Kitchen is nobody’s department in activists Laxmi and Alok Dixit’s house

Really, how life can change with just one strike! In Laxmi’s case, it was an acid attack by a suitor whom she rejected, in Delhi’s Khan Market nine years ago.

One strike, and along came a litany of painful operations, to get back her face, her neck, the ears, the nose, the hairline, at least a semblance of what her beautiful face had which attracted that murderous suitor in the first place. Her family went from pillar to post organising money to get those surgeries done. The emotional dip that her father took, by and by, consumed him. Just a month ago, it did her brother too. The Delhi girl — till then dreaming of becoming a TV star — hit a low, so low that from there she could only give up and sink. Fighting it was too hard.

Sitting in front of Laxmi at The One in Le Meridien, New Delhi, my first thought on her is of admiration, for choosing to fight. And in the process becoming a role model to fellow victims of this terrible gender crime that we see in many parts of India.

We meet for a conversation over tea and Laxmi brings along Alok Dixit, a sparkly young man from Kanpur living in Delhi who gave her rare support through his Internet campaign Stop Acid Attacks (SAA). Alok is also Laxmi’s live-in partner now. “We have decided to stay together without marriage because marriage is looked at by society as a must for a girl, and an easy thing for a man to pull off in India,” she says. The first thing that her attacker did after coming out of the jail on bail was to marry. “I sometimes wonder what was the compulsion of that father, that mother, to give their daughter in marriage to such a man! So this is my way of saying, marriage should not be made everything for a girl, so much so that it pushes her to marry even a criminal,” she states. Powerful words, I note, even as she extends a hand to pick her cup of Darjeeling tea, a speciality of the hotel’s coffee shop dotted with a colour that matches her words — a fiery red.

The waiter brings to the table a posy of French fries. Also cookies, to go with the tea. Alok breaks a cookie into two, offers her a half. Laxmi smiles, saying, “We are partners in life and work.” So who handles the kitchen at home, I ask light-heartedly. Alok is quick to respond, “Kitchen is no one’s department in the house. Both need food, so both need to contribute towards preparing it.” No ordinary words, I note again.

The conversation twirls towards Alok’s decision to start the campaign one and a half years ago by reaching out to the likes of Laxmi. “I was in the Air Force. I resigned to become a journalist. Acid attacks on women have been a recurring occurrence in my region. I felt it is time one should raise a voice against it,” he says. SAA “works as a bridge between survivors and the society.”

Alok points out, “It is worse than rape because it isolates a woman after losing her face, it is so overt. Due to the ignorance of the Government and civil society, most survivors stay like an outcast. Our aim is to track such cases, compile a data, to pinpoint the actual situation of the survivors. Though it has been a gender crime for long, no such data is available.” In the last year itself, “200 cases have been tracked, 100 in Karnataka alone.”

With the discussion warming up, another round of Darjeeling tea happens, this time accompanied by an assortment of éclairs, yet another item the hotel kitchen is proud of. Laxmi picks the fork to slice one, a chocolate one. Alok shows her how to go about it, almost “My Fair Lady” like. She beams, “I am so lucky”.

Alok too feels Laxmi has been lucky. Her dream to be on TV has been fulfilled. She hosts a tele-show, Udaan, on New Express; has been chosen the NDTV Indian of the Year with the likes of Ranbir Kapoor, was invited to meet U.S. First Lady Michele Obama. “A team of doctors has planned her face but most victims are in terrible situations.”

You draw their attention to a recent news report on a lower court in Delhi sentencing a man to life imprisonment for acid attack. Alok is educative here, “It is not for the first time a lower court has given such a judgment but we are yet to see a high court endorsing it.” Laxmi adds, “In my case too, the lower court gave life imprisonment but Delhi High Court lowered it to a 10 year jail term. Another two years, he will be out. The girl who came with him and was actually the one who threw acid on me, is already out.” Also, except Laxmi, “no one has received any compensation.”

Even as we take the last sip of the aromatic tea, Alok’s observation on the Supreme Court ruling against the over-the-counter sale of acid is worth a thought. “Substance is not an enemy, social mindset is.”