The Girl Who Lived

Malvika Iyer Source: Deccan Chronicle

The biggest disability is a bad attitude…- Scott Hamilton

At the age of 25, Malvika Iyer is not only a successful social worker and Ph.D. student but also a motivational speaker who has shared her story and work across several platforms such as TEDxYouth, The India Inclusion Summit and The World Economic Forum. Her dream is to work toward the betterment of the disabled — the idea that animates her life, forms the crux of her philanthropic pursuits. Her courageous struggle against life’s challenges has inspired many.

On 26th May 2002, a freak bomb blast, caused by an ammunition depot catching fire resulted in Malvika losing both her arms and led to multiple injuries to her legs. Her life had been thrown off course overnight. After 18 months of hospitalization and rehab therapies, she was finally able to walk again and was fitted with prosthetic hands.

When asked about how she coped with the rehab process, she said “ My mantra has always been to be positive,” and as clichéd as it sounds it’s probably true. A kind nurse once told her that a lot of the healing process depends on how optimistic you are and Malvika stuck to the motto. “ There was another man beside my ward who had half the injuries I had and yet kept complaining and cursing his life. That’s when me and my family decided to accept my fate, to be positive and keep moving forward.” She believes that a lot of this acceptance comes from cherishing the little things in life like meeting new, inspiring people, traveling and most importantly, her family.

Malvika’s mother, Hema Malini, directed a movie — The Phoenix, starring her. The movie depicts the celebration of life and leaves you with the message that life is meant to be cherished, disabled or not. The movie got shortlisted by ABILITY FEST, 2013 (India International Disability Film Festival). “ My mom surely has played the biggest role in my life. She is naturally such a cheery and happy person that it is impossible to feel gloomy around her.”

Since family support and financial stability play a major role in the recovery process, what of those who are not as opportune? Who face a similar predicament, but do not have the means to survive it emotionally or financially? She says, “ Earlier, prosthetics used to cost a lot. Now we have Indian made ones which are a lot cheaper. Today’s social workers are also a lot more aware and it’s just about connecting them to the right people.” She admits that not having a supportive family worsens the situation. “ I’ve seen quite a few people who are left alone or are treated differently just because they are disabled.” But there are several positives as well. “I went to a shelter home in Chengalpattu and the kids there eat, play and study together and live in their own blissful little world.” she adds wistfully.

Her Ph.D. research topic is on Disability and Inclusion. Malvika conducts surveys and interviews, asking the disabled how included they are in the society and how integrated they feel in the general community. She also studies the society’s attitude towards the visibly disabled. Her agenda is to cohesively integrate the disabled into the society without them having to face discrimination.

Considering all the media attention surrounding her, invariably, a lot of it has been focused on her own disability rather than her work and I ask her if it bothers her at all and this is the reply — “ I have seen a gradual transition in the way the media has portrayed me over the years. At the end of the day, if I have a sorry face and lament on my condition, the media would also pick that up and reflect the same.” Her candid, understated responses speak for themselves.

This intellectually accomplished PhD student also happens to be an amateur poet and writer. Her works, replete with allegories and intense emotion are a treat to the artistic senses. When complimented, she chuckles and gracefully accepts the compliment. “After the accident, I had a lot of time to myself and that’s how I started writing.” Malvika Iyer was also the show stopper at NIFT for Inclusive Fashion, and initiative taken by Ability Foundation and NIFT. “I never thought I would walk the ramp in such a pretty gown,” she exclaims.

When asked about her future plans, she pauses before saying “ I actually don’t like making plans. When I was 9 years old, I was sure that I wanted to become a Kathak dancer but soon everything changed.” On further prodding she reveals that she would definitely like to continue working for the disabled. “Meeting new people related to my field inspire me to expand my reach and continue in this path.”

One wonders what life would have had in store for Malvika if not for the accident. When asked about the same, she gives it a fair bit of thought before confessing that it might have been pretty mediocre and mundane. “ …and mediocrity scares me. In a way, I’m happy it happened as it was probably meant to happen. It makes me special in my own way.”

Malvika Iyer parts with the message that life is meant to be cherished. “ I make sure I take everything one step at a time, one day at a time. I work hard and hope for the best.” She ends it with a sense of hope and eager anticipation for what lies ahead and in the toughest of times, maybe that’s all one needs…hope.

Interviewed on behalf of Spaaak.