India's BladeRunner

This is the story of blade-runner Maj. D.P. Singh who not only survived the lethal blast of a mortar shell while fighting Pakistanis on India’s border but has now taken on a personal fight against disability by running marathons.

By Vivek Mukherji

 

Only a discerning eye could notice a slight limp in the proud gait of a military man as he walked into a café in one of the many malls that have come to define Gurgaon’s borrowed identity.

Unlike the artificiality of the shinystructures of glass and concrete overlooking the potholed and dug-up roads and erratic drivers with little road sense whipping up a veritable chaos behind expensive sets of wheels that have become one of the most conspicuous symbols of the neo-rich urban elite and the choking haze of progress, Major D.P. Singh cuts a contrasting figure. He has the demeanour of a person who understands the ephemerality of things that are usually taken for granted. Or, it could be wisdom that has been distilled in the heat of the battles that life has thrown at Singh that lends a gentle edge to his voice in the rambunctious confines of the coffee shop.

For a man who, according to the Medical Blue Book, is certified 140 percent disabled, who has more than 50 pieces of mortar shrapnel embedded in his body and is amputated through the knee, to find succour in running marathons is a story of an iron will forged from tempered steel. Even the spirit of Pheidippides must be taking a bow somewhere in the ruins of Marathon.

The months of May, June and July in 1999 were a summer of discontent in the Indian subcontinent. In the winter of that year, Pakistan sneaked in insurgents backed by its soldiers from the elite Special Services Group and Northern Light Infantry to occupy the craggy ridges dominating Kargil and Drass on the Indian side of the Line of Control (LOC), overlooking the Leh-Srinagar highway. It had been a long-standing practice on the part of the Indian Army to vacate the posts on the mountain tops on our side of the LOC before the onset of the winter snow.

The ill-conceived plan hatched in the top echelons of the Pakistani Army led by its buccaneering Chairman of Joint Chiefs, General Pervez Musharraf, had the intention of cutting off the vitally important National Highway 1 connecting Leh in Ladakh and Srinagar in the Kashmir Valley, thereby forcing India’s hand in ceding territory in the Siachen Glacier area. At least, that was the plan.

In early May 1999, the Indian Army launched a massive counter-offensive called Operation Vijay, involving more than 30,000 troops and backed by the Indian Air Force, to evict the infiltrators. What followed for more than two-and-a-half months was a bloody battle of attrition. Inch by inch, and in some places after hand-to-hand combat, the Indian troops reclaimed most of the lost territory at a great loss of human life. Official figures indicate that 527 Indian soldiers lost their lives and another 1,363 were maimed.

While India and the world watched the big guns booming in the desolate heights of Kargil, Drass and Batalik sectors, the rest of the LOC and the international border also turned red-hot, especially in Jammu and Kashmir.

During this period, Maj. Singh was commanding a post in the Chicken’s Neck area in J&K in the Akhnoor sector. It’s a dagger-shaped piece of Pakistani territory that juts into the Indian side. The lay of the land makes it one of the most vulnerable points for incursion.

Barely days before the Kargil hostilities broke out, Singh rejoined his regiment, 7 Dogra, after recouping from a left knee surgery for a meniscus tear. It was an old injury that flared up on the last day of the mandatory commando course that young officers have to undergo at the Belgaum Commando Training School. During this period, Singh consulted an army doctor for the nagging knee problem. Though he was bearing the injury, the doctor declared him fit for the commando training after some rudimentary tests that involved doing squats. At that time, little did Singh know that their paths would cross again when he would be fighting for his life in a remote field hospital a few months down the line.

Singh, brought up in the finest traditions of Sikhism of martial valour and honour by his grandparents in the cantonment town of Roorkee in Uttarakhand, is a firm believer in destiny. “Come to think of it, it’s one in a million chance that a doctor who checked my knee in Belgaum would declare me dead in one of the remotest corners of the country. How else can one justify such a coincidence other than destiny,” says Singh with a wry smile.

Singh was assigned to command one of the forward-most posts in the Chicken’s Neck area. The post was located on an island in the middle of the Munawar Tawi river, barely 80 metres from the Pakistani post. This part of the border in J&K is one of the few areas where tanks can operate. Naturally, both sides had primed their heavy-duty armoured columns in an eyeball-to-eyeball confrontation. The question was, who would blink first. In the scorching July heat, the sand and rocks in the riverbed breathed fire.

