bea uti­ful

She was blinded and left hor­rif­i­cally y dis­fig­ured af­ter boys ys she spurned threw w acid in her face as she slept. But Son­ali ali Mukher­jee, 28, has bat­tled back from de­spair to ap­pear on TV, help other acid at­tack vic­tims and prove that de­spite her inju

Friday - - Society - Son­ali Mukher­jee, 28, is from Dhan­bad, Jhark­hand, In­dia

Sweat beaded on my neck, be­neath my hair, and slowly ran down my back. It was the be­gin­ning of an­other hot sum­mer in In­dia and I, like the rest of my fam­ily, couldn’t sleep.

So along with my fa­ther, Chan­di­das, 56, mother Nil­ima, 49, brother, De­bashish, 24, and sis­ter Sneha, 20, I moved out­side to the ter­race on the first floor to sleep. It was just too sticky to be in­side; we couldn’t af­ford air conditioning and the night-time breeze was a wel­come change from the hu­mid­ity in our bed­rooms.

“That’s bet­ter,” I mur­mured, turn­ing over next to my sis­ter. I was ex­hausted. I was 17 and study­ing so­ci­ol­ogy at col­lege. It was de­mand­ing, there was so much course­work to do, and now I just wanted to close my eyes. Slowly, around midnight, I man­aged to drop off...

Sud­denly I awoke. My face was on fire, my skin melt­ing. It felt like hot wa­ter drip­ping down my cheeks, but there were strong fumes, I had no idea what it was. Was I still asleep? Was this a night­mare? But no, I was def­i­nitely awake and gasp­ing for breath. My face was ablaze and my flesh was melt­ing away. Pure ter­ror rushed through me and I be­gan to scream.

“Mother,” I yelled. “Help me; I’m on fire.” I couldn’t see any­thing but I could hear my sis­ter and mother crying. Be­neath their screams my fa­ther was shout­ing for help to our neigh­bour. What was hap­pen­ing? Was I dy­ing?

Foot­steps clat­tered on to the ter­race and then a word pierced through the pan­de­mo­nium: tezaab. It means acid in Urdu. I was still scream­ing, still thrashing in the dark­ness, and then I felt my­self be­ing lifted up and car­ried. I was in my fa­ther’s arms. We didn’t have a phone and my brother was beg­ging some­one to drive us to hos­pi­tal.

I was still scream­ing. “Mother help me, I’m dy­ing,” I wailed. I must have fallen un­con­scious, be­cause all I re­mem­ber is wak­ing up in hos­pi­tal and some­one telling me it was eight days later.

As I stirred I tried to open my eyes but I couldn’t see. I tried to move but my body was rigid and I felt a dull aching pain all over my face and up­per body. I was groggy; heav­ily dosed with med­i­ca­tion, a kind voice ex­plained.

I was even­tu­ally told I was at our lo­cal hos­pi­tal, Dhan­bad Govern­ment Hos­pi­tal, a few kilo­me­tres from our house in Dhan­bad, in Jhark­hand, In­dia. Fear gripped me.

A doc­tor slowly broke the news. He told me I had 80 per cent burns on my face and neck. Half my body was cov­ered in ban­dages. Both my eyes were dam­aged and I had lost my right ear.

“The doc­tor thinks you’ve lost your sight in both eyes,” my mother gen­tly told me. As the

in­for­ma­tion pen­e­trated, I sud­denly thought of my sis­ter. She’d been ly­ing right next to me – had she been hurt too?

“Sneha is re­cov­er­ing well and will be dis­charged soon,” my mother added, hold­ing my hand tightly. But what had hap­pened?

She told me some lo­cal men, Tapas Mi­tra, 22, and his friend San­jay Paswan, 20 – who had been hang­ing around my col­lege on and off for four weeks – broke into our home and poured an acid that is used to clean rusty tools over my face. There had been an­other boy with them, a ju­ve­nile, and to­gether they had clam­bered over neigh­bours’ rooftops, step­ping over roof af­ter roof to reach us, ly­ing to­gether on the ter­race.

I gasped, shocked. I knew those men. They’d sat and stared at me as I left col­lege, and had asked to be friends. But then they’d said some­thing re­ally lewd, made of­fen­sive com­ments about me in a sex­ual way. I had tried to ig­nore them, but they’d started fol­low­ing me home. That’s how they knew where I lived. I’d be­come scared and an­gry. “Leave me alone or I’ll go to the po­lice,” I’d threat­ened them.

One of them said he’d teach me a les­son but I never thought he would. I was young and not in­ter­ested in boys. I didn’t think about any­thing ex­cept study­ing. I wanted a good ed­u­ca­tion, that was all, so when the boys had con­tin­ued to has­sle me day in, day out, I’d told my fa­ther. He was very an­gry and marched over to them one af­ter­noon.

“Leave my daugh­ter alone,” he’d barked. “If not, I’ll call the po­lice.” They’d just laughed.

