: "I am the happiest person on earth", Malathi K Holla declares with a wide grin. Pride, guts and defiance echo in those words.
Malathi talks about her childhood at the Ishwari Prasad Dattatraya Orthopaedic Centre at Chennai, as a post-polio residual paraplegic. She spent the first 15 years of her life shuttling between operation theatres, recovery rooms, physiotherapy wings, and the school attached to the centre. The number of surgeries she had here gives a clearer picture of her childhood : seventeen. These were in addition to the 10 she had in her hometown, Bangalore.
"When I was in Madras I didn't know there was another world", she says conversationally. Growing up with 200 other children with varying orthopaedic problems, the pain and the rigours of regimen were accepted without question. Family time was restricted to vacations.
After the treatment and on completing SSLC, she moved back to Bangalore. The world, as she knew it, within the safe walls of the orthopaedic centre vanished overnight. The normal - or 'able' - world was difficult to tackle from day one. At college, her classes were on higher floors. Things were not going easy on the home front either. She wanted to be independent while her siblings and mother wanted to 'take care' of her. Malathi felt isolated and overwhelmed.
Yet, what emerged from the crucible was stronger. And the catalyst that aided the transformation was Sri Krishnamurthy Holla, her father. He told her, "Look child, that world (the Chennai Centre) is gone. You should come out of your shell. A whole new world is there outside waiting for you. You should accept it. You too belong here. You should go and get what you want, demand it. If not, you will be like any other ordinary person in the world". This changed her inside out and the very next day she approached the Principal of the college to shift her classess to the ground floor. The request was granted immediately. Once she tasted this victory there was no looking back.
The tenderness that laces her words while speaking of her father is unmistakeable. "He was my backbone, my courage and my guide. I want to open a rehabilitation centre for those rendered paraplegics after accidents, in papa's name. It was he who admitted me to the rehab centre, and today I am independent (there is a lot of stress on that word) financially and mentally. The accident victims have tasted freedom and then suddenly have it snatched away! It takes a lot of support to bring them back to the mainstream", says Malathi.
When did sports come into her life? At Chennai, it was compulsory that everyone exercised and she was made to strengthen her shoulders. Once back in Bangalore she entered the National Games just to try her luck. To her surprise she finished with two gold and silver medals each. And this helped her land a job with Syndicate Bank. Thereafter, she pursued sports with a passion. Her events are 100 and 200 meters wheelchair races, shot put, discus, and javelin.
"One thing I believe is that even when all the doors are closed God leaves a small window open. One should look for it. You may not get what you want, but so what? Work with what you have. I am 45, and I am still a gold medallist. At my age, a normal 'able' person will not be able to compete". Malathi's plain-speak continued, "if I am not able to grab an opportunity, it is not the fault of society. I think of my disability as a God-given gift. Had I been a normal person I would have been just one in a sea of faces. We see the world as we look at it. If you look at it with aspiration and ambition, it gives you what you want, but you've got to work hard too".
Work hard she does. The day starts at 4 30 AM with swimming. She leaves for the bank by 8, and works as a loyal employee until 4 PM. Then she heads to the stadium to practice till 7 PM, and reaches home at 8 in the night. The couple of hours she spends reading and writng, keeping in touch with friends, are her private hours till she turns in at 11:30 PM. Besides work and sports Malathi is involved in the running of the Margadarshi Association for Physically Handicapped Women and Children, and the Sports Council of Paraplegics.
The brilliant athlete is convinced that the worst disability one can have is inferiority complex. She doesn't allow anything or anybody to browbeat her, even if it is the Union Minister for Finance. In 1994, Malathi had to go to Delhi to obtain an exemption from excise duty for her imported modified Maruti car. At the meeting, the then Minister Dr Manmohan Singh adopted the typical bureaucratic approach. "How can I believe that you are Malathi Holla and these certificates are yours?", he asked. Malathi didn't miss a beat. "How can I believe that you are Manmohan Singh?", she replied. She didn't stop at that. "If you had any doubts about my certificates, you should have checked with the Shastri Bhavan sports section", she retorted. The Minister didn't have much to say after that, and the exemption was waiting for her when she reached home.
Among the umpteen honours that have come her way are the Arjuna Award (1995), and the Padma Shri (2001). Her take on her celebrity status: "Things come and fall at your feet once you become a little popular. Never misuse it. With recognition comes responsibility. Don't be demanding. How long can the society keep giving, unless you show results? The top brass in my bank is never disappointed with me. Wherever I go, I come back with a medal or more, and so they are willing to back me". She joined as a clerk in 1983, and today Malathi is a Branch Manager.
Amidst the tought talk and bubbling optimism, are there tinges of the blues? "Of course there are", she replies, "and there will be. Everybody gets them, There are days when I sit alone and cry. During these dark moments looking at what I have achieved helps". She was unafraid to show her vulnerability. "So what if you fall, just pick yourself up and continue. Don't hesitate to ask for help. I know you feel embarrassed to ask and public reaction is not always kind. But you cannot let that affect you. Life goes on. So let's live fully, with all the colours of the rainbow".
It is impossible to remain an unaffected third party with Malathi. One moment she sweeps you off with the strength of a tidal wave, and the next she has you worrying about her vulnerability. Then, again her brimming optimism wins you over, even as she makes sure you remain aware of cold, harsh realities. While trying to feel my way through these tumultuous reactions, I was sure of only one thing: it is hard to forget this woman.