“You begin saving the world by saving one person at a time; all else is grandiose romanticism or politics.” – Charles Bukowski.
On the hot summer afternoon of 26 May 2002, 13-year-old Malvika Iyer’s life changed forever. A freak bomb blast would leave Malvika an amputee without control of her limbs. However, with a promising future seemingly taken away from her, Malvika did not despair. Instead, she faced all challenges head-first, overcoming obstacles, and inspiring millions along the way.
Today, Malvika is a Disability Rights activist and a motivational speaker. The 28-year-old has won numerous awards, been recognised by several media outlets, spoken at platforms like TedX and the UN, and is a member of UN Women (IANYD – Inter-Agency Network on Youth Development) and Global Shapers Community, an initiative of the World Economic Forum.
The Logical Indian recently spoke with Malvika. This is Malvika Iyer’s story – one of hard work, passion, and courage.
Though she was born in Tamil Nadu, Malvika grew up in Bikaner, Rajasthan. A Kathak enthusiast, she dreamt of becoming a professional Kathak dancer and an interior designer.
At the time of the accident, Malvika was in her 9th grade. “I still remember the time it happened – it was 1:15 in the afternoon. I was outside my house – we lived in a colony. At that time, I discovered that one of the jeans pocket was torn and hanging out.”
An ammunition depot in the locality had caught fire a few months ago. Therefore, there were many bomb pieces scattered in the area. Malvika found a piece in the garage. “I had the brilliant idea of applying Fevicol to the torn edges of my jeans to stick it back together. I went to the garage in search of a blunt object which I could use to apply pressure on the glued edges.”
Malvika picked up a grenade – though she had no idea that it was one – and went back to her room. The grenade would soon blow up in her hands. “I remember the time exactly: it was 1.15 pm in the afternoon. I took the grenade shell and jabbed it to the pocket. When I repeated the action, it exploded.”
The blast wrecked Malvika’s room. Her parents and guests initially assumed it was sound from the television. However, when they arrived in Malvika’s room, they were in for a rude shock. “The room was a mess, everything blown apart. And then there was me: I looked gory, with blood all over me. However, I was still conscious. My mother, on seeing me, screamed and came to my side. ‘Meri beti ki haath!’ I remember her exclaiming.”
Malvika was rushed to a hospital in a jeep. On the way, it came to light that the blast had wrecked not only Malvika’s hands, but also her legs. Malvika would lose 80% blood and 70% of nerve control over her limbs that day.
Somehow, Malvika struggled and survived that night. So began a long struggle. It would be a physical struggle and an emotional one as well – and one that Malvika had to largely fight on her own. What followed that fateful day was 2 years of surgeries, 18 months of being bedridden, and a life that posed challenges every single day.
“I wish no one has to go through what I went through those months,” Malvika says.
Malvika and her family soon relocated to Chennai. She had missed out on over a year’s education and had lost control of her limbs.
Three months before the 10th grade finals, Malvika tied a rubber band to her arm and tried to write. Soon, she convinced her parents and joined a coaching centre.
“I was determined to catch up on my education. The people at the coaching centre were very supportive, and I had my parents to guide me all the way. In the months before my finals, all I did was study. The day of my examination, when I looked in the mirror with confidence, was the proudest day for my mother. I ended up scoring 483 out of 500 and securing a state rank.”
The result and Malvika’s hard work did not go unrecognized. Malvika became an overnight celebrity; virtually every major newspaper in the country carried Malvika’s story.
“And before I knew it, I met Dr Kalam. The media really encouraged me; they highlighted my story in a positive light. Soon, I joined regular school. I was hardworking – I had to be. I graduated in Economics from St Stephen’s and began interacting with more people.”
“I camouflaged my disabilities”
The increased interaction and coverage also had a negative effect on Malvika. “I began feeling a little inferior about myself. I was not confident – most of the time, I camouflaged my disabilities. When I met new people I was terrified if they put forth their hands to shake mine. I began hiding my hands to avoid such situations because I did not want to relive what had happened to me, let alone discuss it with anyone. I tried to be normal but it was not possible because I was not normal. That phase, when I tried to fit in, was a very difficult one. It was some time before I fully understood that trying to be like everyone is futile. It is better to be yourself, to be who you are, and to do what you want.”
In 2012 Malvika shared her story on Facebook. Her friends, though they knew of her disability, never knew the reason behind it as Malvika has refrained from talking about the incident. But the Facebook post changed that. Malvika explained clearly what happened to her, how recovering was a gruelling process, and how she felt grateful towards the help she received from various people in her life.
The post was well-received. Malvika soon gave her first TedX talk – “which was also my first public speech” – and got a standing ovation from the audience (the talk, held in Chennai, can be found here).
“I got many good responses,” Malvika told The Logical Indian. “I received many encouraging messages on my phone and on social media thanking me. This encouraged me to speak more. I continued giving speeches and inspiring people across India. I was also invited to speak at conferences outside the country too – like in Norway, South Africa, and Indonesia. 2014-2015 was a transformatory period for me.”
“Every day is a challenge for the differently-abled,”
Malvika continued her studies and pursued her MPhil in Social Work. It was here that she interacted with differently-abled children. Down the lane, she began researching ill treatment meted out to differently-abled people and the negative attitude society can have towards them.
For her PhD, Malvika interviewed over 1000 college students. She created her own questionnaire – after all, she knew them first-hand the problems faced by differently-abled people.
Malvika wants to finish her PhD, speak more, inspire more, and work hard to make life better for differently-abled people. “Nothing was planned in my life. I wanted to become a kathak dancer and interior designer now I can’t.”
“Every day is a challenge for the differently-abled. While some people are biased against differently-abled people, others treat them with pity; they view the lives of differently-abled people as a sad state affairs. This is simply wrong and untrue.”
Achievements & inspirations
An advocate for inclusion and gender, Malvika also walked the ramp at the NIFT Fashion Show in 2014. She is passionate about fashion for the differently-abled community. She has been the subject of numerous newspaper articles and books, even finding a place among the 100 Change Agents and Newsmakers of the Decade.
Malvika received the first Women In The World Emerging Leaders Award in New York. She joined UN Women (IANYD) 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. It was surreal, amazing experience.”
“My mom never gives up. I faced many challenges after 2002; she faced them with me. She is a very strong woman. We always talked about moving forward. And, together, we did move forward.”
We asked Malvika who inspires her. She replied, “Really, anyone who treats people equally, without any judgement or preconceived notion, is an inspiration to me.”
The Logical Indian community applauds the perseverance and accomplishments of Malvika Iyer. People like her bring pride to India and inspire us all. We wish her the very best with her PhD and all her future endeavours.