Deepa Malik’s ring tone is a rousing army band rendition of Saare Jahaan Se Achha. For the past week, countless journalists, MPs and event organisers have held their phones, impatiently listening to that loud clash of cymbals and horns, a constant assertion that we live in the greatest country in the world.
In fact, since Malik’s medal win at Rio, there’s scarcely been a moment when she hasn’t been surrounded by the din of patriotic celebration. When she landed at the Indira Gandhi International airport, the Haryana sports department brought a cultural troupe all the way from Faridabad: garishly dressed musicians played the dhol for over two hours, while Malik accepted flowers, flags and hugs from the long queue of army folk who had come to meet her (Malik describes herself as an army brat – born to a retired officer, married to one).
She will be awarded a cheque of Rs 4 crore by Haryana chief minister Manohar Lal Khattar, and is meeting Prime Minister Narendra Modi along with the rest of the Indian Paralympic contingent. “More than joy, I feel gratitude,” she told Scroll.in over the phone. “You know, all this is new, para-athletes like me aren’t used to so much attention”.
When Malik and I first met four years ago, she was training to participate in a different event from the shot put that won her a medal at Rio this year – the javelin throw. An F 53 category (wheelchair-using) javelin-thrower, Malik had 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).
According to the rules, the tip of a javelin must touch the ground first, even if it does not necessarily pierce it. Since the attending judges could not take a call on whether Malik’s did, and there was no video documentation available for review, she was awaiting a decision by the International Paralympic Committee on whether she could participate in the 2012 Paralympics at London.
But the reason she did not get to participate in her event that year finally had little to do with the rules of the sport. The Paralympics Committee of India (then under Chef de Mission Ratan Singh) had simply omitted to submit Malik’s visa documentation on time.
Despite the fact that she is routinely wheeled out for bravery awards and events that celebrate inspirational women, there was little Malik could do to overcome the petty pitfalls of bureaucracy. The PCI was mired in corruption, and Malik’s coach abandoned her to travel to London with another para-athlete. In an interview at the Games Village, chef de mission Ratan Singh had told me athletes should simply enjoy the variety of international cuisines on offer instead of complaining so much.
So Malik stayed quiet, biding her time. The London debacle only convinced both her and the PCI that things needed to change: India won a single medal that year (Girisha Hosanagre’s silver, for high jump), other para-athletes held press conferences calling out the PCI’s paternalistic attitude, and Deepa Malik, watching from India, realised she needed a new sport.
Malik had thrown a shot put before, but she was a long way from excelling at it, ranking seven points behind the world number one on the International Paralympic Committe’s rating chart for the sport. A lesser woman might have given up, or at least reconsidered a life spent chasing medals around the world on a wheelchair, but able-bodied or not, Malik has what every great athlete is made of: steely determination.
Malik was a six-year-old when she was diagnosed with a tumour in the upper spinal column – the first of many to come. Over the course of her life, seven of her vertebral discs have degenerated completely, and in 1999, post-surgical trauma left her paralysed from waist down.
Economically, she is much better off than a lot of India’s para-athletes – living in army homes, she’s always had a surfeit of batmen and helpers at hand. But she has battled her own share of demons.
At our last meeting, Malik spoke of how many of the challenges she faced were because she was a woman trying to be something other than a mother and a wife: 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 travelling with her.
After 2012, when she decided to change her sport, her coach, her diet and her entire approach to training, she also began to feel the onset of menopause. “Training with hormonal fluctuations was almost unbearable,” she said, “I realised I had to read and work like hell to listen to what my body was saying”.
While growing older is a setback in most sports, for Malik, time has been the best teacher to help her understand how spastic paraplegia works. Her previous coach, like most coaches for para-athletes, once trained able-bodied athletes and treated his new job as an easier, less strenuous version of the same routine.
For the past few years, Malik’s husband, retired Colonel BS Malik has been studying with his wife in order to adopt a more scientific approach for her training. He has also become her personal coach and trainer.
“My husband and I realised that the routines for able-bodied people cannot be applied to us with just a few minor adjustments, they have to be completely different,” Malik said. “If I continued to train just a set of muscles the way an able-body coach usually trains his athletes, my body would go into spasms, it would contract my muscles the wrong way, detracting from my performance.”
As a result, the Maliks decided to bring a doctor on board to help her train – in addition to monitoring her spasms and heart rate after every training session, the physician would also help her handle the stress of menopause.
“By the time I left for Rio, I knew there was no way I was coming home without a medal,” Malik said, “one of the girls I was competing with was twenty years younger then me, can you imagine?”
Malik is fortunate because she didn’t need to wait for the Paralympics Committee to get their act together in order to improve her performance. Even when she could not travel to London, she attended other international para-sporting events, spoke to other athletes about their training routines, discussed strategies with their coaches.
She sought exposure at her own expense, and matured as an athlete. This has something to do with the privileges she enjoys, but it is also about her own dogged refusal to ever be considered less capable than anyone else. Years ago, she would show up at corporate conclaves with PowerPoint presentations about her condition, embarrassing the suits into sponsor her training equipment, until she got her way.
In 2007, in a sentimental mood, liquor baron Vijay Mallya gifted her a custom-made motorcycle (for which Kingfisher footed the bill). In 2009, Malik set a Limca Book record for riding the first special bike for paraplegics. Later, she managed to get a special licence for a hand-controlled car, and then drove 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 a kilometre in the Yamuna against the current.
At this moment, when her heroism is finally being recognised by a nation accustomed to ignoring its para-athletes, Malik is, as always, effervescent and amused.
“I’m just glad I won this medal when my daughters are all grown-up,” Malik said, referring to her eldest daughter, Devika, who is training to be a sports psychologist, and who answered the phone every time I called.
“At least they can fend off all these important people who keep calling,” she said, laughing.