The post that Singh was manning with one Junior Commissioned Officer and 28 soldiers of other ranks consisting of a ring of bunkers enjoyed one crucial advantage. A massive boulder in front of it prevented the Pakistanis from taking direct shots, while Singh used its cover to pin down the enemy most of the time.

Even as the Kargil war was raging, the rest of the LOC and the international border in the state became “very alive.” But the term ‘alive’ is an understatement. Light and heavy machine guns and mortar shells rained hell on either side of the dividing line, day and night. The eerie whistling of mortar shells cutting through the air, the dull thud of armour-piercing machine gun bullets hitting the bunker walls and the muzzle flash and incandescent flares at night reminded the men on the front of the mortal danger every waking and sleeping moment.

By early July, the Indian Army had gained an upper hand in the Kargil war and by the second week, the final mopping up of the enemy had started. But where Singh was commanding his troops, intense firing continued unabated. Suddenly, on July 13, the Pakistani guns went silent. “Intuitively, I felt something was not right. I got the feeling that the enemy might be planning something, but I couldn’t put my finger on it. We increased our observation, but didn’t see signs of any unusual activity inside the enemy post,” says Singh.

The morning of July 15, 1999 was unusually hot and humid. As was his routine, he was supervising his men and gun positions at his post. At around 6 am, the Pakistani guns opened up once again. Moving from one bunker to another, Singh heard the familiar whistle of a mortar shell, but realised that it was way off the target. The first bomb fell well beyond the post. Just as he reached the middle of the open area between the bunkers, a mortar bomb started making a vertical descent from high above his head. When these bombs enter the final vertical dive phase of the trajectory, the stabilising fins don’t make the familiar whistling sound.

The deadly shell landed with a dull thud into the soft ground barely five feet from the young captain. Instinctively, Singh dived into the ground and then everything went black. The shell exploded into thousands of fragments of razor-sharp metal. His right leg that was closest to the shell bore the brunt. The rest of the right side of his body was also badly mutilated. “The last thing I remember is me diving into the ground. It was pure instinct, nothing else. After that, I don’t remember a thing,” says Singh.

Despite losing their leader, the men at the post launched a rescue operation under fire. Four soldiers put Singh on a stretcher to rush him to the nearest field hospital, while the rest returned the Pakistani fire with a vengeance. For the four men, it was a race against time. Singh lay inert on the stretcher with blood spouting “like a fountain” from the multiple holes on his
battered body. His right leg was a mangle of bones and flesh. The men finally reached the field hospital that was manned by one doctor and three other medical staff after an arduous trek of 2 1/2 hours.

It was the same doctor, who had examined his knee during the commando training course in Belgaum. Seeing his condition, the doctor declared Singh dead, much to the despair of the men who had taken him to the field hospital. But then “destiny had other plans”. As luck would have it, on the same day a senior doctor of the rank of colonel, an anaesthesiologist, was visiting the field hospital. He spotted signs of life in the battered soldier and revived him.
“Had he not been there, I wouldn’t have been alive today. I tried a few times to locate him
but have not been successful. Ironically, the doctor who declared me dead, I met a few times during the course of my treatment in different hospitals,” says Singh.

Such was the extent of his injuries that Singh was classified as “dangerously ill” in the army’s medical parlance. It means that the patient cannot be moved unless stabilised. But that presented another complication. By the third day in the field hospital, traces of gangrene had set in in the damaged foot. Still in critical condition, Singh was evacuated to the army hospital in Udhampur.

After a few days, he emerged from the darkness of unconsciousness. And, once the doctors removed the bandages, he realised the extent of damage. “I saw my leg and realised that it was in a very bad shape. Below the knee, there was nothing left...it was just some bones and blown away and burnt flesh,” says Singh. Not that he needed any confirmation, but the grim look on the faces of the doctors said it all. “Son, we need to amputate the leg. Nothing can be done about it,” said one of the senior doctors.

It might be hard to believe, and even seem surreal; Singh says he felt a wave of calmness washing over him. “Please go ahead...there is nothing left in it,” Singh told the doctor. “I don’t want to sound macho or brave, but the only thought that was swimming in my head was...‘it’s going to be a new challenge to live without one functioning leg’...I know it sounds strange, but that’s exactly how it was,” says Singh.

