Sonali Mukherjee-Tewary’s world came crashing on April 22, 2003 after three men poured acid on her face. The horrific attack left her disfigured and blind. Then one day, a stranger contacted her and offered to pay for her surgery. What began as a phone call turned into a love story. Here is Sonali’s story of pain, courage, healing, and finding love…
“Moving my fingers across my face, I tried to fix a bindi as best as I could between my non-existent eyebrows. Then I gently brushed my cheek and felt the curve of my lips. I was trying to imagine what I must look like, to imagine the face my soon-to-be-husband would gaze into as he said his vows.
In just a few hours I would be getting married. I’ll be honest, it was a day I thought I’d never have. I believed I’d be alone forever and that no one would ever be able to love me after I’d been blinded and my face was destroyed in an acid attack.
But Chitranjan Tewary got in touch after seeing me on a television show two years ago discussing the 2003 attack and asked my brother Debashish if he could talk to me.
‘You are a very strong and brave woman,’ he told me. We spoke every day for a year after that and eventually he said, ‘To me, you are the most beautiful woman in the world. Will you marry me?’
So on April 15 this year, 12 years after the horrifying incident, I became his wife during an intimate court marriage followed by a party with 300 of our family and friends.
He has helped me to realise I can be happy following that nightmare attack. Even now I still have flashbacks. As I told Friday in August, 2013, I was just 17 when three men splashed a jug of acid on my face in revenge for spurning their advances. It was terrifying that such a thing could happen – just because they said I was arrogant and turned down their lewd advances.
I was a good student and was hoping to earn a degree in psychology and become a psychologist when I first noticed them. For several weeks the two local men, Tapas Mitra, 22, who was married, his friend Sanjay Paswan, 20, and a juvenile used to hang around near my college and pass rude and lewd remarks at me. One day, they made a very offensive comment and when I threatened to tell the police, they laughed at me. I complained to my father about it and he marched over to them the next day and demanded that they stay away from me. I guess the men didn’t like anyone standing up to them so they decided to ruin my life forever.
On April 22, 2003, my parents and my sister Sneha, who was 10 at the time, and I were sleeping on the terrace of our one-storey house in Dhanbad, Jharkhand, because it was too hot and humid indoors, when they broke into my house and splashed a cocktail of acids on my face.
I can still remember how I was suddenly awake, wondering why someone had poured scalding-hot water on my face. Then within seconds, I realised it wasn’t water as I could feel the flesh from my face just melt and drop away. ‘I’m on fire!’ I remember yelling. I couldn’t see anything but I could hear my sister and mother crying for help. Then I felt myself being lifted. I was in my father Chandidas Mukherjee’s arms and was being rushed to hospital. ‘Mother help me, I’m dying!’ I screamed before I fell unconscious.
I woke up eight days later and eventually learnt I had suffered 80 per cent burns, lost my eyesight, hearing in my left ear and had severe burns on my chest and hands. Sneha, who was sleeping by my side, suffered burns but luckily they weren’t as serious as mine.
The three who attacked me were arrested and charged. The adults were convicted and jailed for nine years but were released on bail after just three years in jail. The juvenile was released immediately without charge.
Over the next 12 years, I had 28 reconstructive surgeries and was in agony for months after. Doctors took skin from my thighs to graft on to my nose and cheeks so I would have a semblance of a face.
My father, a security guard in a local company, had to sell all the land he owned and my mother’s jewellery to fund my treatment and pay for the lawyer fighting my case. To date we must have spent over Rs2 million (Dh115,240). Despite all the surgeries, I still can’t see and will never regain my hearing. Before, I was a confident, outgoing young woman with a world of possibilities before me but after that horrifying night I couldn’t imagine ever feeling comfortable among strangers again, let alone meeting someone special. I was scared. I became a hermit, hiding indoors covered with a shawl. I became increasingly depressed and fed up of living a half life.
In fact in 2012, I petitioned the government to approve euthanasia for me. I felt I had suffered enough. But since there is no law on euthanasia in India, my request was turned down. I pleaded with the government to help me have free access to reconstructive surgery, to pass more stringent laws on acid attackers or to allow me to kill myself. I didn’t want to live with half a life or half a face.
We were struggling financially and weren’t getting any help. Then, in 2012, I was invited to participate in the hugely popular TV show Kaun Banega Crorepati – the Indian version of Who Wants to be a Millionaire?, hosted by Bollywood star Amitabh Bachchan. After my appearance on the show, help poured in and around Rs1.25 million was raised in just three days. A charity, Beti (meaning daughter), also pitched in to help and raised around Rs1 million for my treatment. In February last year, I landed a clerical job in the welfare department of the Jharkhand Government at Bokaro city.
Slowly I began to gather courage and confidence and I appeared on numerous television shows, sharing my story to make people aware of these terrible attacks.
Ten years after the incident, in 2013, I spoke on a crime programme on an Indian TV channel and a week later, Debashish got a call from Chitranjan, who’d watched it. A 29-year-old electrical engineer, he asked my brother if he could speak to me because he said he liked me and wanted to get to know me better.
