Malu Sheika has come a long way from the petrified little girl witnessing her parents’ separation in a court room. Thirteen years after that unfortunate day, Malu has proved her steely determination by swimming across the Vembanad Lake at its widest stretch, becoming the first woman to do so.
The unprecedented feat surprised everyone, even her swimming coach who has helped several people push their limits.
For Malu, however, pushing the limits has become a way of life. She has donned several caps in her solitary struggle for survival. She had been a domestic help, restaurant employee, auto rickshaw driver, heavy-goods vehicle driver, container truck driver, driving instructor and an insurance adviser. She has set her eyes on the civil service and that may not be too lofty a target given her record in tenacity.
Age of neglect
Malu was orphaned when her parents parted ways. She was named Shakeela in her birth certificate. Her father called her Sheika. Her mother changed her name to Malu. Neither supported her.
She lived with her mother and stepfather in Bengaluru. The little girl was nothing more than a servant in that house. After 10th standard, she was sent to her mother’s house at Aluva. Her mother did not even care to collect her transfer certificate from the school.
Malu’s mother took custody of the child as per the court ruling at the time of the divorce but she left her elder son under the care of an orphanage. Malu would never see her brother again but she says she can still feel his cold palm trying to grip hers as the siblings were pulled apart.
Their father and mother found new partners. Both of them had other children. Malu was left to live alone.
Malu decided to put an end to her miserable life in a shivering night in December. She found it hard to resist the attempts of her mother’s family to marry her off to someone who she disliked. Malu always wanted to study more but the family would not let her.
At 16 years, she was terrified to be a child bride. She was scared of the person picked by her family against her wish. She had only one way out: suicide.
She walked up to the Aluva River. What followed was incredible. A stranger intercepted her and talked to her about the blessing that was life. She likes to think of him as god in human form.
She confided in him. He encouraged her to dream. That dream, she realized, was civil service.
The stranger vanished as mysteriously as he appeared. Malu decided to pursue her dream and to prove herself in a society that had scant regard for a helpless girl.
Malu convinced her grandmother to accompany her to Bengaluru. She obtained a transfer certificate from her former school and joined the higher secondary course at a parallel college at Aluva. The two years were a struggle for her.
She would get up early in the morning and finish all domestic chores. She would go to a local tea shop as a helper to fund her studies. She would hardly make it to the classes every day but she burned midnight oil to read her books.
Steering her life
Malu’s 18th birthday came as a relief to her. Now, she could find a job that would give her greater control of her life. She learned to drive a two wheeler and then an auto rickshaw. She rode an auto rickshaw to earn a little in between her studies.
She was not contended though. She eventually obtained licenses to drive cars, buses and 16-wheeled goods vehicles. Malu was the only girl to pass the test to drive a bus in the first attempt on that testing day in Kochi.
She spotted an opportunity in driving. She approached a driving school with a request to join the team of instructors. The frown on the faces of the senior instructors gave way to awe when Malu went about the job with ease.
She can even remember a few students who were doubtful about the experience of their young instructor.
Meanwhile, she passed plus-two and joined a B Com course at Aluva. She had her hands full. A typical day started in the kitchen before daybreak. She would then rush to the driving schools. She had an English class to attend after that. Then she worked part-time as an insurance adviser.
After all these assignments, she would get hardly two hours at the college. She borrowed her classmates’ notes and went over them at night, after a round of chores at the kitchen of course.
Still she was so popular in the college that she was elected as the chairperson of the students’ union.
Nobody at home cared what the girl did as long as she cooked for them and finished the chores. Nobody asked her if she had eaten.
Malu has every right to be jubilant when she says that she earned her food by the sweat of her brow. She worked so hard that she could buy a car when she was just 19 years old.
When Malu said she wanted to drive a container truck, she was greeted with ridicule everywhere. This was a man’s job, she was told. Even her sympathizers advised her to do something she was meant to.
She replied to them that there was no job a girl could not do. She was not welcome though. Many men in the business kept her at a distance. Many others sent unwanted feelers. Malu was determined. She obtained an all-India permit to drive a container truck. She has driven the massive trucks across Kerala.
Many a time, she had become the target of anti-social elements. She was not to be bogged down. She walked up to the Binanipuram police station and sought support to live with dignity. The cops there were in awe when they listened to her life story. Sub Inspector Stepto John and the other officers stood by her.
Her family continued their attempts to get rid of her by arranging her marriage to the first person that came their way. Her relatives even threatened her that they would register her marriage by force. Unable to cope with the constant admonitions, Malu packed whatever she had and left the house.
She went to many hostels but no one would accommodate a 19-year-old girl who had left her house. Dejected and tired, she rested by a church at Athani. Another encounter would prod her to face life head on.
She was surprised to see the man who tapped her shoulder. Fr Jose Thanneppalli, one of her students at the driving school, looked like god himself. He helped find accommodation in a hostel at Athani.
She was put up in a room shared by four girls. She knew she could not find personal space to concentrate on her studies. She did not complain. She decided to pursue M Com. She also bought several books to prepare for the civil service examination. The hostel room offers her greater freedom than her mother’s house.
For Malu, the world was a school. She learned six languages excluding Malayalam only by talking to truck drivers from across India. She can even read and write those languages.
Against the currents
When Malu stumbled upon a newspaper ad about a swimming instructor, she wanted to give it a try. She considered swimming as a survival skill rather than a competition item.
She talked to Saji Valasseril. He was coaching students in the Aluva River, just 12 kilometers away from Malu’s hostel.
Once she started, she wanted to swim across the lake. Saji was all ears.
She would get up at 4 am to practice swimming. Within 15 days, she could float for five hours in a 30-foot-deep river.
Malu was testing her limits. After a practice session, her trainer said he was swimming 10 kilometers at a stretch for the first time. Saji received no fee from Malu.
Malu never needed a floater despite swimming continuously for six and a half hours.
She swam across the 8-kilometer stretch of the Vembanad Lake after just one trial. She raised Rs 30,000 for the feat that earned her a record.
Malu never felt tired even for a single moment during the crossing that lasted four and a half hours. She had crossed more treacherous currents in her life.
Malu is aware of her status as a helpless girl and the unwanted attention she could receive. She got herself trained in various martial arts such as karate and kalaripayattu.
She was a kabaddi player right from her school days. She had won state-level championships as a college student.
Malu’s life is a motivational story for all women. Malu says any woman can do anything if she could achieve so much with little support. She does not waste a moment cursing her parents for abandoning her. In fact, she is grateful to them for this life, she says.
She wants her life to be a strong message for each child left alone by the wayside. She wants to encourage them to fight their way up.