But amputation was only part of the problem. Singh had taken hundreds of shrapnel pieces in his body. They were embedded in his ribs, chest, thighs stomach, intestines and head. Even now he has around 50 metal pieces lodged in various parts of the body. After a month of convalescing in the hospital in Udhampur other complications surfaced due to infection in the stomach. He was shifted to the army’s Research & Referral Hospital in Delhi. In August 1999, he underwent a second surgery of the stomach to remove the infected part of the large intestine. After 40 days, when he was released for the next part of the rehabilitation programme that was to be done at the Command Hospital in Pune, Singh was reduced to a gaunt figure weighing justc28 kg despite all the high-protein injections and diet. In early 2000, he arrived in Pune to begin the lengthy process of rehabilitation and fitting of the prosthetic leg. When he finally walked out of the hospital in August, he was classified asc140 percent disabled according to the Medical Blue Book.

The 2009 Airtel Delhi Half Marathon was still a little over a month away. Plagued by a myriad health problems due to the permanent damage to some of the internal organs and partial loss of hearing in the right ear arising from Blast Acoustic Trauma, Singh used to suffer from bouts of self-doubt and depression.

One fine day, in a state of melancholy, he stumbled upon a video of Terry Fox on YouTube—the cancer survivor had done the trans-America run to raise money for his charity. That run sparked a brainwave in him. Singh too wanted to run to chase away his own demons.

For the next one month he got down to it like a man possessed. Determination is one thing, but practicality is quite another challenge. With the prosthetic limb it was not possible to run like a normal person nor was walking possible in a race. So, Singh adopted Fox’s technique of hop-running—a weird gait that’s somewhere between hopping and running. Thus began his second battle in life.

During the initial days of his running, Singh took plenty of knocks on the road. Falling down was par for the course. Even though after every run, the stump would become sore and tender, the sheer joy of being able to do something that he hadn’t even imagined possible had an exhilarating effect on him. Slowly but surely he built enough stamina and confidence to enter the Airtel Delhi Half Marathon. He completed the distance of a little over 26 km in 3 hours 49 minutes. And, he felt hungry for the first time since his injury. “I was very tired...but I got a tremendous high. The first thing that I ate after the race was an apple. I was so hungry that I even chewed up the core of the apple,” says Singh.

 

 

With that began his obsession with distance running, but at great physical hardship. After every run, the friction between the stump and the cup of the prosthetic would peel off the skin, leaving him bloodied. He took part in three more half-marathons like this, improving his timing on every outing.

In 2007, Singh took premature retirement from the army, but he kept in touch with his former colleagues. In the meantime, some senior officers in the army came to know about the one-legged runner. It was a chance meeting with Lieutenant General Mukesh Sabarwal at the Army Golf Course at a social do in 2011 that gave a further fillip to his running career. Impressed by his passion for running, the senior army officer got down to helping him get a running blade—the kind which was made famous by the now infamous South African double amputee runner, Oscar Pistorius.

Made by a Finnish company, the Ossur Flex-Foot, constructed from high-quality lightweight steel and carbon fibre, mimics the natural movement of the human limb. Armed with this blade, Singh ran farther and faster. It saw him taking part in the Sangla High Altitude Marathon in 2011. The same year two Limca Book Records also came his way.

 

 

In 2013, his story made its way to the US. Kevin Carroll, one of the founders of Hanger Clinic in Oklahoma, invited him to develop a special blade customised for distance running. Carroll and his clinic became famous worldwide a few years back for developing a prosthetic tail for Winter the dolphin, which features in the movie called The Dolphin’s Tail. The new blade has a sock made from high-quality silicone that sits inside the cup of the prosthetic limb to prevent abrasion of the skin and it weighs just 3.5 kg. In the six years since Singh ran the first half-marathon, he has taken part in more than 20 races, till now, as if to prove that he has won the second battle of his life.

But now he is engaged in another fight. And that’s against disability. He is the driving force behind a peer support group called The Challenging Ones. “I am involved with The Challenging Ones to help others who suffer from disability to return to normal life. It’s all about changing the perception of the society against disability,” says Singh.

It’s often said that the limits to which the human body can be pushed can surprise us humans. But what’s the point of reference that can help determine to what extent those limits can be stretched? The answer to this conundrum is provided by men like Major D.P. Singh.