‘The Happiness Road’ is a weekly Series on this Blog that appears on Sundays where I share my conversations with people while exploring their idea of happiness!
This Sunday, I am pleased to introduce to you Malathi Holla – international para athlete, Life enthusiast and perhaps the most resilient person on the planet!
When Vaani and I finish meeting with Malathi Holla, the following lines from Balu Mahendra’s Sadma (1983, sung by Suresh Wadkar; picturized on Kamal Hassan and Sri Devi – listen to original song here) hum in my head:
Aye Zindagi Gale Laga Le…
Aye Zindagi Gale Laga Le…
Humne Bhi, Tere Har Ek Gham Ko, Gale Se Lagaya Hai, Hai Na?
Translated, these lines mean:
Hey Life, embrace me!
Haven’t I embraced all the pain that you have sent my way?
At 57, Malathi Holla epitomizes the spirit of Gulzar’s unputdownable lyrics and her Life itself, despite all the upheavals she has seen, is beautiful, harmonious and soulful – quite like the maestro Ilayaraja’s music for this song is, making his Bollywood debut memorable!
Malathi was afflicted with polio when she was 14 months old. Additionally, she has a condition called contracture –where the nerves in her body get bunched up in a ball and have to be unknotted surgically. The effect of contracture, especially in the pelvic region, is very painful – the whole body curves up, like an arch, with the legs getting bent backward and the back moving forward. She has had 33 surgeries in all so far but she hardly displays any angst or bitterness. On the other hand, she oozes positivity and radiates happiness. This, despite the fact that she has had a forgettable childhood – her own mother, not knowing how to cope with the rigor of raising a special child, treated Malathi like an outsider. But Malathi ploughed on, burying her grief and choosing to be without resentment or malice. She trained, on her own steam, to become a champion athlete representing India in various international sporting events including the Paralympics – in 100 metres and 200 metres wheelchair racing and in discus, shot put and javelin throws – and winning 421 medals in all; 389 golds, 27 silvers and 5 bronzes! She was a senior manager with Syndicate Bank until recently and currently runs the Mathru Foundation, an NGO, that supports 13 children with special needs to get basic education and take up mainstream careers. In 2009 a biography of Malathi – A Different Spirit, written by Dr.Anantha Krishnan – was released.
I ask Malathi how is she able to stay anchored, positive and so outrageously happy – despite all that she is still going through?
“I simply enjoy the pain, AVIS. This is my idea of happiness.” – that’s Malathi’s short answer. But I press on. And she gives me this long answer: “I can’t walk. I have been confined to a wheelchair. I have a perpetual physically painful condition. I have not experienced parental love. Now what can I do about all these things – there is physical pain and there is emotional pain? Can I get rid of the pain by going on grieving about it? So I simply accept my Life for what it is. Pain is painful when you see it as pain. I keep reminding myself that I can at least feel the pain. There are so many people out there, who are in conditions that are far worse than mine. They can’t even feel the pain. That’s why I count my blessings and enjoy my pain. I see my pain as the source of my happiness; it is a sign that I am alive. So I am happy!”
But isn’t she tired of pushing her way through Life? She has had to fight for everything – apart from competing in sports, she has had to fight the Indian government’s myopic view that sportspeople with special needs don’t need to get mainstream recognition. It took her 18 years, but she eventually convinced the government and was awarded the Arjuna award in 1996. She was also awarded the Padma Sri in 2001. So, at her age, isn’t she wondering how she will cope with the future? Malathi is nonplussed: “I am not one who ever thinks of the future. I want to live in the moment. And I live in the moment.”
She tells us that anyone can be resilient. It is not a capability that only a chosen few can acquire. It is in you. You are resilient the moment you choose not be a slave of the circumstances. If you can be unmoved by what is happening to you, you can be strong in any situation. “Every problem has a solution. There are no problems without solutions. There is a way – you must look for it, that’s all. And in situations when I can’t find a solution, I simply accept whatever is the situation, condition or problem. This way I am perennially peaceful with myself and my world,” she explains.
She then makes a phenomenal point: “You must ensure that you don’t mix up your situation with your idea of who you are. I am not my physical condition. I have a post polio residual paralysis condition, that’s it. When you see your Life this way, you will realize that we are all legends. Each of us has the right and the opportunity to be a legend – provided we are willing to walk on the path of acceptance, letting go and keeping faith in the larger cosmic design. I know this – I am the legend of happiness.”
Photo by Vaani Anand
Vaani and I met Malathi at the Taj Vivanta coffee shop in Bangalore – we chose that venue because it was wheelchair friendly. When we finished, we were keen to know how we could help Malathi get back home. That’s when we saw a live expression of her ‘different spirit’. Her eyes lit up even as she politely turned down our offer to drop her back: “Come with me. Let me show you how I get around this city.” She wheeled herself down the ramp in the hotel’s porch. And proceeded to her car – a specially designed Maruti Zen. She opened the car’s door and before we knew it, she had hoisted herself on to the driver’s seat and worn the seat belt. She flicked open the boot and request the hotel staff to put her wheelchair back in there. She beamed her million-watt smile at us, gestured a ‘thumbs up’ and, before driving away, said, “Send me the pictures on WhatsApp! What a beautiful technology isn’t it? What a beautiful world we live in, what a beautiful Life this is. We are all blessed, aren’t we?”
As I finish writing this piece, that number from Sadmais still humming in my head. Malathi’s is indeed a different spirit – a spirit that we must all invite into our lives; to guide us too, to being happy despite our circumstances!