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
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.
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
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