Millennium Post

Because he refuses to get defeated by the ebb and flow of life

‘Take life as it comes’, says 57-year-old Multiple Sclerosis (MS) patient, who has never learnt to give up against all odds. A retired fighter pilot, a flying instructor of the Indian Air Force, he is an inspiration for around 1,50,000 MS patients to give their lives a new dimension, come what may.
Born on 1 March 1956 in the city of Joy, Kolkata, Prabal Malaker, was diagnosed with MS in 1995.

Having flown practically every aircraft in the Air Force inventory right from MIGs, Jaguars and Mirage jets to large transport carriers like the Avro and AN-32, Malaker is also a qualified flying instructor, who has imparted training to several beginner pilots. Fond of visiting new places, Malaker has spent his childhood in Paris, London, Delhi, Digaru, (a place near Guwahati in Assam), Shillong and Nagpur, as his father was in the Air Force.

Malaker talks about his adventures while sitting comfortably in his cosy living room decorated with souvenirs from around the world, ‘I have always loved visiting new places and countries. After studying B Com (Hons) for six months, I cleared my National Defence Academy (NDA) exam. Joining the Air Force was my dream as it fulfilled my dream to travel, and even today despite my condition, I continue to explore new places.’

Married with two children, life seemed to be going well until August 1998, when he was diagnosed with the progressive form of the disease Multiple Sclerosis.

Malaker recalls, ‘In 1995, I was posted in Udhampur in Jammu and Kashmir. Before that, I had a crash landing, a near death experience. The aircraft caught fire and I got out without a scratch. Neurologists said that this could have possibly triggered off an autoimmune response to cause MS.’

‘I used to go for regular morning jogs. One day, my right leg started giving a problem, so I started walking, and then gradually it started dragging. I was perplexed. I ignored it as a one off case, but the problem persisted. I was on ground duty then, so I went for a check up. The base doctor referred me to the surgical specialist at the Army Command Hospital Udhampur, who diagnosed it as  osteoarthritis. From 1995 to 1998 both the doctors and I were under the impression that I had osteoarthritis. I had no pain, but I started exercising my leg, by cycling as jogging and walking were not possible In sometime, while getting off the cycle, I got wobbly.’ he added.

On ground duty then, Malaker was commanding a missile unit. It had been awarded the best unit in the Air Force award for that particular year and he could not receive the trophy at the ceremony because of his condition. In 1999, he was permanently downgraded from flying, but continued to work under special provision.

After Udhampur Prabal was posted to Bhuj as the Commanding Officer of a Surface to Air Guided Weapon Unit. Whilst there he observed that his walking distance was progressively reducing and his leg was getting stiff much earlier. In August 1998 the base doctor saw him dragging his right foot after a bout of viral fever. He took the correct decision of referring him to a medical specialist who in turn referred him to a neurologist at the Naval Hospital at Mumbai. This was the first time after a lapse of three years, from the initial manifestation of the disease in 1995, that the correct clinical diagnosis of ‘Multiple Sclerosis’ was made. Whilst this was going on his unit was declared, ‘The Best Surface to Air Guided Weapon Unit 1997-98’ in the Indian Air Force, a stellar honour.

Unfortunately due to this affliction he was physically unable to visit Delhi and receive the trophy at the Air Force Day parade at Delhi.Consequent to this diagnosis, Prabal was posted to Delhi on medical grounds and remained there till he retired in 2008. In the interim he was permanently medically downgraded from flying duties in 1999, thereby making him ineligible for further promotions and  effectively terminating any further career advancements.

Unaware of MS or its manifestations, for Malaker, ignorance was bliss. ‘While I was clueless about MS, my wife knew someone who was suffering it. She was devastated when I called her and told her about my condition. She had seen a relative diagnosed with MS in a wheelchair. My kids did not react much as I was not reacting, as I had no idea about it.’

Sharing his philosophy on life, Malaker said, ‘Most people over-think about being limited to a wheelchair. You need to carry on with life, look at the positive aspect of everything and stop thinking negative. Take a day at a time and don’t think what’s going to happen. A lot of people get apprehensive, oh I am using a stick, I am using a wheelchair, what would people say. Why do you bother what people think?’

Having lived a very active and demanding life, Malaker makes most of each day. ‘Even though physically I find myself limited in terms of movement and activity, I need to move around. If I don’t, I feel like I have not done anything throughout the day. I wake up early, drop my wife to office, go to the club, swim for 50 minutes daily, five days a week and then spend time in the library to read books and meet new people.

I come back in the afternoon and take rest. I am always doing something to make sure that I am never idle. I am quite happy with my life,’ says a beaming Malaker. He said that MS is analogous to my duties as a test pilot where we would start testing the flight envelope of a new aircraft from the basic minimum and gradually expand it till we are able to exploit it fully. In MS, however, you start with your full operational ability which gradually reduces as the disease progresses. Our endeavour is to reduce the rate of degradation.
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