The Three Greatest Challenges of My Life!



SURVIVORS AND SOCIETY

I often used to wonder. Where does all of this begin? How do people have so much hatred in their heart that they do not hesitate before destroying someone’s life?


The year was 2009. I lived with my mother and two sisters. My father had died when I was barely three years of age. At that time, I was a young girl of 16 studying in the 12th grade when I was attacked with acid. I had dreams. My own ambitions and passions. I did not know what I wanted to do, but I had a lot hopes for a beautiful and happy life. I had no clue what a surreal turn my life was going to take. That I was going to suffer through intense pain and misery for years before finally overcoming my demons and emerging victorious in life.


I never really understood what I had done to deserve it. The attack and all of that pain. I had merely said no. No to a man I did not want, whose feelings I did not reciprocate. Do I not have the right to refuse? Do I not have the right to make my own decisions about my life? Would I have been spared this colossal trauma if I had made myself go to him despite my unwillingness? Would I have been happy with a man who did not respect my decisions and my choices?


People, part of this twisted society, often squarely laid the blame on me. They reasoned that if only I hadn’t said no, none of this would have happened. They reasoned that my being fatherless meant that terrible things were bound to happen. They reasoned that if my mother had raised me right none of this would have even started in the first place. They reasoned that there was no purpose left to my life with my scars now and that it was better to kill me off.

Not once does anybody stop to ponder the wisdom of being married to a man who treated a woman he barely knew with such utter brutality. Not once does anybody question the hypocrisy of a society where a woman is exploited and traumatized if not under male protection.


Not once do they applaud the woman who raised three daughters all on her own in spite of constant scrutiny, slander and judgement. Not once do they question their own fault in my situation. I am always grateful that I never allowed myself to fall prey to the tyranny of this mentality. It is this mentality that I constantly challenge and hope to defeat. It is this way of thinking that we survivors raise our voice against. And the voices of survivors alone will not make a difference. We must all rally together and fight this diseased mentality for our women and men to be safer and happier.


THE ATTACK

My life has seen its share of struggles from the start. As my father had died so early, my mother faced a lot of difficulties in raising the three of us. But she never allowed us to feel the lack of a parent. The only grudge I held against God was Him taking away our father, nothing other than that. Notwithstanding the struggles, life was beautiful. Happy.


One day, a group of paramilitary men came to the areas adjoining our college, and in this group, there was this man. He saw me walking outside the college and it was then that he decided that he had fallen in love with me. I am certain it was not love, it was insanity. Forcing yourself into someone’s life, someone who does not reciprocate your sentiments, is violence. He went to my family and dropped a proposal. They naturally refused him, as I was barely 16 years of age. But that did not stop him. He called at my home, harassed my family, kept stalking me, troubling me. Ironically, I was being blamed for his absurd behavior. I was questioned regarding his attentions. Nobody cared that I did not want anything to do with him. They believed I was driving him to act in this manner. And such toxicity can affect a young girl very deeply, and it did affect me. All the while, my family stood by my side like a rock.


I remember how I used to be stopped while on my way to the college by him. How every time I stepped out of the house, I would be anxious about being accosted and eve-teased by him. One day he grabbed my hand and asked me why I was acting difficult and not returning his affections. He refused to leave my hand if I did not agree to get married to him. All this while, people around us stood as silent bystanders. No one stepped forward to help a girl who was so clearly being harassed in broad daylight. I told him off by mentioning how I was not and would never be interested in him and how he was just wasting his time. When he let go of me, I slapped him, all the while shedding tears over this ugly spectacle. I remember crying as I ran back home and poured out my heart to my mother. My male relatives gave him a call and after a heated argument, he ended the call saying that if I cannot belong to him, I will not belong to anyone else.


I stopped going to my tuition and college out of fear. The fear of being teased and harassed and groped. My life had come to a standstill. When he noticed that I wasn’t leaving home, he changed tactics. He called us and apologized for his behavior which he promised never to repeat. As months passed without another phone call from him, we assumed that the worst was behind us and went about with our daily lives.