But they ob­vi­ously hadn’t liked us stand­ing up to them – was that when they de­cided to de­stroy my life for­ever?

“I can’t be­lieve that they did that be­cause I didn’t talk to them,” I thought. They had been ar­rested, but no state­ments were taken. I hadn’t been in­ter­viewed be­cause I’d been un­con­scious.

Shat­tered dreams

I plunged into de­pres­sion. I had dreamt of be­com­ing a univer­sity teacher. I had joined the national cadet corps and loved to sing and dance. My friends at col­lege had talked about boyfriends but mar­riage had been the last thing on my mind. “You’re beau­ti­ful,” my mother had of­ten told me. Now I would never be called beau­ti­ful again.

Over the next eight months I re­mained in hos­pi­tal, blind and of­ten crying in pain. “Why didn’t they kill me?” I of­ten begged, hat­ing this world of dark­ness I’d been forced into.

The acid had melted my skin away from my bones. Where there was some skin left, it was as thin as trac­ing pa­per. It hurt to talk, smile, even

cry. Asmy burnt skin healed it was so tight I was of­ten in agony. I was on con­tin­u­ous mor­phine for the pain, but the painkillers were ex­pen­sive.

I un­der­went 22 op­er­a­tions over the next two years – many in­volved graft­ing healthy skin from my body to my face. It hurt so much I used to scream for hours and of­ten fall un­con­scious.

My par­ents funded allmy hos­pi­tal treat­ment. My fa­ther earned about Rs5,000 (Dh310) a month work­ing at a lo­cal mill but his sav­ings soon went. The Govern­ment gave me a monthly dis­abil­ity al­lowance of Rs200, but my fa­ther had to sell all of the fam­ily’s land, cat­tle and gold to fund my treat­ment.

By 2005, two years af­ter the at­tack in April 2003, I was sent home be­cause we couldn’t af­ford fur­ther treat­ment. We had run out of money. No one vis­ited – it had been so long since my friends from col­lege had seen me, they didn’t feel that they could drop in.

I didn’t leave the house for seven years ex­cept for doc­tor and hos­pi­tal ap­point­ments. I lived in limbo. I couldn’t see but I knew I must look hideous. Neigh­bours would come knock­ing on my door and gasp when they were faced withmy in­juries. I hated their pity. Even if I’d had the con­fi­dence to go out­side, I couldn’t see – how could I have walked down the street when walk­ing around the house was hard enough?

Let down by the jus­tice sys­tem

I didn’t go to the trial of Tapas Mi­tra and San­jay Paswan – the ju­ve­nile was re­leased – as I didn’t want them to see me.

They were jailed for nine years for their at­tack on me but they only served two years be­fore be­ing re­leased. I felt sick with anger for months. I’d been so let down by the jus­tice sys­tem. Un­til this in­ci­dent, I had never heard of acid at­tacks. I had no idea they hap­pened or that acid at­tacks were a national cri­sis in my coun­try. (see box on page 23)

There was no law in place in In­dia to pu­n­ish acid at­tack crim­i­nals back then. But in Fe­bru­ary this year, the govern­ment ap­proved a law that would im­prison acid at­tack­ers for 10 years to life and the Supreme Court di­rected of­fi­cials to dis­cuss reg­u­lat­ing the sales of acid and to set up a fund for vic­tims.

While my at­tack­ers started a new life of freedom I was trapped in a world of des­per­a­tion. I did noth­ing with my days. My stud­ies were over, friend­ships ended and so­cial oc­ca­sions were no more. My days were filled with noth­ing ex­cept the con­stant pres­ence and love of my fam­ily – they tried to up­lift my spir­its but they strug­gled them­selves. We were all so deeply de­pressed.

The fu­ture was very bleak. My life had be­come a four-wall prison, as I was too scared and frag­ile to go any­where. We had no money left and noth­ing to look for­ward to.

As crazy as this might sound, my fam­ily and I ap­proached the In­dian pres­i­dent for per­mis­sion to kill our­selves or to let doc­tors kill me. How­ever, if we com­mit­ted sui­cide some­one might be pun­ished for any kind of con­nec­tion to our crime as sui­cide and eu­thana­sia is il­le­gal in In­dia. We wanted the right to die, there was noth­ing left for us, no other way to turn. We were bank­rupt, and ev­ery day was a mis­ery. The pres­i­dent never got back to us, but the me­dia at­ten­tion that came af­ter­wards meant mem­bers of the pub­lic got in touch and of­fered sup­port. They made gen­er­ous do­na­tions, which meant we could eat, and pay for treat­ment. Then TV pro­duc­ers got in touch last Novem­ber, want­ing me to ap­pear on a spe­cial edi­tion of the In­dian ver­sion of WhoWants to beMil­lion­aire.

