Kamala* looks straight into the camera and smiles a bright, confident smile. Her kajal-lined eyes crinkle, her little crystal bindi catches the sunlight now and then. The 23-year-old doesn’t particularly try to conceal the burn scars that climb up from her chest and neck to her left ear. It has been five months since the incident and the physical wounds don’t hurt so much any more, and to a large extent the memories of that day are less haunting.
“How do I look?” she asks photojournalist Sindhuja Parthasarathy, who has spent the last six months capturing the lives and rehabilitation of burn survivors — most of them survivors of domestic abuse — at the International Foundation for Crime Prevention and Victim Care (PCVC) in Chennai. Sindhuja tilts the camera display screen in her direction. In one shot, Kamala poses with a lopsided victory sign, in another she playfully gives herself devil horns.
This is not the first time Kamala is about to share her story, and her recounting of it is matter-of-fact even when she speaks of the chilling confluence of circumstances that led to near-tragedy that day last December. “Maybe if there had been no kerosene at home that day… it had run out the previous day and been refilled. Maybe if the matchbox hadn’t been within reach…”
While acid attacks receive the attention they deserve, and survivors are now covered by The Rights of Persons with Disabilities Act, 2016, an exponentially larger number of burn injuries among Indian women comes from a cheap and ubiquitously used fuel—kerosene. An estimated 91,000 women die every year from kerosene burns, according to the National Programme on Prevention and Management of Burn Injuries.
History of abuse
A new report spotlights the understudied phenomenon. The report ‘Building a new support ecosystem for women burn survivors of domestic violence’ by PCVC looked at Tamil Nadu, Telangana, Maharashtra and Delhi and found that Chennai alone recorded 100-150 burns cases a month, most of them from kerosene. Prasanna Gettu, founder of PCVC, observes some distinct patterns in the 1,500 cases she has seen in the last four years: the majority are cases of self-immolation; the majority of women have had a history of domestic abuse, and the majority did not want to end their lives. “It is a desperate call for help and rarely planned. Sometimes, it’s the only perceived hope for change, the last resort,” says Gettu. “In these cases [of self-immolation] I see domestic abuse as abetment to suicide.”
The narrative is ominously reminiscent of Kamala’s story. “I had had enough,” she tells us. Her marriage (at 18) started well, but conflict began when she said she wanted to work. Her husband turned suspicious and taunted her every day. “He said women in respectable families do not work. He wouldn’t even let me talk to my neighbours.” Then, on impulse, after four years of marriage, Kamala walked down to a call centre near home and applied for a job as a customer care executive. “They hired me and I started work the same day.” For days, her routine involved waiting for her husband to leave for work before heading out to her office, returning before he did. “But I had to tell him at some point.” Predictably, he insisted she resign.
One evening, as she was making chappathis, still in the new nylon sari she had worn to work, the jibes began again. “Why are you so keen on this job,” he asked me. “Is it because you like talking to strangers on the phone?” Kamala doesn’t recall what went through her mind as she reached out to a new five-litre can of kerosene. She splashed the contents on her sari and struck a match. Her clothes caught fire instantly. The flames rose waist up and engulfed her torso. “I didn’t think it would hurt so much or that the fire would spread so fast.” She tried desperately to remove her sari but it was fastened in many places with safety-pins. Finally, her husband, who was watching cricket, helped douse the fire with water.
Myth and ritual
Fire, linked in Indian mythology and ritual to female purity and sacrifice—a connection reinforced in our imagination by contemporary cinema and television—plays a role in the disquieting phenomenon of self-immolation, says Lakshmi Vijayakumar, founder, SNEHA Suicide Prevention Centre in Chennai. “Wedding rituals involve fire; Sati and Jauhar both involved women jumping into a pyre.”
In practical terms, of course, self-immolation is determined by access to resources, kerosene in this case. According to the National Crime Records Bureau 2015 figures, ‘fire/self-immolation’ was the only category of suicide in which women outnumbered men: 5,832 of the total 9,558 victims were women.
Kamala was lucky. She survived with 20% burns. She received acute burn care and after skin grafting surgery on her neck, she was moved to PCVC where she is undergoing counselling and physiotherapy to restore joint movement. But for many others, quality healthcare — starting with first aid — is hard to come by, much less legal aid, counselling and economic and social rehabilitation. Private hospitals, not infrequently, refuse to admit patients due to the medico-legal nature of the cases.
Medical care is just the beginning of a survivor’s road to recovery. Even if she get adequate treatment, her life is irrevocably altered. Often abandoned by family, at the receiving end of victim blaming, and denied jobs because of her physical disfigurement, women are left with little support. Gettu says flame burns need to be recognised and given the same provisions that acid attacks get under the Disabilities Act. “The root cause is violence against women, and whatever the modus operandi, the incident should be treated the same way.” There is also a need for a ‘burns registry’ says K. Mathangi Ramakrishnan, who started the burns unit at Government Kilpauk Medical College Hospital, the Tamil Nadu government’s nodal centre for the treatment of burns. “How else would you know of the incidence of burns in the country?”
The reason we will never know how many burn cases are linked to domestic violence is because they are invariably reported as accidents. The recurring narrative is that of clothes catching fire from diyas or stoves while cooking, never homicide or suicide, says the PCVC report.
It is indeed curious why “no question has been raised about why [women] cooked well in their parental homes but met with accidental burns in their marital homes, or why, when all women and girls cook and wear sarees or dupattas, only young, newly-married women end up with their clothes accidentally catching ﬁre in the kitchen,” asks a paper titled ‘Gendered pattern of burn injuries in India’ that Padma Bhate-Deosthali and Lakshmi Lingam published in the journal Reproductive Health Matters last year.
Women don’t always tell healthcare providers or the police exactly what happened, afraid their children might be harmed if the husband is blamed or because they are not financially independent or because they are afraid of social disapproval. Sometimes, they are coerced by the marital family and police not to file a complaint.
Like 36-year-old Saroja*, who was admitted to a Chennai hospital with 23% burns. Her alcoholic husband had set fire to her clothes after she had drenched herself in kerosene in sheer frustration, threatening suicide, she recalls. She had endured 15 years of physical abuse. Her husband would routinely take away her salary.
“I can’t even count the number of nights my children and I spent on the street; he would lock us out of the house so he could drink.” After two weeks in the ICU, the police heard her story. “They asked me to say that my clothes caught fire as I was lighting the stove. They said if I filed a case of attempted homicide he would come after my children and me.”
At Chennai’s famous Marina beach, a group of burn survivors from PCVC’s rehabilitation centre recently met for a ‘social outing’. And here, for the moment at least, nothing seemed to matter: not the ‘pressure garments’ that covered their faces and arms to prevent scars, not the memories of the past, not the uncertainties of the future. Sindhuja captured the women as they danced to Kollywood songs, posed against crashing waves and laughed at private jokes. “Here is a group of women who have been through a life-altering experience, one they have come out of. And they have emerged from these circumstances with great resilience, but also with an undeniable vulnerability. That is what I wanted to capture,” says the photojournalist.
Saroja and Kamala tell us they are determined to forge independent lives for themselves, freed now from their abusive marriages. Kamala wants to enrol in a computer course. “I know typewriting,” she says. Saroja, who was a pharmacy aid at a large hospital before the incident, now wants to work at Writers Café, a restaurant in Chennai that aims to economically empower burn survivors. “That’s where many of my friends are,” she says.
(*Names changed to protect identity.)