Monday, September 12, 2016

She rose like the phoenix

Malvika Iyer is a bomb-blast survivor and a motivational speaker. A bundle of power and energy, Malvika leaves you feeling incredibly inspired and moved as she tells you her story. 

Malvika Iyer
My story begins when I was 13 years old. It goes back to 2002. I grew up in a lovely city called Bikaner which is famous for its bhujia and lovely coloured clothes. I was a very friendly child – in fact, my family tells me that I was so friendly that I was always smiling, even at strangers. It didn’t take me a moment to break into a smile at a stranger even if I had absolutely no idea who they were. I had a very happy and a beautiful life as a child. My parents were very sweet. I lived in a very joyful environment with a lot of friendly people around me. I was a tomboy, and had a gang of girl friends and boy friends. It was a very healthy childhood.

This was when I had just entered my 9th standard. It was 2002, I had just turned 13. The accident happened during the summer vacations, on a Sunday afternoon. Six months before the accident, there was a fire in an ammunitions depot near my place, and as a result, there were many scattered shells in the city. A lot of pieces had scattered across the city, my house included. That was how I came across the piece that wound up causing the accident. It was a diffused shell, and it was something that everyone had seen and been familiar with. It looked like an oxygen cylinder and didn’t appear to have anything within. Everyone mistook it for a diffused shell that had already exploded. The inside was hollow, and it also had a top part that looked like it had needles, and everyone thought it was a hollow shell.

Some background - as a teen, I was very creative. I used to make a lot of art and craft out of waste. For instance, I used to go to a tailor shop nearby and pick up pieces of cloth to make wall hangings out of all of them. That Sunday, since the pocket of my jeans had torn off, I wanted to stick it back with a patch so I could use the jeans again. It was my favourite pair and I didn’t want to throw it. I had a patch of cloth and wanted to stick it onto the pair of jeans, and to make it sit, I wanted to find something hard to hit the cloth into place, and went to the garage to find something hard to hit it with. In the garage, fortunately or unfortunately, I found this shell. I assumed it was a diffused shell and was harmless, so I took it back to my room. I hit my jeans with the patch of cloth with the shell on the hollow side at first. Then, I turned it upside down and hit it again. I think it was fate calling. Just then, there was an explosion. This was an already diffused shell, so the explosion was of a low intensity. Everyone was there in the house, but I was the only one in my room when this happened. When it exploded, nothing happened to anyone else apart from me. The area I was sitting was completely damaged. It was full of blood, there was a smell of flesh burning. I lost my hands immediately. There was no hope of saving my hands. I was squatting down, and my legs were completely disfigured. The flesh and bones – it was all a mess. My leg was literally dangling on a tiny piece of flesh. My parents came running into the room the moment they heard the explosion.

At first, no one understood what had happened. They all thought some electrical appliance had burst, and no one thought a shell had done this. I suffered 80% blood loss and my Blood Pressure had dropped to zero. I was taken to the hospital. They didn’t think I would survive. My four main nerves on my limbs were cut. The doctors had given up completely. But somehow, miraculously, I survived and made it out of danger that night. They didn’t give me anesthesia because my body was in shock and I had zero blood pressure, so I watched everything and observed everything that was happening. I was not in pain for three days because of the shock that my body was in. But, I apologized to my mother immediately – I was a naughty child, and I did get into trouble a lot of times before. She told me that I would be fine and that I was not to worry. I didn’t realize the intensity of what had happened, but I remember seeing everything around me very clearly. I did know that something terrible had happened, but beyond that I had no idea. My mother was the one who screamed, “Meri beti ke haath chale gaye,” so that was when I understood that I had lost my hands.

From then, for two years, I had painful dressings being done and re-done on my body. My legs had to be cleaned continuously as there were splinters stuck to them. For two years, it was a very painful time. My mother asked my sister to stay with my aunt in Chennai, and we were in Jaipur. From then on, my mother took care of me.

My mother was always very positive. No one sat and cried next to me and told me that my life was over. But people outside of my family, i.e., strangers, would see me in hospital and feel sorry for me. I was a little girl and my hands and legs were bandaged and plastered and people would look at me with pity and say things like I was a child, and a terrible thing had happened to me and that my future was a dark place, and that nothing would go to me. That was when I realized that I didn’t want to be in a public place. I was very protected and nurtured by my family and friends. They were never negative and never made me feel negative. They never passed such comments, and were always happy and cheerful, and were confident that I would come out of it. My mother’s project was to get me out of this. But outside, it was a very scary place. Everyone would stare and talk, and it was very scary. I refused to go out – I was very happy when my family and friends supported me.

I then went to Chennai, when my treatment began to address my legs, as they were not healing in Jaipur. My mom literally carried me to Chennai, where the treatment began quite soon. I began responding to the treatment, and personally, made small steps – taking the television remote and operating it with my elbow. I didn’t complain much, but I would cry when it hurt while they did my dressings. There were never thoughts of “why me”. I was confident that I was going to get better and that my family was taking care of me. Maybe one day, I would walk. There were no negative thoughts at all – and it was surprising, too. We just never let anything negative hit us. After almost a year and a half after the accident, I started tying a rubber band around my hands and fixed a pen to write letters to a friend of mine in Bikaner. She told me that she was preparing for the tenth board exams, and I felt bad that I wouldn’t be able to take the exams. My surgery had been done and they asked me to use crutches, but I couldn’t use crutches because my hands couldn’t hold them. But I wanted to do the exams.

