Features

An Officer and a Fighter

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Devender, who is India’s first marathon amputee runner and a regular jogger on the roads of Noida, completed the 2011 Delhi half-marathon in a time of two hours and 30 minutes

Imagine a morning scene in usually-dusty Noida. Early risers walk past snoozing dogs in bylanes, with cars jostling for parking space, all enclosed within gated residential colonies. The main road is flanked on one side by the skeletons of a few high-rise buildings, the arm of an industrial crane hanging mid-air like an appendage in the distance. At six in the morning, there is only a slight chill in the March air—it is perfect weather to put on your running shoes. Major Devender Pal Singh has done just this, although in his case, the shoe is only on the left foot. The other foot—part of the leg that was amputated from the knee—is fitted with a prosthetic blade, curved outward in the shape of a hook, which enables him to jog and run.

An auto driver, sitting by the side of the road, peeks out from his vehicle. A few kids, dressed in torn clothes, point at Devender as he jogs by the side of the road, his gait a mixture of a hop and run, quite similar to a waddle. A young man sweeping the road around his chai stall stops to gawk; later, he throws a barrage of questions at me in Hindi: “Where is his right leg? What happened to it? Why does he have to wear the strange-looking blade? Is it all right for him to run on it? Does it hurt?” This is all a part of Devender’s everyday routine—he is used to people, even vehicles, stopping in their tracks to watch as he goes about his run, whispering and unabashedly pointing to the “blade”. Like everything, he takes that in his stride, concentrating only on what he loves doing.

“I don’t like using the term ‘physically challenged’, says Devender, cooling down after his hour-long run. “I’d like to think that human beings are capable of doing anything that they want, if only they can train their minds well enough.”

The 39-year-old, who is India’s first amputee marathon runner, walks gingerly to avoid pebbles and bits of gravel that have an annoying habit of appearing everywhere on Indian streets. His prosthetic blade is giving him some trouble, and Devender is wary of it totally coming apart. “That is the problem with technology, it puts everything in doubt,” he says. “I don’t doubt my abilities, but I cannot be certain of anything when I have to depend on external factors, like this prosthetic.” Even with that dependence, he has managed to use his potential to its fullest, setting a time of two hours and 26 minutes at the 2011 Delhi Half Marathon, his best time so far. It was also his first half-marathon on the prosthetic blade. He had only started running half-marathons competitively in 2009, when he took part in the Delhi event for the first time, finishing in a time of more than three hours. Since then he has participated in the Delhi and Mumbai half-marathons every year. “I completed my first race in three hours and 49 minutes, and have improved my timing by 15 minutes since in every subsequent race,” says Devender proudly.

His story exemplifies to the fullest all that is good about the human spirit—a bullish grit and determination, a capability to never give up and always keep going, no matter what, delving into the extraordinary recesses of willpower. Born in a village near Ambala, Devender completed his education from Roorkee, where his grandparents lived. With his father working in the Border Roads Organisation (BRO), Devender was fascinated by the army and knew what he wanted to do later in life. “I was always interested in an outdoor life. I played a lot of sports, I liked running around,” Devender says. Having passed out of the Indian Military Academy (IMA), Dehradun, in 1998, he joined 7 Dogra, which was then deployed at the Line of Control (LoC) in Jammu and Kashmir’s Chamb–Jaurian sector when the Kargil war started in July 1999. On July 15, when Operation Vijay was in full swing, a Pakistani mortar shell exploded just a few feet away from him. The two-inch-diameter shell, with a kill zone of eight metres, scattered shrapnel all around, most of which lodged in Devender’s body. “When I was brought into the army hospital in Akhnoor from the front, I was declared dead. Fortunately, an anaesthetist took a look at my condition and mercifully managed to revive me,” explains Devender of his near-death experience. “Three days later, the doctor told me that my right leg would have to be amputated through the knee because gangrene had set in. Somehow, I managed to stay calm, even though my world was collapsing.”

Not only did Devender lose his right leg through the knee, he lost portions of flesh in his left leg, permanently damaging the meniscal cartilage (tissue found in the knee, which acts  as a shock absorber and prevents tension when performing physical activities). After a month, he moved to the Army’s Artificial Limb Centre (ALC) in Pune, weighing merely 28 kg when he shifted there. He stayed at the hospital for the next few months, where his stomach was operated upon twice and a major part of the intestines removed. He also suffered partial deafness, and close to 40 splinters still remained embedded in his body. In 2007, he opted for voluntary discharge from the army on medical grounds.