I was very ner­vous about ap­pear­ing on TV af­ter be­ing hid­den away for so long but I knew I couldn’t hide for­ever. I wanted to go on the show to make peo­ple more aware of acid at­tacks in In­dia and to high­light the plight of so many vic­tims like me. I wanted to do as much as I could, I knew it was an op­por­tu­nity I couldn’t miss. But that didn’t mean I wasn’t scared.

As I was led into the stu­dio I could feel the hot lights on my skin. I had cov­ered up most of my face with a scarf be­cause I was told my face could ap­pear as shock­ing on TV. My nerves jan­gled, mak­ing my stom­ach churn. But as I was guided on to the stage by host Amitabh Bachchan and for­mer Miss Uni­verse and film star Lara Dutta, I was given a stand­ing ova­tion by the au­di­ence. I in­stantly re­laxed.

“I sa­lute Son­ali’s courage of ris­ing from the ashes and fac­ing the trauma of her life and yet not giv­ing up hope,” Bachchan said. When I be­gan an­swer­ing ques­tions on ev­ery­thing from botany and cook­ing to po­lit­i­cal his­tory and win­ning some money I was ex­hil­a­rated. I knew what it meant – each time I won I imag­ined how much more treat­ment I could af­ford.

I had reached such a low point in my life I never ex­pected to feel ex­cited again. I des­per­ately wanted to see around me but hear­ing and feel­ing the mo­ments was good enough.

‘I felt like me again’

Be­ing on the show was a con­fi­dence boost and I knew any amount of win­nings would help me pay for a bet­ter face.

The au­di­ence was won­der­ful and very sup­port­ive. And even­tu­ally I won Rs2.5 mil­lion (about Dh155,000) – an amaz­ing amount. I was thrilled. It was a stag­ger­ing sum of money, al­low­ing me to get much-needed treat­ment. For a short time it made me for­get my prob­lems and just be a girl try­ing her luck, an­swer­ing ques­tions. It made me feel like me again.

Af­ter the show Bachchan blogged: “De­nied jus­tice, she pleaded pub­licly to end her life... De­nied that too be­cause eu­thana­sia is il­le­gal in the coun­try, she de­cided not to re­main silent and suf­fer... Her story is one of im­mense courage... The na­tion salutes her as do all of us, but si­mul­ta­ne­ously hangs its head in shame for this das­tardly act.”

The episode re­ceived high view­ing rat­ings, so it was def­i­nitely the right de­ci­sion to ap­pear.

In the past 12 months I’ve un­der­gone six more op­er­a­tions – where healthy skin has been

grafted from my body on to my face. I’m no longer in pain. My skin is a lit­tle tight but I can breathe, speak, eat and am pretty healthy.

I will never know what I look like, but I’m told my ap­pear­ance is bet­ter than it was five years ago. I no longer feel I have to hide my face away, scared of hear­ing peo­ple gasp in shock. It made me feel worth­less, but know­ing my face is a lit­tle bet­ter gives me the con­fi­dence to so­cialise some­times now.

My fu­ture isn’t one I dreamed about as a teenager. I’m lucky if I can get to the park on my own for a mid-af­ter­noon walk. I’m heav­ily de­pen­dent on my fam­ily.

My sis­ter is mar­ried with a child, and my brother is still study­ing. My mother is in the fam­ily home. My fa­ther lives with me in Delhi while I go through the last of my treat­ment. I can’t go any­where with­out him. He is my eyes.

I don’t think about mar­riage and chil­dren – who would have me? My fu­ture is about help­ing other acid at­tack vic­tims. I want to be able to talk to them or visit them and show them there is a life af­ter an at­tack. I want to show peo­ple there is hope.

The In­dian govern­ment has been very re­laxed about acid at­tack crimes and vic­tims in the past – and I most def­i­nitely didn’t re­ceive enough help – but hope­fully, this new law will change all that.

They have of­fered to find me a job in their Delhi Govern­ment of­fices but noth­ing has hap­pened yet. I have no idea what will come of it but I’m hop­ing it hap­pens. I would love to find a doc­tor who would help me re­gain my sight and I will do all I can to ful­fil that dream.

But un­til then I’ll ded­i­cate my life to help­ing other acid-at­tack vic­tims. I don’t want any­one to suf­fer for as long as I have. I want to be there to help and guide them through a har­row­ing ex­pe­ri­ence I know only too well.

If a phone call or a visit from me can help a vic­tim feel just a lit­tle hap­pier then I’ll have done my job well. I re­live the pain of ev­ery acid-at­tack vic­tim; I hope I can help just a lit­tle to en­cour­age them to hope for a fu­ture.

Son­ali is blind but she knows that her looks can shock. She wore sun­glasses and a scarf on In­dia’s ver­sion of Who Wants to be a

Mil­lion­aire

Son­ali says her dad, pic­tured with her, top, is now her eyes. She was only 17 and a promis­ing stu­dent, above, when she was at­tacked with acid

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