6 February 2019
Acid attacks are rather common in India (yes, shocking, but true!) – and they are mostly carried out against young women. In most cases, the perpetrators are spurned suitors, jilted lovers or ex-husbands; because in a society where woman is objectified to the extreme, her physical beauty is seen to personify her in toto. Destroy it, without killing the person: and condemn her to a life of misery as a living corpse. In an impossibly male chauvinist society such as in India, this would be deemed just punishment for an “erring” woman.
In the case of seventeen-year-old Reshma Qureshi, however, even this perceived “guilt” was not there. She was targeted as an object of revenge against her family, by her erstwhile brother-in-law who was angry with her sister for leaving him, taking her children away with her; angry, because she wouldn’t stand the constant abuse and threat of death from him and her in-laws – which is pretty much a given in many Indian households.
Reshma is the youngest of the five children in her family. The eldest are two brothers, Riyaz and Aizaz, followed by three sisters Gulshan, Nargis and Reshma. They live in a chawl in Mumbai, and her father takes care of them by driving a taxi. Soon, he saves enough money to buy another taxi and becomes an entrepreneur of sorts; and with Riyaz driving another taxi, they live in the sort of genteel poverty known as “lower middle-class” in India. Their dreams are limited: education and jobs for the boys, and education and good husbands for the girls. Even Reshma has her modest dream of becoming a teacher.
The first tragedy that struck the family was the abdominal cancer of Reshma’s mother. With the kind of abysmal public health system India has, private hospitals are the only solution for serious diseases – and they are nothing short of extortionists. By the time ‘ammi’ was operated on and cured, ‘abba’ had spent nearly a fortune and had to sell both his taxis. Bankrupt, the women relocated to Mau Aima, a small village near Allahabad in Uttar Pradesh, to stay with Reshma’s paternal grandparents. The men would stay on in Mumbai to eke out a living.
Things were going on in an even keel when Gulshan’s marriage was arranged to Jamaluddin, a man from a family known to Reshma’s uncle. The family was respectable, and the groom was employed – so according to Indian tradition, the girl was lucky. Gulshan walked into the marriage as a happy bride, and when she gave birth to a boy, it seemed that her place in the family was even more secure (the giving of birth to a male heir is considered auspicious in India – and a woman who can do that is considered blessed).
But Gulshan was living in hell. Her husband was abusive (it came to light that he had criminal antecedents). Her in-laws kept on demanding more dowry. They regularly mistreated her, but she kept quiet about it, like most uneducated women in India: until it got too much. Jamaluddin lost his job, and the abuse went up a few notches until one day, in immediate danger of being burnt alive (and becoming another statistic in “dowry-death”), she said enough is enough and ran away. Her angry husband divorced her over phone saying talaq three times (the time-tested “instant-divorce” formula for Muslims!).
Things would have been all right (though unfair), had it been not for one additional demand from Jamaluddin: he demanded the custody of his son (they had a daughter too, but apparently Gulshan could keep her, as he wanted only the superior gender). Here Gulshan put her foot down and her family stood by her. Stymied, Jamaluddin kidnapped the boy from school, and Gulshan’s family had to file a police case to recover the child. After the usual procedural delays, the police finally informed them that they had recovered the child, and to come and collect him.
Gulshan was on the way to collect the child, and Reshma was accompanying her on the way to her exams, when her world came crashing down. Jamaluddin and his goons attacked them with acid. Gulshan was able to escape with minor injuries, but the criminals held Reshma down and poured acid all over her face.
Life became a nightmare from there onwards. From lying on the road for five minutes without anyone helping, with hospitals refusing to take her in without a First Information Report (FIR) from the police, to the apathy of the police officers, and government hospitals lacking the proper facilities to treat her to those that refused to do so without hefty payments, Reshma floated between sleep and wakefulness: between life and death. Her left eye was gone. Her lips were fused open. Her skull was exposed on her forehead, requiring immediate skin graft. Caught between a struggling and grieving family and a largely apathetic and occasionally antagonistic society, she contemplated and even attempted suicide multiple times. She became verbally abusive to her near and dear. And worst of all, even if she survived, her future was only darkness.
