sense that I learnt all about the international Paralympic committee, the events it hosted and the process of qualification. I learnt that I had to be a registered Para- athlete for my scores to be counted and I also learnt about the way the quota process worked.”

She put her learnings to good use and in two months won a bronze medal at the 2010 Asian Para Games in Guangzhou. More importantly, the medal earned her a reasonable amount of money to support her family. It was motivation enough to continue with sports. Multiple records and medals at international competitions followed.

It was almost expected that Deepa Malik would be India’s first woman Paralympian at the 2012 London Games.

“While I don’t want to blame anyone, it was a disappointment that I wasn’t able to go to London. My fate was such that I received my Arjuna Award from the President of India on the same day the London Olympics started. I did not know whether to feel happy or sad,” said Deepa. “The naysayers said to me ‘Madam, ab bahut ho gaya. (this is enough.) You are lucky that you have received the Arjuna without going to the Olympics. You are forty-two now and should retire.’”

Deepa, however, was far from done and was determined to make it to the Olympics in the next four years. In the interim, she managed to keep on winning medals in javelin-throwing events at the Asian and world levels.

Deepa Malik at the Khel Ratna ceremony in 2019.

Just when she seemed confident of making it to the Olympics, news broke that javelin had been replaced by shot put in her category at the Rio Games. It meant that three years of hard work wasn’t going to get her to the Olympics and that she would have to learn a new sport from scratch to realise her dream. “Main haar nahi maani. Mujhe Olympics jaana tha aur maine thaan liya ki shot put karna shuru karungi.” (I did not accept defeat. I wanted to go to the Olympics and I decided that I would start learning shot put.)

“It is a very different sport,” said Deepa. “When I started with shot put I couldn’t control my bowel movements. I would pass urine or stool on each throw and would need to change my diaper. There were days when I had passed urine and couldn’t change my diaper for hours because my daughter wasn’t there to help me. In the absence of a nurse or a proper doctor, these things were deeply embarrassing. While I can change clothes on my own, I need a bed to do so. I can roll out of my clothes and get into a new set, but there was no bed available in the stadium for me.” In her words, “it was a difficult time”, and for a while, “it seemed like the forces were conspiring against me.”

Things started to change for her with the initiation of the TOPS by the SAI in 2014. “It meant that I could now hire my own trainer, nurse, physio and have a doctor with me all the time,” said Deepa. “Money from the TOPS allowed me to customise my equipment and chair and that made a huge difference to my training. With the amount of training I had put in, I was very confident about clearing the Rio qualification mark of 3.67 metres and making it to the Olympics.”

At the trials, Deepa managed a throw of 4.48 metres, which at the time ranked her at the very top of her sport. While she was delighted and was looking forward to seeing her name in the media the next day for having breached the Olympic qualification mark, she woke up to a headline which read, “Deepa Malik taken to court for tampering the trial results.” One of her competitors had lodged a formal complaint claiming that Deepa, using all her clout, had manipulated the process and had unfairly made the cut.

“Sir, mera dimaag ghum chuka tha. Mujhe hate mail bheje ja rahe the,” said Deepa. (My mind was going crazy. People were sending me hate mail.) “Some of it said that there was no way one could better the distance in shot put, so how was it that I had managed to throw 4.48 metres? One of the trolls challenged me by saying, ‘Dum hai toh Rio mein phek ke dikha.’ (if you have the strength then throw like that in Rio.) When I should have been preparing for Rio, I was busy fighting a court case and trying to clear my name. Without much support it was a real ordeal, and just when I was starting to lose hope, the verdict was passed in my favour. In fact, it was just days before the final cutoff date for Rio that the high court ruled in my favour, allowing me to compete.” Tears flowed freely down her cheeks as she recounted the story.

“At forty-six, I was competing in the biggest sporting stage of all. Main aur kya maang sakti thi? (What else could I ask for?) To wear the national blazer and march at the opening ceremony was a dream come true,” Deepa said. Things were different in Rio. Everywhere the Indian contingent went they were met with warm cheers. For Deepa, it was an opportunity to answer all her critics who had doubted her for years. “I had to throw the shot put to more than 4.49 metres,” she said. All of a sudden, we sensed a change in her voice. It was as if her steely resolve was back as she got ready to recount her moment of Paralympic glory.

“There are days when great things are destined to happen. 14 September 2016 was one such day. I had never thrown the shot put to 4.61 metres and to do so at the Olympics was a dream come true. There isn’t a greater feeling than to see your flag go up for you at the world’s greatest sporting stage and to know that you are the first-ever Indian woman to win a medal. It meant my journey had turned full circle,” recollected a proud Deepa.

Dreams Of A Billion: India And The Olympic Games

Excerpted with permission from Dreams Of A Billion: India And The Olympic Games, Boria Majumdar and Nalin Mehta, HarperCollins India.