New Delhi: When Sonali Mukherjee spurned the advances of three of her fellow students, they responded by melting her face with acid.
But rather than hide herself away, the 27-year-old applied to appear on India’s most-watched TV quiz show — and walked away a millionaire.
“If you can stare at a picture of a pretty woman then you can look at my burnt face too,” Mukherjee tells AFP in her tiny home in the capital New Delhi.
“It’s very easy for victims of acid attacks to swallow poison but I made the choice to stand up and scream and shout against the violence.”
The recent gang-rape of a university student on a bus in New Delhi — which sparked angry protests across India — has again shone an uncomfortable spotlight on the levels of violence against women in the country, where sex assaults are often dismissed as mere “eve-teasing”.
National crime records show that 228,650 of the total 256,329 violent crimes recorded last year were against women.
Nine years ago, Mukherjee was a promising student at a college in the eastern city of Dhanbad when the three students broke into her home while she was sleeping and hurled acid on her face for rejecting them.
They used a liquid known as “Tezaab”, which is normally used to clean rusted tools. Her attackers used it to melt Mukherjee’s eyelids, nose and ears.
Even after 22 subsequent surgical procedures, she remains blind and partially deaf. No one has ever been convicted of the attack.
The three were arrested and spent some time behind bars on remand but were later freed on bail and the case has been bogged in India’s notoriously slow justice system.
“They couldn’t take a ‘no’ from me and so they decided to snatch my face, and steal my life away,” she said as she groped for water to wash down medicine administered by her father.
The Indian government does not keep specific figures on acid attacks.
According to the London-based charity Acid Survivors Trust International, about 1,500 acid attacks are reported globally each year. But many more victims do not report their injuries to the authorities and instead suffer in silence.
Mukherjee says that numerous appeals failed to produce any financial or legal support from the state. Instead her family had to sell their two-storey home, farmland, gold and the cattle to meet medical expenses.
In one letter to the government she even said that she would prefer to commit suicide — which is illegal in India — rather than live in continuous pain.
But as she despaired of funding her treatment, Mukherjee decided to apply to appear on “Kaun Banega Crorepati”, the Indian version of “Who Wants to be a Millionaire” and which was featured in the movie “Slumdog Millionaire”.
After being chosen as a contestant, she went on to win 2.5 million rupees ($45,000) last month after successfully answering 10 questions.
The money will be used to fund a round of plastic surgery next year for Mukherjee, who keeps a portrait of herself as a fresh-faced teenaged cadet.
She said that letters appealing for help had failed to yield results but the sight of her injuries had a much more profound impact.
“Once everything else had failed, I decided to use my face.”
Mukherjee says that her winnings may be welcome but they still will not be enough to cover all her medical bills.
“I won some money but I need much more for my treatment,” she said.
Her determination not to be a victim has inspired viewers and members of the audience were in tears when she won the contest.
The host of the show, Bollywood legend Amitabh Bachchan, called her “the epitome of courage” for “continuing her fight against all the odds”.
“Sometimes we think that our lives are miserable, everything is against us and then (when) we come across someone like Sonali we realise how lucky we are and how much we have got going for us,” he said on the show.
Mukherjee wants to use her high profile to campaign for fellow victims to push for specific legislation on acid attacks, which are currently covered by domestic violence laws that carry relatively light sentences.
In 2011, neighbouring Pakistan adopted legislation increasing the punishment to between 14 years and life for acid attacks and a minimum fine of one million Pakistan rupees ($10,200).
“The men who threw acid on me are roaming in the open but if there were stricter punishments then they would be behind bars,” Mukherjee said.
Indian lawyer Aparna Bhatt, who has fought a legal battle in the Supreme Court for another acid victim, has filed a public petition seeking free medical treatment for acid victims and to regulate the sale of acid.
“India needs a new law to define acid crime in a far more comprehensive manner. There should be free medical care, rehabilitation for the victims,” said Bhatt.
“Acid is a dangerous weapon.”