On the 18th of April, as I was returning to my place with my cousin brother, I saw him approach on a motorcycle, sitting behind his friend. Dressed in all black, as I distinctly remember, he was carrying a bottle with himself. I was shocked speechless at the sight of him. He circled around the block and stopped before our bicycle. Saying that he had come to take the final step, he ignored my brother’s protests and asked me if I was willing to go with him. He threatened saying the consequences would be terrible if I refused. In my shock and fury, I lashed out saying that I would rather die than go anywhere with him. Even as he was threatening me, I could see him opening the bottle. I had no clue what was inside it. Before I could turn and leave, he started emptying the bottle on my head. Having doused me with its entire contents, he turned and fled.



Within a few seconds, an excruciating burning sensation spread throughout my body, as if I was being burnt alive. I started screaming in pain as I couldn’t understand what was happening with me. My hair, my skin, my ears, they were melting off my body, my eyeballs popping out of my skull. Even as I was being melted alive, people stood by motionless, clueless about how to offer any form of help. I had to wait for my relatives to come pick me up while the acid was eating my flesh, searing into my very soul with the intensity of the pain. My mother tried to cradle me in her arms when she saw me, but her clothes, chest and neck got burnt in the process. Such was the strength of the acid.


The state of healthcare and transport was so dismal, that I had to go 10 hours without any primary care, without even a drop of water on my burning skin. The ambulance broke down and due to an election rally, we were delayed even further. We reached the district hospital 4 am the next morning. The hospital did not have beds left to accommodate me. Within three days, I lost my eyesight and went entirely blind. There were 80% burns on my body and my trachea was so damaged I could barely breathe. Shifted to the ICU, I spent 9 long months there. In that duration, I was partially paralyzed and eventually I had even slipped into a coma. Prognosis was bleak. The doctors were almost giving up hope. It was then that my relatives suggested to my family to let me die because what would a blind, paralyzed scarred girl be able to do in the world.


They say mothers are the most powerful beings on earth, and my own mother, disregarding popular opinion, stood by my side and gave me strength to fight. A will to live. Even when my uncle, who ran the house and held the purse-strings, forced me to get discharged from the hospital ignoring my deplorable my condition, my mother did not give up.



At home, I was confined to this small room in the house with just a bed. The pain was so intense I lost my sense of self entirely. The acid itself had never defeated me. But those five years at home, without medical care, suffering through the daily trauma of dressings had driven me to a state of bare consciousness. There was constant pus and never-ending infections. Chunks of my flesh would come off with the dressing gauze. If I had been able to walk then, I would have killed myself. Those days were such hell, I wondered if I would rot and die in the pus and the pain in that room itself.


It was the sheer strength of my mother’s will and prayers that drove me onto the path of excruciatingly slow recovery. Her positivity was the one beacon of hope in that fog of misery. The hope of healing.


THE FIRST CHALLENGE - WALKING AGAIN

In 2014, I was admitted to a private hospital after my mother and my friends managed to scrape together enough money to get me proper medical treatment. That was when I met Saroj, the love of my life. Even as the other nurses stared at me with disgust, he stepped forward and helped my mother and me in understanding the situation and overcoming my condition. He converted my fears into courage and conviction and confidence, helping me rediscover myself and my will to not just live but thrive. His words helped me overcome the pain of exercise and therapy and I finally regained the ability to walk.



This gave me a lot of confidence. Learning to walk again was the first great milestone that I achieved. It gave me the courage to defy all naysayers and challenge my own perceptions about myself. I developed a more positive mindset and this helped me set out on my journey to achieve all the other goals that I had set for myself. I decided to dream again, just as I had at 16, and not let my blindness act as an impediment in realizing any of my dreams.


This was where my journey with Chhanv began. I contacted the organization after my family researched work opportunities for acid attack survivors and Chhanv provided me with just the right platform to spread my wings. The founders and members treated me like a sister and welcomed me with open arms. I was infused with purpose again. I left Odisha to reach Delhi and joined the campaign with my new sisters.


