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Against life’s greatest odds

Published Sep 20, 2015, 9:12 am IST
Updated Mar 27, 2019, 6:47 pm IST
People who have had the last laugh in spite of life placing seemingly insurmountable hurdles in their way
 People who have had the last laugh in spite of life placing seemingly insurmountable hurdles in their way

For many of us, a broken relationship, getting fired from a job, not winning a competition or not getting way, is a big tragedy. We moan, wallow in self-pity, sometimes enroll for therapy, pick up fights with God and take ages to get a grip and move on.

While we continue to complain about the unfairness of it all and crib about how horrid life is, people like former national volleyball champion Arunima Sinha, who lost a leg when thieves pushed her off of a moving train, Pakistani artist Muniba Mazari, a paraplegic who lost control of her legs after a car accident, and adventurer Miles Hilton Barber, who lost his eyesight in his 20s, are not just achieving their dreams, but doing things that otherwise “normal” people find impossible.

For example, it has been 25 years since he lost his eyesight but that didn’t stop motivational speaker Barber from becoming the first blind pilot to undertake a 55-day, 21,000 km microlight flight from London to Sydney. His website says he relied on “Revolutionary speech-output technology on his instruments for navigation, accompanied by his sighted co-pilot.”

He also completed the toughest foot-race on earth — 200 kilometres across the Sahara, climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro and Mt. Blanc and has taken part in several marathons. On his website Miles says, “We too can live our dreams, because ‘the only limits in our lives are those we accept ourselves’.” And it is due to this immense self-belief that Arunima Sinha became the first amputee to climb Mount Everest and Muniba Mazari became not just an artist and motivational speaker but also Pakistan’s first wheelchair-bound model (she models for brands like Toni & Guy).

Surviving a grenade blast - Malvika Iyer

One day, thirteen-year-old Malvika Iyer, who loved to dance, decided to dress up the back pocket of her jeans by sticking on an accessory to it. Instead of using super-glue or sewing it in, she decided to look in her backyard for a heavy object that could help her hammer in the accessory. But she found a grenade shell in the garden, at home in Bikaner. It had landed there a few months ago thanks to a blast at a nearby ammunition depot.

Thinking it was a harmless, empty shell, Malvika used it, only to have the grenade blow up on her. The explosion ripped her hands off and caused major damage to her legs. Doctors managed to save her legs, but could do nothing for her hands. How did she cope with the aftermath? “There was no point in complaining or crying. This is what I learnt at a young age. Being able to accept the situation helped.”

For months, Malvika was in agonising pain. “For three months my legs were cut open... there were splinters everywhere and they needed to be cleaned everyday. The pain was excruciating.” When asked what kept her going, she says, “Hope. I was clear in my head that this is not going to be me forever. I am going to come out of this situation.” After spending one-and-a-half years in the hospital, Malvika recovered and decided to get back to normal life. Such was her determination that she topped her Class 12 exams.

And after school, Malvika got admission into St. Stephens College in Delhi. “Initially it was intimidating, because I was surrounded by CBSE and state toppers, but the exposure I got in St. Stephens and living in a metro helped me a lot. I got a lot of confidence.” But were there no negatives? “What used to hurt the most was how people looked down at me. That was horrific. Even now people stare, point to my hands. But now I don’t let this affect me.” A motivational speaker, Malvika is also a junior research fellow at the Madras School of Social Work.

She uses myo-electric arms that are designed to mimic human anatomy and motion by using electrical signals generated naturally by one’s own muscles. The devices run on batteries and cost Rs 5 lakh. “They opened a whole new world for me as I could write, use a spoon to eat, comb my hair and apply make-up,” she says, adding, “The hands gave me a new lease of life, especially in public.”

A holiday she’ll never forget - Virali Modi

Fourteen-year-old Virali Modi paid a very high price when she forgot to take the mandatory anti-malaria shots when she returned home to the US after holidaying in Mumbai. Her forgetfulness cost the aspiring model her legs and she has been wheelchair-bound since. And after developing an infection that damaged her spinal cord, life was no longer the same.

