Reshma Banoo Qureshi loves makeup. Her favourite beauty product is an eyeliner. The daughter of a taxi driver from Mumbai who lost one of her eyes in an acid attack applies it with precision on the eyelid that remains. She says she feels more beautiful than ever, for her perception of beauty has changed. “Today I realise that beauty is not just about how we look in the mirror. Dil khoobsurat hona zyada zaruri hai. (It’s more important to have a beautiful heart),” says the girl sounding way wise beyond her 19 years.
With just one month left for her to walk the ramp at New York Fashion Week, the chirpy young woman can barely contain her excitement as she talks to us on phone, sitting in her poky house in Mumbai. “I have seen fashion shows only on TV and once in a five star hotel in Mumbai. I am so happy that I am going to be part of such a big show! I can’t thank Allah enough,” says Reshma who has been selected by New York based fashion production house FTL Moda to walk the ramp in September.
Reshma broke down as she got to know that she was going to New York. Her mentor Ria Sharma of the NGO Make Love Not Scars played ‘a little game’ with her before breaking the big news. “Ria didi showed me pictures of a beautiful city on her laptop. She asked me which place it was, and I said America. That’s when she told me that I am going there. I could not believe it. My tears just didn’t stop,” she says.
Two years ago, Reshma’s brother-in-law disfigured her face with acid , just after a few months after the teenager had given herself a beauty makeover. “There was a wedding in the family. I had got my hair straightened and bought new makeup. I was looking very pretty. I was so happy,” recalls Reshma who had never heard of acid attacks or seen any acid attack victim until tragedy struck.
The incident took place at the railway station in her hometown, Mau Aima, 36 km away from Allahabad. “I was there to appear for my 10th standard exam. My brother-in-law came with a few friends and threw a strange liquid on my sister’s hand. She screamed in pain and asked me to run. Before I could escape, two of his friends grabbed me by my hair, pushed me to the ground, tore my burqa and poured acid on my face.”
Reshma’s brother-in-law, who is in jail now, had been torturing her elder sister Gulshan for dowry for a long time. Fed up, she separated from him and filed for divorce. Eight months before the acid attack, Reshma’s brother-in-law kidnapped his own child.
“The day their child was to be brought to the court where he was to express his desire whether he wanted to live with his mother, the man decided to take revenge. He did this to hurt my sister and my family. I am the youngest among my siblings. He knew that I was pampered by everyone. He knew that hurting me would shatter the family,” she says.
The family believes that the child has been hidden somewhere by the father. Two of his accomplice are also on the run.
Reshma can never forget the pain that the corrosive liquid caused as it melted her face. “I didn’t know what was happening to me. All I knew was unbearable pain. I thought I was going to die. My sister and I were crying loudly but no one came to help us. The station was crowded. But people just stood and watched,” she recalls.
A kind stranger dropped the sisters home on his bike. “I don’t know who that guy was. As I held on to him tightly on the bike, he too got burnt injuries due to the acid that has been poured on me.”
Reshma’s mother fainted when she saw her youngest child’s disfigured face. The local doctor asked the family to rush her to a big hospital. But Reshma could get medical attention only after seven hours. “I was writhing in pain. I was taken to the local police post, where the cops took a long time in taking my statement. We then went to a government hospital in Allahabad. The police again wanted to record my statement there. A kind doctor asked the cops to do it later, as I was passing out.” Reshma’s face had badly swollen up by then, and she has lost her left eye. “Those were the worst days that come back to me as nightmare. I could not sleep for several nights, as there was no way I could shut my eyes. My eyelids were tightly stretched and the pain was killing me. My condition was worsening.”
Reshma’s brother and father borrowed money from friends and relatives to get her shifted to a private hospital in Allahabad where she was hospitalised for two months. One of her eyelids was surgically removed in the hospital, as it had melted beyond repair. The family somehow managed to pay around 7 lacs in those two months for her treatment, even as they kept waiting for compensation from the government which they never received.
Unhappy with the treatment in Allahabad despite spending a huge sum of money, they brought Reshma to Mumbai, where she underwent treatment in a municipal hospital. She had to undergo a series of surgery and it was becoming impossible for the family to bear the medical expenditure. She had sunk into severe depression by then.
“I was almost dead. I had become ill-tempered. I hated all human presence around me. I attempted to kill myself several times. I couldn’t bear to see myself in the mirror. Aisa mere saath kyun hua Allah? (why did it happen to me God?), this questioned was tormenting me,” says Reshma. Her parents would be up all night to see that she doesn’t cause any harm to herself.
That’s when Reshma met Ria Sharma from the NGO Make Love Not Scars, who launched a crowd funding campaign to help Reshma meet her hospital and legal expenditure. Sharma also built up a close bond with her and helped her regain her courage. “I had never heard of acid attack until it happened to me. Ria showed me pictures of other acid attack victims whose lives were in a much worse condition than mine. That’s when I decided to fight and do my bit to for them. Ria said life is too beautiful to quit, and my heart believed her.”
Ria also made Reshma the face of her viral campaign #End AcidSale, which gave her a new lease of life. “I used to keep my face covered all the time after the attack. Log bas ghoorte rehte they (people used to stare at me all the time). But Ria helped me realise that it’s the attacker who should be ashamed, not me. I have nothing to feel ashamed of, nothing to hide.”
One day, Reshma wants to be like her mentor. “I want to be like Ria. I want to work for acid attack survivors and tell them that they should never give up on life. It’s tough but they can do it. They too can find true happiness. Doosron ke liye kuch karne se sachchi khushi milti hai (you get true happiness when you do something for others),” she says.
It’s her ability to put aside her own misery and think of others that keeps Reshma going, says Ria. “Reshma is one of those human being who prioritise others. Their intense desire to do something for others gives them strength. It was not easy to bring her out of her shell as the trauma that she suffered at a tender age was devastating. There are phases when she is very low. Whenever she feels like she will give up, I remind her that she has to fight for so many other girls, and she springs back,” says Ria who is busy arranging for Reshma’s passport and other documents for her first travel outside the country.
Reshma also wants death penalty for acid attackers. “They commit the most heinous crime. They cause pain which can’t be described in words. The reason why they don’t fear is because they are let off easily. Unki sirf ek hi saza honi chahiye — phaansi. (They deserve just one punishment – hanging),” she says.
This is the end that she wants for her brother-in-law too, who has been asking for forgiveness. But the man is least repentant, she says. “He had kidnapped Gulshan’s son and now he is blackmailing us. He says that he will return the child to her only on the condition that we withdraw the case,” says Reshma who desperately wants to meet her nephew.
Reshma’s sister Gulshan is determined to support her sister in her fight to seek justice. “It’s not easy for a mother to live without her child. It’s been years since I have seen his face, but I don’t want him back on the condition of forgiving that man who destroyed my kid sister’s life,” says Gulshan.