It was at this time, when Reshma was at the lowest point in her life, that the tide suddenly turned (as it often happens). A philanthropist named Vivek Shukla put her family in touch with Ria Sharma, the head of the NGO ‘Make Love Not Scars’ whose mission in life was to help acid attack victims. She arranged for Reshma to be treated by Dr. Jain, a renowned plastic surgeon, and went about crowdfunding her operations. The campaign was a huge success, and Reshma became a household name in no time.
It did not stop there. The ad agency Ogilvy and Mather did a pro bono campaign with Make Love Not Scars. Reshma was their face. She gave beauty tips on one-minute videos and ended them with an appeal to stop across-the-counter sale of acid. It was a signature campaign. It also went viral, and Reshma became the face of acid attack survivors across the world.
The #EndAcidSale campaign was a success – and so was Reshma. Shrugging aside her reticence, she walked and talked to reporters and news channels across India, even in the face of scepticism. In the process, she had to suffer one more betrayal – that of Dr. Jain, who for all his skill as a surgeon, was a selfish egoist looking out for only personal glory; he refused to have anything more to do with her as she refused to undergo surgery in front of TV cameras just to give him mileage. However, now she had become brave enough to shrug such things off.
The crowning glory came in September 2016, when Reshma walked the catwalk at the FTL Moda fashion show in New York, exhibiting Archana Kocchar’s creation. For a girl who had hoped for a modest future as a teacher, she had exceeded expectations – by a large margin.
If I were a believer, I would have said: God works in mysterious ways.
This memoir is not written by Reshma, of course. She does not have the necessary skill in English. It is Tania Singh, another member of Make Love Not Scars, who has faithfully copied Reshma’s experience on to the page: and I would say she has done a hell of a good job. Because I was hearing the voice of Reshma throughout as I read this. And as the narrative got more intense, I could actually feel her pain and desperation. I could also rant with her at the sorry state of my country, where the poor, the underprivileged and women are considered second-class citizens; if you happen to be a poor underprivileged woman, then you are dirt.
Throughout the many haunting images of the hospitals Reshma passed through on her journey, there are many which will twist your mind. I am sharing just one, about a woman admitted for a miscarriage – as it will become clear, induced by her husband and his family.
There was one such woman who was being treated by the hospital staff on the benefit of some woman right’s NGO. No one came to visit her and she hardly spoke. The nurses would try to speak to her and occasionally, a volunteer from the NGO would come to ask for an update and leave once all the practical matters were taken care of. She had a psychologist though. No one knows what she spoke to that psychologist about, or if she spoke at all. This young woman had been forced to get a sex-determination procedure. Her husband and father-in-law discovered that the fetus was female. They believed that it was her fault that she was pregnant with a girl child and beat her mercilessly that night.
She tried to run to the neighbors for help but her mother-in-law and sister-in-law tied her to the foot of the bed with a rope and gagged her mouth shut. That night, they beat her over and over again till she fainted. When she regained consciousness, they would beat her up again till she passed out. In time, she realized that it would be the safest to pretend to remain unconscious however when she carried on being motionless for far too long, they forced her head into water until she had to gasp for air. They then beat her up again and this cycle continued till six or seven in the morning when at last, her husband and father-in-law jumped on her stomach with their feet until she started bleeding. That’s the story of how this woman’s child was murdered by her own father. I believe in abortions, I believe in the woman’s right to choose in a safe environment, however, this level of depravity is not an abortion. It’s a murder of humanity.
I wonder – how many such women, in how many hospitals? And how many Reshmas?
Dear fellow Indians:
Ultimately, this is a success story – thanks to Ria and her NGO, and a plucky girl who refused to play the victim. But for one Reshma who spoke out, there are thousands without a voice: in our villages, our mohallas, and the dark alleyways in the sleazy underbellies of our glittering cities. Our politicians talk 24 x 7 about empowering women, but the ground reality is very different.
It is incumbent on us to make sure that such voices are heard. I am doing my mite through this review.