Delhi-based acid attack victim Laxmi is a grim reminder of what’s terribly wrong with our patriarchal society. But she is also a ray of hope for a much-needed change, notes Sangeeta Barooah Pisharoty

At the beginning of 2005, a 15-year-old girl — in Loni area of the National Capital Region — was secretly hoping for spring to arrive. That spring, read March-April, even though her family was against the idea, she would try her luck at her “life’s ambition” — singing, by giving an audition for the popular reality show on television, Indian Idol. The thought that if she succeeded, her parents would never say no to her, invariably brought a spot of smile to her face.

But come February 22, her teenage dream sank hopelessly. In the morning of that nippy day, as soon as she got off the bus to report for her training as a salesgirl at a bookshop in the Capital’s posh Khan Market, Laxmi was attacked with the lethal liquid — acid, by a man from her colony whose sexual advances she had not responded to.

Squatting on the floor of a matchbox flat in East Delhi’s Laxmi Nagar — which serves as her new home at night and doubles as the office of the Stop Acid Attack campaigners during the day, Laxmi, now 23, looks back at that dashed dream wistfully. “My life stopped that day while the man responsible for it went ahead with life, got married and by the time he was sentenced in 2009, he had two children too,” says Laxmi, drawing your attention to the gender discrimination typical in our society.

You are bound to reflect on it, feel nearly angry, also hopeless, when she says, “I really wonder who are those parents who gave their daughter in marriage to such a man. What did they think? And who is this girl who agreed to marry him? I remember seeing her at the court; she was holding both her kids and was giving me an accusatory look instead.”

Laxmi, having recently fought successfully for a ban on random sale of acid and compensation for acid attack victims through her PIL at the Supreme Court, says she is happy to have found her voice finally, a far cry from that 15-year-old, “unsure of how to behave in public, look into people’s eyes and talk.” That was why, she adds, “I convinced my mother to allow me to get out of the house, to meet people, gain confidence, by being trained as a salesgirl.”

Her assailant was 32 then. He pursued her for nearly 10 months before he poured acid on her. “We were on good terms with his family; he was my friend’s brother. When he first proposed marriage, I refused him because I always considered him an older brother. I didn’t tell this to my mother because I was too shy, also because I never discussed these things with her. I was all of 15 then after all,” she recalls. Quietly, she would delete his amorous messages from her mobile phone. “A day before he attacked me, he called me, asked me again to marry him. I told him, I don’t want to get married so soon, want to pursue singing, want to look after my parents, make them proud of me. He couldn’t take rejection from a girl, couldn’t understand that a girl can also think of a career over marriage like a boy can do, and thought of toppling my prospects this way, he didn’t feel what he was doing was wrong. He was trying to tame me that way,” she states the nuances.

What is also shocking, she underlines, “is that a girl helped him attack another girl.”

“She was his brother’s girlfriend, she put her hand on my face at the bus stop and pushed me down on the road and the man threw acid on me from a glass before both fled on a motorbike.” The court sentenced her only to seven years. “She is, however, out of jail now even after helping someone commit such a crime. The man got 10 years; he will also be out by 2019. I wonder why there is so little punishment for snuffing life out of a person, finishing a family in turn,” she says.

Laxmi recalls seeing herself for the first time in a mirror at home after returning from two-and-a-half months of treatment in the hospital. “For the first time, I realised what had happened to me,” she says.

“I lost all my friends suddenly, our relatives stopped coming home. I was so young then, missed going out with friends, having fun on birthdays, going out for a film, to the park, to the market, without being stared at. I am also a human being, needed company. I kept on asking my parents, what did I do to deserve this?” she relates.

Laxmi also wants to ask this question to the society “which didn’t feel anything was wrong after a man attacked me and went on to get settled in life by marrying, having children.”

Till 2009, Laxmi underwent seven operations on her face and body. “It cost us Rs.10 lakhs. My father’s employer Shireen Jeejebhoy bore all the cost.” It is odd to hear her call herself lucky here. “Or else, I would not have looked like what I look now.” Still, Laxmi has to undergo three more operations before plastic surgery can be done on her face. “And you know how expensive plastic surgeries are. I am getting myself treated in a private hospital, so the cost is even more.”

Her father is no more around to raise money for her. “He suffered a cardiac arrest two years ago and soon passed away. My younger brother is critically ill, may not survive for long. I have to earn now, look after my mother,” she counts the odds already stacked against her. But she is happy these days. “I joined the Stop Acid Attack campaign on May 19, earn now Rs.10,000 from the job,” she adds. Before joining the campaign, she had never met another acid victim. “Till then, I thought I was the only one. Now I regularly meet them, think of ways to help them. I have found a purpose in life. I feel like finishing my studies now. Maybe I will take up singing again,” she says with a smile.

The conversation swerves to the recent SC judgement. Laxmi points out, “There is no change on the ground yet. Acid is still freely sold everywhere. Even after the ruling, attacks have happened.” She also wants to know “who is the authority who would give the victim the initial money of Rs. one lakh for treatment. Anyway, Rs. three lakhs is too little and if it comes too late, it is of no help.” The recent victim, Nisha, of Ghaziabad, “is yet to get that Rs. one lakh. Nobody from the Government has visited her yet.”

She states, with a tinge of pride at the achievement, “In five days, we raised donations worth Rs. one lakh for Nisha.”

Laxmi expresses sorrow that the court took seven years to give the judgement in her case. “So many girls could have been saved,” she points out. It is “because of too many attacks anyway” that she filed her PIL at the highest court in 2006. “Worse, the judgement has nothing for the survivors, their treatment, their rehabilitation. No severe punishment for such a crime.”

Very soon, she says, “We survivors are going to file another PIL at the SC seeking justice, something concrete for a secure future for us. We are not going to keep quiet anymore.”

Once she could get out of her house after the prolonged treatment, Laxmi got herself trained in tailoring and dressmaking. “I looked for a job but nothing came my way. People only stared at me and asked, Yeh kya hua?” The girls were worse than boys. “I don’t remember boys laughing at me but many girls did, still do. I always turn to them to say that even they are not safe.”