Dressed in a white top and long black skirt, Malvika Iyer smiled at the 200-strong audience of young people in Chennai, India.
‘I have a piece of advice for you all,’ she began. ‘If you ever need a makeshift hammer, don’t grab a grenade you might find outside your house.
‘I did, and now I’m a bilateral amputee. That was 13 years ago and I was a little stupid then. I think I’m wiser now.’
On a warm May afternoon in 2002, Malvika, then 13, was playing outdoors in Bikaner, Rajasthan. She was enjoying her school summer holidays and looking around her back garden for something heavy enough to hammer a pretty accessory on to the back pocket of her jeans. Searching around the plants and shrubs, she found a grenade shell. It had fallen there months earlier when an ammunition depot on the outskirts of the city had caught fire and in the ensuing blast rained hand shells and grenades across the neighbourhood.
Assuming it was a spent shell, the teenager picked it up and tried to hammer the accessory on to her old jeans. It was live and exploded in her hands.
‘The deafening sound nearly knocked me out,’ she says. ‘But I knew something serious had happened to my hands because they weren’t there any more. There was almost nothing of them left. The explosion had ripped them right off.’
Hearing the blast her parents – mother Hema Krishnan, 49, a homemaker, and father B Krishnan, 56, an engineer – rushed outside. ‘I can still hear my mother’s screams echo in my ears,’ says Malvika. ‘“Meri bacchi ke haath chale gaye (my daughter’s hands are gone)”, she was yelling.’
Then the schoolgirl passed out. She lost both hands in the blast: the left from just below the elbow and the right from the wrist. Splinters from the shell also severely injured both her legs. Her left leg was hanging on to her knee by just a few strands of flesh, while the right leg was a mass of blood and gore.
Within five minutes an ambulance arrived and started rushing Malvika to hospital. On the way her blood pressure crashed and she lost 80 per cent of her blood. The nearest hospital, which she was taken to, wasn’t equipped to treat such a major accident and the doctors there initially contemplated amputating her left leg. ‘However, my parents refused. I’d lost two hands and losing a leg would have been too much. The doctors made me stable and then my parents requested that I be transferred to a bigger hospital in the state capital Jaipur, about four hours away.’
Once she was admitted in Jaipur Hospital and the doctors had saved her life – and her left leg – she came round and apologised to her mother for putting her through such an ordeal. ‘I also wanted to see some of my good friends,’ she says. ‘I was terrified that it would be the last time I’d ever see them.’
But Malvika was a fighter and underwent surgery after surgery. First were skin grafts from her thighs to close the wounds on her arms and legs.
‘The pain was excruciating,’ she says, ‘but I used to always co-operate with the doctors and nurses. I never made a scene, though sometimes the agony was too much and I couldn’t stifle a scream. I dreaded the time the nurses used to do the dressings, but I always remained strong; I would ask them questions about what they were doing.
‘The doctors were very impressed with me and often told my parents that I was very brave. Although those months were full of agony and pain, I lived in hope that one day I would walk again.’
She had some times when she was exhausted and her mood was low. ‘There were days when I felt I wouldn’t make it and was very sorry for myself,’ she admits. ‘But my mother was a pillar of strength and the spirit of those around me kept me buoyant.’
Luckily, the doctors were able to save both her legs. ‘I’m left with two stumps for arms. But my right one is quite long so I can use it to lift things,’ she says.
Ten months and eight operations later, in March 2003, Malvika was well enough to be taken to the Bone and Joint Clinic in Chennai for therapy. ‘My grandparents were based in Chennai and they suggested that I be taken there, hoping it would hasten the process of healing and rehabilitation.’
There Malvika underwent three more operations over six months including grafting bone taken from her mother’s hips to strengthen her shattered and mangled legs. She was then left with her legs in plaster for months before the casts were finally removed in September and Malvika was given crutches to help her walk.
‘The pain was just unbearable,’ she recalls. ‘It was like walking on red-hot cinders. But I was determined to walk.’ A month later, she was given a frame to help. ‘Those days and nights were filled with pain,’ she says.
