“He undid the bottle and threw acid on me. Fumes rose off my skin.”
“I belong to an orthodox family in Odisha. Papa passed away when I was a kid, leaving me, Maa and my 2 sisters at Fufaji’s mercy. He wanted us to stop studying and do household chores, but I was stubborn. So even though my older sister gave in, I continued studying–I wanted to become an IAS officer. Maa used up her savings to educate me.
I focused on studying hard and acing my exams; that’s why I never noticed I was being followed by an army jawan, until a friend pointed it out. And then, he was everywhere–be it the bus stop or my college gate. Whenever I passed by, he’d smile. I finally walked up to him and said, ‘I have immense respect for people who don the uniform. Please don’t follow me.’ I didn’t wait for him to respond and walked away thinking he wouldn’t trouble me again. I was wrong.
I didn’t see him for 2 weeks and then one day, he called my house. ‘This is Santosh. I know you’d asked me not to follow you, par main tumse pyaar karta hoon.’ I cut the call…I didn’t know where he got my number from. But that call made me uneasy.
The stalking started again and then, he showed up at my house with a proposal, ‘My name is Santosh, and I want to marry Rani. I’m an army jawan, I’ll take good care of her.’ Maa reasoned with him saying I was just 16! He left but not before saying, ‘Main intezar karunga.’
The next day, I spotted him again. This time, I told him that my dreams were different. He said he would wait for me and give me time. Honestly, when he said that, I reconsidered my feelings. I thought– ‘He really loves me.’ But when he said, ‘Be mine for a night,’ I wanted to slap him.
I didn’t go to college for a few days after that. When I did, he held my hand as I was crossing the road and said, ‘Meri ho jao warna anjaam acha nahi hoga.’ I couldn’t hold it in any longer, I slapped him. He looked me in the eye and said, ‘Agar meri nahi hui, toh kisi ki nahi hogi,’ and left.
I didn’t see him for 6 months. And then one evening, as I was returning on a cycle with my cousin, I spotted him. I asked my cousin to hurry, but he halted his bike right in front of us. He got off and said, ‘Say ‘yes’ warna anjaam acha nahi hoga.’ I was sick of this drama so I said, ‘Kya karoge? Maar dogey?’
He took out a bottle while saying, ‘I didn’t want to do this but you’ve forced me.’ He undid the bottle and poured the liquid on me while shouting, ‘agar meri nahi ho sakti toh kisi ki nahi hone dunga.’ And then he ran away.
It felt as if someone had put my body on fire, I could see fumes rising off my skin and my hair falling off my head. People gathered around me; amidst all the screams, I heard someone say, ‘Iss pe acid daala hai.Acid. The moment I heard that word, everything made sense. I’d seen pictures of victims, of survivors. I’d seen what happened to them…I fell to the floor. My brother tried to hold me, but the moment he touched me, his hands started to disfigure…such was the impact of the acid. Seeing that, no one came close, they just watched.
By then, I had lost mobility in my limbs. I couldn’t form words; I just kept howling in pain. My brother rushed to the nearby kirana store, got gunny bags and with the help of a lady wrapped me in it. I was then taken home. Maa yelped in disbelief when she saw me. She immediately unwrapped me and hugged me; she damaged her right breast in the process. I was rushed to the district hospital. But by then, the acid had seeped into my eyes; I could hardly see. The doctors hadn’t dealt with such a situation before; they made us wait for 30 minutes, did basic dressing and asked us to go to the city for proper treatment.
Fufaji and Maa made some arrangements, but it was election day and the journey that normally took 2 hours, took 6! For those 6 hours as I lay in the backseat of the car, I kept praying that this was a bad dream. The pain was unbearable, but what stung more were Fufaji’s words, ‘Aur do azadi. Aur karo padhai. Aur kisi ladki ke saath toh nahi hua yeh?’ I could hear Maa’s muffled cries as she prayed.
I was rushed to the ICU but before the doctors operated on me, they stepped out and told Maa, ‘Because of the pain, Rani has slipped into a coma. If she doesn’t wake up in the next 24 hours, I doubt we’ll be able to save her.I came out of my coma after 26 hours, but the lower half of my body was paralysed. I was 17. I’d dreamt of being independent, becoming an IAS officer and supporting my family. But my life felt like a joke. All because I refused a boy’s offer–a well-educated boy from the army; a man whom we trust blindly to protect us had ruined my life. These were the only thoughts that would run through my mind as I lay in the hospital, recovering.