Now 23, she has not just coped with her situation, but continues to enroll in beauty pageants and is now pursuing a career in Bollywood. Home from the holidays, Virali was in talks to star in a commercial when she suddenly fell sick and slipped into coma. “When I came out of coma I realised that I was paralysed from the neck down,” she says. Initially, she was in shock and didn’t believe that she couldn’t walk again. “It was only on the first day of therapy that I realised I couldn’t do anything. I felt like a corpse.”

This must have been really depressing. “No, I was still okay. What really upset me was when my friends decided to stop talking to me. For them I was this wheelchairbound person, who couldn’t walk with them. They didn’t want to be stuck with someone who they might have to constantly take care of.” Virali’s only support at that time were her parents. “When I would cry and ask my mother ‘Why me?’ ‘Why can’t I go out with my friends?’ she would tell me that I don’t need such people in my life and I need to come out of this depression to prove everyone wrong. She told me to wipe my tears and focus on myself.”

Hanging out with other people in wheelchairs was not an option as Virali realised that “majority of them were depressed. Their attitude was like, ‘My life is useless, why live?’ I didn’t want to be in such an atmosphere.” The family shifted to Mumbai for Virali’s treatment. Luckily for her, she responded well to stem-cell therapy and can now walk with support and do many tasks independently.

After slowly getting her confidence back, Virali entered Miss Wheelchair and was one of the runners up. She is now trying for a career in Bollywood. “I don’t expect to replace Kareena Kapoor in a film, I am just looking out for roles that would accommodate a person in a wheelchair. Initially I would get upset when people would tell me there were no roles for a person in a wheelchair, but I haven’t given up,” Virali says. After many rejections she is now in talks for a role.

Thrown off a train, left to die - Arunima Sinha

In 2011, national volleyball player Arunima Sinha’s life changed forever when she boarded a train in UP. She was thrown off the moving train by thieves because she put up a fight and refused to part with her gold chain and belongings. What was even more shocking was apart from not helping, nobody on the train even bothered to pull the chain and look for her or call for a search team.

Arunima lay bleeding the entire night on the tracks waiting helplessly while 49 trains passed her by... one of them went over her left leg and she had to deal with rodents chewing on her body. Finally, help came when a few boys spotted her. When she was finally taken to a hospital, doctors were so moved by her plight that they donated their own blood for her surgery. But more pain was in store as her left leg was amputated without anesthesia due to lack of facilities.

The physical trauma was not yet over when she had to deal with the trauma of losing her leg, and the nasty gossip. “My career was finished, I lost a leg and people were now suggesting that I had attempted suicide!” Arunima was finally shifted to AIIMS, Delhi by the UP government. “While in hospital I was thinking I needed to do something... can’t spend my life like this doing nothing. Then I read a newspaper article on mountaineering... and when I casually mentioned it to my brother-in-law that I wanted to climb Mt. Everest, he said, ‘If you do this, you will become the world’s first amputee to achieve this feat’.”

This got Arunima motivated and her family, especially her brother-in-law who is like a father to her, encouraged and supported her. “I was determined not to spend the rest of my life in a wheelchair. If you are determined, nobody can stop you. We all know that when God shuts one door he opens many others. But we cry only about one door. I stopped doing that.”

Arunima also adds God has given her the capacity to bear pain. Climbing Everest did not only seem impossible at times but also incredibly painful. People at the camp were surprised not with the fact that she claimed Everest, but that she made it back alive. “When I reached the peak I was literally on top of the world... how I wanted to scream ‘I am on top of the world!’” Since conquering Everest, Arunima has climbed Mount Kosciuszko in Australia, Mt. Kilimanjaro in Tanzania and Elbrus in Europe.