A fter a couple of months of intense therapy Malvika took a first few painful but unaided steps. She was also fitted with a pair of myo-electric arms that are designed to mimic human anatomy and motion by using electrical signals generated naturally by your own muscles. They run on batteries and cost Rs500,000 (Dh28,870). ‘They opened a whole new world for me as I could write, use a spoon to eat, comb my hair and apply make-up,’ she says. ‘The hands gave me a new lease of life, especially in public. I started going out often and that really boosted my confidence.’
That year her friends were busy preparing for class 10 board exams. Malvika had spent 18 months in hospital learning to do everything from scratch. She had missed so much class work, but with just three months before the exams in March 2004 she decided to give it her best shot. ‘I put all my energies into my studies determined to do well.’
Malvika joined a private study centre in Shenoy Nagar to catch up. ‘Before the accident I was a complete outdoorsy person and not very academically oriented. But now I was stuck indoors, I invested most of my time in my textbooks. I used to study alone for about four hours every day and then put in my best at the study centre as well. By the time the exams began I was pretty confident that I would do well,’ she says.
To her surprise, Malvika scored 1,137 out of 1,200 in her 12th Board Examination, with full marks in commerce, and emerged top among privately educated students in that state. ‘The crowning glory was getting to meet the former president of India Dr APJ Abdul Kalam. I was invited to his office for my achievement.’
Her success story was widely covered by the local media and Malvika became a celebrity of sorts. ‘It was amazing to be featured on the pages of all the local newspapers. I also got a cash award and certificate of appreciation from the former Tamil Nadu Chief Minister M Karunanidhi. The famous Tamil actor Arvind Swamy sent me a bouquet and a cake,’ she smiles.
Thanks to her good marks, Malvika was offered a place at Delhi’s prestigious St Stephen’s College to study economics. At first she was thrilled but soon realised how much harder it was for her because of her disability.
‘I was trying desperately to be normal and do all the things my classmates were doing but it was exhausting for me,’ she says.
‘I would get tired easily. That’s when I accepted my reality.’ She also realised she could help others by revealing what she had gone through and motivating them.
So after graduating she applied to the Delhi School of Social Work. ‘My mom had also encouraged me to work for the differently abled as she felt I’d be able to motivate others. During my field training, I had the opportunity to work with differently abled children,’ she says. ‘I realised this is something I had to be a part of. I could empathise with them and understand them. As I’d been given a lot of encouragement, I wanted to give something back.’
Malvika was invited to give talks at schools. ‘I enjoyed those moments when I could encourage other children to do their best,’ she says. But it was her first TED talk in November 2013 that made her a household name among motivational speakers. After telling her story she was given a standing ovation and some of the students came up to give her a hug. It made her feel she could really help people.
After getting a first in her MPhil in Social Work, Malvika soon went on to become a regular speaker at youth gatherings and disability conferences. She has also spoken at youth forums in South Africa, Indonesia and Norway, attended the India Economic Summit 2014 held in Hotel Taj Palace in New Delhi and was also recently awarded the REX Karmaveer Chakra Global Fellowship, which recognises people who have the courage of their convictions to think differently and bring about change.
Her mother directed a short film, The Pheonix, documenting how Malvika battled back from her injuries. In the movie she’s shown leading a normal life – going to the beach with friends, taking public transport, helping out at home and laughing with family and friends. She hopes to continue to inspire others, and refuses to dwell on the accident or look back.
‘I used to get upset at times when I could not wear certain kinds of clothes,’ she says. ‘And not being able to dance was extremely upsetting as I loved kathak and wanted to learn many other forms of dance. But I couldn’t blame anyone for the accident so didn’t harbour any regrets. I have never sat down and cried about what happened. I knew I was never going to get my hands or full use of my legs back.
‘The accident was a terrible experience but sometimes I thank god it happened or else my life would not have been as incredible as it is today.’