A seven-year-old son of a taxi driver loses his right hand in a road accident — triggering a life of uncertainty, leaving his parents' hopes in limbo and giving way to a roller coaster chain of events that would change the face of Indian sport.
Twenty six years after that fateful day, Prasanta Karmakar chuckles about it before revealing his disarmingly innocent feelings about the tragedy, "I felt it would grow back, finger after finger... you know how you cut your nails and they grow back? Just like that."
That kid is now 33, and is the first disabled Indian swimmer to win a medal at the World Swimming Championships (2003) and the Commonwealth Games (2010) -- gathering more than a dozen medals throughout his career. He is also the Asian record holder in Butterfly, Breaststroke and Backstroke (all 50m).
And recently, he shifted to cycling and continued his glorious run, winning two golds in the Asian Cycling Championship.
He looks back at his early days in Kolkata with a growing sense of nostalgia: fishing in the pukurs, flying kites, dealing cards, playing cricket and discovering a passion for football -- all the while learning how to write with his left hand.
As he walks down the memory lane and despite the positivity he exudes, you can feel his voice trembling with emotion when he speaks about a struggle he can never forget: "During graduation, I left my house. I left everything and I didn't have a single rupee in my pocket. I would wake up in the middle of the night and start crying, thinking how to survive. Despite sporting success, I'm still not sure what I'm going to eat tomorrow. But, I still don't see anything in my life as a challenge."
Karmakar then signed up for the Haryana paralympic swimming team and the story from then on is that of success laced with the difficulties that come with being an athlete in India — unfulfilled promises, begging for monetary support and the constant struggle against red-tapism. It was announced that Karmakar would be given a government job in 2010, and his papers are still stuck in some drawer, collecting dust while the man burns his calories in swimming pools and the cycling track with the Indian flag pinned to his chest. Even his applications for training support have not been cleared.
But he doesn't stop hoping: "Hope is the reason you are talking to me. You hoped you'll be able to talk to me... that is why you called and we're doing this interview, is it not?"
His confidence is such that you could be forgiven to think 'what if he had no disability?' But his answer floors you: "If I had a hand? Then I would have been a civil engineer or a bank manager like my two younger brothers..." he trails off, his laughter mingling with the sound of a stray dog barking as a train passed by.
But his journey to becoming an Indian swimming legend is what captures your heart, something he almost missed out on because he didn't like wearing what he calls 'small pants': "I didn't like swimming, I loved football. But in my area, I was the village champion when it came to swimming," he says, his excitement palpable at the other end.
"But one day someone informed me about a handicap swimming competition. I didn't want to enroll because I didn't like wearing the costume. But he forcefully enrolled me and I ended up winning a silver medal. My only aim since then is to beat able-bodied swimmers."
While speaking to him, you forget that this is a man who has gone through so much. When he speaks, it's easy imagining him on the other side of the phone, eyes wide like a child witnessing expensive Chinese fireworks. Even the first time he got selected for the World Championship, all he cared about was sitting in an aeroplane for the first time in his life and visiting the place where Diego Maradona came from. He returned with a bronze, and he talks about it as if he bought a sweet from the roadside shop. Such a down-to-earth attitude is rare.
Karmakar is a spiritual man, who believes that God took his right arm but gave him back in equal measure. However, he complains that God hasn't helped him get a wife!
"Girls think this guy doesn't have a job! They will have to feed me! I'm 33 now and it may not be possible, so I was telling my mum to do whatever to help me!"
While talking about his quest for love, he sounded like a stricken teenager. But we asked him whether he thought there was a bias in treatment to able-bodied athletes, he sounded serious, with the signs of a fierce competitor.
"I have won in water and on land, and will be trying rock-climbing very soon. My target is to beat all the swimmers who represent us at Olympics. I have to compete at Rio and I want to beat them all. All of them."
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Updated Date: Mar 26, 2013 13:11:51 IST