When life gives you a lemon, make lemonade”, goes the popular saying. But, there’s someone out there squeezing it to the last drop, and adding gin and tonic to make a cocktail out of it!! For a Kathak Dancer involved in sports, crafts and many other extra-curricular activities, what happened was extremely final. It was enough to put someone in depression for the rest of their lives. But Malvika Iyer was made of much sterner stuff.

Losing both hands at the tender age of 13, and injuring both her legs, was a devastating loss. Searching for some heavy object to help her weigh down something she had stuck with glue, Malvika, took home a grenade unknowingly. While her parents were in the lounge area with guests, Malvika tried pressing the bomb against the glue – and that blast changed things. Too drastically. For most, this may be very tragic. But Malvika says “This is my second life. I always celebrate the day I met with the accident as a second birthday, 26th May 2002.”

Malvika Iyer, whom we had a word with recently, tells us “I had multiple fractures, nerve paralysis and hyperesthesia and the first couple of years were extremely traumatic, painful and with a plethora of surgeries.” The doctors were also recommending to amputate my left leg as it was upside down and finally it was restored using external fixators. Recalling that phase of life, Malvika sighs, “I was a scary, gory mess”

The Survival & Indomitable Spirit

She speaks about doctors concerned about her survival on the first night of the accident as Malvika puts, “I lost so much of blood that day.” When asked where does she gets all this courage from, she especially credits her mother, saying “I was blessed to have the support of my family, both my parents and especially my mother. She is the force behind everything. And even my father and my sister helped me come out of this trauma.”

The onset of new challenges was not only physical, Malvika, who bluntly recollects that “It was more of environmental barriers and the discriminatory attitude of people, framing stereotypes, and when they look at women with disability, they reduce us to mere mantelpieces.” And again, it was her mother’s confidence in her that lifted Malvika’s spirit. She stunned at the fickle social milieu that ridiculed her to the extent of hurting emotionally. But her will and support from her family were very strong – this helped to soothe her.

Malvika holding her PhD thesis,

The bold step she took was to appear for the 10th board exams wherein she’d dictate her answers, including the mathematics equations and graphs to the fellow writer. Quite a gargantuan task for someone who was not used to this. But she had prepared for this. The 10th-grade exams for which she appeared soon after the accident, prepared her for the challenges to come. Including the zest to complete the PhD, which she did in 2016. Discussing this with her mother gave her the courage to break free the trauma surrounding her recent disability.

The Eureka Moment

Recalling her board exams, Malvika says “I joined as a private candidate and studied for the last 3 months after missing out a year and a half of schooling, and I had to dictate everything to the writer which would have me exhausted by the end of the exam.” And when questioned about the amount of hard work and perseverance, she replies “It was all that I had with me that time. I scored 97% in 10th boards, and that result changed my life drastically after the accident. With a score of 100/100 in Mathematics and Science, I was fully satisfied by those results.” Her keenest insight came from her mother, who said, “the marks are not an achievement, your determination to study and sit in the exams is a greater achievement.”

Malvika Iyer, meeting Dr. Abdul Kalam – Malvika is wearing prosthetic hands.

Malvika goes on to quote her mom who believes “It is your effort towards achievement that makes you stronger than the achievement itself.” This was something that caught even the eye of the then President, Dr Abdul Kalam. As  Malvika says, “Meeting Dr Kalam at the Rashtrapati Bhavan was a divine experience.”

Never give up attitude

Looking back to the times and the opportunities that came her way, Malvika stresses “No matter what the accident took from me, it cannot take away my spirit, my will to carry on – and not give up.” And the learnings from such attitude, she continues “The greatest lesson was to accept what had happened to me and also accept my challenges with the imperfections.” 

For her, every day is a different challenge – but finding hope is important. Sometimes body pain, not able to perform, physical challenges, there are many reasons to give up – but when you find hope where there is none– you don’t give up and then you move towards the road to success.

