Beauty is only skin deep. Whoever came up with this line probably had never met an acid attack victim.
I had never imagined I would hear at 18 what grandmothers in their 60s or 70s get to hear: “She was beautiful.” The past reference is generally to the days when their skin was wrinkle-free or, as in my case, not etched hideously by the acid of alcohol-induced anger.
April 20, 1999, was the day I was disfigured by a plastic jug full of sulphuric acid when a satanic man prevailed over God to rework my face — and fate. It was also the day my soul died to live in hell.
I lost everything that day, including my eyes. But after I could piece my thoughts together following 35 major surgeries on various parts of my body, I regained my faith in God. He had, after all, taken away my sight to save me the trauma of looking into a mirror.
Before my world turned dark, I had completed a computer course while studying for the first year of B.Com. I got a job at a software centre run by a former Indian Air Force employee, Joseph Rodriguez. After the centre incurred heavy losses, I left it and joined another office. Joseph wanted me to return and work at a computer set-up in his house but I rejected his offer.
Joseph was obstinate. He kept pestering me with his offer. He simply refused to believe that I could be comfortable in my new office and did not really want to return to his employment. Joseph was furious and 20 days before the horrific incident that changed my life, he threatened me with dire consequences for not accepting his offer.
That fateful day, I left my house at Jalahalli (Bengaluru North-East) around 8am. As soon as I reached the office gate, a motorcycle-borne man splashed the liquid contents of a plastic jug on me and sped away.
The liquid — which was later confirmed as sulphuric acid — made my face, eyes, neck, chest, hands, legs and clothes burn. It was as if someone had set me on fire. I cried out in excruciating pain. Some people standing nearby immediately moved me to HMT Hospital and, from there, to Ramaiah and finally to Victoria Hospital.
I underwent a series of painful surgeries, each one lasting five to seven hours. The nose surgery was particularly agonising and it took at least 10 hours. But nothing could make me see again, or ease the psychological pain.
I was on bed rest virtually for 10 years. During this period, my parents suffered a lot and had to even sell our house for my treatment, which cost more than Rs 20 lakh. My father, a retired government employee, and my homemaker mother were initially not in a position to bear the expensive treatment and I was therefore treated in government hospitals for eight months.
Even today, I cannot sit straight; I cannot walk without support. I hide my eyes behind black goggles that had dreamt of a bright life. I am told my skin has lost its natural complexion; I have a hole in the head; my lips, nose and one of the earlobes are dissolved; one side of my neck is welded to the shoulder; and my fingers are fused together. My face has a grotesque shape and appearance.
But is my life without any purpose? I often thought I was better off dead. But then, my middle class values did not teach me to give up so easily — certainly not without a fight for justice. I was determined to send the man who attacked me behind the bars forever, if not to see him hanged.
A five-year criminal trial in a lower court gave my attacker five years and three months in jail, besides a fine of Rs 3 lakh. He was convicted only for causing grievous hurt and not attempted murder. The Bangalore High Court later sentenced him to life imprisonment for attempt to murder and awarded me Rs 2 lakh. The Supreme Court later upheld the high court order, but I believe such cases should invite the death penalty.
I must admit that the police were very helpful; they registered a case and arrested the acid-thrower the same day. The media too was remarkably cooperative and was instrumental in NGOs mobilising funds for my treatment. But a private hospital declined to take me in when I was rushed there. And the government hospital was not equipped to attend to someone with 65 per cent burns.
After years of fighting the ghosts within, I realised my life wasn’t about punishing one man. I had to fight for all girls and women going through hell because of acid attacks. I subsequently joined hands with the Campaign and Struggle Against Acid Attacks on Women.
Read more: Laws against acid attacks
It is not possible to ban the sale of acid in the country. Acid is needed for construction work, painting and other commercial activities. What needs to be changed is the attitude of the society as acid attacks are a manifestation of gender discrimination. But something that should surely be banned is alcohol as 90 per cent of acid attacks are undertaken by men under the influence.
I cannot be my beautiful self again, but that has not kept me from dreaming. In 2009, I underwent a computer course for the visually impaired. That boosted my confidence and helped me get a job at the Yelahanka airbase, where I work from 9am to 5pm. But I work 24 hours a day to ensure no one goes through what I did.
(As told to Naveen Ammembala)