In March 2014, US First Lady Michelle Obama awarded Laxmi the International Women of Courage Award. (Image: AFP)
Twenty four-year old Laxmi was born to an impoverished family in New Delhi. Her parents could not afford a place to live at that time, and so four days after Laxmi was born her parents sought refuge under a bus station as heavy rain fell in India’s national capital.
To ensure that the infant did not fall ill, Laxmi’s mother wrapped her close to her chest and her father used his body as a barrier to cover both the child and mother from the rain. “On that note of resilience began my life,” a smiling Laxmi says. Right opposite to the place where V3S Mall stands in front of Nirman Vihar Metro Station in East Delhi are the quiet lanes that take one to ‘Chanv’, a kind of rehabilitation centre for acid attack survivors set up by a campaign called Stop Acid Attacks. A visit to the centre, operating from a small flat situated on the second floor of a residential building, is an introduction to the brave tales of acid attack survivors in India.
As soon as the door opens, you are greeted by a wall decorated with pictures of acid attack survivors in their moments of celebration. The wall on the other side exhibits a series of trophies and certificates belonging to a lady called Laxmi, unarguably the face of the anti-acid attack movement in India.
As a young school student, Laxmi was fascinated by fairytales. She liked singing and dancing, and participated in several reality tv shows in early adulthood, including India’s Got Talent. Despite living in a country that is known for taking its movies very seriously, Laxmi was never a fan of Bollywood, “My family never allowed me to go to cinema theatres to watch movies. I too felt that instead of spending money to watch movies in theatres, we should try to help the poor.”
Recovering from an acid attack
So far Laxmi’s life was very similar to millions of teen-age girls in India. However, her world underwent a massive transformation in 2005 when, having turned down a proposal of marriage, she was attacked with acid while waiting at a bus stop located in South Delhi’s famous Khan Market by the man involved, who had decided, in connivance with a mutual female friend, to leave a permanent scar on the face of the girl whom he claimed to love.
The road to recovery was full of both physical and psychological challenges; seven surgeries in total. Five of these were carried out at New Delhi’s Apollo Hospital and two at Dr. Ram Manohar Lohia Hospital. Laxmi recalls those sesions in the operating theatre, “Every operation is painful. The last surgery that I underwent in 2009 was extremely critical. I was put on ventilator support for three days. That kind of a surgery had not happened in India ever before.” During these operations, skin taken from Laxmi’s thighs and back was used on her face. The government extended no financial support to Laxmi’s family, who bore all the treatment costs on their own.
Laxmi claims, “It was during those testing times that I realized the true face of relatives and friends.” People would come, look at me and say that it would have been better had she been killed. They even said, “Why was the acid thrown on her face? They could have thrown it on some other body part. How will she get married now?” For three years, Laxmi stayed at home and refused to move out of her house. Eventually, she gathered enough courage to come out in the open and begin afresh. She added tailoring and the arts of the beautician to her basic computer skills. But nobody was willing to hire her. According to Laxmi, one of the schools turned down her job application because, “people would be scared if they saw her.”
While life was far from normal for Laxmi, her attacker got married one month after the attack while he was out on bail. Eventually, Guddu and Rakhi, the two accused, were sentenced to 10 and 7 years of imprisonment, respectively. Laxmi does not say that the punishment was too lax, even though one of the convicted has already completed the jail term. She said, “We do not believe in capital punishment. We do not ask for acid attacks in retaliation. All that we are asking for is a change in the mentality of society. It is the responsibility of the government to rehabilitate acid attack survivors.”
Finding inspiration for activism
Laxmi’s crusade against acid attacks began in 2006 when along with Rupa, another acid attack survivor, she filed a Public Interest Litigation in the Supreme Court of India to regulate the sale of acid. As Laxmi took up the fight, her father became a source of inspiration. “He would tell me that nothing is impossible. Even if I was on the right path, I would still ask him whether I was doing the right thing,” said Laxmi.
The family was having a tough time meeting medical expenses. Laxmi’s brother Rahul was diagnosed with tuberculosis, and her father’s health also suffered. Laxmi states, “Even though my father always put a brave face on it, he was himself suffering from depression. It is quite usual for the families of acid attack survivors to suffer from these kinds of problems.” On October 9, 2012, Laxmi’s father had a heart attack. “We rushed him to GB Pant Hospital.” Medical aid came in time, but wasn’t sufficient to save the life of Laxmi’s father who passed away at the age of 45. “It was a terrible loss. We had never expected that he would leave us so abruptly. He was the sole bread winner in our family. After his death, we were left with no means of livelihood.”
The odds were heavily set against Laxmi, but soon after her father died, a journalist named Upnita came searching for Laxmi. Laxmi said, “She became like my elder sister. Before she met me, I had never interacted with the media. The media has been instrumental in taking our message forward. Whatever has been written by the media about me is true.” Upnita introduced Laxmi to Stop Acid Attacks, a campaign dedicated to the rights of acid attack survivors. Alok Dixit, a journalist turned social activist and key member of Stop Acid Attacks, had been looking for Laxmi for four years. He assured Laxmi of a job within ten days and offered her the position of Campaign Coordinator at Stop Acid Attacks, which Laxmi willingly accepted.
