In 1998 Eric Paul was only ten when his parents decided to surprise the young boy by buying the popular family car, Maruti 800.
So deep was his love for cars, that the 10-year-old slept in the brand new vehicle the first night after it rushed through the gates of his New Delhi home. That obsession would last a lifetime.
Even a terrible car accident in 2012, which paralysed him from the chest down, did not deter the now 29-year-old.
Indeed he drove his way into the Limca Book of Records thanks to three expeditions spanning the length and breadth of India in his customised hand-controlled hatchback.
His first ever expedition, in November 2015, was to undertake the Golden Quadrilateral road task of the Limca Book, where he drove to five metropolitan cities.
Starting his trip from Delhi, he drove to Mumbai, Bengaluru, Chennai and Kolkata and all the way back to the national capital.
Including night rests, he managed to complete his 6,000 km trip in less than seven days to set the record in his hatchback!
Later, in June 2016, Eric embarked on his second expedition.
From Leh to Kanyakumari. He considers that one his most challenging journey so far. Despite several hardships due to severe weather conditions, he successfully covered 3,917 km in a record time six days, 15 hours.
His latest record in the Limca book of records was for driving across the breadth of India – from Arunachal Pradesh’s Tezu to Gujarat’s Koteshwar. This was part of his campaign ‘Accessible India’, to make the nation a more accessible place for Divyangs (persons with disability).
The ride was flagged off by Union minister Rajnath Singh himself, who wished Eric success. The ride covered the 3697 km distance from Tezu to Koteshwar in 4 days, 18 hours, 44 minutes.
If you meet Eric Paul today, the positivity and motivation he exudes will make it hard to believe he battled depression from 2012 to 2013.
For the source of that depression, we have to go back to when Eric was 14 when he learned driving by observation.
“I would watch on intently as my father drove, changed the gear, used the clutch or the accelerator. Nobody taught me how to drive a car. I still remember how my dad’s jaw dropped when he took me to learn driving on a gloomy day in an attempt to cheer me up, and found out I could drive,” laughs Eric, recalling the memory.
While his father allowed him to drive very short distances occasionally when the family went out, he was adamant the boy get a license first.
“I was waiting to turn 18. I applied to the RTO office six months in advance just to get my license on my birthday – 14 January,” he says.
When his father changed cars to a Wagon R, he gave Eric the Maruti 800 for his personal use. While everyone was sceptical about his father’s decision, Eric’s happiness knew no bounds. He would diligently maintain the car and fill its fuel tank with his own pocket money.
In 2009, the family bought an SX4. Eric calls it his dream car. But the car soon turned into his worst nightmare, in 2012.
Once, when he was driving on a highway, a tempo-traveller jumped a red light and rammed into Eric’s SX4.
“The car was my dream and passion. I was bedridden for over a year and had multiple surgeries. I spent over two weeks on a ventilator, three months in the hospital and then a full year holed up inside my own home. If you could rewind a few years, I would call the car my worst enemy. But if you ask me now, I’d tell you the car saved my life,” he says.
Eric was unaware of the lives paraplegic individuals led at the time. In his head, he still hoped he would recover physically. He suffered severe depression and shut himself down. It took him a year to recover mentally. He decided to go back to his old job and asked his higher-ups to give him a desk-job.
They readily agreed but on one condition, that he would manage his own travel.
While people around him continued to blame his obsession with cars for his condition, Eric never really stopped. He believed the only thing that could help him fight his disability was going back to driving.
His father and brother-in-law did some research and discovered that there was an option for paraplegic individuals to drive as well. All they had to do was modify their car.
In 2013, a year after his accident, both of them gifted him a hand-customised Maruti Swift.
Though Eric had to quit and rejoin his work many times due to health ailments, he decided to involve himself in multiple sports. He started playing table tennis and participated in javelin and discus throw. He played at the state-level table tennis tournament in Delhi and clinched a gold medal too.
Travelling back and forth for his tournaments, his car became his backbone yet again.
“My independence wasn’t shaken. I got to know about the Limca Book of Records from my physiotherapist, friend, and guide Dr Pradeep Kumar. He supported me in ways more than one and continues to accompany me on all my expeditions,” says Eric.
When he asked his father for permission for his first expedition, Eric was prepared to hear a no. But his father never really stopped trusting Eric capabilities.
“When nobody trusted me, and everyone started backbiting, my father was my pillar of strength. He told me to stick to the instructions and put my safety first,” he said.
It took Eric over six months to collect all the documents to register himself – including driver fitness, disability certificate etc. He decided to start off with the easiest expedition – the Golden Quadrilateral first. The success of that first trip boosted his confidence, and he has never looked back since then.
After his first expedition, Eric realised he could make these arduous trips count by promoting social causes.
On his second expedition, he interacted with school kids, Army soldiers, several locals and tourists. The goal was to sweep the streets, including construction sites and parks, in areas such as Leh and Kurukshetra, as part of the Swacch Bharat Abhiyaan.
“As soon as I returned from my first expedition I went to my girlfriend, who I had cut off from for some time,” says Eric.
While Eric is a Catholic, Payal belongs to a Pandit family. Though they had the usual issues that inter-caste relationships within Indian families tend to create, they earned their parents’ blessings and married on Valentine’s Day in 2017.
His honeymoon to London gave him the idea of ‘Accessible India’ for his recent expedition.
“During my trip to London, the highly accessible public spaces in the city made me ponder on the difficulties persons with disability and wheelchairs faced in India. So, I decided to take the message for the need of a more accessible India forward,” he says.
He is also encouraging his friends and relatives to construct ramps in their homes, buildings, and offices to make them accessible to persons in wheelchairs.
Eric spent Rs 3 lakh on his first trip and a whopping Rs 7 lakh for the second one. While Eric initially embarked on these expeditions with his savings and financial help from family and friends, over the years sponsors have come forward to help him.
Indeed, his place of work, Taj Mahal Hotels, used its network to give him free accommodation during his halts for his last expedition.
Nowadays Eric continues to connect with his ardent supporters and updates them about his upcoming adventures on his Facebook page, ‘Eric Paul Conquering Disability.’ He even counsels many paraplegic individuals who turn to him for guidance and motivation.
He aims to complete all six expeditions in the Limca Book of Records and is eyeing the Trans-Himalayan route next.
As he bids adieu, I ask him what is his dream drive would be. He smiles bashfully and says, “How about India to London?
Did Eric’s story inspire you? Get in touch with him at Conqueringdisabilityindia@gmail.com or whatsapp him on 097111 17441