On July 15, 1999, Veer Major DP Singh was deployed on the Line of Control during Operation Vijay/Kargil War. That’s when Pakistanis shelled the Indian forward positions. Singh heard the sound of the first mortar shell fly just over his bunker and land further behind. He felt and heard the sound of the second shell as it came straight towards him. It exploded two metres from him. A twoinch diameter shell had a kill zone of 8 metres. The blast sent thousands of shrapnel pieces in every direction. The fiery stings gripped his body when pieces of red-hot shrapnel entered and shredded the right side of him. The effect was seen from the torso down to his legs. Blood gushed out of his body subjecting him to excruciating pain. He cried out and fell into the deep abysm of unconsciousness. His condition was far from retrievable, as Singh arrived at the hospital covered in blood and guts. Seeing his situation, he was initially given up for dead.
On the night of July 18, he heard the words, “Son, I think I need to amputate your right leg.” Major looked down at his shredded and gangrene infected right leg and replied, “Doctor, I can see it myself, there is nothing much left below my knee, do as you must.” He returned to civilian life, after serving the country for another 10 years but he had lost a few body parts in the war. He had lost a part of his intestine, his right leg through the knee, large chunks of flesh in his left leg and had permanently damaged the meniscus cartilage in his left knee. His hearing ability was impaired by the blast. A few years after the war, while still in the army, he underwent a major operation for a tumour on his urinary bladder. What stayed with him from the war however, were 40 pieces of shrapnel embedded in his body lodged all over the place — in his ribs, lungs, liver, elbow and leg. Few people commence their journey to the start-line of a marathon with 40 pieces of shrapnel inside their body, a drastically compromised intestine, acoustic trauma, a compromised left leg and urinary bladder. The first time when Major Singh went for a run wearing his prosthetic leg, vibration from jarring dislodged the shrapnel put in his ribs. It caused him excruciating pain. The doctor advised that an operation would be necessary to remove it.
At that point, Major Singh had just started motivating a group of fellow ‘challengers’ to run. He figured that if he was sidelined after the surgery, his comrades would get demotivated and the group would fall apart. He decided that he would not get operated and figured that continued running and jarring will re-lodged the shrapnel itself and stopped paining. Sometimes in life, the people who inspire us the most are not the winners of the race, but those who strive valiantly and shed their sweat and blood to simply be a part of the big race — Lakshya (Goal): Airtel Delhi Half Marathon 2012. My job on this day was to run alongside Major Singh and occasionally interview him for a channel. In the process, I had the privilege to receive a life-lesson on courage and tenacity that I shall never forget. The day started with a nice hot shower and changed into my black branded T-shirt and shorts. It took me 30 seconds to wear my socks and another 30 seconds to wear my shoes and then I went down to the coffee shop and enjoyed a sumptuous breakfast. By 5, I was seated in the same bus as Kenya’s Edwin Kipyego for a ride to the start line. I met the Major who had come with his partner Dr Dimple Bharati.
She explained that due to the massive operation on his intestine, the Major dehydrated very soon. I assured them that water would not be out of stock. The open category run started at 6:40 am. Within a few hundred metres, I noticed that the sun was out and it was already quite humid and hot. I braced for a rough day ahead. The Major was quiet and focussed. I wanted him to set his own pace and so stayed just a few inches behind him. I noticed his gait. This was the first time that I was running alongside someone wearing a prosthetic leg. With each step, it looked as if he was landing on a thorn that pierced further inside his right foot. It seemed very painful. It was not a smooth stride also because his left leg was severely damaged. It dawned on me just how hard it was for him to run. All around us were runners who were focussed on the finish times. They sped past us. However, hundreds of runners noticed us and clapped for the Major. Many seemed to know him personally.
They cheered, “Go Major, you are great. You inspire me”. A girl hugged him and said, “Sir, I used to only run the 6k dream run but we are inspired by you, and want to take a 21k this year”. He answered, “I’ll give you another hug, when to move up to the 42k.” A few minutes later, we were joined by Colonel Rana Sinha. He told me that he looked upon Major Singh as his hero and inspiration and that he intended to run and support us. I was relieved to have a friend with me as I could feel that this was going to be a rough day with the heat rising incessantly. The heat kept increasing by the minute and so did the humidity. At about 4 km, the Major stopped to adjust his prosthetic. He held his thigh and shook it violently, as if to make it settle inside the socket of the prosthetic. I was flabbergasted and stood behind him to make sure nobody runs into him. It was an action I had never seen before. It was difficult to believe that he was running. When I later looked at his face, his face didn’t show any lack of determination.