My cousin had attended a coaching centre in the next lane. I was not going to be able to make it as a school student because there were only three months left, so I had to appear as a private candidate. I told my mother that I wanted to attend the coaching centre and take my exams. That was my first step to recovery. I couldn’t stand the idea of lagging behind by a year, and my mother took me on her two-wheeler to the coaching centre each day. It was scary, at first. I was fitted with artificial hands and I wore short sleeves. Artificial hands are different from real hands and people looked at me. I was conscious and even felt a bit inferior as well. But I wanted to give the exams a shot, and I told the people at the coaching centre that I would come there every day.  They were very supportive and did not question my decision.

It was not easy learning all of it at first. I went to the coaching centre each day and my mother would come to feed me. I couldn’t write, so I had a writer to write my tests. Initially, I was reading maths and trying to learn maths and science. It was difficult – imagine learning geometric figures without writing. The first two tests took place and I did very well. The coaching centre spotted that I had some talent and they decided that they would encourage me. Before the accident happened, I was involved in a lot of extracurricular activities. I was a trained kathak dancer and I would hardly study. But this time, since I couldn’t run around or do anything with my hands and legs, I decided that I would channelize my energy into studies. I wanted to, as well, and since I couldn’t dance or swim or skate, this was what I wanted to do. I studied very hard over those three months.

I didn’t hope for anything great, I just wanted to do my best. I did the exams well, and gave it my best shot. I dictated all my answers to a scribe. It was painful, I had a lot of pain in my throat after all the dictation. I spent time to see that all the spellings were right and that the writer had taken down all that I said. A month later, the results came. I did not expect it – I had turned out to be a state ranker! I had scored 100 in math, and in science, and I scored 97%. It was like a dream. After that, things changed.

Local news outlets covered my story, and then came the major newspapers and television channels. Then, I was invited to meet Dr APJ Abdul Kalam, who invited me to the Rashtrapati Bhavan with my parents. He spoke to me in Tamil and asked me what I wanted to do, and my dreams. I told him that I just wanted to go to a regular school and no longer be a private candidate. Many schools then invited me to study at their place, but my mom picked the nearest one as she had to pick and drop me. I did my twelfth, and wanted to study at St. Stephens. I studied very hard, and knew that the cutoffs would be very high. I made it somehow.

In school, life was different. In college, I had simple dreams – to walk a little more, to stand for a little longer, to climb stairs and to write. I had kind of begun accepting that this was how things would be, but I hadn’t accepted my body. I met amazing people from all over the country. I was shying away a lot at that time, wearing full sleeved clothes and not encouraging shaking hands. I did that a lot in college, trying so hard to be normal and what I am not. I then did my masters in Social Work and worked with a lot of differently abled children as part of my fieldwork. That made me realize that it is okay to not have two hands and still be a perfect person in what I did.

The fieldwork experience opened my eyes and I felt that it was my true calling. I felt like I could associate with them. I was also different, but I was going to make a mark. I came back to do my M Phil research on people with disability. I had hidden myself and not told my story. People never knew about my story until they met me. So for the first time, I wrote my story on social media, and TEDxYouth Chennai was the first outlet to find out about my story. I then talked about my story with a lot of people.

After that, on the tenth anniversary of my accident, I wrote about my story on Facebook, again. A lot of people wrote to me, telling me that they appreciated me. I felt like I had a greater degree of responsibility now that a lot of people were beginning to hear my story. I then began to talk about issues such as inclusion and universal designs, and also hosted the India Inclusion Summit. I was called to South Africa, Jakarta and Norway, and talked about accessible elections. I was also selected as a Global Shaper,an initiative of the World Economic Forum.

I started my PhD and worked on the concept of attitudes towards disability. I designed my own questionnaire and about a thousand students took the survey. I came up with my own module and wanted to introduce modules to address the attitudes that are formed against disability, and then wanted to structure approaches to shifting these very attitudes. I submitted my thesis to the Madras School of Social Work recently. I was also invited to attend the Women in the World Summit in New York this year, where I was awarded the first Women in the World Emerging Leaders Award.
I worked with the NIFT and the Ability Foundation, and as someone who loves fashion, I realized that finding clothes that fit around my artificial limbs was very difficult. I began to advocate for accessible fashion. It was an amazing experience for me to walk the ramp in the beautiful outfits that NIFT had designed or me. My feet hadn’t yet healed so I walked wearing floaters and not heels. I now promote accessibility of fashion, too.

I have had the chance to speak across different platforms, but what really makes a difference to me is how some people have come back to tell me that they were inspired to act or do something in their own lives. For instance, once, a lady who was aged but wanted to learn to drive, actually got out and made the effort to get her license. My favourite part of all my speaking opportunities remains these stories of determination and grit. This is what the last three years of my life have been like.
I am currently living in the US.When I look back, I realize that I had never planned any of these things. I realized that people give a lot of credit and importance to success. Everything is outcome driven and norm-based. It is important, though, to embrace failures, and that is what my mother taught me. She told me always, that even if I had never scored so well and got such high marks, it would still have been an accomplishment for having given those exams my best shot. At the end of the day, it is how you survive your challenges that matters the most. Acceptance is the greatest reward we can give to ourselves – the day I accepted everything, I was able to understand things better.