“How much of the world would you have possibly seen?” he asked the 19 year old.
Her gaze unflinching, her face cold and straight. “Enough to have my heart opened to pain, enough to have it shut forever,” she replied.
There was more to her than a number, he realised.
She had stories to tell.
And stories could move mountains.
Imagine your face, burnt and charred. Your nose replaced by two little holes, almost as if it does not exist, just a slit for a mouth, and your skin sticking to the adjacent parts making movement difficult. The very thought of it is frightening. But that is the life these women have been leading since they were attacked with acid. Acid attack is an extremely gruesome crime committed against women. There are a significant number of cases in India, some are registered, some go unnoticed while others are scared to come out in the open and tell their stories because they are afraid of what the outcome would be.
I had read of these cases, watched their interviews online, their stories touched me deeply, but not until I met them did I realize what acid attacks truly mean. A meager toilet cleaning agent that we may have used several times has now wiped out the very existence of a person.
“I’ve lived this way for the past ten years now, people look at me strangely. Today, I was travelling in the bus and a mother and son were seated opposite. They looked at me and began laughing loudly. While the others looked at me and turned away. I did not know what to do. I was helpless, who can I blame? They laugh because I look this way and I am aware of that,” said Jayalakshmi, as she tried to fight her emotions.
Jayalakshmi was attacked by her husband in Tumkur. She explained that he always doubted her, even before the attack he used to beat her up. Every time she went back to her parents with cuts and bruises, her mother would advice her on the importance of a husband and what it means to be a wife. She said one of her mother’s advice was, “It is alright if he beats you, after all he is your husband. He has the right to do anything he wants to, please don’t come back here. Now that is your home.” Her words sent shivers down my spine. Her very own mother spoke so heartlessly. It is sad that our society still holds such misogynistic views.
She went on to tell me of how her husband was given a jail term, and how her struggles began from then on. To defend his deeds she said, swallowing her tears, that he blamed her of running a brothel. “He said I was a prostitute, and that is why he did this to me. My very own husband to whom I gave twenty long years of my life, bore his children, got them married and now he speaks of me as a prostitute,” she paused. “Thankfully my neighbors backed me up,” she continued, tears rolling down her eyes.
Many cases of acid attacks go unregistered because the society blames the woman. There have been cases in which the police have barged into the woman’s house to cross check if it was a brothel or if there was illegal sexual activities happening. What right does a man have to throw acid on a woman, even if she is a sex worker? What makes her lesser of a human being, she is entitled to all the human rights as of any of us. Nobody has the right to take that away from her.
Most often the victims hear these sentences after the attack, “She gave way, must have been her fault, she deserves it, Oh! Love, she was in love this ought to happen, characterless woman!” Not only does she have to go through physical and mental trauma all her life for no fault of hers, she is also ostracized by the society.
Jayalakshmi is now a social activist, working for women rights and women empowerment in the villages. She has come a long way. But her life was never easy. In the beginning her family told the doctors to take away her life. “They said, how could anyone live with a face like that, I was unconscious, after I gained consciousness I was given treatment. They warned me not to look at the mirror.” Her body was burning, she knew she was attacked by acid, somewhere deep down she knew life would never be the same. But it was not until she saw her face that reality dawned upon her.
Recollecting the incidents in chronological order, she says that she saw her face while drinking coffee. It was her reflection and that day something within her broke. “I wanted to die; I told the doctors that I don’t want to live anymore. Why live with a face like this, and even today I wonder why didn’t the attack kill me, why did I survive?” She looked towards me as though seeking for an answer, but all I could do was stay mum. Who could answer any of her questions? We equally carry the shame of this act. For staying mum, for allowing her and so many others go through something like this.
Our face is our identity, with that gone and the very people you seek courage from treating you like an alien. All you can do is give up. “Nobody gave me their house on rent; they said their children would get scared of me. The people in my locality asked me to wear a burkha because my face was so frightening,” she said, now smiling at me. Not once did the people in her locality, the very place she lived for 20 long years think what it would be to lose a face. Every time she looks at someone whether ugly or beautiful, the very fact that they have a face would be killing her. How would she look at herself, dealing with that very reality was a task of courage.
“I don’t care anymore, let them look. This is me. I feel hurt when I am called for marriages and people take photos. I just want to get done with it. I don’t wear a burkha, this is my identity now and I have come to accept it. Before the attack I was a very scared person. I wouldn’t walk out of the house without my husband’s permission. But now I have changed, I am not scared anymore,” she proudly stated. All of us have a voice, and there’s a reason we do. If we can’t raise our voice against injustice, for the innocent people who are in pain, then what use are we to the society? They say it takes courage to raise your voice, in reality it just needs a heart that can feel for another.
Today Jayalakshmi is a strong woman, who goes around educating women about their rights. She says that it is shocking that women from the cities also go to her for help. It isn’t about where you come from, injustice is everywhere and all people need today is courage, she explains. Women are taught to be submissive from childhood and that’s how they grow up, when it’s time to face the world they are left helpless.
