I came to Delhi when I was three. My father was a lawyer and mother, a home-maker. My parents had decided that I should live with my childless aunt. I stayed with her in Mehrauli, where I studied in a Bengali school.
I loved dancing and studying. My parents died when I was 11 and my brother, Kushal, was barely two months old at the time. My uncle never let me meet or see them. The aunt had proved to be a cruel woman and I found solace in two neighbourhood friends — Seema and Sapna. When it became impossible to live with my aunt, I moved in with them. I had to stop studying and start working to sustain my brother and myself.
One day, we came across an advertisement in the Punjab Kesari. Rajdoot, a South Delhi hotel, was looking for girls to dance in their variety show. There were two slots, 6-9pm and 9-12pm. I applied and got selected. That night, I couldn’t sleep out of excitement. In those years, R10,000 a month, plus a daily allowance of R30, was a tidy sum.
Annu Mukherjee - Acid attack survivor
There were days when patrons would shell out even R1 lakh. I put Kushal in a school and started dreaming of a future. I was the hotel’s number one dancer for three straight years. A woman named Meena Khan, a mother of two who didn’t earn much, was among my co-workers. One day, she asked me to leave the job. I told her, “This is all I can do to earn a living. I can’t leave.” I went to the police to file a complaint but the hotel owner threatened me that I would lose my job if I pressed charges against her. Meena apologised and I let the matter go.
Around 6.30pm on December 19, 2004, I was heading for my duty and my brother was at the tuition. The hotel used to send a vehicle to pick us up and it was waiting. As I walked out, I saw Meena, her brother Qayoom Khan aka Raju and some of their friends. The winter chill had just set in and they were covered in shawls. I asked Meena what they were doing there and she said in a strange tone: “Bas tujhse milne aayi hu.”
In a flash, her brother drew out an arm and threw acid on me. I screamed in shock and pain, and the passers-by started pouring water and milk on me. My clothes got burnt and my chest was exposed. An auto driver immediately covered me with his shirt and took me to Apollo Hospital.
Later, I was shifted to AIIMS where the word “treatment” took an altogether different meaning. I was unconscious but came to when I felt that the people treating me were trying to yank out my nose ring from an already mutilated nose! My eyes were completely damaged. (Takes off her dark glasses to show blank skin where eyes should have been. Breaks down, but only a tiny tear is able to trickle out of a minuscule opening in her left eye.)
I can’t even cry anymore.
I came home after spending three months in the hospital. My brother was 13 years old and everything was over for us. We’d sold off every possible item for my treatment. But I never lost hope to be able to see again and went to every hospital possible. They said I would never be able to see. I went through several surgeries that cost me R2-3 lakh. I still need another R20 lakh to get better.
Eventually, the money ran out and so did my treatment.
I pursued the case in court. That was a new battle. Our justice system is slow but I finally won the case. Meena and her brother got five years in jail and were fined R1.6 lakh. But today, they are out of jail and roaming freely.
My life stands ruined. I am an orphan. My brother, now 22, had to stop studying so he could support me. I wrote several letters to politicians and even tried to meet some of them. They hug me for two minutes and then I’m out of their lives.
I’m part of nobody’s life. I want to rebuild my life, open a dance school but there’s no help from the government. When I go out, people wonder about my covered face. I don’t want to tell them what happened. My friends from the hotel don’t talk to me anymore. They were the ones I’d spent some of my life’s best days with — eating, shopping, just being merry.
The only hope I see now is to go on Amitabh Bachchan’s KBC show, like another acid victim Sonali Mukherjee did last year. I need R20 lakh for treatment, which includes R3.5 lakh to reconstruct my eyes. Right now, I require at least R1000 a month for the rest of my life for eye medicine and the aloe vera cream without which my skin will shrivel up. Some people near my brother’s office pool in money to help us. But I want to be independent. I want to live as normal a life as I possibly can.
I can’t see but I can still dance.
As told to Shalini Singh