Deepa Malik’s lessons for a happier life

The Paralympic Games silver medal winner’s 12-point life strategy can change your life too


Deepa Malik won a silver at the 2016 Rio Paralympics. Photo: Shailendra Pandey
Deepa Malik won a silver at the 2016 Rio Paralympics. Photo: Shailendra Pandey

Paralympic Games silver medal winner Deepa Malik is “Spirit in Motion”. Talking to her makes you want to immediately s-w-e-a-t that Paralympic motto. I know I’m going running tomorrow morning. And instantly doubling the number and frequency of my surya namaskars. Leaping up every time my six-year-old wants active play. My better, happier life begins today. All I have to do is imbibe some of the life strategies Malik shared with me.

Learn to adapt.“I could have sat and cried,” says Malik referring to the time in 1999 when a spinal tumour paralysed her from the chest down. Instead, after three major spinal surgeries, she focused on adapting to her new wheelchair-bound body. “I made what was left stronger. I made my arms stronger.”

Don’t stop learning. Malik continuously pushes herself to learn new things. In 2013, she drove 3,278km from Chennai to Delhi. A few years before that she drove across nine high-altitude passes in nine days on India’s highest motorable road in Ladakh. She’s won several international medals in javelin and shot put. She’s swum upstream in the Yamuna using her arms and shoulders to compensate for her legs. In the backstroke position, she pushes her lower hip upwards to stay afloat. She can’t judge where her lower body is headed so she needs a coach to direct her. “Actually, I’m not clear how I do it either,” she says.

Never give up. It took her 19 months to obtain a licence to drive in the car rally.

Age is irrelevant. At 45, she was the oldest member of the country’s Paralympic Games team this year. She began taking sports seriously at 36. She is the only Indian woman to win a medal in the Games—ever. “People look at you the way you look at yourself. I’m 18 till I die,” she says. She’s already begun thinking of her next big event, the ICC World ParaAthletics Championships in London in July.

Don’t make excuses. “I’m a solutions person,” she says. She has the ability to quickly shift to Plan B. In recent years, Malik has switched back and forth from javelin to shot put in international tournaments (winning medals in both) because different major events offer a different sport per disability category, depending on the number of participants every year. For her category, the Paralympic Games only offered shot put, not javelin. “If I don’t multitask I lose out,” she says.

Cultivate passions. Malik believes you need more than your day job and the skills your education has helped you acquire—you need hobbies and passions. “They become your secret source of happiness. I have been able to identify these in my life,” she says. She’s spent the last two decades testing her adrenalin junkie self. She loves to be behind the wheel and drives every day from her home in Gurgaon to her training in south Delhi. “When I drive, I don’t feel paralysed. Movement is in my control. It gives me a sense of freedom,” she says. On Sundays, she takes her custom-made motorcycle for a spin.

Don’t worry about feeling low. “Your lows should be a jumpstart,” she says. A way to prepare for the highs. She says she uses the lows as a way to understand her shortcomings . “The purpose of sadness is not to demoralize yourself but to evaluate where you are lacking so you can bounce back,” she says.

Learn from the army. Malik’s father and husband were both colonels in the Indian Army. Being part of that life taught her to be prepared for the unseen and focus on her priorities. “When you’re in battle mode, nothing comes between you and your duty,” she says. This attitude helped her focus on preparing for the Paralympics. “There was no melodrama about my absence from family life during the year. Everyone understood, that’s what faujis do.”

Parent by example. Malik’s disability needs body management and over the years her daughters Devika and Ambika have been her physiotherapists and her nurses. They’ve been helping her bathe since they were toddlers. “They’ve seen how difficult it is for their mother to pass urine and yet they’ve watched her train furiously,” she says.

Bring up sporty girls. Girls and sports is the biggest and the best short cut to women’s empowerment, Malik believes. “Every time a sporty girl takes the time out to play, she’s learning the art of balancing,” she says. Other things sports teach girls? A competitive spirit, how to take defeat, how to celebrate your win with the person you have defeated, teamwork, confidence and the ability to stay fit.

Don’t think it’s easy. She trains 24x7. Everything is key from the time she wakes up to the time she sleeps. She has to manage her bladder and bowel movements. She doesn’t have torso or stomach muscles so she has to time her light meals carefully. Every time she trains, she has to follow that with a prolonged physiotherapy session to relieve the spasms.

Believe in a cause. Malik is passionate about paraplegic rights in the country with her Ability Beyond Disability movement.

Priya Ramani shares what’s making her feel angsty/agreeable every fortnight. She tweets at @priyaramani and posts on Instagram as babyjaanramani.

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