Salman Rushdie’s return to writing and public life after the horrific attack he suffered in August 2022, is an occasion to celebrate his indomitable spirit and his raw courage. That Rushdie who was brutally assaulted by US-resident Hadi Matar, an admirer of the fundamentalist Iranian cleric Ayatollah Khomeini, when he was on stage at the Chautauqua Institution in New York, was back with a new book Victory City just months later, makes him a true symbol of resilience and determination.
Such real-life stories are reminders that adversities can be overcome if we have the determination to move on.
Formula 1 great Niki Lauda survived a serious crash during the 1976 German Grand Prix in which the Ferrari he was driving burst into flames after hitting an embankment and another driver’s car. Trapped in the burning wreckage for minutes, Lauda suffered severe burns to his head and hands and inhaled hot toxic gases that caused major damage to his lungs. Lauda survived and was back on the track just 40 days after the accident despite suffering extensive scarring from the burns to his head, his eyebrows, and his eyelids and losing most of his right ear. At his first race back, he finished fourth and ended the year just behind James Hunt. The next year he won the F1 championship for the second time. Speaking about his return from his near-death experience, Lauda said: “A lot of people criticize Formula 1 as an unnecessary risk. But what would life be like if we only did what is necessary?”
Indeed, psychologists say that those who go through terrible tragedies are able to bounce back better if they get back to their pet passion. There is comfort in the familiar which is why returning to one’s normal routine helps minimize traumatic stress, anxiety, and hopelessness.
It is never easy, though. Monica Seles was the reigning number one of women’s tennis when a crazed fan of her rival Steffi Graf stabbed her in the back during a tournament in Hamburg, Germany. While she recovered from her physical injuries, the psychological impact of the attack took its toll. Seles returned to the circuit and played well enough to win her fourth Australian Open. But it was evident that she was no longer the same dominant player she had been. It was of course no reflection of Seles’s courage or her fortitude but simply a matter of how such incidents impact people in different ways.
The circumstances, too, make a difference. Rushdie has known for decades the dangers he faces, having lived for years under a death sentence following the fatwa issued against him by Khomeini. Even when it was finally lifted, the celebrated author has always been alert to the perils of his existence. Similarly, Lauda always knew that Formula 1 racing was full of risks.
Seles, by contrast, couldn’t have imagined in her worst nightmares that she could ever be attacked on court. The shock and the sense of betrayal she felt, possibly made resumption of normal business that much more difficult in her case.
Closer home, too, we have remarkable examples of people who have fought back from crippling injuries. The reason why Tiger Pataudi has such a special place in Indian cricket is because of the way he handled the loss of sight in his left eye following a car accident when he was barely 20. In a game where eyesight is critical, he taught himself to bat with just one eye, going on to captain India. He played well enough to leave people wondering just how good he would have been had he not lost one eye. But it was his complete lack of self-pity and his refusal to accept his loss as an obstacle that became the key feature of his impressive personality.
Equally inspirational are stories of ordinary people who became heroes and heroines for their friends and families by turning life-altering diseases or accidents into inflection points in their lives. A favorite cousin of mine, born with crippling arthritis and rheumatism which turned him into a paraplegic by the time he'd crossed his teens, came to be called the Baba Amte of Chandigarh. Such was his zest for living that despite being crippled neck down, unable to move any part of his body barring his hands, he wrote poetry that was published by the Writers Workshop, took thousands of pictures in the hills of Himachal Pradesh, ran 30 schools in Himachal Pradesh and Punjab for children of terrorists and still found the time to throw uproarious parties around his bed.