Good fighters never show their pain.
That’s what Professor Sawang Siripile, known as the father of Muay Thai, once said.
It’s a lie. It had to be. Here I was, speaking with Aditya Mehta, a man who has his name etched in the Limca Book of records; he’s a fighter and yet, he was showing pain. “I have a saddle sore after cycling and training over potholes. My skin has been infected in the process. The area is so tender it hurts when the doctor tries to treat it. I literally wail! I can’t believe I’ve just been home for the past five days”. For Aditya, the pain of being stuck within the confines of his home is far more than a saddle sore.
“Do you need to rest?”, I ask. “We can always speak another time.”
“No no, why? I’m just home all day! We can chat.”
Several years ago though, his life was the exact opposite.
The Spoilt Brat
Aditya Mehta was brought up in a joint family, along with 18 first cousins. “I was a spoilt brat! I hated studying and used to have terrible arguments with my parents. I was incredibly naughty and often got in trouble at home and in school.” He would often get caned by his father for his reckless behaviour.
When he was in the fifth grade, things took a turn for the worse. “I failed in my Telugu exam, and was terribly scared of my father.” He stole his mother’s earrings, sold it for some money and travelled all the way to Goa from Hyderabad. Realising the error of his ways, he eventually called his parents to come pick him up. Needless to say, his parents were in grief and his father finally stopped caning him.
Not everything had changed though – Aditya was still a difficult child to handle. No one in the family had high expectations from him. His reputation as a child, unfortunately, was about to cost him.
“I eventually realised that I was looked at as a failure. Everyone had a terrible opinion of me, especially in the family. It hurt.”
By the time he turned 16, Aditya had had enough. “My family had been in business of all kinds; anything to do with Roti, Kapda, Makaan (Food, clothing, housing),for almost a hundred years. I knew the only way to prove myself and change their opinion of me was to a start a business of my own and succeed.”
When he spoke of the idea of starting a textile business, he received support from no one. “My father said that he didn’t know who my friends were and questioned what I would do with the money.”
Deep down, Aditya knew what the real issue was – His father didn’t trust him, and with good reason.
With the little money he had, Aditya decided to venture out on his own. “I worked like a bull! My days would only end at midnight or so. I travelled from town-to-town with garment pieces to sell.”
Slowly, his family began to notice his perseverance. His grandfather and his mother eventually supported him with minimal funding. Aditya continued to move forward on an uphill battle with minimal sleep. A year later, he would turn a modest investment of Rs. 30,000 into a turnover of Rs. 1.5 crores. He was 18 years old.
In this journey, Aditya did go through his share of travails – He was swindled by his friends when he was just 21 years old. They siphoned crores from the company account. “It was an incredibly troubling time. As much as this hurt and upset me, I didn’t spend too much time worrying about this. I decided to not give up and make it again.”
He started from scratch, entered the domain of exporting garments, and made all his money back – in one year.
In every sense of the word, Aditya was ‘living the dream’. He had enough money to spend, was completely independent and managed a growing business. His family now looked at him with an air of respect as they knew that the once belligerent child had swerved on to the right path.
Sadly, he was just a year away from a period of agony. He was to lose everything he’d worked so hard for.
To Lose So Much More
“One day, I was riding to go meet my stockist. As I was on the road, a bus suddenly hit me from behind. I managed to hold my balance even though I was riding a Bullet.” He was not so lucky the second time – the bus driver continued to rampage on and he was hit again. “I was pushed for almost 200-300 metres. As I fell, the tyre of the bus was coming close to my face. I immediately turned and as I was trying to get my leg out of the way, the tyre of the bus rolled over it.”
Aditya lay flat on the road, motionless between two tyres of the bus. He was screaming. His leg had just been crushed under the tremendous weight of the vehicle.
Sadly, this wasn’t the worst of it.
“Not one person came to help me. No one. I was crying in pain. I kept screaming that I would pay any of them to help me – Rs. 5000, Rs. 50,000, it didn’t matter. Even then, people were just watching. No one wanted to answer to the cops.”
With incredible difficulty, Aditya pulled himself away from the bus using only his hands. With every move he made, he experienced inexplicable agony. In the only glimmer of hope, he was spotted by a store-owner located next to his own store. The person immediately helped him and took him to the hospital.
12 Days Of Hell
When his parents reached the hospital, they were in a state of shock. His father, who would usually be the one communicating with tough-love, found himself in very vulnerable state. His mother and wife were inconsolable. “I was the eldest boy in my mother’s side of the family. My grandfather couldn’t digest hearing that his grandson had been hospitalised. He immediately travelled from Mumbai to Hyderabad to be with me”
This wasn’t the end of it for Aditya – he was about to experience pain that was much worse than the accident. “Every second day of the treatment, the dressing of my wound was to be applied without painkillers.”
