Feature stories

From accident victim to hero

Vinod Rawat lost his leg following a road accident at the age of six. He describes to Jacinta Coutinho the twists and turns that his life has taken since, and how spiritual awakening helped him overcome bitterness and anger and accept the goodness of people around him, including the “large-hearted and generous” people at BMVSS

I was only six when, returning from school one day, a truck knocked me over. Subsequently, I underwent six operations at the Rajawadi Hospital. They amputated two toes initially but, with gangrene setting in, I ended up having to undergo six consecutive amputations and lost my right foot from below the knee.

When I was eight, my parents took me to various places to get an artificial leg, but they all said it was not possible. It was all very disappointing.

I went through a very hard time, began to lose hope and couldn’t focus on my studies. I discovered that differently abled people were treated differently.

Becoming a gangster

When I was about 10, my family lived in Bhandup, Mumbai. I used to watch boys in the neighbourhood enjoying life. They were older boys — gangsters, rowdy and adventurous. I am a very talkative person by nature and I volunteered to do odd jobs for them — get them cigarettes, tea, etc. I left my home and began to live with the gangsters. I used to hide a knife in my crutches. I wanted to be a force to reckon with, not be a pushover.

One day, there was a police raid and I got beaten very badly. I thought I would escape punishment because of my handicap, but they showed no mercy. Instead of learning my lesson and changing my ways, I became even more bitter and rowdy, a short boy carrying a long knife.

I started carrying arms. I discovered a new world of violence, beating up people and taking bribes for the gang. I began to be hunted by the police.

I can admit to all this today, because I am a changed person now.

Spiritual awakening

One day in 1994, a man came up to me and put his hand over my shoulder. I reached for my knife as I thought he was a policeman and was about to stab him when he said, “Son, Jesus loves you.” That was a turning point in my life. The way he said those words … it started me thinking. I later learnt that he was my dad’s friend. It seems my dad had challenged him to try and change me.

At his utterance, I threw down my knife and asked him to take me somewhere, where neither the police nor my friends would find me. I told ‘uncle’ that I wanted to change, to become a better person and asked him if he would help me improve myself. He took me to a non-profit organisation that ran an orphanage and helped troubled youth, young people addicted to drugs or alcohol, children of prostitutes, and so on. It was a Christian organisation but did not preach religion. They only helped to rehabilitate people in need.

I discovered I was far better off than many. I was feeling very good and positive about myself because I was in a good environment with caring people around me.

The people who ran the organisation kept a close watch to see how I was coping, whether I would go back to my old ways or was serious about my desire to change for the better. The environment mellowed me considerably. I felt myself humbly surrendering myself to God and to these people. I slowly forgot that I was a gangster.

When they felt more confident about me, I was asked if I wanted to study and improve myself academically. I was granted admission at St Michael’s School in Mahim and passed Std X. Around that time I also learnt that my dad had passed away. I had met my parents rarely in the years in between. I had told my ‘uncle’ that I did not want to be traced by any one, not even my parents, until I had improved myself and become a good person. My uncle had seen me improve and brought my parents to visit me one day in 1997. It made my father very happy to see me and my commitment to making a better individual of myself.

Adopting a spiritual life has changed me immensely. It has improved my outlook on life and given everything a positive feel. Sometimes, I myself can’t believe I have changed so much.

My dad’s passing away put an end to my academic pursuit. I had two sisters to be married. I started working for an organisation in Bandra.

Discovering the Jaipur Foot

In 1997, I was also introduced to the Jaipur Foot. I had been using crutches all this while. I was 25, then.

I walked into the centre at KEM Hospital in Parel with the help of crutches one morning and returned the same evening walking with the help of the Jaipur Foot. It was nothing short of a miracle for me. But I had a lot of faith. The people in my parish, I was later informed by my parish priest (at New Life Church), had all fasted for the success of the fitment of a Jaipur Foot for me.

I felt like all my dreams had finally come true. Today, I can walk tall on my own feet, ride a bicycle and motorcycle and run. I am a junior artiste in various television programmes, I climb mountains, I participate and run in the Mumbai Marathon and I lead motorcycle campaigns.

When I see myself now and remember the past, my eyes sometimes fill up with tears of joy. In my youth, I never thought it would be possible to do whatever I am doing now. I feel cleansed now and renewed with a sense of awakening. I am now 38 years old, have a family with my wife and two children, which makes me feel so fulfilled.

I’ve been wearing a Jaipur Foot since 1997. I have been instrumental in talking to people who are looking for a prosthetic and telling them about the advantages of using a Jaipur Foot. Many people feel that because it is cheap or being fitted for free by BMVSS, it cannot be a good product. They do not realise that the Jaipur Foot is one of the best prosthetic products — not only aesthetic looking, but also light and flexible to use on a daily basis.

Life after the Jaipur Foot

I once went and joined a biking expedition. I had to register with a club and we rode out. We stopped to camp and spend a night at Rajmachi Point in Lonavla. While changing for the night, I took off my Jaipur foot and my team members were all surprised.

Till that time no one had been aware that I used a Jaipur Foot. The club president and committee members made an on-the-spot decision. They refunded my membership fees and gently told me that they could not allow me to be part of the team and of the club. They explained that they did not want to take the risk of an accident. Apparently, they were not as confident of my prowess on the bike as I was. I told them that I did not mind and left the camp.

