Man at His Best

A Story Of Indian Girls Who Rose Past Their Scars After Being Defaced By Acid

"My attacker told the police that he still loved me and would marry me if I agreed. Why would I want to spend my life with someone who has cursed my will to live?"

BY Sonali Prasad | May 10, 2016 | Culture

Photography by Vinit Bhatt | Reshma Quereshi, an acid attack survivor who is the face of Ogilvy & Mather's #EndAcidSale campaign.

On a sunny April afternoon, 28-year-old Archana Thakur shuffles her feet nervously while draping on a pink sari for a photoshoot. “I’m not really used to getting dolled up so much,” she mumbles, looking down at the ironed pleats. “My appearance has never really been my friend.” After a brief moment of hesitation, she turns around to look at herself in the mirror.  “It’s hard every day when you don’t know what you look like,” she says, touching her charred face gently. “But somewhere between the fear and the hatred, you learn to love yourself.”

Seven years ago, on a cold November day in her village in Uttar Pradesh (UP), Thakur was attacked in her own home by her neighbour. “He used to constantly harass me,” she says. “He kept asking me to marry him, but I kept refusing. I thought that he would stop eventually, but he didn’t. One day, he entered through the kitchen while I was working and threw acid all over me.” On hearing Thakur’s bloodcurdling screams, her father rushed to her aid, only to find her lying on the floor, writhing in agony. By the time she made it to the hospital, the attack had left her blind in one eye, partially deaf, with a melted face and skull, and arms that could only move slightly. “There was so much pus and blood everywhere,” she sighs. “I felt as if something was eating me alive.”

Photography by Vinit Bhatt | Archana Thakur, 28, was attacked by her neighbour in her own home on November 12, 2009 in Uttar Pradesh, India.

While incidents of acid violence have been reported throughout the world, the crime is particularly prevalent in South Asia, with Bangladesh, Pakistan, India and Cambodia leading the infamous tally. In India, the attacks are primarily gender-based, with the majority of perpetrators being male and their targets female. “The motivation in most cases is revenge after rejection,” says activist Alok Dixit, founder of the Stop Acid Attacks campaign. “The roots lie deep in the issue of control in our patriarchal society. The mentality behind these attacks is that if the girl can’t be with me, then she shouldn’t be able to be with anyone else.”

Historically, the Indian legal system has provided limited recognition to acid attacks as a distinct act of violence. As a result, statistics on the crime are hard to obtain. However, the Indian government’s latest estimates last year confirmed that the number of acid attack cases shot up to 309 in 2014, almost 300 percent more than the average number of cases witnessed in the preceding three years. But Dixit believes these are just provisional numbers reported by each state. “There has never been a concerted effort to explicitly acknowledge this crime, so the data is still unclear,” he says. “Moreover, some of these attacks often go unreported to avoid shame and isolation for the victim and her family.” Dixit’s campaign claims that 386 cases of acid attacks were recorded around the country in 2014.

In response to mounting public agitation over acid violence, the Criminal Law Amendment Act of 2013 classified acid attacks as a distinct, specific offence carrying a minimum sentence of 10 years and a maximum of life under Section 326A of the Indian Penal Code (IPC). Furthermore, in July 2013, the Supreme Court of India passed a ruling, which among other provisions, regulates the sale of concentrated acids in shops, mandates the maintenance of a register recording the details of the purchasers, and prohibits the sale of acid to minors. But despite hardened legislation, the regulations are largely ignored. “The states need to implement the directives to make a change,” Dixit says. “There are still places in the country where you can buy a cheap litre of acid without any checks for as little as SGD0.45 The lethargy of enforcement is enabling people to ruin other people’s lives.” 

On April 4, 2013, two months after the IPC amendment, 19-year-old Reena Pal was attacked with acid while she was on the way to her examination centre in Pratapgarh, UP. “My culprit was 30 years old when he started pursuing me,” she says. “When he first threw the acid, I thought it was coloured water because Holi celebrations were around the corner. But then it started burning as if someone had set me on fire.” Today, Pal suffers from more than 40 percent burns that scar her eyes, face, neck and chest. “My attacker told the police that he still loved me and would marry me if I agreed,” she says, tormented. “Just look at his audacity. Why would I want to spend my life with someone who has cursed my will to live?” 

"My attacker told the police that he still loved me and would marry me if I agreed... Why would I want to spend my life with someone who has cursed my will to live?"

Pal, who is a first-year college student, had dreams of having a flourishing career. “I really wanted to make my name and become someone,” she says. “But now, it’s different. My parents have spent all their savings on my treatment. My siblings had to leave their education because of me. Now, I just want a job so that I can help them out of their debts.” But moving on isn’t easy for her. “Some days, I muster up the courage to go outside and do something.” she adds. “But then, there are other days when I look at my face in the water and don’t want to live anymore.” 

Both Thakur and Pal were attacked in UP, the state that registered the highest number of acid cases in 2014 with a record number of 145 filings. Madhya Pradesh reported the second highest tally of 53 cases, while Delhi, the country’s capital, recorded 27 cases in the year. Furthermore, the ratio of persons arrested to the number of charges was increasingly disproportionate in 2014, with only 208 arrests made against the 309 cases that were registered. There were no arrests made in at least 66 cases in UP, and only seven people were arrested against 27 cases in Delhi. The numbers are in sharp contrast to the preceding three years, when 336 persons were arrested against a total of 234 cases, despite the IPC amendments coming into effect only in early 2013.

