‘In­side I’m still beau­ti­ful’

An es­ti­mated 1,000 women are at­tacked with acid ev­ery year in In­dia by men who are an­gry be­cause their ad­vances were spurned. Nil­ima Pathak and Anand Raj OK talk to sur­vivors who are fight­ing for tougher sanc­tions on acid at­tacks

Friday - - Horoscopes -

You haven’t thrown acid on my face; you threw it on my dreams. You didn’t have love in your heart; you had acid in it.

Laxmi Agar­wal’s eyes were brim­ming as she re­cited a short poem in Hindi af­ter re­ceiv­ing the pres­ti­gious In­ter­na­tion­alWomen of Courage Award from the First Lady of the US, Michelle Obama, in Wash­ing­ton, ear­lier this month.

“Af­ter this award, girls of In­dia would think, ‘If Laxmi can do this, I can also raise my voice against in­jus­tice’,” the 24-year-old said, her face still bear­ing deep scars – the re­sult of a hor­ri­fy­ing acid at­tack she sus­tained nine years ago af­ter she’d spurned a suitor.

She has al­ready un­der­gone seven skin-graft op­er­a­tions, bat­tled de­pres­sion and stress, over­come fear and an in­fe­ri­or­ity com­plex to be­come con­fi­dent enough to face the world be­cause she’s de­ter­mined to end acid at­tacks.

Talk­ing ex­clu­sively to Fri­day while sip­ping a cof­fee in a mall in New Delhi, Laxmi smiles. “This year is turn­ing out to be a great one,” she says. “Apart from re­ceiv­ing this pres­ti­gious award, I’ll soon be mar­ry­ing the man I’m in love with.”

She had given up all hopes of mar­riage, be­liev­ing no one would look past her scars, un­til Alok Dixit, 26, a so­cial ac­tivist who set up Stop Acid At­tacks, an or­gan­i­sa­tion to help and re­ha­bil­i­tate acid at­tack vic­tims, pro­posed to her ear­lier this year.

Flick­ing away a few strands of dark hair that fall over her face, the acid at­tack vic­tim tries to hold back her tears. For the past two years, she has been a col­league of Alok, who she works with at the char­ity.

She is thrilled that he is now go­ing to be her hus­band. “I couldn’t be­lieve it when Alok popped the ques­tion,” she says. “He was will­ing to ac­cept me de­spite my con­di­tion.

“It is amaz­ing – one man de­stroys my life, an­other is giv­ing me one.’’

It was only a year ago that Laxmi plucked up the courage to step out

‘Sev­eral of my rel­a­tives stopped vis­it­ing our home. They found it too dis­turb­ing to see my face’

in pub­lic with­out a veil af­ter the hor­ri­fy­ing or­deal she un­der­went on April 22, 2005.

“I shud­der to even re­call that day,’’ she says, shak­ing. “I was 15 and, like any teenager, was fond of mu­sic, dance, shop­ping and trendy clothes.

“Many of my neigh­bours and friends used to tell me I was pretty and, of course, it glad­dened my heart.

“My dream was to be­come a pro­fes­sional singer. I used to record my songs and send them to talent hunt com­pe­ti­tions. A call from In­dian

Idol was all I was wait­ing for.’’ Laxmi’s fa­ther Mun­nalal Ag­gar­wal worked as a cook in a ho­tel in New Delhi and used to en­cour­age his daugh­ter to sing. “But don’t skip your stud­ies,” he’d cau­tion, says Laxmi. “I was an above aver­age stu­dent and keen to make a mark as a singer.”

One day, her friend’s brother, Naeem Khan, a 32-year-old sin­gle man who lived in her cen­tral Delhi neigh­bour­hood, sent her a text mes­sage pro­claim­ing his love for her.

“I was shocked be­cause I didn’t even know him well and I ig­nored his mes­sage,’’ says Laxmi. “A day later, while I was walk­ing to school, he came up to me and said he wanted to marry me. I was young and scared so I just walked away. I did not tell any­one at the time be­cause I thought he was jok­ing and I for­got about it.”

