It was the summer of 1999. At the onset of the Kargil conflict, a young army major was commanding a post close to the Line of Control in Jammu and Kashmir’s Akhnoor sector.
The last two days had been unusually quiet for a combat zone. “We were 80 metres away from the enemy post. A 48-hour lull at that time, without a single bullet being fired, was slightly unnerving. When the conflict scene is hot and nothing happens, you have a feeling that something bad is about to happen. There was a sense of foreboding which precedes a tragedy,” recalls Major Devender Pal Singh, who was just 25 then.
A few minutes later, shelling from the rival camp began, and that very second, mortar exploded just 1.5 metres away from Singh. “The killing area of a bomb is in an eight-metre diameter. Today I can joke that the bomb had my name written on it but it couldn’t still kill me. Jaako raakhe saiyan, mar sake na koye,” he guffaws.
Back from the dead
Singh lost consciousness and was declared dead by a doctor at an army hospital. A specialist miraculously revived him, but three days later he was told that gangrene had set in and his right leg would have to be amputated. It was a traumatic period in Singh’s life. His stomach had been operated upon twice, he was suffering partial deafness and doctors were struggling to extract more than 40 splinters embedded in his body. “My life turned upside down. But I saw it in a positive light,” he says.
What could possibly be positive about the idea of spending the rest of your life without a leg? “I saw it positively because although I had lost a limb, the kind of lifestyle I am leading now was something I had always wanted to lead,” reasons Singh.
After running the Delhi Marathon in 2009, Singh became the face of amputee athletes in the country. He has since run many high-profile half marathons with a especially designed blade (see box).
If not for his disability and resolve to run, Singh would have become another impersonal statistic in the archives of war, he says. “If I had recovered, I could have been any other person walking on a street. Even if I had died, I would have been one of thousands of unsung Indian soldiers.”
Not only did running as an amputee change Singh’s day-to-day life, it also helped him change people’s attitudes towards the disabled. “It has helped me bring positivity to people who have lost a limb,” he says.
Today, when you see him hobble with his artificial leg, it isn’t easy to imagine Singh as a dynamic, young army officer who was promoted to a Major’s rank at just 25.
He spent his childhood in the cantonment town of Roorkee, best known for its Indian Institute of Technology. Singh’s father worked with the general reserve engineering forces and he studied in the Kendriya Vidyalaya.
From Class 2 onwards, Singh stayed with his grandparents. Since they were religious, their beliefs left a deep impact on him as a child. “Like the army, the history of Sikhism, too, is full of instances of sacrifice and putting service before self,” says Singh.
“So, it was natural that I would gravitate towards the armed forces. Otherwise Roorkee is synonymous with preparing for the IIT and 95 per cent of my friends did just that. I was one of the rare ones who never attempted an engineering exam.”
He had grown up dreaming of a career with the armed forces, but Singh wasn’t prepared for the obstacles he encountered before he could wear the uniform. He failed twice in the NDA entrance exam and even flunked Class 11. “It was in my second attempt that I cleared the Combined Defence Services (CDS) exam. But I never had doubts about which profession I wanted to be in,” he says.
After completing his graduation through distance learning and clearing the CDS exam, Singh joined training in Hyderabad. “I got commissioned in December 1997 and in January, I joined the unit. Within two months, my unit got posted near the Line of Control. In March, the unit moved near the LoC in the Akhnoor area.”
Those familiar with military matters are aware that Akhnoor is strategically very important for the Army, a region which was active during wars against Pakistan, in 1965 and 1971. “The Line of Control runs through the wide, open Munnawar Tawi River, which is not very conducive for militants to cross. But it in a war scenario, the area becomes very hot because from this area you can move in tanks and big weapons,” says Singh, talking about the terrain he was posted in at the time of the mortar explosion.