Thankfully, I formed a bond with one of the nurses who’d do my daily dressing. She had a friend who’d visit her–Saroj. He’d often try and speak to me as well, but I despised men. So he’d speak to Maa instead. I had no vision, but whenever I’d hear Maa chuckle, I knew it was Saroj
Honestly, I really appreciated him for that. I wasn’t the only victim of the attack, Maa had suffered too… and she continued suffering because my treatment was expensive. She had to sell off her jewellery to pay the bills and then had to ask for donations. Fufaji had refused any financial aid. In fact, the few times his side of the family did visit, they’d say things like, ‘Bhoot jaisi lagti hai,’ or ‘Injection deke maar do usse.’ They’d say it to my face; to them I was already dead.
For a year I was in and out of the ICU and surgeries. But then, the financial aid had stopped. My nurse friend and Saroj tried to help us, but after a point we couldn’t just take money from them. And when 2 months passed without any payment from our end, we were kicked out of the hospital.
With no other option, Maa took me back to our town. But Fufaji said to Maa, ‘You can stay here but yeh ladki yahan nahi rahegi.’ So, Maa and I rented out a small kothi for both of us. My wounds were still fresh from the surgery, nale jaisi badboo aati thi. I myself couldn’t stand how I smelled.
Moreover, since I’d become the talk of the town, people would come to have a look at what had become of me. I could hear them make gagging sounds and say things like, ‘Tabah ho gayi hai ab.’ And if Maa wasn’t around, some would even lift the chaddar to see the extent of the ‘tabahi’. I was paralysed, I couldn’t do anything so I’d just scream. Every night, I’d pray for death. I no longer had dreams or goals. I’d forgotten what it was like to laugh. But I felt the worst about Maa. She’d seen many hardships and instead of relieving her stress, I had added to it.
Our misery lasted for 5 long years and then one day, out of nowhere, I heard Maa chuckle again; my mind immediately went back to Saroj. Only he could make Maa laugh like that. And then I heard him, ‘Ab kaisi ho Rani?’ 5 years later, he came back into my life.Saroj came back to my life like a breath of fresh air. He’d gotten my address from his nurse friend. He brought along my favourite chocolates and motichoor ladoos–Maa’s favourites. But I was still wary of men. Moreover, all my friend’s had abandoned me. Why then was this man, who I’d never spoken to, visiting me?
After exchanging pleasantries with me, he took Maa aside to speak in private. I could hear the entire conversation. He was asking why I was still in bed after 5 years; Maa explained how we couldn’t afford physiotherapy. They were quiet for a while and then I heard him make a promise, ‘I promise to make her walk in 4 months.’
After that day, he’d visit every day. He’d help me sit and make me walk. Initially I refused, but when Maa insisted, I gave in. He’d massage my legs and help me stand. He even got a walker for me. Taking the tiniest of steps felt like climbing Everest, but whenever he saw I was in pain, he’d crack a joke–somehow, he’d make me laugh
Once, Maa was away and I peed in the bed. Without hesitation, he cleaned it up. I hugged him and cried. It’s the most vulnerable I’d ever felt. I asked him, ‘Why are you doing all this?’ and he simply replied, ‘Har kaam ke peeche reason nahi hota.’ I felt so close to him that day, I wish I could see him… Gingerly, I touched his face, hoping to map it out for myself. I started looking forward to his visits. Since I couldn’t watch movies, he’d narrate their stories to me, he’s such a storyteller! We’d also make future plans of going for melas when I could walk. And when I could stand up without support, he’d hold my hand, put my feet on his and walk. We’d take 30 minutes to complete 1 round around the room, but he was so patient.
And then finally, after trying for 3 months, I walked. I lost control, I took a lot of time, I even fell, but after 5 years of staying in bed, at 22 I walked again. When I finally reached Saroj, he held my hand and said, ‘Marry me!’