Three days af­ter she ig­nored the mes­sage, Laxmi was wait­ing for a bus in the busy Khan Mar­ket area of Delhi where she worked part-time in a book­store, when she felt some­body tap her on the back.

“I turned around, think­ing it was a friend. The next mo­ment, a man pushed me to the ground, pinned me there and splashed a liq­uid on my face.’’ Be­fore she could re­act, the man – Naeem – ran off into the crowd.

“At first, it felt like some­body had splashed cold wa­ter on my face,” says Laxmi. But sec­onds later her nerves ex­ploded in pain.

“I felt as though I’d buried my face in glow­ing em­bers. The liq­uid be­gan to dis­solve my skin and I could feel parts of my face drip to the ground.’’

A hor­ren­dous crime

Hy­drochlo­ric and sul­phuric acids can burn through clothes and even cor­rode metal. When they come into con­tact with hu­man skin, they be­gin to dis­solve the three lay­ers – the epi­der­mis, der­mis and the hy­po­der­mis – within sec­onds.

The acid Naeem splashed was so po­tent that it mor­phed Laxmi’s pretty face into a mass of bub­bling flesh, leav­ing her scream­ing in pain. “The pain was hor­ri­fy­ing; it was like some­body had poured scald­ing hot wa­ter on a raw wound. I was ly­ing on the pave­ment and re­mem­ber shriek­ing and writhing in pain,” says Laxmi.

What was even more hor­ri­fy­ing was that no one rushed to help her. “I wanted to call my mother, Radha, to tell her what had hap­pened but no one came for­ward to lend me a mo­bile phone and in my panic I could not find mine.”

It is not un­com­mon for strangers to avoid help­ing people who have been at­tacked, fear­ing that they might be asked to tes­tify in court or be sum­moned to po­lice sta­tions for lengthy ques­tion­ing ses­sions.

“Af­ter more than 10 min­utes, but what seemed like hours to me, a kind car driver [who re­quested anonymity] stopped and rushed me to hospi­tal.” There she was given painkillers be­fore be­ing rushed into surgery.

“Strangely I never felt that I was go­ing to die,” she says. “I knew I’d sur­vive… there was some­thing in me that said ‘keep fight­ing’.”

For the next 10 weeks, the grade nine school­girl re­mained in hospi­tal un­der­go­ing a se­ries of med­i­cal pro­ce­dures to save what was left of her face.

For­tu­nately for Laxmi, just be­fore Naeem splashed the liq­uid on her, she in­ad­ver­tently cov­ered her face with her arms. “Other­wise I would have not only been dis­fig­ured but blind as well. But the acid dis­fig­ured my arms,’’ she says.

Laxmi’s par­ents were shocked by what had hap­pened to her and were will­ing to go to any lengths to save their daugh­ter’s life. “My fa­ther spent all his sav­ings on med­i­cal bills for me,” she says.

It took Laxmi more than three months to pluck up courage to look into a mir­ror. “I was just too scared,” she says. “I shud­dered to think what my face would look like.

“Al­though my mother kept gen­tly push­ing me to look into the mir­ror, per­haps to help me come to terms with what I had en­dured, I did not want to. I was sure that the shock of see­ing my dis­fig­ured face would be too much for me to bear.”

And when she did fi­nally see her re­flec­tion, “I fainted be­cause all I could see was what ap­peared to be a mass of pink and black tis­sue.”

Laxmi’s left ear had melted and was re­duced to a lump of flesh, as were her lips, which were swollen and had turned pur­ple. “In those few sec­onds when I looked into the mir­ror, my dreams shat­tered.

“I’d wanted to sing and dance and per­form be­fore crowds and now I knew I’d never be able to. Af­ter all, how many dis­fig­ured people do you see on TV per­form­ing at mu­sic and dance shows?’’

While she slowly be­gan to pick up the pieces of her life af­ter she was al­lowed to re­turn home from hospi­tal, she says what she found heart-wrench­ing were the re­ac­tions of some people in so­ci­ety.

“The phys­i­cal pain, I learnt to live with, but what hurt more was when sev­eral of my own rel­a­tives stopped vis­it­ing our home, as did some of my friends. They found it too dis­turb­ing to see my face.

