Meet the unstoppable Malvika Iyer - bomb blast survivor, TED speaker, model & more

Getting dressed. Check. Doing the dishes. Check. Cooking a meal. Check. Giving a motivational speech. Check. Applying eyeliner. Check. Walking the ramp. Check. Inspiring millions. Check.

Meet the unstoppable Malvika Iyer - bomb blast survivor, TED speaker, model & more

An unassuming summer afternoon in May 2002 changed Malvika Iyer’s life forever. A fashionista even at the age of thirteen, she was trying out snazzy outfits in her bedroom while her parents were entertaining guests. She spotted a rip in her jeans. She decided to fix it with some glue. She ventured into the garage of her Bikaner home in search of something heavy to press down on the glue. She found an oval-shaped object and brought it to her room. As soon as she put pressure on it, there was a blast. The object was a grenade. An ammunition depot in the vicinity had exploded months ago, scattering bomb pieces throughout the neighbourhood.

The blast left Malvika with the loss of both her hands. Additionally, she suffered from multiple fractures, nerve paralysis and hypoesthesia.

In the 17 years since then, Malvika has turned her life around to become a powerhouse. From getting state ranks in examinations to becoming a Global Shaper at the World Economic Forum, she has achieved so much at a young age.

There is nothing that Malvika cannot do. She is truly unstoppable.

In a tête-à-tête with Tomorrowmakers, she shares her amazing, awe-inspiring story.

Excerpts:

A motivational speaker, a PhD scholar and a fashion enthusiast, what is it like donning these different hats?

It is thrilling, I would say. After my rehabilitation process, I didn’t have a goal in life. When I was recovering, my only goal was to be able to walk again. I just wanted a normal life –that is the best I could hope for. This is how I started. The good thing is that my personality never changed. I remained the person who loved extra-curricular activities, fashion, dancing and other things that made life beautiful. I did not think that it would be fair to stop everything because this incident had occurred.

With time, I pursued my education. Slowly and steadily, when I could stand up on my own feet, I started venturing into things that I loved. It brought me a lot of joy.

Being a speaker, being able to share my story and inspire people, being an activist and a fashion model – these things define who I am. They kept me going in the face of utter difficulties and doubts.

How challenging were those 18 months of recovery after the grenade blast, that saw you battle not just physical injuries, but also mental demons?

The first couple of weeks, I don’t think I understood the severity of what was happening. I remained conscious throughout. I was even aware during the time of the accident. I was so young; I knew something terrible had happened, and I wanted to apologise to my mother. I hoped my parents would take care of me. Those were my only thoughts after the accident occurred.

During the six months, I spent in the hospital; the physical pain was so much that I wanted to quit life. It was unbearable. I remember screaming in pain. I didn’t know how to cope. Luckily my family was there to support and help me. They gave me the strength I desperately needed. It took me a long time to deal with emotional distress and accept what had happened. I spent years pretending to be normal, but it only made me feel inferior. It was only when I started doing my Masters in Social work that I realised, I was not normal and that there was nothing wrong with this fact. I was different, and it was about time that I accepted and embraced it. From then on, I was at peace and started handling my life differently.

What kept you going through this period? What role did your family play in instilling your confidence post the unfortunate event?

I think three incidents were crucial in this regard. 

I was constantly surrounded by family when I was in the hospital. I remember apologising to my mother for putting her through this ordeal. She told me she was glad that I was alive since my survival was at stake. She told me the only thing that mattered was that I was with them and they would do everything in their power to help me. I was very touched by her words. They never thought of me as disabled. They just felt that I had a different set of needs and that I needed help. My family was grateful I was alive, and I owed it to them to get better.

The second incident occurred a year and a half after the accident. All my life, I had been a student who scored 70-80% marks. After missing so much school, I only had three months of preparation time to appear privately for my SSC boards. Not only did I have an enormous amount of studying to do, but I also had to learn how to give an exam with the help of a writer. It is challenging to dictate a math problem or a diagram, especially when you have limited time to prepare. I gave my exams and achieved a state rank. That was the best day of my life, and it strengthened my self-confidence. I decided to never look back after that.

The third life-changing event was when I gave my first TEDx talk in 2013. The way the people responded and the thousands of messages I got post the talk made me realise that I had to be the change. People messaged me saying that since you have not given up, we won’t give up either. That truly inspired me to keep going.

You graduated in Economics with honours from St. Stephen's. How did you cope up with the physical challenges as a student?

As a differently-abled student, the challenges are many. The process of getting additional facilities is very tedious. There is a lot of paperwork that needs to be filed – whether you want a writer or accessibility to various areas of the school. It is tedious and embarrassing to get sanctions under your disability. 

Also, while attending the lectures, I could not take notes. Thankfully, I had great friends who helped me and passed on their notes to me. There were challenges every step of the way. But I was lucky to have an unflinching support system that helped me cope.

Could you describe your journey -- you went on to become a PhD scholar and motivational speaker of international fame?

It was exhilarating as it was not something I planned on doing. The blast saved me from a life of mediocrity. Everything that happened, whether it was the degree or conducting a Ted Talk or becoming a fashion model, was a beautiful surprise. The response after my first talk was phenomenal. I got an invitation from various countries to come and talk. I got to travel to South Africa, Indonesia, Norway, etc. I was also invited to New York to speak at the United Nations headquarters, where I got a standing ovation. Nothing can beat that feeling. Today it is my full-time job to inspire people.

Tell us about your meeting with the former President of India, Dr APJ Abdul Kalam. How inspired were you after meeting Dr Kalam?

I was very young, and it was my first experience meeting someone so extraordinary. I still remember that when I came to know I was getting the opportunity to meet him, I was ecstatic. I went with my parents, and we walked the red carpet leading to his office. He was sitting at his table, waiting for us. This was the most thrilling moment of my life! 

He spoke very softly. He asked about my prosthetic hands, my education, my future plans. He also spoke to me in Tamil. I was spellbound. I didn’t know what to say or how to answer his questions. He gave me a signed copy of a poem. It was about a boy who was disabled and the confidence he had at that age despite his condition. On his computer, he also showed me the missile he had worked on.

He was gently humorous and very inspiring. Meeting him was a once in a lifetime opportunity, and I am so glad I received that chance. My parents and I felt that it was a divine meeting.

You love dressing up. Please share some power dressing tips for interview aspirants.

Don’t just get dressed to impress. Wear what makes you feel comfortable and powerful simultaneously. Then confidence will automatically follow. Invest in a crisp shirt, a pair of formal pants and a well-fitting jacket. It is the best power outfit for an interview.

As an Indian, I feel a saree is the best outfit you can wear to formal occasions, whether in India or abroad. A lovely crisp cotton saree can never go wrong.

Your message to India's youth?

Never give up in or on life. Everyone has challenges, and no problem is small. You do not have to go through a bomb blast to understand this. If I had decided to give up many years ago, I would have missed out on a fantastic life. You never know when life can take a positive turn.

We all owe it to our society to give back. Help people who face similar challenges and uplift them. Pick a cause close to your heart – it can be the environment or inclusion or gender rights – and work towards it.

My favourite word is ‘Unstoppable’. Till the time we are alive, there are no reasons substantial enough for us to stop. Keep moving forward!

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