Malvika Iyer stopped wearing her prosthetic arms a little over a year ago. “It is a liberating feeling,” she says of dumping her constant companions from the age of 14. Instead, she has now learnt to use a single protruding piece of bone on the stump of one arm – a ‘mistake’ left over by surgeons – to do just about everything for herself, from wearing trendy clothes, to cooking for the first time in her life, to typing out her PhD thesis. And it feels good.
The only part the 28-year-old global motivational speaker and youth icon doesn’t like is stepping out of the house in India without the natural-looking appendages. “People stare.”
Born in Kumbakonam, Tamil Nadu, to an engineer father and a homemaker mother, Malvika was a teenager living with her family in Bikaner, Rajasthan, when the first landmark event of her life took place. An ammunition depot near her house had caught fire a few months earlier, and pieces of ammunition including bombs were scattered around the neighbourhood.
The young Malvika picked up what appeared to be a blunt object from the garage. It was around lunch time on May 26, 2002, when she took it back to her house to use it as a hammer substitute, in a childlike improvisation to fix her jeans pocket with glue.
It was a grenade. When she jabbed her jeans with it, it exploded.
Eighteen months later, with hundreds of hours of surgery that amputated her arms below the elbows and left her legs a mangled mess, Malvika gradually limped her way back to life armed with prosthetics and crutches.
Having missed class 9 and 10, she decided to sit directly for her board exams that year. With hobbies such as roller-skating and dance now behind her, scoring top marks became a mission. The teenager needed to prove that she was still in the game.
She sat for her 10th boards with a scribe, and scored 483 marks out of 500. As a state rank holder, with 100 per cent in mathematics and science, she became a celebrity overnight. Scores of newspaper articles and a meeting with then President APJ Abdul Kalam boosted her morale, and gave her the confidence to apply to the top college for economics in India, St Stephens in Delhi University, two years later.
College was a mixed experience. Though the academics were stimulating, watching her new college friends walk to fun places after classes, however, sapped her joie de vivre; she couldn’t go beyond a few steps without her legs hurting. She would call her mother to come pick her up, and return home to nurse her wounds.
“I realized that I couldn’t make friends if I continued to complain about my circumstances, so instead I went quiet. I learnt to be independent, to do things myself within my physical boundaries. I took breaks to rest when I was in college. Then I’d come home and apply my balms and oils, and cry myself to sleep.”
But once she started doing her Master’s from Delhi School of Social Work, and after working several months with underprivileged and differently abled children, Malvika managed to develop a more positive perspective to life. She began to live by Scott Hamilton’s words: “The only disability in life is a bad attitude.”
She further went on to do her MPhil from the Madras School of Social Work, and was awarded for the best MPhil thesis in 2012.
Along the way, with her mother’s dedicated support and encouragement from her sister, who is three years older and an engineer from BITS Pilani, Malvika developed a unique style sensibility, and became something of a fashion icon.
“It is a nightmare to shop for clothes for someone with prosthetic arms. I needed full sleeves but ones that could stretch over the wider areas. It’s only thanks to my mother that I was always well turned out,” she says.
Malvika’s mother turned into a fashion designer for her daughter’s sake, coming up with bell sleeves, and customising readymade shirts with slits in the arms that could be attached with Velcro after wearing.
Malvika began posing for photos in different outfits on social media, and became associated with an NGO called Ability Foundation, who invited her to be a showstopper for a NIFT fashion show in Chennai.
“A number of students showed interest in understanding the unique dressing needs of individuals with disability,” she recalls, adding that the two outfits designed especially for her were ones she could wear without support. “But,” she adds, “there is still a great need to create more awareness about accessible fashion.”
Then came the next landmark of her life, when she was invited to speak at the TEDxYouth@Chennai event. And then at IIM Kozhikode, and then Norway, Indonesia and South Africa. She spoke about disability and inclusion, about accessible public spaces, about body image, and the need to sensitize society and especially children to the needs of the differently abled.
She began her doctoral thesis, studying the attitude of 1000 undergraduate students towards individuals with disability to understand why, when and how discriminatory attitudes are formed in young minds. She is just months away from receiving her PhD.
There were other important landmarks too: an award for outstanding student, the REX Karmaveer Chakra Global Fellowship, the first Women in the World Emerging Leaders Award in New York in 2016. Newspapers hailed Malvika as a change agent of the decade, and she was featured in a coffee-table book on women achievers and in a film. She also got married to her partner of seven years.
Earlier this year, Malvika was invited to speak at the United Nations headquarters in New York, where she received a standing ovation.
And this month, she will co-chair the World Economic Forum’s India Economic Summit 2017 in New Delhi, along with the likes of Union ministers Piyush Goyal and Smriti Irani, filmmaker Karan Johar and telecom hotshot Sunil Bharti Mittal.
But giving up her prosthetic arms is still one of her most cherished personal achievements: “It’s taken me this long to accept my body the way it is.”
Once in a while, when she’s scared, Malvika chants the Mahamrityunjaya mantra. But mostly, she draws courage from within. “My superpower is that I’m a woman. It’s very difficult to stay hopeful when the world around you is constantly trying to define what you can and cannot do, but each one of us is a wonder-woman and we must harness our amazing strength and empower one another.”
Young people often write to Malvika, telling her they found strength after reading her story. “It is easy to make me happy because I find everything to be a good sign, a new chance at life,” says Malvika, who says the biggest message of her life has been to never lose hope, though she has reasons to.
“It is tiring to be cheerful and motivated all the time. But I feel like I have a social responsibility now to never give up,” she shares.
Between the demands and challenges of her body and her life, shuttling on flights around the world, attending conferences and giving talks, Malvika has learnt to stop worrying about the future: “If I had made plans, I would never have done so much.”