“He changed my face, not my heart. He threw acid on my face, not on my dreams”.
These are the powerful words of the acid attack survivor and crusader Laxmi Aggarwal who was honoured with the prestigious International Women of Courage Award in 2014 for her indomitable spirit and great contribution in the fight against acid violence.
Life is not easy, it is ruthless, unpredictable and scary at times. Every moment is a strive here and few moments feel like we have hit a dead-end. But then the words of Abigail Adams cross my mind, she says-“It is not in the still calm of life or the repose of a pacific station that great characters are formed. The habits of a vigorous mind are formed in contending with difficulties. And Laxmi Aggarwal is surely one such character.
She was born on 1 June 1990 in New Delhi in a poor family. Her father worked as a chef and her mother was a housewife. She also had a younger brother. She studied in a girls school named Sarvodaya Kanya Vidyalaya. Laxmi was a beautiful, chirpy, exuberant and ambitious girl while growing up. Like other girls of her age she absolutely loved singing, dancing, outings and rejoiced donning new dresses and getting beautifully ready. Her mother says, in her adolescence she would look into the mirror for hours and wished ardently to come on television. However Laxmi ‘s biggest dream was to become a playback singer for which she had sent her videos to sundry talent hunt companies and was waiting for their revert. Her life was completely normal and happy, till an untoward incident perspired which turned her world tropsy turvy.
It was in 2005. Laxmi was 15 when a 32 year old man, an acquaintance who resided in her neighborhood proposed to her. She didn’t respond to his romantic advances and kept airing him. The man pursued her everywhere she went and stalked her incessantly for 10 months forcing her to assent to his proposal. One day while waiting for a bus in Delhi’s overly crammed Khan market, Laxmi was attacked with acid by that man. She fell on the road writhing and screeching in an unbearable horrible pang. “It felt cold first. Then I felt an intense burning. Within a few seconds I had lost my face, my ear had melted and both my arms were charred black” she remembers about the attack.
Laxmi was taken to a hospital where she stayed for 10 weeks. The acid had inflicted her 45% burns but thankfully her vision was salvaged by Laxmi’s reflex action of covering her eyes. The doctors had to remove the entire skin of her face and kept it bandaged. For months she couldn’t wear any clothes and stayed under a blanket. Managing menstrual hygiene when even a thin strip of cloth weighed her injured body, was a daunting task for her. Laxmi languished under the physical and mental toll of the attack. When after a period of 10 weeks she for the first time saw her face in the mirror, she was devastated to such an extent that she deliberated suicide.
Unfortunately our society too has a proclivity of invariably incriminating or holding a girl responsible for such gruesome crimes which is outrageously shocking. Over the course of 7 years she had to go through 7 surgeries which costed her family 2 million, an impossible amount for a poor family to pay. Laxmi perpetually stayed indoors and occasionally ventured out in a veil covering her scarred face. She got completely despondent and desolate and reckoned her life was obliterated. But friends remember every cloud has a silver lining and what we need till then is patience, hope and grit. Laxmi had 2 options either lead the way or leave the way and she chose the former.
Laxmi in 2006 filed a PIL in Supreme Court seeking the framing of a new and stringent law for dealing with such offences besides compensation. She also demanded a blanket ban on acid sale citing the proliferation in the number of such cases.. She believed that the easy availability of acid made it a lot more convenient for those criminals to annihilate anybody’s life they wished. She with the support and exhortation of her family resumed her studies after a long hiatus and completed her 10th in 2007. Later on she did computers, courses in tailoring and beauty. While Laxmi was striving to bring her derailed life on track, she suffered another huge loss. Her father died in 2012 pushing all the responsibilities on Laxmi’s shoulder. Getting a job was a herculean task for her. People rejected her everywhere because of her scarred face. Here also our society infamous for it’s insensitivity and callousness turned it’s back to her and punished Laxmi for something which wasn’t her fault but she didn’t give up.
In 2013 ,she was approached by an NGO Channv foundation and from there Laxmi ‘s fight for other acid attack victims began.
She started working for the upliftment and rehabilitation of victims, they would visit police stations and hospitals to collect data, arrange for the victims’ accommodation and help them financially. In the response of Laxmi ‘s PIL, the Supreme Court rendered a historical judgement curating a fresh set of restrictions on acid sale. Under the new regulations, acid could not be sold to anyone below 18 and one is required to furnish a photo identity card before buying acid so that in the case of any untoward incident the person can be traced. New laws 326A and 326B were also introduced in the Indian penal code which stated that an acid attacker would be sentenced to at least 10 years of imprisonment which might be extended to lifetime imprisonment also. In 2014, Laxmi and her foundation established Sheroes hangout which is a cafe run by acid attack survivors. They aim to open more. She also compered a TV show Udaan on a news channel sharing her journey and encouraged other girls. Laxmi is the brand ambassador of an apparel brand Viva N Diva which signifies that inner beauty is of the paramount importance. Her work has been unanimously recognized across the globe. She was chosen as the NDTV Indian of the year in 2014 and she has been bestowed the prestigious Mother Teresa Award in 2018. She was honoured with the International Women Empowerment Award from the Ministry of Women and Child Development, the Ministry of drinking water and sanitation and UNICEF for her campaign of “Stop Acid Sale”.The movie Chappak is based on her life. Laxmi is a proud mother, she has a lovely daughter Pihu.
“Strength does not come from physical capacity. It comes from an indomitable will” said Mahatma Gandhi. Laxmi ‘s inspiring journey reverberates Gandhiji ‘s thoughts. She is a paragon of strength, hope and perseverance. Her attacker and the society could not enslave her to misery. She, like a Phoenix rose from the ashes and made the whole world bow to her. Her journey still continues. Let me end this with the very words of Laxmi, “You will hear and you will be told that the face you burned is the face that I love now”.
By Sneha Pandey , Prayagraj