It’s been ten years since Laxmi was attacked with acid. She was left with a permanently disfigured face and dreams for her future were ruined. But today, she’s found love, become a mother to an eight-month-old daughter and running a charity helping other acid attack victims in India.
‘When I was lying in hospital in excruciating pain I never imagined I would ever fall in love or become a mother and ever be happy again. My future looked very bleak at that time. But now when I look at my beautiful daughter I cannot believe it’s my life and that something so perfect is a part of me. She makes me feel alive. I am overcome with happiness and love. I am proof that whatever happens in life you can fight.
I feel the acid attack not only happened to me but to my entire family. I was 16 years old and it was April 22, 2005. I can tell you the time as well – 10.45am.
I was visiting a bookstore in a place called Khan Market, a shopping area of New Delhi, the capital of India.
I knew my attacker – he was a 32-year-old man who had been stalking me; it’s something that happens in India and we just have to accept it. On this day I noticed he’d been following me to the shops with his brother’s girlfriend. I carried on regardless. But suddenly, as I looked one way, she came from behind and pushed me to the ground. Next minute I felt something splash over my face and my face was burning. I rolled around on the floor screaming. I knew it was liquid, but I had no idea what was happening. I was screaming and screaming. I can still remember that pain.
I have no concept of how long but I was screaming for what seemed like hours. I spotted people staring but no one helped me. I remember finding the feet of one woman and begged her to call my father but she shrugged me off. The spectators increased, they even made a circle around me and kept watching as I was crying and screaming. Eventually a taxi driver came forward and threw water over me. I think it was a two-litre Pepsi bottle filled with water. He poured it down my face and the acid continued to burn my neck and chest as it ran down my neck. It felt like I was on fire and I could see parts of me – my hand – just melting away.
The taxi driver rushed me to Safdarjang Hospital, in the city, and when I arrived I remember everyone shouting: ‘get out of the way, this is an acid attack case’. That’s where I picked up the word ‘acid’. But when the nurses where pouring more water of me, washing me, I was apparently screaming: ‘please don’t throw acid on me’.
When I was lying in hospital in excruciating pain I never imagined I would ever fall in love or become a mother
I’ve since been told that the nurses used 20 buckets of water to wash off the water and still, even after that when I hugged my father; his shirt got burnt by the left over acid on my skin.
I was admitted in hospital for two and a half months and during that time I underwent two major skin grafting surgeries. The nurses wouldn’t allow me to see my face; there were no mirrors in my ward or in the washroom. Instead I used to look at my fuzzy reflexion in the ceramic bowl the staff gave me to wash my face in the morning. But it was too fuzzy to make out anything real. When I finally saw my reflection for the first time in my second month, I went into shock. I just wanted to die.
When I was finally discharged from hospital I went home wrapped in a scarf. I was too terrified to show my face to anyone and so I dropped out of school permanently. It was easier to hide myself away in the house, not seeing anyone. But that didn’t stop the visitors. People would visit, look at me and say: ‘It would’ve been better if she’d been killed’, they even said: ‘Why was the acid thrown on her face? How will she get married now?’
My family tried desperately to build my strength. My father was wonderful and told me daily: ‘Today you are feeling helpless but let time pass and one day you’ll do things which you never imagined’. I clung to those words as I started a new day. It was so hard to carry on but I didn’t want to be a victim.
Over the next four years I endured a further nine operations. Every operation was cripplingly painful. The surgeons took skin from my thighs and my back and used it on my face. My last surgery was in 2009 ad I was critical for three days. Every trip to the hospital meant pain but I had no choice, I had to go through with it.
But the government provided no financial support, my family fell into debt to pay the huge hospital bills. We do have free government hospitals in India but the treatment only goes so far, their job was to save my life and they’d already done that. Now I needed specialist care my family had to pay private hospitals.
By 2010 I was desperate for some good news and thankfully my attackers – Guddu, also called Naeem Khan, and his female accomplice called Rakhi – were sentenced to ten and seven years imprisonment respectively. It was a relief but it had taken five years to get there and that is too long for any acid attack survivor to endure. Determination grew inside of me that I had to help other acid attack survivors.