“I too be­came scared and trau­ma­tised and was ex­tremely re­luc­tant to step out­doors. For eight years I would ven­ture out only in a ghun­gat [veil, in Hindi],” she says.

Over three years, ex­ten­sive skin grafts were per­formed on Laxmi’s face and hand. “I’ve al­ready had seven re­con­struc­tive skin-graft­ing surg­eries and now want to go in for plas­tic surgery to im­prove my face,” she says. “But it is very ex­pen­sive.”

She has been told that no amount of cor­rec­tive surgery can bring her skin back to its pre-at­tack con­di­tion. While that ver­dict she says was dis­heart­en­ing, what was even more heart­break­ing was the ease with which the per­pe­tra­tor had wrecked her life. “In less than 10 sec­onds, one man with a bot­tle of liq­uid that cost around Rs20 [around Dh1.50] had changed my life for­ever,” sighs Laxmi.

The man was caught and sen­tenced to seven years’ im­pris­on­ment un­der the griev­ous as­sault law. “But he was out on bail within a month of at­tack­ing me,” says Laxmi. “He even got mar­ried. In two years’ time he will be out of jail and will lead a nor­mal life… af­ter dev­as­tat­ing mine.”

Splash­ing acid on a woman as an act of re­venge for spurned ad­vances is a crime that is not unique to In­dia. From Afghanistan to Aus­tralia; Bangladesh to Thai­land, the lives of hun­dreds of women have been de­stroyed by a cheap liq­uid that is avail­able in many coun­tries over the counter for as lit­tle as a dirham a litre.

Ac­cu­rate fig­ures are hard to come by in In­dia, but ac­tivists es­ti­mate that at least 1,000 acid at­tacks are car­ried out ev­ery year. Barely a fifth of these at­tacks ever make it to the po­lice records or courts be­cause very of­ten the ac­cused are pow­er­ful men who threaten the vic­tims and their fam­i­lies against ap­proach­ing the po­lice, say ac­tivists.

“Re­ports of acid be­ing thrown at girls in some part of the coun­try ap­pear in the me­dia fre­quently,” says New Del­hibased ac­tivist In­drani Ch­habra. “I re­mem­ber read­ing about two sis­ters who had acid thrown on them by a land­lord be­cause they were un­able to pay rent on time.

“An­other girl was also at­tacked with acid by her teacher, whose over­tures she had re­jected. The at­tack­ers al­ways throw acid on the face, re­sult­ing in scar­ring, de­for­mity and per­ma­nent griev­ous in­juries, such as blind­ness.

“The treat­ment is a pro­longed one and vic­tims re­quire psy­cho­log­i­cal coun­selling, but even though the num­ber of as­saults on women has in­creased, there is a short­age of psy­cho­log­i­cal coun­sel­lors.”

An act of re­venge

Ritu Saini is an­other girl whose face was dis­fig­ured in an acid at­tack.

The 18-year-old Haryana res­i­dent was walk­ing to a vol­ley­ball court for a match on May 26, 2012.

It was around 4.30pm when sud­denly two young men came rac­ing to­wards her on a mo­tor­bike. Be­fore she could move, the pil­lion rider splashed acid on her face.

“They did it as an act of re­venge against my fam­ily over a property dis­pute,” she says.

Eight people were charged with the in­ci­dent, which is still in court.

Ritu has un­der­gone sev­eral op­er­a­tions and is so trau­ma­tised that she re­fuses to step out alone. “My life changed for­ever on that day,” she says.

Un­til re­cently, there was no sep­a­rate crime of acid throw­ing un­der the In­dian pe­nal act. But in the aftermath of the Delhi gang rape, which led to fu­ri­ous marches, vig­ils and de­bates about the sta­tus of women in so­ci­ety and a call for new laws for their pro­tec­tion, new leg­is­la­tion was passed recog­nis­ing acid throw­ing as a crime within the In­dian pe­nal code. Fol­low­ing an amend­ment to the Crim­i­nal Law Or­di­nance pro­posed in July 2013, acid at­tack per­pe­tra­tors can get a pun­ish­ment of 10 years im­pris­on­ment.