Everytime he was being treated, Aditya would scream in agony. “On the third day, I told the doctor that I’d rather have him remove my leg than deal with this kind of pain. He was shocked to hear that. Only I knew what I was going through.”
On the 8th day, he experienced the worst of it. “The doctor applied cotton to my wound without the right precautions and then applied Plaster of Paris. The cotton was stuck with the Plaster and he had to remove it from the wound using forceps.” Aditya pauses as he says this, almost expressing a sense of anger.
“I cannot explain what I went through in words. I cannot.”
On the 12th day, it was clear – Aditya’s right leg had to be amputated from above the knee.
Everything he had imagined for his life had suddenly been shattered in a cruel twist of fate.
Fighting His Way Back
The period of recovery was long and hard. Aditya would go through a state of depression before getting better. For about one and a half months, he had to be in a state of complete bed rest. In this time, many people would visit him, expressing their pity. “They looked at me and felt sorry for me. In the other room, I once heard one of them call me bechara (helpless person). I would scream back ‘I’m not a bechara. I’m going to fight back!’ “
In all of this, Aditya tried very hard to keep his dream alive. A few months after the accident, he decided to go to South Africa and continue building his business. Every single day of the trip, his leg would bleed and he would have to keep changing the dressing.
Dejectedly, he confronted the reality of his situation. “I finally had to accept that moving around with garments wasn’t going to be possible.” With a heavy heart, he closed down the business.
When he returned to India, he was fitted with a prosthetic ; it look him another six to seven months to learn to walk with it. Often, he would buckle and fall as he was learning to walk. Several times, out of sheer frustration, he would just lie on the floor. “I would get terribly angry and I had a short temper. I hated the situation. I hated being here.” His father, however, helped him see things from a different perspective. “He would tell me that I needed to think like a child. Children don’t complain when they try learning to walk. When they fall, they just get up again. These words really helped me. My parents were of complete support and helped me through everything”
Eventually, heeding his father’s advice and braving things through, he was able to walk up to a kilometre. Slowly he trained himself to walk five kilometres and was eventually able to walk up to ten kilometres, even with the discomfort.
The Dream Inspired By A Picture
On one of these walks, Aditya came across the hoarding of local cycling club. The picture he saw on it was a glaring reminder of his limitations – a young, able-bodied man on a cycle with all his limbs in place. Aditya saw a message he didn’t want to – “This is something you won’t be able to do.”
“It hurt to even look at it. I started to reminisce about the days in school when I had the best cycle in class. The thought that I couldn’t ride anymore was too hard to bear.”
Aditya went home in the same dejected state. He started to feel helpless all over again. Somewhere along the way, he decided to snap out of it. He didn’t enjoy this line of thought. “Let me try this atleast once”, he said to himself.
Aditya borrowed his cousin’s cycle for the first attempt. “My father supported me in this and said I should give it a shot.” For his very first ride, Aditya rode for about a kilometre – after falling five times. “Every fall made me stronger. I learnt from every fall. I just kept going. I never stopped”. There was no turning back for Aditya from this point – he decided to defy the odds and pursue this professionally.
He trained extremely hard pushing through all the sores, discomfort and medication. He worked so hard that he decided to go all-out for his dream at that point of time – to be a Limca Record holder. He is now the first amputee cyclist to complete a 100 km ride in 5.5 hours. “Now I can even do it in 4-4.5 hours. Hitting this record was a turning point in my life. I knew that I could do everything I wanted to.”
As of today, he has cycled over 40,000 kilometres in a period of 2.5 years – with a prosthetic leg.
“My leg came off and I flew off the cycle”
Aditya had already set the next target on his mind – To win a medal from the Asian cycling championship that was to be held in Delhi. “I picked up a new bike and continued to train very hard. This was the ONLY thing that mattered to me at this point.” In the training period, Aditya started making modifications to his bike to make it lighter. His coach was very concerned. “ ‘Why are you doing this? We only have 15 days for the championship. What if something goes wrong?’ he would tell me.” Aditya told him that he was simply experimenting and had no plans to use it in the championship. This wasn’t his intention though – he had decided to practice with the new modification.
Five days before the championship, the coach’s worst fears had come true. As Aditya was cycling against the Andhra Pradesh champion at that time, his prosthetic leg got stuck in the spokes of the front wheel. “My leg immediately came off, and I flew off the cycle. I was riding at 40 km/hr. I smacked against the ground and couldn’t move”.
Upon examination, it was revealed that Aditya’s tailbone was severely impacted. “I couldn’t even sit on a chair – the pain was terrible” The doctor’s verdict was clear – with five days to go, Aditya should skip the Asian championship. His mother and father were in complete agreement with the doctor – After all, his recovery was of utmost importance. “After a lot of arguments, I agreed. I told them that I would go to Delhi to only watch the race.”
Aditya Mehta had no plans of being a mere spectator, of course. “I was the first indian amputee to participate. This is all that I dreamt of. I was representing my family, community and country. Nothing could stop me.”
