Now, who hasn’t heard of Lance Armstrong — the champion cyclist who riding his bicycle won the mother of all competitions, the Tour de France, a record seven times? And yeah all this after having survived testicular cancer? And what about Richard Allen — the charismatic Def Leppard drummer who juggled the sticks with his lone hand? Or even Helen Keller, the legendary figure who changed the very way we look at physically challenged people? This extraordinary league of individuals had one thing in common and that was the zeal to not give up, the passion to live beyond all their perceived deficiencies, to not become objects of pity.
I guess if I were to be in their shoes, I’d have given up long ago. But then, everybody is not me! And not long ago, I assumed that such individuals were myths, only heard of or read about in books. This was until I met Devashish Ghosh, the lone-footed Kolkata athlete with several cycling records to his credit.
Ghosh had lost his left leg in a train accident, but rather than lamenting over his cursed luck, he took it in his stride and has never looked back.
NO PITY, PLEASE!
And if you think you’re going to pity him for what life has done to him, Beware! He hates it.
"What’s so different about being one-footed?" he asks.
"How does it make me an object of ‘extra care’? "I despise those who act like a crybaby about their disability and seek sympathy from others; sometimes on the streets begging, and many times running from office to office looking for jobs under special reservations."
You’d think he was kidding. He’s not! He doesn’t believe in fate, and he would rather move ahead with his plans for life than sit back and curse his misfortunes.
"There is nothing called a "blessed fate" or a "cursed one," he says.
Hard to believe, really! But Ghosh did turn it into a boon. Like the accident that left him with only his right leg, it instilled in him the urge to go beyond prescribed boundaries.
He challenged societal expectations of him and instead took on the world with his cycling. He was 13 when he met with the accident, and he learnt to ride a bicycle when he was 26.
"I wanted to live my life and bicycle and cycling offered me the perfect platform. Learning how to ride a bicycle at the age of 26 was a turning point in my life, especially since I’d failed to do the same when I was 17," he says
Ghosh holds the Limca Record for solo cycling (pedalling with one foot) to Rohtang Pass (13,059 ft/ 3,980 m) from Chandigarh, a distance of 381 km, which he completed in a record 19 days. His aim was to cycle all the way to Khardung-La, the highest motorable road, but a boulder en-route to Darcha after Rohtang damaged his cycle. Until then, he had covered 500 km on mountainous tracks. Something that we privileged mortals would never dare to do!
Okay, I am adventurous, but that’s right from childhood. And my lost leg is a gift from my rendezvous with adventure, "says Ghosh in his rather uncanny yet humorous way.
And I call it ‘uncanny humour’ because even his horrific accident actually left me in splits. And no I’m not a fan of morbidity but I guess that’s the kind of reaction Ghosh expects from people who hear his story. So here he goes:
"Hmm... well, it was nothing serious, just an accident. People call it horrible, horrific but every accident is horrible in its own regard, is it not? I would rather call it a gift to the world of adventure or say a gift to me from this very same world. It happened while I was returning from Dehradun when our train stopped for a few minutes at Lucknow station. I went out to explore, as usual, and I didn’t realise that the signal was green and that the train was chugging out leaving me behind. I was an expert at jumping into moving vehicles and so I darted towards the train and when it was barely a jump away, I leapt! There was some luggage by the door and my foot hit something. I managed to grasp the bar, but the slip left me dangling in the intervening space. Within seconds, the grapple ended and I landed straight on the tracks. Rest as they say is history!"
I slowly gathered my thoughts and realised that life isn’t really as rosy as in films and it isn't just about happy endings. It’s about the journey in between, and Ghosh’s journey has been quite a choppy one at that. But then again, that’s what I think.
For Ghosh, the journey has been worth the ride, especially on his bicycle.
THE LONG HAUL
Riding a bicycle demands perfect balance, and doing it on one foot demands even greater balance. The first few months of his training were spent exclusively on acquiring the balance.
"I am a commerce graduate, but my physics knowledge of weights and measures was pretty good. After six months of half-pedalling, I put a weight of 600 grams on the other pedal so that when I took the right pedal down; the other side’s weight came to its peak and pushed the left pedal forward. Thus, it completed my full pedal swing on both sides, "he said.
Since then Devashish Ghosh has been cycling his way all around. After taking some short trips in and around Kolkata and to Bodh Gaya along with his younger brother, Shubhashish Ghosh and his friends, Ghosh dreamt of making it big.
His first call was New Delhi. Packing two T-Shirts, two pairs of shorts, and a cash of Rs 5000, he left for Delhi on November 21, 1994. The 28-day trip took him across various towns and cities and his unlikely sight drew many onlookers. Ghosh made many friends along the way — from roadside dahabas offering him free meals to inn-owners offering free overnight halts, everyone treated him with love and respect.
And once he reached Delhi, he planned to go further towards Mumbai in a bid to cover 1300 km. Unfortunately, he had to cancel his journey midway as he was involved in an accident that damaged his bicycle.
"I was dejected, but it did not dampen my spirits as I then decided to travel the Chandigarh-Khardung-La road; though even that journey ended quite abruptly at Rohtang pass," he says dejectedly.
But as I mentioned earlier, Ghosh is not the one to sit back and mourn past failures. He’s almost always planning the next move, however hard that may be. And at the moment, this explorer is scripting a film. Ghosh is a student of film direction and he is now working on a film-making project for his course.
Hugely inspired by the life of Robert Bruce, who led Scotland during the Scottish wars of independence, Devashish Ghosh believes in the dictum that a usual life is also sometimes like a battlefield; depressed at several times only to taste success at the end.’
But from where I stand, I’d say this man is already a success. He may not be the richest or the most popular man on earth, but Ghosh has understood the importance of life, of living, and that’s what he’s done. And he’s done it with his head held high. Despite the trauma, despite the misfortune, here is one man who has seen the worst of times and is still seeking the best.
PS: Devashish Ghosh cycled his way to the heavens above in 2012. This interview was published a couple of months prior to his death. As the story inspired me whenever I feel low in life, I have decided to republish it in the way it was interviewed. His legacy still lives on and he continues to inspire me even today.
Partha Prawal (Goswami) is a Guwahati-based journalist who loves to write about entertainment, sports, and social and civic issues among others. He is also a published author.