“But that is hardly enough pun­ish­ment,’’ says Laxmi. “The per­pe­tra­tors de­stroy the lives of a woman for­ever but can hope to walk free in 10 years or even less.’’

The court also ruled that the govern­ment should make acid at­tacks a non-bail­able of­fence, limit over­the-counter sales of the acid to people over 18 who pro­vide iden­ti­fi­ca­tion and a rea­son for the pur­chase, while di­rect­ing the state gov­ern­ments to give acid at­tack sur­vivors a com­pen­sa­tion of Rs300,000 each. Out of this, Rs100,000 would have to be given within 15 days of the in­ci­dent and the rest within the next two months.

In ad­di­tion, the court di­rected all govern­ment hos­pi­tals across the coun­try to pro­vide free med­i­cal treat­ment to vic­tims.

Due to non­com­pli­ance by some states, the court has set a dead­line of March 31 for gov­ern­ments to frame rules for reg­u­lat­ing sale of acid.

“But this is not enough,” Alok says. “The court needs to make pro­vi­sions for the re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion of vic­tims, who must ei­ther get jobs or mon­e­tary help for self-em­ploy­ment and so­cial se­cu­rity for those who are not in a po­si­tion to work.

“It’s de­press­ing to find com­pen­sa­tion promised to vic­tims not reach­ing them. This is a ma­jor is­sue be­cause med­i­cal ex­penses for acid at­tack cases can be ex­tremely ex­pen­sive,” says Alok.

While Laxmi was re­cu­per­at­ing af­ter her op­er­a­tions, she re­alised there could be “hun­dreds of young girls suf­fer­ing the same fate as mine for no fault of their own’’.

This changed her per­cep­tion to­wards life. “While ini­tially I felt that my life was over af­ter the at­tack, I re­alised that giv­ing in and los­ing hope was easy. Stand­ing up and

fight­ing and en­sur­ing in some way that other women do not end up like me was what was re­quired.”

So she re­solved to study fur­ther, and went on to com­plete her grade 12. “Ed­u­ca­tion brought con­fi­dence and I shed my in­hi­bi­tions about walk­ing in pub­lic with a scarred face and body. De­cid­ing to face the world head­long, I stopped cov­er­ing my face. I sim­ply chose to be happy again.’’

But mo­ments of de­spair con­tin­ued, par­tic­u­larly when she be­gan look­ing for a job.

“It was very frus­trat­ing when I know who to ap­proach and how to find a job,” she says. “One day by sheer chance, a friend of mine told me about a char­ity called Stop Acid At­tacks. ‘Why don’t you ap­proach them to help you?’ she asked.”

Laxmi did and was hired as sup­port staff. “To my sur­prise, here I met young yet re­spon­si­ble men, who were en­gaged in the cam­paign against acid at­tacks.”

Alok was among them. Over time, the two fell in love and to­gether with a few oth­ers, they run the cam­paign out of a small of­fice in Delhi’s Laxmi Na­gar area.

Alok says, “We have a team of more than 50 acid at­tack sur­vivors and vol­un­teers. When the need arises, the teams rush to meet vic­tims of acid at­tacks, help them fi­nan­cially and of­fer sup­port. Laxmi is the face of this cam­paign.

“It’s not easy to fight - es­pe­cially when you’ve been a vic­tim - but I have yet to come across a brave girl like Laxmi.

“When a vic­tim steps out of the house, she finds people star­ing at her and re­mind­ing her of the mo­ment that al­tered her life. But Laxmi’s at­ti­tude has changed that. When people see her, they ad­mire her.”

The re­spect and ad­mi­ra­tion is mu­tual. For, as Laxmi puts in, “It is not easy to live with an acid at­tack sur­vivor. I am not only sus­cep­ti­ble

‘It’s not easy to fight in the face of ad­ver­sity and I’ve yet to come across a brave girl like Laxmi’

be­gan ap­proach­ing com­pa­nies for a job. No one was will­ing to hire me. While some said ‘People will get scared if they see you’, oth­ers promised to call back, but the phone never rang. I tried banks and beauty sa­lons, but all I got was re­jec­tion.”

