My name is Laxmi. Read my story. I'm one of you. In fact, I am like you. I was young and beautiful and I had a dream. Even when I was studying in a Delhi school in Class VII, I would spend hours singing. I'd recorded my songs and sent them to talent hunt competitions. I was waiting for a call from 'Indian Idol'.
A photo of acid attack victim Laksmi at the office of NGO Stop Acid Attack in New Delhi. (Gurinder Osan/Hindustan Times)
I'm from a poor family. My father worked as a chef in a South Delhi home. I became friends with another girl in the neighbourhood and her brother soon started proposing to me. I was only 15 and he, 32 years old. On April 18, he messaged me: "I love you.'' I ignored it, but the next day he messaged again: "I want an instant reply.'' Again I didn't respond.
Three days later, I was waiting for a bus in a crowded Central Delhi area in daytime. He approached me with his brother's girlfriend. Before I knew it, they had flung me onto the road, pinned me down and threw acid on my face.
I kept screaming for help but no one stepped forth. Everyone ran in the opposite direction. I could feel my flesh burning and I covered my eyes with my arms. That reflex action saved me from losing my vision.
Acid corrodes quickly. Within a few seconds, I had lost my face, my ear had melted and both my arms were charred black. A politician's driver took me to a hospital, where I was to stay for the next 10 weeks.
I saw myself in the mirror at the end of 10 weeks and couldn't believe what the acid had done to me. The doctors had to remove the entire skin from my face and keep it bandaged. I've already had seven surgeries and need at least four more before I can go in for plastic surgery, provided I can afford it.
I learnt to live with the physical pain but what hurt more was the way the society reacted. My own relatives stopped seeing me, as did my friends. I stayed indoors for eight years and ventured out only in a ghungat.
My main attacker was out on bail within a month and he soon got married. He returned to a normal life within a month, but what about me? Nobody even wants to be my friend; how can I even hope that I'll have a lover or a husband?
I tried to pick up a job but nobody was willing to hire me. Some said: "People will get scared if they see you." Others said they will call back but, of course, the phone never rang. I tried BPOs, banks and beauty parlours but all I got was rejection. Nobody wants to hire acid victims because of the way they look.
But I ask you, is it our fault? Society accepts those born blind or those who are physically challenged. Why are we shunned? If you ask me, we are worse off than rape victims because with our faces burnt, we seem to have lost our identity.
I still sing. I love music. I love partying. I love nail polish. I design and tailor my own clothes. I have desires like you do, but I seem to scare off people.
The only support I got was from my parents, my doctor, my lawyer Aparna Bhatt and from the couple at whose house my father worked. They paid for my surgeries and are still in touch with me.
Even while my parents were coping with the attack, my brother came down with tuberculosis and my father died. I was shattered for the second time.
In the instant that my father died, I had to carry the burden of being the bread earner for the family. My mother has to constantly be by my brother's side and feels really upset that she cannot spend time with me.
I gathered myself together and pursued my case in court. My lawyer had filed a petition in the Supreme Court, asking for a ban on the sale of acid.
Slowly, I started getting in touch with other victims, most of who are blinded or have lost their hearing. Each one of us is poor and cannot afford multiple surgeries.
You can't bear to look at us but we don't have the money to buy ourselves new faces. My friends - yes, I've made new friends and they are all acid victims - are mostly blind.
Laxmi (R) with other acid attack victims at the Supreme Court after hearing on a plea filed by her on the regulation of sale of the chemicals at the retail level in New Delhi. (Mohd Zakir/Hindustan Times)
You stare at us and gather your children in a hurry, hoping they haven't got scared just looking at us. Why don't you tie a band around your eyes and see how dark it gets.
That's how dark our world is.
I hope you never have to inhabit it, but I do hope you understand it. Don't give me the strength if you can't, but don't try and break my confidence. I've just learnt to move on.
I started an online petition and was happy when 27,000 people signed it. I went to the home ministry to submit it to Sushil Kumar Shinde. We waited for three hours but he didn't have even five minutes for us. I had to finally ambush his car to hand over the petition.
Nahim Khan, the man who had attacked me with acid, had to go back to jail after the court awarded him a seven-year sentence. He will be free in two years and continue with life. But my scars will remain forever.
My legal fight will continue.
The Supreme Court has ordered states to pay R3 lakh as compensation, but what about our medical costs — some of us need to undergo 30-40 surgeries? What about jobs? How about sensitising the police force and trials in fast-track courts?
Even countries like Bangladesh have implemented stringent laws to deal with acid crimes but India has resisted it for so long. So many could have been saved. I need your help.
We need the government to compensate us too. What about so many of us who are still suffering? Should the law not be with retrospective effect?
I have a dream and I want to live it.
(As told to Harinder Baweja)
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