On 15th July 1999, he was deployed on the Line of Control (during Operation Vijay/Kargil War) when the Pakistanis started shelling the Indian forward positions.
He 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 2nd second shell as it came straight towards him. It exploded 2 meters away from him. The foot-long, 2-inch diameter shell had a kill zone of 8 meters. The blast sent thousands of shrapnel pieces in every direction.
He felt the fiery stings as pieces of red-hot shrapnel entered and shredded the right side of his body, from the torso down to his legs. Blood gushed out of his body as if from a water fountain. The pain was excruciating; he cried out. Slowly he lost consciousness. He arrived at the hospital so covered in blood and guts that he was initially given up for dead!
On the night of the 18th he heard the words, “Son, I think I need to amputate your right leg.”
Major D.P.Singh 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 what 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. He had also lost his right leg through the knee. He had lost large chunks of flesh in his left leg and had permanently damaged the meniscal cartilage in his left knee. He would never fully recover his hearing ability, which was damaged with the blast. (A few years after the war, while still in the army, he underwent a major operation for a tumor on his urinary bladder)
What stayed with him from the war however, were 40 pieces of shrapnel embedded in his body. They are 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 massively compromised left leg and a compromised urinary bladder.
The first time Major Singh went for a run wearing his prosthetic leg, the jarring from the vibration, caused a small piece of shrapnel lodged in his rib to dislodge. 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. He figured that he would continue running and thereby continue jarring the shrapnel piece until it re-lodged itself somewhere else inside his body 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 race day.
My job on this race day was to run alongside Major Singh and occasionally interview him for the Star Plus Television Channel. In the process, I had the privilege to receive a life-lesson in courage and tenacity that I shall never forget.
The day had started for me at hotel Le Meridian. I woke up at 4:15 am and went to the loo. Only a runner understands the importance of bowel movements on race day. The fact that a clean GI system is a luxury, can only be understood by a runner who has suffered a tummy problem half way through a marathon.
I later went for a nice hot shower and changed into my black branded T-shirt (Only a non-runner Marketing Executive would ask a runner to wear a black T-shirt on a hot and sunny day) 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 5:00 am I was seated in the same bus as Kenya’s Edwin Kipyego for a ride to the start line.
I met the Major inside the production control room. He was accompanied by his partner Dr. Dimple Bharati. She told me that she planned to meet us several times on the route to give him his energy drink and later run the last few km with us. She explained that due to the massive operation on his intestine, the Major dehydrated very soon. I assured her that I would make sure that we pick-up water from all the water stops.
We made our way to the start-line and were interviewed for the TV viewing audience. The open category run started at 6:40 am. Within a few hundred meters, I noticed that the sun was out and it was already very humid and hot. I braced for a rough day ahead. The Major was quiet and focused. 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 focused on their finish times. They sped past us. However, hundreds of runners noticed us and clapped for the Major. Many seemed to know him personally. They shouted, “Go Major”, “Major you are great.” “Major you inspire me”.
A girl hugged him and said, “Sir, I used to only run the 6k dream run, but YOU inspired me to run the 21k this year”. The Major 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 together because 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. I stood behind him to make sure that nobody ran into him. It was an action I had never seen before. I was in shock. I could not believe this man was running. I later looked at his face. All I could see was determination. This was a look of a man who was simply focused 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 3 years in succession and each time I reach India Gate the uppermost thought in my mind is: I wish the marathon photographer manages to catch me with India Gate in the background. It would make for a nice picture on my wall. As we approached India gate, I had pretty much the same thought this time too.
But then, I saw the Major look up towards India Gate and snap a Salute.
I had a tear in my eye. I love my India too, but am I doing enough? I made a resolution to redouble my efforts to help the kids suffering from Cancer and being treated at the Tata Hospital.
We kept running. We were all sweating profusely. We kept drinking water. As we passed the medical tents we noticed more and more people flocking towards them. This was 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. I asked him how his day had started.
I learnt that Major Singh had a slightly different start to his day.
Because 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.
Then he had to wear his prosthetic. It had taken me 30 seconds to wear my socks. It was a little different for the Major.
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 them from friction.
Then, there was the question of wearing the prosthetic leg itself. The stub where the knee was amputated was is a highly sensitive area. It comes into contact with the socket of the prosthetic leg. The socket is made of hard plastic. Soft skin against a hard material! 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. He needed to align the prosthetic exactly right. When I wear my shoe, the shoe automatically aligns itself with my foot. But a prosthetic must to 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. Even a few mm of play/movement will cause friction and inflame 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 3 hours to get ready to leave for the start-line.
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 he was doing it blindfolded.
But I was wrong. He didn’t seem to think so. He told me that he hated the idea that people are called, ‘Physically Challenged’. He said that he was a ‘Challenger’ and he wanted the world to know that there was nothing he could not do that anyone else could.
Life had thrown down a gauntlet at him. And he had no hesitation in picking it up.
He had started an organization called The Challenging Ones (TCO) with the idea of motivating all challengers to overcome their limitations and partake in sports and adventure activities. He said that he had wanted to partake 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 organizations to come forward to understand the need for better prosthetic technicians in our country.
I ran alongside him in awed silence. On the way back towards the finish he once again saluted the 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 Live broadcasting.
Samir (TV Moderator): How is it going out there Amit, how is Major doing?
Me: Samir, I am reminded of the song from the movie Lakshya (Goal):
Barse chahe amber se aag,
Lipte chahe pairon se naag.
Even if it pours fire from the skies...
Even if snakes entangle my every stride...
Samir, the skies over Delhi have poured fire on us today, but let me ask Major about the state of his stride. Major, how are the legs doing?
Major: 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 keep going! I will reach the finish line!
Me: Aaj Lakshya to paana hai (today, I have to reach my goal) Samir, we will not stop, we will not give up. We will reach the finish line.
Major: I am called physically challenged, but I am not so. I want to say that the ones who are really challenged are those who lack mental willpower. There are lots of people like me in India who are waiting for an opportunity to become physically active. Wake up India, if I can do it, you can do it.”
And so on and on we ran...the first time the 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 from behind banged into him. the third and the fourth time, when he lost his rhythm. Each time, he picked himself up and simply dusted his palms. There was no change of expression on his face. No sound escaped his mouth. There was a steely determination in him that I have never seen in another human being. He looked straight ahead. He never doubted or questioned his own ability. He ran as only a world champion can. He ran with the strength of his mind and for a passion close to his heart. He ran for those of us who doubt our own abilities...He ran for me...He ran for you...
With 200 meters to go, the Indian Tricolour materialized 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 meters behind
I had witnessed firsthand what a soldier from the Indian Army was capable of doing.
On the 30th of September 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.
But 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 all morning.