There was more heartache in store: Even as the fam­ily was com­ing to terms with their only daugh­ter’s con­di­tion, tragedy struck: Laxmi’s fa­ther died of a heart at­tack.

For­tu­nately her fa­ther’s em­ploy­ers helped Laxmi with her med­i­cal costs, but the onus of be­com­ing the bread­win­ner of the fam­ily, com­pris­ing her mother Radha and younger brother, Rahul, now fell on Laxmi. “I did not to in­fec­tions, but also suf­fer from mood swings. Alok, my soul­mate, un­der­stands it all.”

Al­though it has not been easy for Laxmi to re­gain her con­fi­dence, she is com­pelling other acid at­tack sur­vivors, who now see her as a beacon of hope, to face the world.

To raise aware­ness, she’s em­barked on a mis­sion to let people know of the agony be­hind such at­tacks through a cam­paign ti­tled Spot of Shame.

Along with her team, Laxmi is reach­ing out to acid at­tack vic­tims in over 20 cities in North­ern In­dia.

“Our aim is to raise aware­ness among people to in­ter­vene when such at­tacks take place and help the vic­tim. No one came to my aid when I was at­tacked. Had I been taken to hospi­tal as quickly as pos­si­ble, I wouldn’t have suf­fered so many burns. Ev­ery minute is pre­cious in such cases,” she says.

Her work has not gone un­no­ticed. Stop Acid At­tacks was hon­oured with the CNN-IBN In­dian of the Year 2013 award, while Laxmi has re­ceived nu­mer­ous awards and ci­ta­tions. She was also in­cluded in The Voda­fone Foun­da­tion’s Women of Pure Won­der book, along­side 59 other fe­male achiev­ers from In­dia last year.

While in­di­vid­u­als and or­gan­i­sa­tions have helped some vic­tims fi­nan­cially, not all have been so for­tu­nate.

In 2003, when Son­ali Mukher­jee, 17, a stu­dent, spurned the indecent over­tures of three men, they threat­ened to teach her a les­son. While she was asleep, they sneaked

into her house and poured acid on her face. Son­ali suf­fered 95 per cent burns on her face.

“It burnt my eyes, nose, ears, cheeks and parts of my scalp, neck, shoul­ders and back,” she says. “My body was com­pletely lac­er­ated – my eye­lids were burnt and a sunken blob was left in place of my nose and right ear. The burns af­fected my hear­ing and eye­sight too.”

Three-dozen op­er­a­tions were re­quired to re­con­struct her face and other parts of her body.

Doc­tors have ruled out the pos­si­bil­ity of an eye trans­plant since her cornea has deep burns, but she’s just grate­ful to still be alive. “It’s a mir­a­cle that I am here,’’ she says.

The med­i­cal pro­ce­dures were made pos­si­ble by gen­er­ous do­na­tions from char­i­ties, in­di­vid­u­als, cor­po­rate firms and me­dia houses.

But back in Dhan­bad, her fa­ther, a guard at a lo­cal mill, lost his job. Her younger sib­lings dropped out of school and her mother suf­fered pro­longed de­pres­sion and re­fused to look at her daugh­ter for many years af­ter the in­ci­dent.

The fam­ily lost ev­ery­thing, in­clud­ing their an­ces­tral land and jew­ellery, pay­ing for her pro­longed treat­ment. Un­able to bear their con­di­tion, Son­ali ap­pealed for

euthanasia. “I had only one last de­sire,’’ she says. “I wanted to meet In­dian ac­tor Amitabh Bachchan.”

Her dream to meet the ac­tor was ful­filled af­ter she made an ap­pear­ance on the game show Kaun

Banega Crorepati, Sea­son 6.

Ac­com­pa­nied by ac­tress Lara Dutta, she won Rs2.5 mil­lion on the show. Af­ter tax she was left with Rs1.6 mil­lion. How­ever, thanks to a con­certed me­dia cam­paign, she was given a govern­ment job in Bokaro, Jhark­hand, re­cently.

