An acid attack survivor in India who’s had a staggering 35 surgeries on her face shares her happiness after becoming a mother.
Sonali Mukherjee-Tewary, 32, was attacked with acid in 2003 after spurning the sexual advances of a local thug who sought revenge.
But Sonali went on to fight for her life, and after years of hospital visits and bouts of depression she married Chitta Ranjan Tewary, 29, in 2015, and earlier this year became a mother to daughter, Niharika, now five months old.
‘She’s my little princess. I’m now a complete woman,’ she said. ‘ When I think about her I’m filled with love. What happened to me should never happen to a girl. I was scared during the pregnancy and worried how my child will be as I have so many issues. But the doctor told me my baby was healthy so I was so glad to know this. My parents have said she looks exactly like me. They said that she’s a Sonali junior.’
‘The face I lost is now in my daughter.’
Sonali was just 17 when Tapas Mitra and his friends broke into her home, in Jharkhand, eastern India, and doused her body in acid, leaving her with 70 per cent burns. She was left blind except for seeing shades and completely deaf in one ear.
Despite being lucky to be alive, she spent years in hospital having operations that involved grafting healthy skin from different parts of her body for her face.
Sonali said: ‘I still remember it. I was screaming – I had no idea what was happening. I was in and out of consciousness for the first two weeks after the attack.
‘On the fourth day I was told I was blind and that my eyesight wouldn’t be restored. In a weird way I was grateful because seeing my disfigured face would have been so traumatising.’
Sonali’s mother Neelu, 53, and father Chandidas, 57, sold everything they owned to pay for the life saving treatment.
But Sonali didn’t leave the house for seven years except for doctor and hospital appointments.
She said: ‘After that attack, I felt everything was over for me.’
‘I used to have dreams and ambitions. But then it felt like everything was finished.’
‘But in time I decided I had to stand up for myself. We were in huge debt, there was no support from anyone, it was very difficult for us to survive. I knew that if I didn’t get myself out of this my family would not survive either. Slowly with time, I found myself and my confidence.’
After eight years of solitude, Sonali decided to meet with local NGOs and newspaper reporters and appealed for help. She also met with government ministers and people came to know of her situation.
She got a clerical job in the welfare department, in the Jharkhand Government. And in an attempt to raise cash to fund further surgery, she appeared on India’s Who Wants To Be A Millionaire in 2013 and won £30,000.
She added: ‘I wanted to set an example for other girls who suffered like me; I wanted to tell them that life carries on if you are able to breathe. We have to move on in our lives without feeling shy or scared. And people from around the world, doctors, lawyers and NGOs came forward to help me.’
But after the attack Sonali’s dream of getting married and being a mother was gone.
‘I knew nobody would marry this face,’ she said. ‘I didn’t believe someone could love me. Then something happened which I never expected. God had planned something for me.’
Chitta Ranjan Tewary, an electrical engineer, had seen Sonali’s story on an Indian television programme about real life crimes.
He had been so overwhelmed by her courage he managed to find Sonali’s contact details and called her in December 2013.
Sonali was wary at first but slowly they began to chat on a regular basis.
She said: ‘We just started talking on the phone and we got to know one other, slowly we became friends. I found it hard to trust people after the attack.’
‘I could no longer trust boys. But we decided to meet and gradually we fell in love.’
But Sonali admits she was the first to say ‘I love you’.
‘He’s quite shy and I knew he had feelings for me so one day I said it,’ she added. ‘He converted the hatred inside me into love. I was like a stone that had no feelings for anyone. The life I was living had no space for emotions, love or romance. I began to trust him and I knew our relationship was pure. So I took my brother to meet him. When my brother was fully confident, we spoke to our father and my parents were also very happy and they gave us their blessing.’
The two finally got married on April 15, 2015, in a local court house.
Sonali added: ‘We also decided to hold a small event in a temple and it was a really emotional moment because I never believed that it would happen to me. I’d been watching everyone getting married since childhood. Every girl has a dream of getting married.’
Initially, Sonali only wanted a small wedding but as people came to know everyone persuaded her to have a party.
‘My friends made me into a beautiful bride with makeup and a new dress. I was really happy that day. The only sad part was that I was not able to see it all properly. I could feel every moment but not see any of it. I could smell the fragrance of the flowers, and sense getting dressed like a bride, people’s happiness and the celebrations around me.’
‘Holding my husband’s hand and exchanging the wedding vows was a dream come true.’
Chitta Ranjan and Sonali spent the first few months of marriage taking trips around India enjoying an ‘extended honeymoon’ before Chitta Ranjan went back to work.
And 12 months later Sonali was overwhelmed when she found out she was pregnant.
She said: ‘When the doctor told me I was pregnant I cannot explain that moment in words. It was another dream come true. I thanked my husband for making it all happen. I was crying with happiness.
‘As I’d lost my eye sight I had to take care of myself. The nine months were hard. Credit goes to my husband, who took care of me. He took time off work so he could spend as much time with me as possible.’
Little Niharika was born on December 18th, 2016, weighing a healthy 7lbs 4oz.
Like any mother Sonali was over the moon and was determined to feed her, change her nappy and dress her herself.
She added: ‘A person can achieve anything, nothing is impossible. There are many people who still think I can’t do things. My daughter will come to know her mother had to face many problems in life but she bravely survived.’
‘My daughter will accomplish the dreams I was not able to fulfil.’
‘I forget all my burns when I hold her in my arms. When I play with her in my lap, those burns I suffered for 13 years just disappear. My husband is an example in this society. When he came into my life everything changed; loving him was the only thing I could do.’
Unfortunately, Chitta Ranjan’s parents had not been happy with his decision to marry Sonali and no one from his family were at the wedding but he was determined to spend the rest of his life with the woman he loved.
‘After seeing Sonali’s story on TV I wanted to help,’ he said. ‘I never thought I’d fall in love with her. But once we started talking I gradually fell in love.’
Chitta Ranjan said he fell in love with Sonali’s fighting spirit and her determination to survive and succeed.
‘She’s an inspiration,’ he added. ‘I’ve got a wonderful woman in my life as my wife. And it’s so beautiful to be a father to my daughter. When we look at photos of Sonali before the attack we can see that our daughter resembles her. She has her eyes and lips, she’s exactly like her mother.
‘I really love Sonali but my motivation to marry her also came from my ambition to do something good for society. I cannot tolerate the bad things that happen in our society. I want to change it for the better. We will not raise our daughter according to society’s differences between a son and daughter. She needs guidance then we’ll let her make her own decisions. Girls today can do anything. She has her mother to look up to. We’ll give her every strength to achieve. And I’m sure she’ll be as courageous as her mother.’