In 2016, a unique radio-documentary won the National Akashvani annual award. Bird of Fire featured Deepa Malik, the first Indian woman to win a medal at the Paralympics. In 2012, at the age of 42, she became the oldest recipient of the Arjuna Award.
Being a paraplegic has never stopped Deepa. She has won over 17 international medals and 58 National Gold medals in shot put, swimming and javelin throw and several other accolades, including the Padma Shri in 2017.
But the journey towards this kind of success has been no less than a miracle, and the radio, she says, has made a significant contribution to the magic in her life.
“It was in the early 1970s that my parents noticed weakness in my lower limbs. They realized that I was unable to climb the stairs. In 1975, at age five, I landed in the Pune Command Hospital. The doctors were unable to diagnose my illness. The technology had not developed. MRI or CT scans were not available. They tested me regularly, and treated me for just about anything. As my condition deteriorated each day, I was stuck to the same room, the same bed for over a year,” says Deepa, talking at the National Radio Festival held earlier this year.
While the television had made an entry by the 1970s, accessing different channels was not an easy task. “Usually someone had to go out and rotate a 20 meter long antenna tied on to a tree. I found it very difficult to find such a person. So I spend my entire day listening to the radio. And that was the beginning of my unique partnership with the radio.”
The time at the Pune command hospital ended with a diagnosis. Deepa had a tumor in her spine. She was operated upon and after another year of rehabilitation, she started to walk again.
She put the years of struggled behind her, but not her fascination for radio. A big cricket fan, she and her two friends in college decided to invest in a radio to listen to the cricket commentary. Unable to resist it, they bought a pair of headphones and decided to listen to the commentary during class hours.
Finally, the teacher caught the trio. As a punishment, the teacher sent her to the cricket coach. “If you are so interested in cricket, you should try it,” he said, Deepa recalls. Soon she was hooked to the sport and became a part of the Rajasthan Women’s Cricket team. “And that was the first time I feel, I became anchored to sports.”
It was around that time that Deepa met Colonel (Retd) Bikram Singh Malik. They fell in love, and then the radio reappeared again.
“In our times, a letter used to take about 15 days to reach. My fiancé was a young officer in charge of a convoy deployed to take them from place A to B. He would never receive my letters. The only idea of romance was through the lovely songs on the radio. They say radio creates pictures; I could literally fantasize my love story on each of the songs played on the radio. This kept us going.”
Her eyes light up when she talks about her two daughters. She always wanted to have a family, she even dreamt about the names of her children. “In our unit, there were two sons Kamal and Neeraj and their names meant the same, the lotus flower. There was another couple whose daughters were named Saiyam and Priyam. They didn’t mean the same, but they rhymed. When I became a mother, I wanted my children’s names to mean the same, and also rhyme. Again, the radio came to my rescue. I would hear endless song requests from contributors, on the various programs, and I hoped to find a pair of such names. And find I did! I named my daughters Devika and Ambika.”
Her razor sharp humour kicks in, she adds, “It’s a different story that now my husband teases and sometimes calls me ‘Chandalika’.”
Deepa’s life took a dramatic turn in 1999. Her spinal tumours reappeared. Her condition was fast deteriorating and her husband was at the Kargil War. Deepa herself was at war with her failing health. “I couldn’t sit up for long, and I was constantly travelling for checkups. As my condition further deteriorated, I was admitted to R R Hospital in Delhi.”
The hospital itself was in a crisis mode. The entire hospital had been converted into an ICU as war casualties were flowing in. “I underwent a 20-hour long surgery. I became paralysed below the chest, there were complications in the brain, fluid had leaked, another surgery was conducted, and I was put on a ventilator.”
There were 20 others around her who were on ventilators in the same hall. And from time to time, a ventilator would start beeping “I felt like I was surrounded by the sound of death. It felt like a Chinese torture chamber. I couldn’t take it anymore.”
To rescue herself, Deepa asked for a radio. The hospital staff initially refused. Deepa insisted that she would wear headphones. “And then for the next 40 days, I continued to listen to the radio as a huge supply of batteries kept reaching me. The worst time of my life was seen through by a radio.”
Since her surgeries, Deepa has been bound to a wheelchair. But none of this has stopped Deepa from her love for sports and adventure. In 2008, she swam for a kilometre at a stretch in the Yamuna against the current – for which she has two Limca records to her name. She received another mention in Limca Adventure Records when she became the first Paraplegic woman to cover a journey of 3278 Km from Chennai to Delhi on a bike.
She also drove across nine high altitude passes of the highest motorable roads in Ladakh in nine days.
At home, when Deepa is not on her wheelchair, she is confined to her bed. Yet, she needs to run a home and a family. “Sitting in the bed I can run the house because I have acquired the quality to understand sounds – In which room is a fan running unnecessarily? How many whistles has the cooker made? Was the ghee too hot when the tempering was prepared? Did the cumin seeds burn? Which pan has been taken out to prepare tea? I then shout out to my help, no not that pan, the other one. My help is usually shocked. This is the power of sound. This is what falling in love with sounds has given me,” says Deepa as she smiles tenderly.
Celebrated artist Frida Kahlo once said ‘Feet, why do I need you, when I have wings to fly’. Deepa Malik’s life is a soaring example of such a flight.
Watch the complete video of Deepa’s address at the Radio Festival here:
Lakshmi Karunakaran is an educator and community media professional based in Bangalore. She works with Radio Active 90.4 FM as a producer and RJ. She can be reached at email@example.com