Burst­ing into tears when she was handed an ap­point­ment let­ter for a cler­i­cal job, Son­ali, 28, said, “I’d like to than the Jhark­hand govern­ment. I would love to work for the dis­abled and needy.”

Mean­while, her at­tack­ers, who were sen­tenced to nine years in prison but granted bail, roam free.

While Laxmi and Son­ali were for­tu­nate enough to at least es­cape with their lives, 23-year-old Vin­od­hini Jayabalan was not.

The only child of a work­ing-class cou­ple from Karaikal, a small town in the Tamil Nadu, around 300km from Chen­nai, Vin­od­hini had fin­ished her B Tech course and se­cured a job with a Chen­nai-based com­pany as a soft­ware en­gi­neer.

For her par­ents – her fa­ther was a watch­man in a pri­vate firm and her mother a home­maker – their daugh­ter’s suc­cess was the pass­port to a life out of poverty.

On Novem­ber 14, 2012, a cou­ple of days af­ter Di­wali, Vin­od­hini and her fa­ther were at the Karaikal bus sta­tion. Vin­od­hini had gone home for Di­wali and was board­ing the bus back to Chen­nai.

Just as she was about to get on the bus, she felt a hand on her shoul­der. As she turned to look, she felt hot liq­uid be­ing poured on to her face and her neck. Suresh Ku­mar, 29, who worked as a con­crete mixer in a con­struc­tion com­pany, in an act of re­venge for turn­ing down his of­fer to marry her, splashed ni­tric acid in her face.

Her shocked fa­ther and other passersby rushed the badly in­jured young woman to a nearby hospi­tal, where she was di­ag­nosed with 40 per cent chemical burns to her face and neck. She also lost her sight in the at­tack.

Vin­od­hini was then trans­ferred to JIPMER Hospi­tal in Pondicherry and sub­se­quently moved to a hospi­tal in Chen­nai for fur­ther treat­ment. She fought for her life for three months be­fore dy­ing of a car­diac ar­rest on Fe­bru­ary 12, 2013.

Mean­while, Suresh was sen­tenced to life im­pris­on­ment un­der Sec­tion 307 of the IPC. In ad­di­tion, the court im­posed a fine of Rs100,000, of which Rs50,000 was to be given as com­pen­sa­tion to Vin­od­hini’s fam­ily.

But the tragic saga did not end there. A few months later, Vin­od­hini’s mother, Saraswathi, who was suf­fer­ing from se­vere de­pres­sion since the death of her only child, con­sumed rat poi­son and died. In a let­ter she told her hus­band that she could not live with­out Vin­od­hini.

Alok of Stop Acid At­tacks says that 98 per cent of acid at­tack cases are the re­sult of spurned lovers seek­ing re­venge.

“Men who scar women for life should be pun­ished se­verely,” he says. “But as things stand now, the vic­tims are the ones pun­ished – for the rest of their lives.”

The United States govern­ment praised Laxmi for push­ing for the rights of acid at­tack vic­tims.

“Many acid at­tack vic­tims never re­turn to nor­mal life,” the State Depart­ment said, at the event hon­our­ing her with the In­ter­na­tional Women of Courage Award. “They of­ten go to great lengths to hide their dis­fig­ure­ment, many forgo ed­u­ca­tion or em­ploy­ment rather than ap­pear in pub­lic… But Laxmi did not hide. She be­came the stan­dard-bearer in In­dia for the move­ment to end acid at­tacks.”

Laxmi smiles while hug­ging Alok’s arm. “I will con­tinue to fight for their, no our, cause,” she says.

Laxmi Agar­wal be­fore the acid at­tack

Laxmi didn’t think she’d be mar­ried af­ter the at­tack, but Alok saw past her in­juries

Af­ter eight years of be­ing ashamed of her looks, Laxmi has no qualms about go­ing out un­cov­ered

Ritu Saini be­fore and now

THE BIG STORY Vic­tims of acid at­tacks and their sup­port­ers stage a protest march in New Delhi

Laxmi and Alok with other mem­bers of Stop Acid At­tacks, some of who are vic­tims as well

Son­ali Mukher­jee with Lara Dutta and Amitabh Bachchan on the set of Kaun Banega Crorepati

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