The silence was deafening as Praveen Kumar Teotia, 33, soaked in the darkness, his eyes still trying to adjust to the surroundings. He found himself crouched behind a sofa in a room of The Taj Mahal Palace Hotel in Mumbai, separated from his team. Yet he knew he was not alone.

Lurking somewhere in the void around him were four intruders who had taken the city hostage. It was 26 November 2008, and Teotia had been called into action as part of a crack team of marine commandos (Marcos)—one of the top anti-terrorist forces in the country.

Teotia had little idea of what was to come next. A burst of gunfire sprayed past him, the mayhem as deafening as the silence.

In that moment, his life changed forever. Over the next few months, even walking up a flight of stairs would become a struggle.

From a crawl, Teotia tottered his way to a walk, and finally, a run. A triathlon was the last thing on his mind, yet, in April, he found himself at the Ironman African Championship in South Africa. Four hours in, his race was more or less over—the derailleur of his bike had broken during the cycling leg. Yet, he found enough reason to keep going, recalling all he had endured. And when he crossed the finish line in 14 hours, 19 minutes and 38 seconds, he realized just why the end of one journey is the beginning of another.

*****

His first disappointment came when he failed to make the cut for the Indian Army due to his 1.68m frame. Hailing from Bhatona village in Uttar Pradesh’s Bulandshahr, joining the Armed Forces was a matter of prestige, given that his neighbourhood is home to some 40-odd martyrs going all the way back to World War II.

“I couldn’t dream of pursuing another profession, so when my brother suggested I join the navy, I knew I had found my calling," he says.

In July 2002, Teotia joined the navy, and, three years later, decided to volunteer for the Marcos unit. The induction took him to Mumbai for the first time—a city he calls his karmabhoomi for all that it has taught him.

In November 2008, Teotia’s life changed in a flash.

Having returned from training in Gujarat, he was scheduled to go on leave in the next couple of days. When he reached the guard room in the middle of the night, he met the officer on duty—a friend from his time in Kashmir, who informed him of the 26/11 attacks.

“He cried out, Teotia, unhe wahan dhoond rahe the, aur woh to apne paas aa gaye (We were looking for them in Kashmir and they’ve walked up to us)," he recalls.

In the next couple of hours, Teotia had donned his battle fatigues.

*****

Teotia was part of the third team that entered the hotel and made its way to the dining chamber. He was soon separated from the rest of his teammates, forced to confront at least four intruders.

“Ek goli kaan ko lekar chali gayi. Jab khoon behne laga, tab pata chala—bach gaye, zinda hai (A bullet hit my ear. When I felt the blood trickle down my neck, I realized I was alive)," he says.

The pain was immense. His teammates, unable to communicate with him, thought he had been killed and threw tear gas to flush out the enemy. Teotia couldn’t help but cough; in the next moment, another flurry of bullets flew past him.

“You cannot imagine how many bullets an AK-47 fires. Death was a certainty—either I could suffocate and die, or take a bullet while trying to get to the door. I decided to face the enemy—even if I didn’t survive, I would die knowing that I had given my best for the country," he recalls.

The next few minutes went past in a flash. Teotia grabbed his weapon and made for the door. As he reached the exit, he was grabbed by his teammates. The last thing that he remembers is taking a bullet to the chest that ruptured his right lung.

“Goli aar-paar nikal gayi thi (The bullet went right through my body)," he says.

Teotia remembers the doctor telling him that the moment they ripped off his clothes, blood spouted all over the bed.

“Fuvare jaisa (like a fountain). A mass of flesh fell out of the wound on my back and I had four cracked ribs," he adds.

ATS outside the hotel during the 26/11 attack by terrorists. Photo: Anshuman Poyrekar/Hindustan Times
ATS outside the hotel during the 26/11 attack by terrorists. Photo: Anshuman Poyrekar/Hindustan Times

*****

The doctor, who had seen his fair share of bullet-ridden victims, termed Teotia’s survival a miracle. It took five operations to save him, including grafting on the ear which had been torn apart. Even today, he has multiple bullet splinters of all sizes, from his chest to his liver. His right lung would never be the same again.

“Lungs are supposed to inflate-deflate like a balloon, but mine doesn’t work that way. At the start, I couldn’t even walk 30m, let alone climb steps. But I kept at it and started yoga to control my breathing," he says.

In March the following year, Teotia resumed duty and was awarded the Shaurya Chakra for his bravery. But he was now confined to a desk job.

“I longed for normalcy, the kind I was used to—upar se kudo, neeche se kudo, fir pel ke khana khao, uniform peheno, goliyan chalao aur shaam main football khelo (jump around while going through the drills, eat a hearty meal, fire some rounds and then play football in the evening). I never realized when my day passed," he says.