After this, I decided to round up people in similar situations — people who had been rejected from different kinds of clubs and organisations, simply because they had some physical disability. Not just from biking clubs, but any sport. We formed a group called the Convoy Control.

One of my dreams, like all bikers, was to ride all the way to Leh, Ladakh, on a motorcycle.

Finally in 2011, the four of us, all physically challenged, left from Mumbai and went via Jaipur and Delhi and Himachal Pradesh all the way to Khardung La. Usually, when a team from the armed forces or any other team sets out on a mission, they take the most able-bodied; but here we were, a team of ‘misfits’, including one who had prosthetics on both legs!

Most riders making the trip to Khardung La from Mumbai travel by train to Delhi and ride their bikes from there on up to Ladakh. But we left on our bikes from Mumbai and returned all the way, riding. It took us all of 26 days for the complete tour, which could perhaps have been covered in 15 days, but we also wanted to do some sightseeing, and so stayed on a few days in Manali.

It was not a sponsored trip. But, at the last moment, a non-government organisation (NGO) called Habitat for Humanity took us under its wings and asked us if we would tie up to raise funds for people in Ladakh who had lost their homes because of flooding. Under their aegis, we helped to collect Rs18 lakh for aiding the Ladakhis and we also helped to build six houses with the help of 20 jawans for the homeless there. I believe this was my life’s biggest achievement — riding for a cause and actually helping people with a committed hands-on approach. I have never believed in achieving gold medals or other accolades; but I felt really honoured when, on August 15, 2011, I was handed over the ropes to unfurl the flag of India at the Independence Day celebration in Leh.

Our expedition to Khardung La was via Jaipur. Mr DR Mehta was very happy to host us and put us up for a night. Just as we were leaving, he handed over an envelope to me in full sight of my team mates and told me that there was Rs30,000 in it for us to use for our trip.

I have very high regard for the BMVSS people. They are so large-hearted and generous, especially the Mehtas. I found them all to be very dedicated in their work. Whenever I go there, I am treated with great honour and respect.

I have been participating in the Mumbai Marathon, which is a half marathon, for nine years now. I run a full marathon in Bangalore also. Shraddha Ma'm of the BMVSS chapter based out of KEM hospital is always around at the camp set up for the Jaipur Foot beneficiaries who participate in the Mumbai Marathon.

In the monsoon rally organised in Navi Mumbai, I am usually the only physically challenged participant. It gets flagged off in Parel in mid-town Mumbai and finishes off at Ulwe. I also participate in dirt-bike racing. I'm proud to say that I have been an MTV Roadie in 2003.

Hopeful expectations

When former President George Bush visited Mumbai and was on his way to the Mantralaya, he noticed the signboard for the office of the National Association for the Blind (NAB) when passing through Worli. He stopped his convoy, got off and, after making a visit, gave a cheque for a few million rupees to the NAB. I am hoping to showcase the Jaipur Foot similarly so it can attract help like this.

I was once interviewed by this lady named Christine Booth from London. She was doing a feature on India and the Jaipur Foot in particular. She put this idea to me that I should visit people who have lost a limb in an accident; and, since then, I’ve been visiting such patients in hospitals. I am glad I am able to give hope to people who have lost one or more limbs and feel they are helpless.

I once had a talk with Mr DR Mehta and asked him if we could have another set-up in Mumbai, in the central suburbs. He said that at the moment he could not afford to have the kind of staff and services that would be required to run another set-up.

My next sporting target is to climb Mount Everest. I had plans to do it in 2012, but have yet to get sponsors. Meanwhile, it is my plan to organise an expedition once every year for the Convoy Control Club, which has seven dedicated members. But my aim is not to just ride. I want us to ride for a cause.

On the personal front, I want to provide a permanent residence for my family. I’m currently employed with a private firm that deals in disbursement of loans for homes and motor vehicles, and personal loans. This, together with my learning during a stint I had with IDBI Bank, has helped me in understanding finance. I’ve also worked with Rajashri Productions for one year.

I sometimes wish I had pursued further studies. I’ve only studies upto Class X but, I am proud to say, am very good at marketing. My wife encourages me to take on further studies, but I feel I am already learning, or rather re-learning, with my son who is now is class I. In this way, I think I will graduate along with him.

I have always believed in facing problems and trying to overcome them. I’m blessed to have gone through all kinds of experiences. With God’s grace, I feel I have had the best life has had to offer.

The BMVSS reassurance

My relationship with BMVSS has been developing over the years. Since the fitment of my first Jaipur Foot, I have needed regular check-ups and periodic repairs and modifications over time and have had to visit their facility frequently. I have had occasion to speak to others gathered there and told them my story. I can see that it is very encouraging for them to know that someone who has lost a limb like them has and is living a normal and full life.

During a trip to the US, sponsored by the NGO I was working with, a friend encouraged me to get fitted with a Sach Foot. But when I got back to India, I realised that it was not meant for our kind of use. The springs started to get rusty due to the humid conditions in Mumbai and the uneven surface of our roads did not make it comfortable to use. I went back to BMVSS and got myself fitted with a new Jaipur Foot. It may be cheap and even fitted for free by the generous BMVSS, but I must admit, it is the best prosthetic any Indian could be wearing, for Indian conditions.

My friends sometimes rib me and say that maybe I pay the press to come and cover some events. I tell them that where there is something good happening, people get instinctively attracted.