I was at a loss of words. I knew I loved him, but I didn’t want to be a burden. I had just learnt how to walk again, abhi khud ke liye kuch karna baaki tha. But most importantly, khud ko insaaf dilana baaki tha. So, I told Saroj that first, I wanted to see Santosh, my attacker, behind bars.The first place I visited when I could walk again was the police station. But I was met with disappointment, yet again, when they said there was no Santosh Vedant Kumar and that on account of ‘no evidence’ the case was shut. I knew Santosh was using his pull as an army jawan to escape. And I still couldn’t see, so even if they caught him, I wouldn’t be able to recognise him. Again, it felt like he was winning. But he’d thrown acid on me to destroy my life and proving him wrong would be a victory.
So, I applied to Chhanv Foundation in Delhi–I wanted to work for the betterment of acid attack survivors. I got in; Maa and I relocated to Delhi. And although I couldn’t see and needed Maa’s assistance to move around, those were some of the best days of my life. I was making my own living and contributing. I’d wanted to be independent for as long as I could remember and I was finally able to do that. Hearing survivor stories, listening to their struggles made me realise I wasn’t alone.
Meanwhile, Saroj was still in Odisha. We were in a long-distance relationship. He had taken my decision to marry later very sportingly. And in fact, while I was working in Delhi, he was working out logistics for my eye surgery. After 2 years of research and speaking to doctors, there was finally a breakthrough. Saroj called me one evening and said, ‘Pack your bags, we are going to Chennai.’ When I asked why, he said, ‘Kyu? Mujhe nahi dekhna?’
It took a month before I could see again and even then, I had only 20% visibility but it was something! After 7 years, I was seeing colors again; I was seeing the world again. And the first person I saw was Saroj, just as I’d wished. Whenever I’d thought of attaching a face to his voice, I’d always imagined a guy with the kindest smile and when I did see him smile, my heart melted. That day, we both cried.
With light back in my life, I moved back to Odisha and started by helping survivors in my own state. Saroj also decided to join me in my endeavour. But he reminded me, ‘Pehle khud ke saath insaaf karo!’ I filed an FIR yet again.This was a 7-year-old incident; we had no evidence against Santosh. So, I started collecting it myself. I knew his name and I knew his friends. I took his friends in confidence, under the pretext of just wanting to know why he did what he did. It took some time to break through, but when I did, they were apologetic and condemned their friend’s actions.
Secretly, I taped their calls; I needed evidence. I learnt that after committing that monstrous act, he was happily living in an army quarter with his wife and son. Even the thought of him going through life as if he’d done no wrong angered me.
So, when I realised I had enough evidence, I started contacting the media and brought my case up again. People tweeted to the CM, who agreed to meet me and facilitated the re-opening of my case. Santosh, my attacker, was in Kashmir back then. On hearing of his impending arrest, he tried to abscond, but was caught in Bengal.
After nearly 10 years, life brought us face to face again. I was called to identify him. My cousin, Saroj and I went in together. There were 22 men standing there, but I didn’t even take a second to recognise him. And when I stood in front of him, he smiled! Oh, the audacity! That day, he was put in jail. Finally, he wasn’t a free man after ruining my life in a matter of seconds.
But he hasn’t been proved guilty yet. It’s been 11 years now. There were multiple judge changes and with each change, I had to go through the trauma of narrating my story all over again. The verdict was to be announced last year, but the lockdown happened. But I’m certain, this time, I will get justice.
Before pouring acid down my head, he’d said, ‘Agar meri nahi hui toh kisi ki nahi hogi.’ That wasn’t love. He just wanted to possess me. I know this now. I know what ‘love’ truly means, now that I have Saroj by my side; we’re getting married on 1st March.
It’s strange that it took 2 men to change the course of my life. One, a man in a uniform who took an oath of ‘service before self’, who couldn’t comprehend a simple ‘NO’ from a girl. And another, a man who saw a girl in her most vulnerable state, became her biggest support and pushed her to be the best version of herself. But most importantly, who waited for her to be ready.
I’ve accepted the fact that I’m not that 17-year-old Rani anymore–the one with curly hair and flawless skin. But instead I’m this 29-year-old woman who’s confident, independent and knows her worth. And as for the scars, love is fading them away.”