‘He didn’t even understand wins’ - Ranveer Singh Saini and Monica Jajoo

Fourteen-year-old Ranveer Singh Saini, along with his Unified partner Monica Jajoo, created history for India by winning a gold medal in golf at the World Special Olympics 2015 at LA on July 31, 2015. For Ranveer, who was diagnosed with autism when he was two years old, his golfing glory played a crucial part in enabling him to make friends at school and gain social acceptance.

Talking about how Ranveer’s golfing journey started, his father Kartikeya Saini says, “We are a family of golfers and we felt why should he be left behind because of his disability? We all said that we must get him to play with us on a family game on Sunday.” There was no “talent spotting”, it was just his parent’s way of ensuring that he was included.

Ranveer’s parents may have pushed him in the right direction, but he paved his own path after that. “This boy put in a lot of hard work and was dedicated to the game. He worked very hard with his coach,” says his father. Along with school and his various therapy sessions, Ranveer managed to put in around 12-14 hours of practise at the golf course every week.

When Ranveer first started, it took him time to realise that he was a left-handed golfer. Initially, he couldn’t even communicate with his trainer, but he never gave up. It took him six months to just get the grasp of things. Saini says, “Even after he started winning tournaments at school and district levels, he didn’t understand the wins. It was only after he got his first and second gold at the Golf Masters in Macau in 2013, he understood the adulation he got from the people there and the recognition he received in India.”

This motivated Ranveer to work harder and he now knew the concept of training well to do well. He got a gold for India again and when he got his name in the Limca Book of World Records “people like Jeev Milkha Singh, Hemnath Raia and Gary Player came to meet him and take photos with him. These are the people he admires. He was also thrilled to play a round of golf with Jeev Milkha Singh.

“Kids at school, people in restaurants — ones who would always look away due to his behavioural problems like self-talking, speech, flapping... now run to him to play golf. This gives him a high and the society has accepted him for his strengths.” Initially, Ranveer got cold treatment from his classmates, but now he has become a hero to them, a celebrity, so they include him in their birthday parties and activities. Golf has given him a regular, teenage life.

A car crash and no doctors - Muniba Mazari

Muniba Mazari, an artist, model and motivational speaker addressed a TedX audience with this statement: “Behind every inspirational picture, there is a story of constant pain, persistent effort and determination.” This can’t be a truer statement as Muniba, a source of inspiration for not just home country Pakistan but to people all over the world, had seen her whole world turn upside down when six years ago, she met with an accident when her car fell into a ditch in remote Baluchistan. Her lungs and liver were injured, rib cage fractured, right arm mangled... but the injury that changed her life was the hit to the spinal cord which left her in a wheelchair for life.

At the TedX talk she revealed how rescuers couldn’t even find her an ambulance. So, she was thrown into the back of a jeep and rushed to multiple hospitals where she was denied treatment because doctors simply didn’t have the equipment to deal with her injuries. It was in the jeep that she realised that half her body was fractured and the other half paralysed. Finally, she was admitted in a hospital in Karachi, where she underwent multiple surgeries and was in bed for months.

The two-and-a half-months in hospital were the most painful for her, both physically and emotionally. Close people who were meant to stay with her left, she felt life was aimless and lost the will to live. But she soon realised that instead of crying for people who were not meant to be and the legs she lost, she must pay attention to the people who were still with her. “It’s pointless to crib and cry,” she said. And in order to keep herself occupied she turned to painting. “I added colours in my colourless life through these paintings.”

Art kept her alive. After she was discharged from hospital, she shifted to Islamabad where she was bedridden for two years. The only thing that kept her alive during this traumatic period was art. More importantly, she also realised that it was pointless to wait for a miracle, and stem cell treatment was just too expensive. She then wanted to become financially independent so, she started a career through content writing and as an artist.

Today, Muniba is the brand ambassador for Body Shop in Pakistan, models for Toni & Guy and is also the country’s first wheelchair-bound TV host. She also has a three-year-old son. For Muniba, her wheelchair is now not a sign of weakness, but her strength. It has given her an opportunity to explore in her what she didn’t know she had.



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