‘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
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