If all this would have broken another person, it only helped strengthen Devender’s will to live. “I saw this as a chance to find out how a person who does not have the full use of limbs, goes through life. I would never get another chance to learn, and I wanted to make the best use of it,” says Devender, whose cheerful disposition belies the many rigours he goes through each day. His initial prosthesis was a conventional one, made of leather, wood and iron. Later, he got an advanced prosthesis, with an artificial knee and a better foot, from the ALC. He ran three consecutive marathons on that. In 2011, the army introduced him to running limbs—the Blade Prosthesis, resembling the ones used by double amputee world champion Oscar Pistorius. (Pistorius runs with Cheetah Flex-Foot carbon fibre transtibial artificial limbs by Ossur; Devender’s blade is also produced by the same company, and costs around `5 lakh.)

When preparing for a marathon, Devender’s day starts as early as
3 a.m., when it’s still practically night. As the world around him sleeps, he gets down to the business of
ablutions, strapping his prosthetic onto his leg, stretching and warming up, a laborious process that often takes him as long as two to three hours. Since parts of his intestine were torn apart in the blast (and later removed), he has trouble doing something as basic as going to the toilet. Putting on the prosthetic is another long-drawn process—he needs to ensure that the prosthetic socket is perfectly aligned with the knee stub, so that it stays at the correct angle with respect to his thigh and the rest of his body. Any variation can cause damage, and putting on a prosthetic takes a lot of patience and skill, worked on over the years.

Generally, he eats a diet high in fibre; while training for marathons, the intake of carbohydrates shoots up. Breakfast can stretch for close to an hour as he eats in small quantities over a period of time—two boiled eggs with the yolk removed, boiled potatoes, lightly seasoned, a bowl of fresh sprouts, and milk, after he is done with the morning
training session. “Running on the road is ideal preparation for me, as marathons are held on asphalt,” says Devender, who prefers training outside rather than in the air-conditioned confines of a gymnasium. “They make me claustrophobic,” he reveals. To help with his exercises, Devender has even remodelled a few parallel bars in a park close to his house. Watching him do push-ups and tricep dips, with remarkable ease, is a reward—Devender makes it look as effortless and graceful as an athlete would.DSC_1859

But running does not come easy for India’s very own Blade Runner. A lack of suitable infrastructure for the physically challenged and disabled is a major headache, as is the indifference shown by the government and sponsors toward para-athletes. Most are forced to give up sport after some time due to lack of funds and support. To help like-minded athletes (and those with disabilities) fulfil their potential, Devender ran the 2011 Delhi half-marathon with a group of 12 people, all of whom had lost a leg. He named them “The Challenging Ones (TCO)”, or simply, “The Challengers”, and the group helps bring together people with physical disabilities, where they can discuss their lives and share each other’s experiences to help out those around them. “TCO’s core group comprises experts in orthopaedics and prosthetics,” says Devender. “Our main activities are three-fold: One, it provides a platform to discuss prosthetics, creating awareness on the basics such as how to wear them, how to perform physical activities with prosthetics, etc.” The group also connects members with experts to receive support and technical guidance. “Second, the group helps amputees and their family members deal with the situation. The final aim is to train more Challengers, so that they can participate in the Paralympics and win more medals for the country,” he says.
Devender has posted a time of under two hours and 30 minutes previously, at the 2011 edition of the Delhi Half Marathon, and although he wishes to make a mark in international tournaments, such as the Paralympics, participation aborad is expensive, and a dearth of sponsors remains the biggest
headache for him.

Devender, who loves reading books by Khushwant Singh, has been a TedX speaker as well and has given lectures at colleges in Bengaluru, Mangalore and Jabalpur, helping
motivate youngsters.

How does Devender maintain his cheerful demeanour and composure even when things do not go his way? “It is easy. I have seen the worst from close quarters. And I have survived,” he says. Devender speaks at length about how his religion and its scriptures helped him keep a positive attitude. “Since its inception, Sikhism has been all about valour and martyrdom, helping others, embracing life. There was a simple choice to make: I could either mope and whine and forget what my ancestors and religion stood for. Or I could learn from them and embrace adversity and turn it around to benefit me.” There is no doubt about which one he opted for.

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