“Now, I was handed paperwork all day. In addition, I had to run around filling forms for all kinds of disability certification and to avail privileges that come with the Shaurya Chakra. The promotions stopped as well," he says.

“The department I had done so much for had alienated me and I had no one around to help. Gradually, I got used to walking alone," he adds.

There were days when he would try running, but would come back disheartened. On other days, he would lift a few dumbbells in the gym. The few times he went to play football with his mates, he realized nobody wanted him on their team.

“They asked me to sit in the stands and cheer. At one point, I was a striker and an integral part of the team; now, I earned all kinds of tags—behra, kaan kata, langda ghoda (deaf, ear-less, lame horse). They said I sat around doing nothing," he says.

The final straw was during the medical check-up conducted by the navy. Teotia was severely overweight.

“I pulled out all my certificates to prove why I was in this state. He (the doctor) mocked me, saying he wasn’t creating an obesity category for me and asked me to go lose weight and come back, else he wasn’t signing the papers," he says.

Teotia was a broken man, but he knew that rebuilding was the only way out of his misery.

*****

The first hurdle was crossed during a promotion course in Kochi in 2011. A few of his mates were swimming in the dam and asked him to join them. Owing to his ear injury, Teotia refused.

That night, he couldn’t sleep.

“I had developed a phobia for all physical activities. Before the rest rose the following morning, I went to the dam and jumped right in. It did wonders for my mental state and I decided to reclaim my life," he says.

On his return to Visakhapatnam, he first took control of his diet. He then decided to fetch milk every morning, a task usually performed by his wife. One day, he dropped the milk bag and took a short run. Just half a kilometre later, he stopped with a big smile on his face.

“I was drenched in sweat, I felt my lung would burst. But I had never felt so good. The following day, I went running again," he says.

A month later, he visited the doctor again. Even as he walked over to the weighing scale, the doctor asked him for the papers, signed them and asked him to leave.

“He could see that I had worked on my fitness. I can never forget that month," Teotia says.

Treatment for the ear required him to travel regularly to Mumbai, so Teotia asked for a transfer. When his request was granted in 2014, his life took another turn.

Teotia decided to run the half marathon at the Mumbai Marathon in 2015. He clocked an encouraging 1 hour, 53 minutes.

“Running brought a different energy to me. It was as if I had survived just to run," he says.

After running multiple races over the next few years, Teotia graduated to the marathon in Mumbai in 2016. During that run, he happened to pass by Milind Soman.

“I wondered what was the need for him to run that distance, given that he’s a celebrity—10km would be enough for him. Then, when I looked him up, I realized that he was an Ironman. My running was in place, and I had enough swimming experience as a navy diver. All I had to figure out was cycling—I too wanted to be an Ironman," he recalls.

In Mumbai-based runner Pervin Batliwala, he found his greatest supporter while also joining like-minded folks, where he discovered the intricacies of running and training. At the end of that year, he competed at the Goa Triathlon, clocking 3 hours, 9 minutes. In March 2017, he managed a podium finish at the Jaipur International Triathlon.

*****

In July 2017, Teotia quit the navy and took up a job as a security officer at the Taj City Centre in Gurugram. The hectic schedule took a toll on his training routine. Even when he had the time to train, the polluted air would affect his breathing severely, leaving him with a bloody nose at times. He still decided to take on the Khardung La Challenge—the highest ultra marathon in the world, and a distance of 72km that runs through the Khardung La Pass (5,359m) near Leh.

When he crossed the finish line, the feat was acknowledged by former cricketer Sachin Tendulkar. Teotia reached out for aid and managed to collect enough money to fund his trip to South Africa.

To train for the race, he realized that he must move out of Delhi. When his transfer request was rejected, he quit his job and shifted base to Goa.

“I borrowed a bike from a navy friend. But, a few weeks later, my training group in Goa gifted me a bike. They also pointed out Kaustubh Radkar, an Ironman, who was not only my coach but also turned out to be a mentor and groomed me for the race," he says.

The stage was set for his first Ironman. Around the 110km mark, however, the derailleur of his bike broke. Unable to get his leg off the pedal due to cleats, he suffered a nasty fall. Despite finding help to fix his bike, he realized he had lost 40 minutes and was now on a gear-less bike.

“There were a lot of uphills and strong headwind. I knew I had to give it all to make the cut-off, else I would be out of the race. And I didn’t stop for anything, not even to answer nature’s call," he says with a laugh.

It took a massive effort to cross the finish line. But eventually he made it.

“I want people to realize what’s possible—jab ek toota-phoota aadmi itna kuch kar sakta hai, to aap kuch kyun nahi kar sakte hai (when a broken man can do so much, anyone can). When you create a wall in front of you, it will only get higher if you don’t address it. If you focus on the cannot, you’ve already lost out on what could be," he says.

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