After winning the coveted Miss India Wheelchair title back in 2015, Priya Bhargava is all set to represent the country at the Miss Wheelchair World Pageant 2017 scheduled to take place next month.
A first-year Physiotherapy student, Bhargava was just 19 when she was diagnosed with a fatal autoimmune disease known as Systemic Lupus Erythematosus. It compiled her to use a wheelchair for the rest of her life.
Even Bhargava's disability did not hamper her strong and irrepressible personality, which not only defies beauty standards but also helps India to look beyond an individual's disability. She is a trendsetter for other models who use wheelchairs.
Bhargava deems herself irreplaceable in a section dedicated to all Miss Wheelchair World participants on the pageant’s official website. "Whatever I am, I cannot be replaced," she says.
A highly versatile student in school, Bhargava wanted to become a doctor and opted for Bachelors in Physiotherapy. But much to her chagrin she began developing butterfly rashes on her arms, feet, and face.
She was erroneously treated for dengue and malaria instead. At the time, not many knew about Lupus as a deadly medical condition.
Rather than strengthening her body, the diagnosis and prognosis, which were on the wrong track drainer her body of its energy.
Thankfully, a doctor who seemed to have identified similar signs in a previously-dealt case broke the silence. Bhargava's dad who was deployed in Nagaland as part of the Indian Army was called up without wasting much time.
The doctor explained to Bhargava's teary-eyed parents how their daughter was diagnosed with an incurable autoimmune disease.
Lupus has a reputation of attacking the vital organs; however, Bhargava continued undergoing regular checkups in the form of blood tests. To make things much worse, the strong medication resulted in side effects. Meanwhile, visiting rheumatologist and immunologist became routine.
Regrettably, none of the drugs seemed to have any sort of effect on Bhargava's quashed immune system. She relied heavily on steroids. Later, citing disastrous side effects, the rheumatologist swapped her to a chemotherapeutic drug known as methotrexate.
“It was difficult looking into the mirror. I would use black markers to hide the balding patches on my head and wear headscarves, to avoid getting bullied, she told The Better India.
"But that did not stop students in college from making fun of me,” she continued.
She started going to college again as soon as she revived a little, but for more than a couple of weeks, her legs did not function. As if that weren't enough, she even lost control over her bladder.
Although she was determined to continue her education, Bhargava kept missing college owing to the checkups. She started forgetting what she had studied when she would sit for exams.
She remembers an incident when she was stuck in the washroom at home for more than three hours. She was rushed to the hospital when her mother returned home and saw her “lying there like a log of wood." However, the doctors did not treat the situation seriously.
Ultimately, she had to drop out of her Physiotherapy course along with the Nutrition course she joined after dodging the dread of getting a leg amputated.
“I was in severe depression for three months with symptoms of schizophrenia. It was the lowest phase of my life," Bhargava said.
I would get paranoid and failed to recognize my parents. I had stopped salivating or even eating. I would refuse to eat food thinking, somebody would poison it,” she remarked.
As a result, her family was drained not only emotionally, but also socially, physically, and financially.
Undeterred by her disabilities, Bhargava worked hard to complete her BCA (Bachelor of Computer Application) and MCA (Masters of Computer Application). She even topped her IGNOU regional center, Noida.
She met the Executive Director of TIFAC, Professor Prabhat Ranjan who encouraged her to take part in the Miss Wheelchair India Pageant.
Professor Ranjan, who works on innovations for individuals with disabilities, kept pushing Bhargava to apply to the Miss Wheelchair India Pageant in 2013, but she did not want to deviate her focus from studying for her MCA.
Again, in 2014 she couldn't participate because she missed the application dates. But things finally fell into place for her in 2015.
"I sent two very simple pictures and a biodata,” she recalls. Her pictures were selected and she was asked to send in some glamorous photos.
Shortly after sending her photos, she received an email confirming her spot among the Top 7 finalists.
Pathology and anatomy books were ousted in favor of magazines and books that helped her gain more knowledge and beef up her style quotient.
The finale, which was spearheaded by a Mumbai-based NGO, J Foundation under Dr. Rajlakshmi S J, comprised three categories including married disabled women, disabled women, and women on a wheelchair.
When asked by the judges what would she do in the case that she won or lost the title, she gave them a pat answer.
“Everybody is disabled in one way or the other. Inclusion is what will remove this bifurcation of categorizing people."
"Your disability doesn’t define you. If you decide to be mentally strong and look beyond your disability, no mountain is too high to ascend.”
Despite not taking any sort of training to be a ramp diva, Bhargava is brimming with confidence and has impeccable facial features and hand gestures.
The Miss Wheelchair World is slated to take place in Poland next month and it will be interesting to see how Priya Bhargava charms the judges and onlookers at the pageant.
To pledge your support and help her win the title, click here.
(Image Credit: Priya Bhargava/YouTube)