The societal and environmental barriers are the greater challenges because, she says “I can fight what my body throws at me but there are societal and environmental barriers like not making places accessible for people with disability and having stereotypes and negative perceptions towards the disability – considering them lesser than them, etc. are the ones I faced and many other disabled people across the world are facing every day.” 

Being an Advocate for Disability 

Being an advocate for the people with disabilities, Malvika is working to help them secure their rights. She recounts “I was fortunate to raise upon the issues of people with disability at the UN in New York in 2017. It was a humbling moment for me when people gave my speech a standing ovation. Just made me realize how I went about in life being a city girl to getting a standing ovation at the UN event. “

Malvika at a World Economic Forum

The journey to becoming the advocate for disability began from the day she started speaking up for herself. Reflecting on her indomitability of spirit, Malvika claims “Representing people with disability and speaking up for them and my peers, talking to other people with disability whose voice plummets with every passing day. My goal was to reach out to those people and be the voice to them.” This is also something that gave her the confidence to move along with life by casting off her own disability and brushing off emotional turmoil.

Breaking the Stereotypes

Malvika is frank when asked whether she is a heroine every day in her life. She opines that “There are some days you will not find hope. And some are those when you can’t pull through the day and keep dragging your body.” Speaking further on the drudgery involved, she says “I think of going out and doing something but there are restrictions and pain in my body that bind me.” Here is where she tries to make us understand the taboo around mental health and how breaking such stigmas are crucial. She emphasises this by adding “We not only need a healthy body but also a healthy mind.”

Cooking is something that she considers therapeutic and after trying her hands on since the past 2 years, she can finally cook. She is elated as she speaks “I think, more than the awards and even the PhD, I feel to be able to cook is the biggest achievement. I even recently made Dhaba Palak Paneer.”, she laughs. It makes her happy because there was a list of things that she thought she’d do growing up but was denied, due to the accident. A struggle with herself inside the head, she ends up a winner as she is ticking off one such thing at a time. 

On Women: Lessons and Message

Malvika feels women are constantly put under the “groups and labels.” She adds, “Women are confined to go for the same old things – getting a good husband, learning to cook and yes, look beautiful.” Such labels burn a plethora of hopes and aspirations in millions of women. Malvika says “we have a lot of energy and are capable to do so many things than just what is said and expected.” She advises women to not let any of the labels define themselves, exemplifying further, “Women need not limit themselves to labelled achievements that are set by the social norms. I am truly against this.” She is a living rebel who wrote-off these labels being a disabled woman and empathized on “never succumbed to such pressures.” Malvika, remembering her college days puts forth how she failed miserably by “forcefully trying to fit in.”

Her identity crisis did not come on the way of achievements and suggests women to “not give up during any adversities. No one’s life is without challenges. Having the courage to be able to overcome those challenges is a quality that every woman should go for.”

Being a part of children’s book that advocates women role models, as someone who got featured, she advocates “When you are young, your attitude towards life takes a shape. That is the right age to be introduced to such stories where real-life women are heroes. These are the women I’d want children to look up as role-models.”

Awards and Accolades

Malvika Iyer is now a motivational speaker, a model, a woman holding a doctorate in social work and a social worker who spends time advocating gender equality and rights of the disabled. On 8th March 2018, she received a highest civilian award for women – Naari Shakti Purushkar. She also abodes Outstanding Model Student Award by Wisdom International Magazine, REX Karmaveer Chakra Global Fellowship in 2014 and also the First Women in World Emerging Leaders’ Award in 2016. The Deccan Chronicle in 2015 featured her in 100 Change Agents and Newsmakers of the Decade. 

Malvika Iyer receiving Naari Shakti Purushkar in 2018

There is a lot of learning for those with no hope. A plethora of shining light who are disabled or gifted. And for all the women out there, Malvika leads an epitomic example of what a strong will and never give up attitude can do in life.