“Sometimes, the victim’s family agrees to take back the case if the accused marries her,” activist Dixit says, trying to make sense of the disproportionality in the statistics. “The girl’s family agrees so that they don’t have to deal with the shame or the financial burden. I know of a few women who are now living with their culprits, and it’s an extremely sad situation. But regardless, there is a clear gaping hole in the law.”

But young Pal did not give in to the pressure. She refused to go back to the man who had scarred her life irreversibly. Instead, she found solace in 23-year-old Ria Sharma, founder of India’s first rehabilitation centre for acid attack survivors. “Their strength is unparalleled,” Sharma says, who runs her NGO called Make Love Not Scars (MLNS). “These women embody courage beyond imagination.” Sharma, who has a degree in fashion from Leeds College of Arts in the UK, was first drawn to the women while shooting a documentary on acid attack survivors. “We had to film in a hospital ward one day,” she said. “The things I saw there changed me forever. I had never seen so much pain and helplessness, all at once. When you see so much agony, you are compelled to help, to make someone’s life better.”

Sharma now dedicates her life to helping acid attack survivors through her rehabilitation centre in Delhi. The centre supports the women medically, legally, psychologically and financially through various professional services and vocational training. In addition to providing a safe space for women to bond as they receive treatment and support, the centre is equipped with sleeping quarters for survivors who arrive to seek help from other parts of the country. 

“I don’t want them to just cope with their lives, I want them to get their confidence back,” Sharma says. “I want them to know that they are capable of doing anything and everything.” 

Pal loves to hang out with Ria and the other survivors at the rehab centre. “It is good to know that you are not alone in this fight, that there are women who look like me,” she says. “When I go out on the street, I feel like an object because everyone is staring at me. But here, I feel at home. I feel loved.” For her, Sharma is nothing less than a godsend. “There is too much despair in my world,” she says. “But Ria makes it all go away with her smile.”

Photography by Vinit Bhatt | Anu Mukherjee, an acid attack survivor, with her dog Frooty at Make Love Not Scars headquarters. Beneath her glasses, Mukherjee's eyes are sewn shut after she was left completely blind from the acid attack on December 19, 2004.

One of Pal’s closest comrades at the centre is 32-year-old Anu Mukherjee. Completely blinded by her attack in 2004, Mukherjee is the life of the survivor group, sporting an infectious smile, trendy sunglasses and an effervescent attitude. Trailing closely behind her at all times is her pug named Frooty. “Don’t you dare call her a dog,” she comments sharply while petting him. “I owe my whole life to my Frooty.” Mukherjee was working as a dancer in a hotel in Delhi when the attack happened. But unlike most cases, her main perpetrator was a woman. “All the customers used to love my dance. But there was one girl called Meena who was very jealous of me. She would say horrible things to me and threaten me. But I did not know that she could have actually thought of destroying my life.”

It was the cold Sunday morning of December 19, 2004. Mukherjee, who was 21 then, was walking along a small lane when she saw Meena and her brother wrapped in shawls standing at a close distance. Completely oblivious to their intentions, she approached them to exchange greetings, but before she could react, they had pulled open their shawls and flung bottles of acid all over her. 

“They took away my sight,” Mukherjee says. “If you look underneath my glasses, you will see that my eyes are sewn shut. I am disfigured. The bone of my nose has melted and, sometimes, it is difficult to breathe.” She pauses to control her tears. “I have had 17 operations over the last 11 years and it has cost me around 30 lakhs (SGD61,000),” she says. “But the physical damage is nothing when compared to what they did to my soul. I was beautiful, and I wanted to be a dancer in Bollywood. They took all my dreams away from me.”

"But the physical damage is nothing when compared to what they did to my soul. I was beautiful, and I wanted to be a dancer in Bollywood. They took all my dreams away from me."

But the survivors’ tales are that of hope and recovery rather than of despair. Despite over 35 surgeries, Thakur got married in an arranged alliance in May 2014. Twenty-one-year-old Pal is now dreaming of finding a well-paying job with medical and financial support from the rehab centre. Mukherjee is a Junior Court Attendant for Supreme Court judge Kurian Joseph, who is among the three Supreme Court judges who passed the ruling to regulate the sale of acid and provide free treatment to the survivors for rehabilitation. Alok Dixit, the activist behind the Stop Acid Attacks campaign, has found love in an acid attack survivor named Laxmi. Together, they have a two-year-old daughter called Pihu. “In all this negativity and hatred, we forget to see the love hidden in the small folds of our lives,” Dixit says. “When Pihu looks at Laxmi with her curious, round eyes, I know she only sees beauty in her mother.”

In March earlier this year, the Department of Empowerment of Persons with Disabilities recommended the inclusion of acid attack survivors under the Right of Persons with Disabilities Bill. The draft bill is under consideration of a group of ministers, headed by the Home Ministry. The inclusion of the survivors in the list aims to facilitate disability benefits, such as employment and educational opportunities, under the justification of the shame and the stigma that is prevalent in Indian society.

Photography by Vinit Bhatt | Sapna, a 23-year-old acid attack survivor, has a full-time job at the rehabilitation centre.

However, the women don’t associate themselves with any handicap. “For legal matters, the term is okay if it gives us equal rights in society,” Mukherjee says. “But I don’t feel that we are disabled or diseased in any way. We are capable and competent in every way. If you can’t see past our scars, then the deficiency lies in you.” 

Her advice to women who are victims of violence is simple: don’t hide in the cage of silence. “At the end of the day, you are on your own and you need to fight,” she says. “Don’t get used to the pain. The world is more healing than you think it is.  Be a survivor, and live to tell your story.” 

From: Esquire Singapore's May 2016 issue.