I agreed and told Debashish to tell him to call me on a Sunday morning. I didn’t think about it until the phone rang at around 10am.
‘Hello, I’m Chitranjan,’ he said. ‘I saw you on TV the other day and… I don’t know… I felt an instant connection with you. I think you are a very strong woman and I’d really like to get to know you.’
I felt instantly at ease. He sounded genuine. I didn’t speak much. Although he sounded nice, I was still struggling with talking to strangers. We spoke for barely five minutes, with Chitranjan telling me he was working at a steel company in Odisha.
Before ending the call, he said: ‘I hope to speak to you soon.’
I didn’t expect to hear from him again but hoped I would. And the next day when the telephone rang in the morning, hope thudded through me. Was that him? It was, and soon we were talking daily.
‘I can’t imagine the pain you’ve been through,’ he said one day. ‘If you wouldn’t mind, I’d like to help you. I’d like to help pay for your surgery.’
I was a bit taken aback. It was the first time an individual had offered to help me and I was truly moved. A week later, I received a cheque. He’d sent me half his monthly salary. I welled up holding the letter. It was such a touching gesture and he’d done it without even meeting me.
Over the next few months, we became increasingly close. I looked forward to his calls every evening and we’d talk for hours.
Then one day, just before we were about to hang up, he paused. ‘Can we meet tomorrow?’ he asked.
I hesitated. Although I’d been speaking to him for about four months, I was apprehensive of meeting him. All kinds of thoughts began racing through my mind: would he like me, would he be shocked to see my face?
‘So, is your silence a yes?’ he asked.
‘No,’ I stammered. ‘I don’t think I’m ready to meet you.’ I was just too nervous.
Chitranjan didn’t insist but the next dayhe posed the same question. This time I became defensive. ‘Why do you want to meet me?’ I demanded.
Nothing could have prepared me for what he said next. ‘I’d like to marry you, Sonali.’ That was in January this year.
I was shocked. We hadn’t even met, we hadn’t ever said that we loved each other and here he was, saying he wanted to marry me.
‘I would like to meet your parents and, following tradition, ask your father for your hand in marriage,’ he said.
I was just dumbstruck. For a moment I wondered if it was all a cruel joke.
‘Why would you want to marry a woman like me?’ I asked pointedly. ‘I’m blind, my face is ruined…. Why?’
‘It’s simple, Sonali,’ he said calmly. ‘If my wife was involved in an accident and lost her sight, would I leave her? No. If she developed a debilitating disease, would I abandon her? No. To me, this is a similar situation.’
I was speechless. ‘Give me some time please,’ I said and hung up.
A flood of emotions raced through me. Is this real, I kept asking myself. Does he really love me? Is this all a big joke?
The next morning I decided to tell my parents about our conversation.
‘Maybe you should meet him,’ my father said. It sounded so simple. So I invited him for lunch one Sunday.
The night before I couldn’t sleep – I kept imagining how he would look. And then I realised it did not really matter – I’d never be able to see him.
In the morning, for the first time since my attack, I made an effort to look my best. My mum chose a bright blue salwar kameez for me to wear – I couldn’t see the colour but my mother described how it looked – and I neatly combed my hair.
Chitranjan arrived at about 11am with a box of chocolates and a card he read to me that said, ‘best wishes’. I was nervous but within minutes he put me at ease and we were talking like we used to on phone.
Debashish sat with us throughout the meeting. During the course of the afternoon, he asked Chitranjan if he was serious. ‘I’m very serious about marriage,’ he replied. ‘I believe we have a deep connection. I would be very happy to marry your sister.’
I couldn’t stop smiling. Although I couldn’t see him, I knew he was the man for me. After a delicious and relaxed lunch, Chitranjan left promising to return soon.
He called me that evening and asked me how I felt. ‘I’m feeling on top of the world,’ I said. ‘I wish I could live the rest of my life with you.’
Soon afterwards, Chitranjan and I went on holiday with my parents to Puri, a seaside destination in Odisha, 500km from our home. One evening we walked along the beach hand in hand. He described the sunset to me. For the first time, our relationship felt real to me.
A month after that, we married on April 15 this year and for the first time since the attack, I put make-up on my face. Determined to look like a bride, I sat nervously as the beautician patted blush on my cheeks and applied lipstick.
Of course, I was happy but I was sad I couldn’t see my husband. ‘I wish I could see you,’ I told him.
‘Believe me, you are the most beautiful bride in the world,’ he said.
Unfortunately, we’ve not been able to live together yet. We work in different states and to have the future we want we can’t just quit our jobs. But Chitranjan is looking for a position in my city so we can be together.
I thought my attackers had taken away any chance I had to be happy, but now I know what it is to love and be loved.
I’m lucky. I met an amazing man who looked past my scars and was able to see who I am on the inside.
culled from Gulf News