But the government provided no financial support, my family fell into debt to pay the huge hospital bills
Last year, according to research by the Acid Survivors Foundation India (ASFI), 349 people in India, mostly women, had acid thrown on them in deliberate assaults. Many were seriously injured; some died. The number is three times higher than in 2013 and more than four times higher than in 2010. It’s an issue that’s growing in India and we need to do something about it.
And then I received another devastating blow. In October 2012 my father suffered a heart attack and my beloved mentor sadly passed away. My family and I were left devastated, he was the back bone of our family and now that he was gone there was no one to financially support the family. I had to get work.
I began to apply for jobs – office work and call centre jobs – and it took every bit of strength inside of me. But at interviews people couldn’t look at me. As soon as they saw my face I was told I would scare the other employees and asked to leave.
In 2013, the Supreme Court finally ruled in my favour and under new regulations, acid could not be sold to any individual below the age of 18. This was huge news for me. The fight inside of me grew; this news made me even stronger.
The Indian media heard about my story and began calling me for interviews and it helped my confidence. I could carry on hiding inside the house for the rest of my life or I could show the world that I am brave and what happened to me wasn’t my fault.
I heard about Stop Acid Attacks (SAA), which helps acid attack victims in India and I wanted to get involved. In May 2013 I met its founder Alok Dixit, 28, a journalist turned social activist. He listened to my story intently. He was such a kind and warm person. We bonded straight away. He gave me a job as a Campaign Coordinator and as soon as I started working with him our friendship grew.
I heard about Stop Acid Attacks, which helps acid attack victims in India
My work focused on Chanv, a rehabilitation centre for acid attack survivors. We counselled survivors and their families from all over India. Many acid attack survivors come to New Delhi for treatment and Chanv was a clean place, free from infection with good support, to live after surgery.
I watched as Alok worked relentlessly for our cause and the rights of acid attack victims. Even during a party you would see Alok in a corner having a meeting. He just never stopped working. I used to think to myself he’s young, he’ll never get this time back to have fun.
My feelings for him just grew in my heart. And in August 2013 we knew our feelings for each other had became very strong. Just knowing that Alok felt love towards me gave me strength I never knew I had. Having his love was the making of me.
Since, the love and care of Alok has built my confidence and driven me to change the way acid attack survivors are treated in this country. The acid attack changed my life, but meeting Alok changed my life again.
Early 2014 was a wonderful time for me. I was invited to the International Woman of Courage awards ceremony by Michelle Obama in the US . I was one of ten women from all over the world given this prestigious award and it was very special moment for me. And on my return to India, I was offered my own television programme called ‘Udaan’ on Indian TV channel News Express, which would be a weekly talk show for acid attack survivors. I couldn’t believe how my life was growing and going from strength to strength.
But then, in June last year, I was suffering with a back ache so I went to the doctor. He took some tests and then he shared the most amazing news – I was pregnant. I didn’t believe him, I only digested the news when I finally saw my baby on the ultrasound.
When I told Alok he was so excited, we were both so looking forward to becoming parents. However, our family was another issue.
We were not married and having children before marriage in traditional India is frowned upon. But Alok and I do not want to get married. We both condemn the tradition of having a legal document to prove our love. But our parents were not happy. I explained to my mother that a piece of paper was not going to make much of a difference. Eventually she and Alok’s parents came round.
I had a relatively easy pregnancy but I suffered a lot of anxiety. I had this underlying fear about my baby’s response to my appearance. I often asked Alok: ‘What if our child is scared of my face?’ But Alok would always reassure me and build my confidence.
Our daughter, Pihu, is eight months old now and I look at her and cannot believe something so beautiful is a part of me. She makes me complete. I feel unstoppable, like I can achieve anything. I will raise her with all the freedom in the world, I’m determined she will make her own choices in life.
I want to make the world a better place for my daughter and her birth as inspired our campaign even more. I will stop at nothing to achieve my dreams. I now want to use education as a way of stopping acid attacks and I want to take this campaign forward into the education system. I always wanted to reform the education system and had I not been associated with Stop Acid Attack, I think I would have been working in the education sector. The main challenge faced by any acid attack survivor is the society so this is my chance to work on that.