The Asian Championship
To get to Delhi for the championship, Aditya had to stand in the plane for almost 2.5 hours. “Sitting would cause me tremendous pain. I carried a hot & cold pack with me for my tailbone to use when I needed to sit for take-off and departure. I decided to stay without medication”.
Three days before the big day, Aditya had to ride in the trials. He rode for 20-25 km bearing the agonising sores.
“Before the race started on the championship-day, I sat on the saddle despite the sores. I decided to give it my all.” Without a break or a moment of thought, Aditya rode as fast as his legs would take him – he had no clue as to how he was doing as this was an individual time-trial. When he finished the race, he asked his coach what the results were. “ ‘You are absolutely useless!’ my coach said. I was in shock when I heard those words. Suddenly he smiled and said, ‘you only got a silver!!’” Aditya was overwhelmed and wept in joy when he heard this.
The day was far from done though.
“The worst pain happens in the cool-down period. My tailbone, facing severe trauma, was beginning to hurt again. So I made a decision – why cool-down when I’ve gotten this far? Why stop now if it’s going to hurt anyway? I decided to take part in the second race of the championship to win atleast a bronze.” The first race was an individual time-trial of 10 km. The second promised to be far more strenuous – he had to cover 40 km in one go. Just like the first, Aditya gave his all to the next race as well. He didn’t win a bronze though.
He won a silver.
“There were no words to express my joy. I was the first amputee cyclist in the championships to win a double-silver. I’d achieved more than I’d set out for.”
Ticking Off Dreams
Breaking one record wasn’t enough for Aditya. He decided to compete against himself at every point in his cycling journey. He eventually rode across London to Paris and climbed 9000 feet in the process – His name appeared in the Limca book of records yet again. He went on to ride from Kashmir to Kanyakumari facing a very gruelling journey.
One of his biggest achievements so far has been to ride from Manali to Khardung La. Standing at 17,582 feet, Khardung La is believed to be the highest vehicle-accessible pass in the world available to the general public. “Any cyclist knows that this is the one of the toughest routes to tread on.” He took off on the 1st of August with the goal of reaching on the 15th of August. Throughout this ride, his challenges went far beyond cycling. He suffered from nose-bleed, his flesh would get cut while riding given his prosthetic leg, and he had to stay in huts. “I would only come across Indian-style of toilets. With a prosthetic leg, this was the most difficult task! I don’t know how I made it through all the pain. Only my target kept me going. I wanted to hoist the Indian flag on Khardung La on our independence day.” Aditya pauses for a second, almost as if he was reliving that day in his mind. “I made it”
Even with all his achievements, Aditya was not free from criticism. He was consistently being defamed by a few detractors on social media. “I had one person accusing me of lying about everything I did. This upset me and I couldn’t understand why someone would be out to get me.”
His friends helped him see this in another light – “They helped me realise that critics appear when any of us are on the right path.”
The Aditya Mehta Foundation
In his new-found life path, Aditya came across several people hit with a stroke of bad luck. “I met so many para-athletes who were suffering. They simply had no support. I really wanted to help them as I was fortunate enough to have the backing to make it all the way. I would help about one or two of them every year with the equipment they needed to succeed. This wasn’t enough to make a difference though.”
In witnessing all of this, his mentors gave him an idea – Why not link his rides to raise money for the foundation? “I soon realised that a foundation could raise all the money that our para-athlethes required. My Kashmir-Kanyakumari trip was actually a fund-raising event. I spoke about it everywhere I went. Eventually, we raised money for three amazing guys who were physically challenged but were medallists already – they needed two cycles and one prosthetic leg.”
“I have a very clear target to achieve for my foundation now. One person needs a prosthetic leg in Calcutta – he has 22 medals in our country and can’t afford the prosthetic. In 2.5 months, we want to fund 3 people to go to the Asian championships in Thailand. We don’t have the money today, but I know we’ll raise it one month no matter what it takes.”
His ultimate dream? To start a sports academy for those not as fortunate. “I get a lot of media attention, but there are so many people out there doing amazing things who get no visibility. In our country, there is literally no support for para-athletes. Even I don’t get much support. I must thank the armed forces – they offered to support me and take care of my accomodation wherever I go. As for the others in a similar situation, they simply can’t afford to take part in every event. My ultimate dream is to make this happen in the next few years and change the landscape.”
As our conversation was coming to an end, I couldn’t help but be amazed as to how this man had pushed himself through all the adversities. “My family has been of incredible support through all of it. As for me, my only philosophy in life is this – Never, ever give up. Try until you die. That’s all”
Maybe Professor Sawang Siripile was referring to fighters in the ring. A good fighter would never show his pain to an opponent. I don’t know, really.
As for Aditya Mehta? He’s not afraid to show pain. Why would he be? It doesn’t seem to stop him anyway.