This was a look of a man who was simply focussed on the finish line. If there was pain, and I am sure there was, he did not show it. As we reached the 7k mark we were approaching India Gate (Indian Army’s Tomb of the Unknown Soldier). I have run this race three years in succession and each time I reach India Gate I have the desire of being clicked with India Gate in the background. The thought was same too. But then, I saw the Major look up towards India Gate and snap a salute. Looking at him I asked myself, “Am I doing enough for my country?” I resolved to double my efforts of helping the kids suffering from cancer and undergoing treatment at the Tata Hospital. We kept running and were sweating profusely. Water kept us going. A lot of people thronged the water stalls and that reminded us of ‘This is going to be a long hard day.’ To take the Major’s mind off the heat, humidity and pain. I told him about my routine from the time I had woken up at 4:15 am. And then he shared how his day started.
I learnt that Major Singh had a slightly different start to his day. Parts of his intestine were shredded in the blast and later removed in surgery, he has all sorts of issues in clearing his GI system. It took him a lot of time to clear his stomach in the morning. While it took me all of 30 seconds to wear my socks, he slipped into his prosthetic. His right leg was amputated through his knee, but there were still shrapnel embedded in his lower thigh. The skin which grew over these wounds was soft tissue, which was very sensitive. He had to prepare each of these areas by first applying some cream and then putting tape over them to protect from friction. The drill of wearing a prosthetic leg involves the brush with pain. The stub where the knee is amputated is a highly sensitive area. It comes into contact with the socket, made of hard plastic, of the prosthetic leg. Soft skin against a hard material is a tearing experience. So, he had to prepare the bottom of his amputated knee enable it to withstand the friction and pounding it is about to receive. The prosthetic socket is round, the knee stub is round so it is required to align the prosthetic exactly right.
When I wear my shoe, the shoe automatically aligns itself with my foot. But a prosthetic be worn exactly at the correct angle with reference to his thigh and the rest of his body. With no real reference point, it takes a lot of patience and skill to put on the prosthetic. Once the leg is worn, he needs to make sure it holds tight around his thigh so that it won’t move as he runs. The slightest miscalculation causes friction and inflames his skin. He puts more tape and ties a few bandages around the socket to hold it tight against his thigh. It had taken him close to three hours to get ready to leave for the startline. I didn’t know what to say. I was in shock. We were clearly not running the same race. I was running an easy 21k; however it seemed to me that this man was climbing Mt Everest. He had a prosthetic in one leg which was incredibly uncomfortable to wear while his other leg had chunks of flesh missing. Not only was he climbing up Mt Everest but doing it blindfolded. I was wrong. He didn’t seem to think so. The term “physically challenged” tastes sour to him, instead he calls himself a “challenger”.
Life had thrown down a gauntlet at him. And he had no hesitation in picking it up. He had started an organisation called ‘The Challenging Ones’ (TCO) with the idea of motivating the challengers. One way to do that was by motivating them to overcome their limitations and partake in sports and adventure activities. Major wanted to ne involved in the trials for the London Paralympics Games but our country lacked well trained prosthetic technicians to assist him with prosthetic fitment. He said he wanted organisations to come forward to understand the need for better prosthetic technicians in our country. I ran alongside him. On the way back towards the finish he once again saluted India Gate. By the time we reached 15k, the heat and humidity were just debilitating; It seemed like heaven was pouring fire down upon us, the heat radiating from the tar road was further aggravating the heat — and then suddenly we went to broadcasting. The TV moderator Samir said, “How is it going out there Amit, how is Major doing?” I told him that I am reminded of the song from the movie Lakshya.”
The song goes as Barse chahe amber se aag, Lipte chahe pairon se naag. I said, “Samir, the skies over Delhi have poured fire on us today, but let me ask Major about his state.” Major surprised us by saying, “Yes, the skies have poured fire, and the legs want to stop. But I also have a mind, and the mind says I won’t stop.I will reach the finish line. I was reminded of Aaj Lakshya to paana hai Samir, we will not stop, we will not give up and reach the finish line. Major was high on ambition and said,”I am called physically challenged, but I am not. I want to say that the ones who are really challenged are those who lack will power.” And so we ran… The first time Major slipped and fell on his face was when the cap of a water bottle came under the blade of his prosthetic. The second was when someone ran into him. The third and the fourth time, when he lost his rhythm. Each time, he simply picked himself up and dusted his palms. There was no change of expression on his face. There was a steely determination. He looked straight ahead. He never doubted or questioned his own ability.
He ran for those of us who doubt our own abilities… He ran for me…He ran for you… With 200 metres to go, the Indian tricolour materialised in his hands, given to him by his friends waiting alongside the road. He ran into the finish along with his friends Dr Bharati and Colonel Rana. I stayed a few metres behind them. I had witnessed firsthand what a soldier from the Indian Army was capable of doing. On the September 30, 2012, Kenya’s Edwin Kipyego ran the Airtel Delhi Half Marathon and finished first in a time of 1:00:55. When Edwin reached the finish line, the Major and I must have barely reached the 8 km marker. In my heart I have no doubt who really won the race that day. I know who my champion was. I had run alongside him.