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Raising a toast to Deepa Malik, India’s gifted champion on wheels

Paralympian DEEPA MALIK’s zest for life and its adventures saw her through a trying illness that forced her to a wheelchair. But then, leaders are built of sterner stuff. As a multi-sports enthusiast, a parasports activist and a woman who wants to lead life on her own terms, hers is a story of grit, determination and the unrelenting will to soar. Over to SHARMI ADHIKARY

A few moons ago, one day, when a young girl tried to negotiate a wheelchair into a cab while her mother, with chest below paralysis, waited to be put into the vehicle, the insensitive driver rebuked with a, “Why have you called a cab, when clearly, she needs an ambulance!” Swallowing the remark, when the women reached home, the older of the two turned to the driver and said, “I’ll give you double the fare. Will you race against me?”

Surprised, the driver shrugged, smirked but agreed. Knowing full well that it would be a cakewalk. The customised quad bike was brought down and the race started. Swoosh, zoom and dash… At the finishing line, the woman emphatically told the now sheepish driver, “I’m better than most you see. Never ever take anything at face value or curb anyone’s spirit!”

That’s Arjuna awardee and Padmashri Deepa Malik for you. The irrepressible and feisty winner with an indomitable zest for life. Breaking into the nation’s consciousness as the first woman to bag a historic silver at the 2016 Summer Paralympics in shot put, Malik never let her physical disability come in the way of success. A javelin thrower, swimmer and biker, she took the bull by its horns and turned things around to emerge as a victorious survivor who charted her own path to glory, negating a crippling illness, jealousy and difficulties strewn in her path to the summit. She explored untried territories, nurtured her love for difficult terrains and even was a responsible and caring mother to two lovely daughters who saw their mom on a wheelchair but never thought of her as someone they needed to sympathise with. She was strong, sure and always in charge of things. Even when life got trying, she brandished her fists up to the extremities with, “I will not give up!”

In that Malik is a leader, a leader for all those who crumble under the mountain of misfortunes. But if you hear her story, you will reason that if your mind has made it up to excel, no ill luck can bog you down.

Deepa Malik

Deepa Malik at her residence | Image: Fotuwalle by DHP Labs

For the uninitiated (refer to Wiki for the full lowdown), Malik is daughter to Colonel Bal Krishna Nagpal and Veena Nagpal, parents who she terms as brave tigers. The Paralympian was first diagnosed with a spinal tumour at the age of 5. The girl who loved outdoor activities, was forced to be on her bed, even while medical procedures filled her waking hours. With care and attention, Malik recovered completely and she was back to her outdoors. “But, that was the time I noticed how my parents filled my surroundings with an air of indulgence and love. Not even once did I feel sad or sorry for being where I was. That taught me the values of family, love and bonding. When my first born, Devika, went through a partial paralytic phase when she met with an accident as a child, I realised just how to react. I replayed what my parents had done for me because I had gone through it all,” recalls Malik sitting on chai in her tastefully done up Gurgaon apartment.

Nothing could keep Deepa Malik away from biking, an activity that also brought veteran cavalier Colonel Bikram Singh into her life. “Ours is an interesting story. I fell for his bike and he fell for me. Our love story will be a prominent part of the biopic, the rights of which has been bought by Farhan Akhtar and Ritesh Sidhwani’s Excel Entertainment,” says Malik. Soon motherhood beckoned. But unfortunately, when Malik was having a ball juggling her role as a mom to two young cherubs, Devika and Ambika, and a food entrepreneur with a restaurant in Ahmednagar, the debilitating disease hit back. “My husband hardly used to be around because he was always on posting. Maybe it was the strength of my mind and upbringing that took me through that difficult phase and of course the unrelenting support of my parents. My father kept saying that acceptance should not lead to contentment,” she says.

Braving three major surgeries, an acute relapse of the tumour that relegated her to the wheelchair for life and 183 stitches across her back, Malik learnt not to live on excuses and lead by example. She encouraged her daughter, Devika, to get into sports (the only mother and daughter duo to compete in para sports professionally). The youngster is now pursuing a PhD in Disability Sports for Women at the Loughborough University in UK.

Her love for biking and adventure is exhibited in the way the accolades from various institutions dot her home walls. She is associated with Himalayan Motorsports Association and the Federation of Motor Sports Clubs of India. Her biking buddies know her as the lady who loves to let her hair fly in the wind as she conquers the road and mountains on her customised quad bike. She has even undertaken an 8-day, 1700-km drive in sub-zero temperatures which included a climb to 18,000 feet. It was the Raid de Himalaya that covered remote parts of Himalayas, Leh, Shimla and Jammu.

Deepa Malik

Deepa Malik with her medals at her residence | Image: Fotuwalle by DHP Labs

Malik gave this country, parched off Medal glory, a reason to celebrate and a ray of hope that sports can be an avenue to fuel one’s passion. After her win, the country sat up and took note of youngsters and talents who were not in the reckoning of the powers-that-be. The infrastructure for paraplegics in sports improved. For that, the sports activist is happy. But, this is just the beginning. At Wheeling Happiness, an organisation that she runs with her daughters since 2014, Malik is working at bringing people with challenges to the fore with the help of awareness, inclusive education and sensitisation. “We aim to add the element of fun and emotional health in way of adventure sports, outdoor activities and providing the right equipment to persons with physical challenges and otherwise,” she informs.

With a vivacious personality that is laced with a naughty humour, and a love for life as deep as Malik’s, it’s only understandable when she says that she meets her buddies regularly, goes for biking trips and watches films to unwind. On the work front, her unwavering determination is trained at a medal in the 2018 Asian Games, a gold at the 2020 Paralympics in Japan. And, knowing the fire that flickers in her belly, she sure is going to give it her all…

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Lifestyle writer, home chef, movie buff and conversationalist, Sharmi Ghosh Dastidar heads north India for Hi Blitz magazine, one of India’s leading fashion and lifestyle glossies. More than ten years into the profession, she found herself in the infectious world of journalism when she entered the newsroom of Indian Express as a student intern. She went on to become a correspondent in Indian Express and later worked for India Today before fitting in beautifully in her current job. People, art, food, travel and fashion are her favourite topics. Old films destress her and she discusses them in her blog

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