We often blame the government, the politics and the administration. We rarely ever take up the responsibility ourselves, failing to acknowledge our roles in the existing system. But to challenge the status quo and make a real difference in the world, we need to take a step ourselves. And that is what I did at Chhanv. I took up the fight for the issues most dear to me like the education, vocational training and rights advocacy of acid attack survivors and gained the chance to make a positive difference to lives of other survivors so they do not suffer as I did. Sheroes Hangout at Agra managed to create a sustainable and safe workplace environment for our survivors and today they are empowered enough to run the café on their own and earn without help from anyone else. Our campaigning efforts bore fruit as we created ripples in policies and legislation while also influencing the attitudes of people for the better. Sheroes is now a beloved, internationally recognized spot and that reflects our perseverance and achievement in the field of rights for acid attack survivors.


CHALLENGE 2 - REGAINING VISION

Regaining my eyesight was something that I had never really been too optimistic about, but fate had a surprise in store for me. All other hospitals in the country rejected my case saying it was impossible for anyone to operate successfully on my eyes, but a hospital in Chennai, which is the best in the country agreed to review my case. They came to the conclusion that they could operate, but there would be some risks associated with the operation and the chances for success stood at only about 50%.



I did not think twice. I went ahead with the operation. My eyes were so damaged, they had to replace the eye, operate on the nerves, heal my tear ducts which had been melted off because of the attack. It was a long surgery lasting from 11 am to 5 pm. After the surgery, they took three days before opening the bandages on my eyes and said if the eyesight had to return, it would within six months to a year. Fortunately for me, I gradually regained some amount of vision in my eyes and can now see, though not perfectly. This was another milestone, another achievement for me and it bolstered my courage to approach my final challenge.


CHALLENGE 3 - THE ARREST

In 2012, the police had dismissed the case against my attacker claiming that no one of that name existed. It broke my heart to know that while I suffered so deeply, the man who had committed the crime, escaped unscathed. I resolved to do something to change this, lest some other unsuspecting girl fall victim to his atrocities. Using all the numbers he called us with, I tried to contact his family and friends. Most of them cut the phone on me, but there was this one woman who was married to his good friend, she started speaking to me. Gradually we developed a friendship. She was initially scared about being implicated in the legalities of the case, but I managed to win her trust. Gradually, over a period of time, I managed to collect little bits of evidence against my attacker and got some recordings that could be used as proof against him.


On the 9th of September, 2017, I reopened the case. This time, due to the backing of my organization and my friends, I received enough support to have my voice heard this time around. There was immense opposition toward the case-reopening. People even threatened to kill me. But the district police inspector asked me not to back down and reassured me for his conviction to catch my attacker. The procedure was difficult due to the fact that he was from the paramilitary and hence fell under the ambit of the central authorities. But this time, social media helped me amplify my cry for help. I tweeted to the Chief Minister of Odisha with my team’s help and within half an hour, he replied for a tweet and arranged for a meeting for me to air my grievances and place my demands and wants before him. He was perceptive enough to understand what we required and he ordered the reopening of hundreds of such cases and the transmission of their data directly to him. He assured me that the perpetrator would be caught soon and suspended 3 officers who were responsible in shutting my case.



On the 25th of November, 2017, at 2 am, the man was caught in Kolkata and arrested. Despite the moribund judicial system, justice had been delivered swiftly this time around as he has been put behind bars without bail. My quest of justice reached its conclusion. He had expected that I would crumble and give up. That I would be defeated, mind and body and spirit, by his actions. But I rose from the ashes. I fought long and hard. And I achieved my goals. I have finally found love, happiness and peace. And this I believe, will be his greatest punishment.


CONCLUSION

My journey in life may have been short so far, but I have learnt so much from the adversity and struggle that I faced. I learnt to believe in myself and overcome all difficulties with courage and unwavering fortitude. I learnt that anything is possible with love, passion and perseverance. Society mistreats acid attack survivors. There is shame, stigma, lack of awareness, lack of opportunity. But I have decided to fight this injustice. I work for the betterment of acid attack survivors in Odisha so no one will face what I had to, and I already have a team of 16 with me. It is this passion that fuels me now, and that I hope helps me in bringing about meaningful change for souls in need.



I believe that it is time we stop shoving responsibilities on the police, the administration, the government. It is time we stop commenting and start acting on the diseased mentality of our society. It is time to step up and take matters into our own hands. I hope to be part of this change, right here and right now.

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