Singh was declared dead after the explosion and the world was about to give up on him. From that stage, to running his first half marathon, to becoming an icon for amputees, what did it involve? “Looking back, I can laugh about it. But there were times when it was bloody tough. The only part I didn’t re-learn in my second life was crawling. Otherwise, from lying down on the bed, to being on my feet and learning how to walk again, first with a crutch and then with an artificial leg: I went through a gamut of emotions.”
One-and-a-half months after the accident, Singh was still in intensive care. His weight had dropped to 28kg. It is then that a realisation dawned upon him. “I never felt I was dying. The moment one gives up, one is dead. Then even the doctors can’t save you. This was God’s own given path for me. When the news that my leg was affected with gangrene was delivered, I could have given up. But I saw it like a challenge. I said to myself: ‘Let me see how people without one leg live.’”
Singh reckons that family, or loved ones, or friends cannot do much in such situations. It is not the amputees or the affected people who are bogged down by their injuries. Rather, it is the people around them who make them feel negative. “It has been ten years since. I made a promise to myself: I won’t compromise with my lifestyle and a healthy lifestyle includes running. It is an in-built facility in every person. But I wasn’t able to immediately arrive at the ways and means for running with an artificial leg. Nobody in India had heard of such a thing,” he says.
Apart from setting an example for other amputees, the decision to run a marathon with an artificial leg was taken, Singh says, for himself. “Running makes me happy. The fact that others get inspired by me is a by-product. I am providing others with the attitude to beat the odds.”
Over the next 10 years, he realised the kind of difficulties people with disability face. “There is a problem with our built environment. We keep holding seminars on disability. But nothing will change till the individual is empowered. That is how I chose to run my first marathon in 2009.”
Having run three half-marathons, when the army supported him by funding a sophisticated blade, Singh thought time was ripe to formulate a group to bring together people like him. That was the genesis of the non-profit group The Challenging Ones.
“The nomenclature is derived from ‘physically challenged’ used to describe the disabled. But we are not the challenged. We can do something which a four-limbs-intact person is doing and we are doing it with one limb less, by putting 200 per cent to be at par with ‘normal’ people. We are doing more with less. By challenging the status quo, we become the challengers.”
Since 2011, Singh’s group has grown to a family of 750 amputees from all across the country. Recently, the group participated in the Red Bull Wings for Life Marathon. “We also have a peer support group. When we come to know of a new accident case, the attempt is to go and meet the person. Recently, after a marathon in Bangalore, along with four fresh amputees, I met a teenager named Sachin at the Pro Med Hospital who had lost three limbs (two legs and one hand) in a bad road accident.
Sachin is a BE Second Year student. When Singh told him it wasn’t the end of the world and that it could actually be the beginning of a new life, it gave strength to the family and the person concerned. It suggested an altogether new thought process to Sachin: When so many others could run again, so could he. “I’ve invited Sachin to come and run with us. A marathon is the best way to restore the confidence of a person with disability. When people are out cheering for the people who cross the finish line, it is an incredible feeling. That is when the shift of attitude happens and I do nothing but help this shift of confidence.”
Having recently quit his banking job, Singh is putting all his energy into the NGO and motivational speaking. “I share my life story without connecting it with jargon or self-help books. I share only my life learnings and build the inner self of a person. The main teaching is correcting the person’s attitude towards himself and the world. It should move from negativity towards positivity. You cannot motivate anybody for their own individual challenges. There is no one-size-fits-all solution. The biggest pill is positivity.”
Singh cites an example from a particularly negative phase in his own life when he was fighting a long, legal battle with the army. “I wasn’t getting the correct disability pension. But I couldn’t blame the entire Army or the Ministry of Defence for it. My contention is that every soldier should get the respect and benefits due to him. Each of us is fighting for the motherland. They said I wasn’t in the ‘theatre of war’. Can you believe it? Even a decade after the mishap, anybody who does an X-ray of my body will find bomb particles with the marking ‘Made in Pakistan.’”
Follow @Aasheesh74 on Twitter
From HT Brunch, October 18
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