Malathi Holla: Truly, A Different Spirit! Reads: 407

Malathi Holla: Truly, A Different Spirit!

When she wheels herself into a room, you realize she's special. Very special. It's as if a sun beam has suddenly lit up the place. Her handshake is firm. There is warmth in her voice. You notice that she smiles and laughs very often. And the laughter is full-throated. Vivacious.

There are no airs about Malathi. Neither is there an iota of self-pity. No cautious, gentle wheeling for her. Every entry, every exit, in fact every move is sure, quick, purposeful and even impetuous.

This is Malathi Krishnamurthy Holla. International wheelchair athlete. World-renowned Paralympian.

She is probably not as well known as the sports stars of a parallel universe. TV channels don't have footage on her — but she is a star in her own right. Her achievements no less than those of her luckier, better-known peers.

At 52, she's still the fastest female Indian athlete in a wheelchair. Conferred with the prestigious Arjuna, Ekalavya and Padma Shri awards, she's won over 300 medals at national and international events — participating in most of them in a rented wheelchair! No fancy gear for her.

Her laughter, her boundless energy and her zest for life are tough to keep pace with. As the room rings with her laughter, you don't realize that every time she moves her right leg — which is roughly every two minutes, to aid circulation — a broken bone which has not yet set, is piercing a muscle, causing constant pain.

Pain. The dominant leitmotif of Malathi's entire life. Both as a constant companion and as an adversary. Pain of the physical kind. Pain of the emotional kind. But this extraordinary woman has been thumbing her nose at it since her childhood. In fact, her flying back from Heathrow to Bangalore with a broken thigh bone, immediately after the Birmingham Open Championship (where she had won two golds) in 2005, has entered sports folklore. She couldn't afford to stay back to have the bone set, as the Indian contingent was leaving the next day and there would be no one with her. She still remembers with gratitude, a gentleman who gave her his business class seat and took her economy one. That's Malathi for you. She'd rather remember this kind gesture than the excruciating pain she was in, throughout the journey.

Malathi was born on July 6, 1958 in Bangalore to Krishnamurthy and Padmavathi Holla. Her father ran a small hotel. A raging fever when she was one year old, paralyzed her entire body. Electric shock treatment for more than two years, saw little Malathi regaining strength in her upper body. But below the waist her body remained completely weak. She spent 15 years away from home, at the Ishwari Prasad Dattatraya Orthopaedic Centre in Chennai, undergoing one surgery after another, pursuing academics and discovering the world of sports.

Sports, she realized, was her calling. A therapy that allowed her to forget her pain. A therapy that eventually made her one of the most inspiring sports personalities of modern India, and one highly respected by her peers.

Malathi has been a fighter all her life. Fighting disability. Fighting pain. Fighting society's condescending attitude. Fighting the attitudes of mulish politicians and the government itself. It was this fighting spirit that saw her take on the Government on the Arjuna award issue. In 1979, the Government had barred all those who were not 'normal and able sports people' from being considered for the award. Malathi felt it was "a preposterous and inhuman rule". She fought against it. And won. While she definitely hadn't canvassed for the award for herself, she was pleasantly surprised to be chosen for it in 1995.

She has represented India in the Paralympics held in South Korea, Barcelona, Athens and Beijing; the Asian Games held in Beijing, Bangkok, South Korea and Kuala Lumpur; World Masters held in Denmark and Australia; World Commonwealth Games in Australia and Open Championships in Belgium, Kuala Lumpur and England.

Malathi, who has so far undergone 32 surgeries, is readying for her 33rd one as this third edition of the book goes to print.

She shelters 16 children with various disabilities, at Mathru Foundation — a charitable trust formed with her friends. The Foundation focuses mainly on polio victims from rural areas, whose parents cannot afford to send them to school or provide medical treatment.

You can capture the complete story of this inspiring woman in her biography A Different Spirit, published by Inspired Indian Foundation. This is the Foundation's first project.