Meanwhile in 2013, the Supreme Court ruled in favour of Laxmi and Rupa’s plea, thereby creating a fresh set of restrictions on the sale of acid. Under the new regulations, acid could not be sold to any individual below the age of 18 years. One is also required to furnish a photo identity card before buying acid. Laxmi claims that not much has changed on the ground, despite all the regulations. “Acid is freely available in shops. Our own volunteers have gone and purchased acid easily. In fact, I have myself purchased acid,” she said. “We have launched a new initiative called ‘Shoot Acid’. By means of the Right to Information Act, we are trying to acquire data concerning the sale of acid in every district. We intend to present the information collected through this initiative before the Supreme Court to apprise them of the situation on the ground.”
In March 2014, US First Lady Michelle Obama awarded Laxmi the International Women of Courage Award. “I received a call from the American Embassy in November 2013. They told me that I was being considered for receiving this particular award and asked me whether I would accept it,” said Laxmi. A friend of hers told her that it “was an extremely prestigious prize and she hoped that Laxmi would eventually win it.”
In February 2014 Laxmi was called for a meeting with officials in the American Embassy. They told her that she was going to be awarded by Michelle Obama and was required to fly over to the United States the following month. She was also asked not to make this public. Within four days, Laxmi’s passport request was processed and granted. However, there is a twist in the tale. Laxmi said, “I was apprehensive about going to America alone. I requested the officials to kindly allow someone I knew to accompany me to the United States.” The American Embassy did not grant Laxmi’s request: all the other prizewinners were also coming alone from their respective countries.
After much debate and discussion, Laxmi was persuaded by friends and family members to leave for the United States alone. “It was an enriching experience. I met women achievers from several fields during the course of my stay.” During her visit to US, Laxmi visited several cities, including Washington DC, Chicago and Dallas. The prize distribution ceremony was held in Washington and telecast live. Laxmi was one of ten women achievers awarded for their work.
Only one award recipient was supposed to speak and thank everyone on behalf of the prizewinners, but Laxmi wished to recite a poem for the occasion and was successful. The poem was translated from Hindi to English, and Laxmi practised reciting the same several times before going up on the stage. “The face you burned is the face I love, I am flourishing,” the poem read. Remembering the ceremony, Laxmi said, “The applause which my poem generated was deafening. The people gave me a standing ovation. I was overwhelmed.”
March 2014 was an eventful month for Laxmi. On Women’s Day, March 8, Laxmi launched her very own television show named ‘Udaan’ on News X. Laxmi states, “I was approached by the Editor in Chief of News Express Mr. Vinod Kapri at a time when we were running the ‘Spot of Shame’ campaign and going to places where girls had been attacked to cerate awareness. When I met him, he introduced me to his show.” Mr. Kapri encouraged Laxmi to anchor a show exclusively for News X. Interviewing was not new to Laxmi, who often videotaped conversations with acid attack victims. In her first televised programme, Laxmi narrated her own story and in the following episodes, took up stories related to rape and old age. To date Laxmi has successfully recorded 48 programmes with News Express.
With a daily schedule of giving interviews, devising campaigns and appearing for events, Laxmi is currently concentrating her energies towards the development of Chany, a rehabilitation centre. The monthly rent for the apartment from which Chanv operates is Rs 18,000, a sum covered by Stop Acid Attacks. “Here we counsel acid attack survivors and speak to their family members. Many acid attack survivors come to Delhi from far off for treatment. After the surgery, they need to live at a clean place to avoid infection. Chanv serves as a shelter for such people,” Laxmi said.
At present, Laxmi’s friend Rupa is one of the inhabitants at Chanv. Rupa, who has undergone numerous surgeries, is interested in design and fashion, so as Laxmi says, “It is our dream project to open a boutique for Rupa. We have been trying to ensure a source of livelihood for acid attack survivors. Next to that boutique would be a shop also run by a survivor.” Recently, Laxmi and Rupa were photographed by Rahul Saharan, a professional photographer, for Stop Acid Attacks’ Facebook page. The pictures went viral and were widely covered in the international media.
On the photo shoot, Laxmi explains, “Many people who saw the photographs thought that we were venturing into modelling. That wasn’t the intention. The garments which we were wearing as part of the photo shoot were designed by Rupa. We wanted her work to be seen by as many people as possible and we are happy that through this initiative we have been able to break pre-conceived notions about beauty.” Buoyed by the success of the photo shoot, photographer Rahul Saharan is now working on a documentary centred on the lives of acid attack survivors.
Laxmi thinks that acid attacks take place in India because of lack of equality between the two sexes: 70% of the victims of acid attacks are girls, while 30% are boys. The education of children is essential. Laxmi recognizes the huge responsibility she bears, not only for children, but towards their parents, “We have to counsel the entire society. Whenever I am invited to deliver a talk or lecture in schools, I request the organizers to also call the parents. I do not believe in merely speaking to the children. Parents have a responsibility too.”
When asked about what is that one thing which the society needs to know about acid attack survivors, Laxmi responds by stating, “We are not victims but fighters.”
(This article was originally published in OpenDemocracy.)