Looking at the face of courage

SKIN DEEP BEAUTY Pragya Prasun says her loved ones have learned to look beyond external appearances Photo: K. Pichumani   | Photo Credit: K_Pichumani

There was an intruder on board the Shiv Ganga Express that night. It was past 2 a.m. when he stopped by the berth of a 22-year-old who was fast asleep. Moments later, he left her screaming. “It was twelve days after my wedding,” recalls Pragya Prasun. The following day was to decide the direction her career would take — she had an interview scheduled in Delhi. But she spent it in hospital.

“I didn’t know what was happening. My skin burned; there were fumes coming off it and it smelled as though a tyre was burning,” says Pragya. “Luckily, there was a doctor in the compartment,” she adds. “She instantly recognised it as acid.” Her fellow-travellers jumped to her aid; they poured several bottles of water on her body for over 45 minutes till she was taken to a Railway hospital. “Those people saved my life,” says Pragya. “I had 47 per cent burns.”

The next one year was a nightmare — Pragya went through nine surgeries, including seven in Chennai. By then she’d had enough. “I wanted to go home and begin a new life,” she says. Pragya rebuilt her life from scratch, much like the doctors who recreated her face. She set up a home, had two daughters, and started working. Today, the 31-year-old runs Atijeevan Foundation in Bangalore, an organisation that rehabilitates acid attack survivors such as herself.

“I also work hand-in-hand with other NGOs. We get surgeries done, guide the families towards proper treatment for the victims, counsel them, and provide training to build a livelihood,” she explains. “We recently held an exhibition of products made by the survivors. This included home furnishings, jewellery, bags, and gift items,” she adds. She has developed a wide network of contacts that provides support to acid attack victims; leading doctors in the field of plastic surgery support her initiative.

Besides her advocacy work, Pragya also runs a small-scale catering business. “I have a passion for cooking,” she smiles. She has a team that works with her to home-deliver food. “I’m good at non-vegetarian dishes like fish curry and chicken do pyaza,” she adds.

“I’m not my face,” said Pragya, when she spoke at the launch of the southern chapter of the Acid Survivors Foundation India in Chennai recently. “I’m what I make of myself. Don’t call me a braveheart because some heartless person tried to destroy my life.” Today, she leads as normal a life like any woman in her thirties — contrary to what her attacker, a distant relative who wanted to marry her, perhaps hoped to rob her of.

Acid attacks, brutal as they are, transform the lives of the survivor and her family and friends. Pragya says her loved ones have learned to look beyond external appearances. “My husband and I have stopped caring about people who stare at me when we go out,” she says. “We go to the mall, the movies… my friends and family have grown with me.” Her little girls see her no differently. “When one of them asked me why my skin was so, I told them ‘I was not careful. You be careful’.”

Pragya feels that the key to rooting out violence against women is to empower men and women. “Boys must be taught to respect every girl in their life. They must be educated at a young age to treat women as individuals and not as objects. Men and women should value and respect each other,” she says.

When in Chennai for a day, Pragya is constantly running around to meet people, such as the doctors who shaped her. The attack has turned her emotional — she would sometimes break into tears when she talks about herself. But she is the kind who takes control of a situation. When we cross a traffic-congested road together, she holds my hand and leads the way and doesn’t let go till we’re safe on the other side.

Saying it with numbers

Over 100 acid attacks are recorded per year in India.

There were 80 recorded attacks in 2010, 106 in 2011-2012, 122 in 2013.

Northern India has the highest incidence of the violence accounting for 52 percent of attacks. The eastern region follows with 21 per cent, western region with 15 per cent and South India accounts for 12 per cent.

64 per cent of the attacks take place near the victim’s residence

65 per cent of victims are women

(Source: Acid Survivors Foundation India)

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Printable version | Nov 26, 2020 9:53:28 AM |

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