Around two decades ago, Vinod Rawat, 44, would spend hours mounted on his stationary motorcycle at Bandra Reclamation. With just his left leg touching the ground, he would start counting, last for about seven seconds during the initial days, before scrambling to take control instead of tipping over. As the days progressed, he became a butt of all jokes among the regulars.
"Aren't you ever going to ride? What foolishness is this?" they would laugh.
There was little in terms of a retort and an unperturbed Rawat would simply get back to another attempt at maintaining balance. It's not like there was a lack of confidence when it came to riding. Yet, with a prosthetic limb on his left leg, he wished to leave no room for errors once he hit the road.
Vinod Rawat. All images courtesy of the author
Those lessons served him well, not just on the streets of Mumbai, but also on treacherous mountain roads that would become his playground in the future. This month, he lived his dream of riding the Raid de Himalaya " the world's highest motorsport rally that was flagged off from Leh. While he shared the distinction of becoming the first amputee to ride the race alongside Ashok Munne of Nagpur, what set his feat apart was a third-place finish in the Class D category of the Xtreme Moto category.
For Rawat, it was the culmination of a dream that had shattered, even before it started.
While growing up in Bhandup, a distant suburb of Mumbai, Rawat was in awe of a police inspector in his colony, who would thump by on his Royal Enfield every evening.
"Dhuk dhuk dhuk dhuk " I used to love that sound and I swore that I would ride a Bullet when I grew up," Rawat says.
At the age of six though, his life took a tragic turn. While on his way back home from school, Rawat was hit by a speeding truck that shattered his left leg, leaving him at the mercy of crutches right through his growing years.
"My family didn't have Rs 25,000 for an operation, so as gangrene would set in, they keep hacking at my leg like a butcher. By the time they had gathered the amount, I had undergone six operations, eventually leaving me with a little stump below the left knee," Rawat says.
When he finally got home, he realised that the attitude of those around him had changed. His father started drinking and would often beat him, disappointed that his eldest son was now a cripple. His friends disappeared as well and he earned all kinds of names, starting with "langda".
"People would make fun of me, I became a clown for them. They would snatch my crutches from me. I didn't trust anyone and would lash out at people who came anywhere close. I gradually developed this hatred towards humanity," he says.
At the age of 14, Rawat dropped out of school, left home and soon found security in a local gang. The books made way for knives and the dreams changed overnight. Over a period of time, he longed to be rescued from the bad world he had immersed himself in, but at the same time, he knew that no one would bother him in his new avatar.
As the months went by, Rawat realised that he was being followed. The first time the gentleman, Isaac Swamidas, approached him, the old feelings of insecurity were on guard, the crutches and the knife in his waist on alert. But a brief conversation offered Rawat a ray of hope and he embraced it to set off on a new journey.
"He was a preacher and part of a missionary. I don't really care about what people think about conversion, but I know what the Bible has given me. One of the first lessons I learnt was forgiveness. I decided to change my life," he says.
At 17 years, Rawat was taken to the office of Bombay Teen Challenge, which looks to rehabilitate kids from the streets. One of his first tasks was sweeping the floor at the centre and preparing tea for the staff.
"I often wonder what those people who knew me as a bhai would have said, had they seen me sweeping the floor," he says, chuckling.
Rawat was soon handed the responsibility of convincing drug addicts to enter rehab and after finishing his 10th grade from the night school at St Michael's in Mahim, he was sent to training programs around the world. But the biggest change that affected his life was receiving a prosthetic leg through the Jaipur Foot chapter at KEM hospital in Parel.
"They said it may not look good, but I would be able to walk, though my only concern was the trauma of yet another amputation. I can never forget that day in 1997 when I hopped in on crutches at 10 am and walked out for the first time in 17 years on my two feet," he says.
Yet again, life changed for Rawat and he soon started living the dreams he did as a little boy. While running, swimming and climbing were constants in his daily life, he also bought his first motorcycle, spending the first few weeks as a pillion rider just to soak it all in. After endless hours performing the balancing act, he set off on his first ride from Bandra to Worli, feeling like a king " an emotion he goes through even today, each time he is on two wheels.
"I know how big it is for me to just ride a motorcycle. Since that day, I can't really do without riding," he says.
After leaving the Bombay Teen Challenge centre to "make way for another Vinod", other jobs followed " from serving at McDonald's to selling home loans for a bank. But alongside, he looked to expand his horizons and dabble with anything that came his way, a chance encounter even getting him on the television show, Roadies.
His first Royal Enfield handed him the opportunity to join biking communities and set out on long rides. A few even abandoned him on the discovery of his amputated leg, yet he never let that familiar feeling of rejection affect his life anymore.
From riding in dirt and drag races, to joining off-roading and rallying adventures, Rawat immersed himself in the world of motorcycles. During a lecture that he delivered at Rider Mania " a motorcycle festival in Goa, he happened to meet Vijay Parmar, president of Himalayan Motorsports Association that organises the Raid. A simple question fulfilled another dream.
"After the talk, he asked me " why don't you ride the Raid? I never wanted to compete with the professional riders, but simply wanted to be a part of it. I had even ridden to Leh on many occasions " at times twice in a year " to understand the terrain and the weather conditions. Last year, I did my first bicycle ride from Manali to Khardung La as part of the M2K expedition organised by Adventures Beyond Barriers Foundation. I could hardly believe that I had this opportunity," Rawat says.
There was just one catch " the Federation of Motor Sports Clubs of India refused to hand him the license to ride.
"Parmar stood up for me. He said that if I could run, climb and had been riding for so many years, why couldn't I join the Raid? They eventually agreed and I owe him for his support that made it happen," he says.
A day before the Raid, most assumed Rawat to be a part of the support staff. When they saw him fill out a form, they even checked if his motorcycle had side wheels. But once they were clear that he was a rider just like them, the seasoned riders took him under their wing and offered handy tips for the race.
At the starting line, Rawat had the biggest smile on his face. Facing temperatures of seventeen below zero meant little to him, nor did the strain of making extreme left turns while leaning on his prosthetic leg. Even a fall while approaching Tanglang La was taken in stride and after a quick fix of the gear shift, he set out once again. By the end of it, he had surpassed his aim of simply finishing the race, with a podium finish to his name.
"It's like a dream. And I want to live it again next year," he says.
These days, he's back at work which involves juggling many hats. One of them takes him back to the same facility at KEM where he counsels patients, who hope to get an artificial limb just like him.
"They have a big question mark on their face when they arrive " whether they'll be able to walk or not. But when they hear my story and see me ride to work on my Bullet, it gives them hope. For if Vinod can do it, so can they," he says.