If there were an award for over-achievement in the face of adversity, Malvika Iyer would be a prime contender. The problem is, even if she won, there wouldn’t be room on her awards shelf for yet another accolade celebrating her grit-filled and motivation-laced life.
It was a hot summer afternoon of 26 May 2002 in Chennai that changed 13-year-old Iyer’s life forever. Memories of the day are still embedded in her brain. “A pocket of my jeans was torn and hanging out. I decided to stick it with glue and went to the garage in search of a blunt object which I could use to apply pressure on the glued edges.” An ammunition depot in the locality had caught fire a few months previously, which led to many bomb pieces being scattered in the area. Iyer picked up a grenade with no idea of what it was, and took it to her room. Soon enough, it blew up in her hands. “There was smoke all around and I could smell my own burnt flesh. The smell of gunpowder mixed with the smell of blood and my charred skin still haunts me. The sound of the explosion reverberates in my ears and I don’t think it will ever leave me.”
The blast wrecked Iyer’s hands and legs. What followed was two years of surgeries, 18 months of being confined to the bed and a lifetime of challenges. “The dressing, the skin removal and the countless operations were just too painful. I wasn’t sure if I would be able to live with the pain for the rest of my life. Everyday was a tragedy in the hospital.”
It was no better outside. A trained kathak dancer and an expert swimmer Iyer was now learning to take baby steps. “I was staring at a life of dependency. When I met people of my age I was riddled with an inferiority complex. I wanted to be like them. And I tried real hard.” Despite the devastating physical trauma and the loss of a year of education, Iyer went ahead with her board exams. She not only cleared them, but also secured a state rank with 97 percentage. Overnight, she became a celebrity with virtually every major newspaper in the country carrying her story.
That was a turning point, as was the meeting with the then president Dr Abdul Kalam at the Rashtrapati Bhavan. “The heritage building, the paintings, the artefacts, the gorgeous seating area… it was all so beautiful. I went with my mom and dad. He spoke in Tamil and asked about my hand. In the picture with him he was the one who smiled the most. I think we were just too overwhelmed and thrilled to be with him.”
Recovery was a gruelling process. The robotic arms she was fitted with came with a different set of challenges. “I am skinny and the hands were very heavy for me. In summer, they would even slip off due to excessive sweating.” That notwithstanding, this gutsy girl went on to graduate in economics from St Stephen’s College and then did her M.Phil in Social Work.
The TedX talk was her first attempt at sharing her story on a public platform and she enthralled audiences across the globe in Norway, South Africa and Indonesia.“My biggest achievement is the positive influence my story has on millions of people. It’s the best gift I could ever give anyone.” An advocate for inclusion and gender parity, Iyer received the first Women In The World Emerging Leaders Award in New York and in March 2017 was invited to deliver a speech at the United Nations. “There are no words to describe it. I had spoken at many places and to large crowds before, but the UN was a whole new level of experience. It was surreal.”
I” tell people not to put so much pressure on themselves. It’s okay if you didn’t score well in your exams or if your job isn’t perfect. Never forget to appreciate your efforts. And above all - it’s okay to fail.
Currently, Iyer is working on her PhD in social work. When she is not working on awareness campaigns and speaking at various forums, she personally responds to the millions of messages on her social media accounts. “I tell people not to put so much pressure on themselves. It’s okay if you didn’t score well in your exams or if your job isn’t perfect. Never forget to appreciate your efforts. And above all - it’s okay to fail.”
While she has gracefully braced a life full of challenges, it’s the attitude of people that bothers her the most. “The discriminatory attitude along with insensitivity and the propensity to stare is most annoying. Stop staring! We need to be brave and accepting of our bodies. My ultimate dream is to have an inclusive India that is accessible to everyone,” says Iyer who loves gardening and playing with her cat.
Iyer believes this is her second life and doesn’t forget to thank her blessings every single day. “I have a new appreciation of life. I do have bad days. There are so many things I can’t do with my hands. It’s not easy to do everything with stumps. But I wouldn’t want my life any other way. This is what I was meant to do.” The constant pain in her legs notwithstanding, she has learnt to lead a near normal life and is constantly learning new things. Her recent achievements include making a sandwich and folding clothes. “People around me find it surprising that I am so happy and find joy in little things. I tell them you would, too, if you stared death in the face and lived to tell the tale.”