“I am more confident without a face than when I had one. People will look, they will laugh. It hurts but what’s more important to me is to be useful to the society. So what if it happened to me, even if I do cry every night, I am happy that I am helping someone else. It all starts at home,” she says. Educate your daughters but do not forget to teach your sons the value of a woman. Do not forget to tell him to respect a woman, because she is an equal.
My conversation with Jayalakshmi gave me a new perspective to the world. Her achievements gave me courage and taught me so much. It wasn’t a conversation; it was an experience I will never forget. Every acid attack survivor is a fighter, an epitome of strength. Their beauty lies not in their face but in their outlook to life, in their very being. The world has a lot to learn from these women.
While I was contemplating on all of this and fuming with anger towards those cowardly men who stoop to such low levels to prove their superiority, all I could see in Jayalakshmi was gratitude towards the few who helped her, who stood up for her.
It is shameful that in our search for beauty, in our superficial outlook of the world we have stopped looking into the depths, stopped valuing human emotions. In our efforts to reach somewhere, to go ahead in the race, we have stopped being humane. We have forgotten humanity. And no amount of money, success or fame can give you that. In all honesty, Jayalakshmi showed me how poor we are, how ugly we truly are on the inside and how selfish human race is. She unmasked the whole of society in the two hours that we spoke.
So now I realize the statement, ‘Beauty is skin deep.’ May be for once, we as human beings must look into the mirror and ask ourselves how beautiful are we on the inside. Your skin will wrinkle, your eyes will go dim, and your teeth may not stay there forever too. But the little heart you carry will stay beautiful forever; let us make our inner selves beautiful, because that is everlasting. May be all this while our very perception of the world was wrong, people must be loved for who they are and not for the way they appear.
Strange but true, all our scriptures teach love, because that is the only language common to the entire universe. Let us learn the language of love. Their scars may never heal but can pave way to a revolution. A revolution in perspective!
I have done a documentary on acid attacks on women, ‘SCARRED’. It is the second all India to be made on the issue and the first to receive a nation wide platform. Jayalakshmi’s interview has been featured in the film. Do watch: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=P7EKbHcwjX8
Originally published in the June edition of the Tabor Kirana.
Love…Love…Love…four little letters that can mean so much. Four little letters that can grab your attention just instantly; four little letters that when said, echoes in the heart and rings the soul. Just what is this love? Is it the words wrapped in a letter from a boy to a girl, sealed with a kiss? Is it the prayers in the churches for the happiness of a dear one, is it the need to be with someone, or is it just four little letters…
The whole world, every single person is searching for acceptance, for love. For someone to look at them beyond their imperfections, beyond all their flaws, someone who would see that one part of their existence, that little piece that is still tender, untouched by the world. It is this desire, common to all that causes romantic movies and songs to become an instant hit, it is this desire that makes great poets like Lord Byron. So does that mean love is in the stories, in the screenplay, in the lyrics, in the tune or is it in thoughts?
Strangely, you ask a million people to define love and you will get a million astounding responses, and quite a few non-believers. Non believers for love, sounds funny. Does love require your belief, in the first place, something you need to ponder upon; Think and think and you will still never be able to answer what love is, it’s a feeling. It’s a feeling that changes your world and gives you the power to change somebody else’s. With it comes happiness and bliss.
After great contemplation a thought struck my mind, a thought so great I had to pen it down. Love my friends, is the ‘Divine’. It is the drive that takes man forward. That pushes him to help a stranger in distress, the language between a mother and her child, the urge to give a big hug to someone that needs one. It is the way you generously accept someone for the person he or she is, it is the reason you dance in the rain. Every time you do something special, be it even something as little as patting someone on the back, it’s love!
No man is an atheist till he is capable of loving another, because love is the manifestation of the divine. And where is the divine you might ask, it’s in your heart, in your eyes in the kind deeds you do and most of all in the lives of the people you touch. Love is the ability to touch another’s life in great ways, through small acts. Most often we don’t recognize love in our lives because we are so caught up with the love the world has shown us, the melodramatic entrances of the boy and the slow motion hugs and the violins and the songs. Love is in the things you seldom notice, the people you’ve got so used to, you don’t care much about them, but their absence would kill you. Love is the most familiar feeling present in the most familiar people, in the simplest of situations.
The problem with man is his inability to identify the great things he has, his keen eye to spot even the smallest speck of dirt in the cleanest of places and then his tremendous ability to make a fuss over it. In all the day to day commotion, the complaints we forget to be grateful for the little things that have made this journey through life possible. Many people say, “I am what I am, because of me and me alone! I am self made.” No one in this world is self made, we are all a product of the small acts, the little smiles, the many ‘good mornings, have a great day’, the many ‘its okay’s, it will get better’ and sometimes in the yelling screaming and the unforgettable bad experiences. We are molded by all of this and we have a lot to be grateful about. For teaching us to be selfless or cautious, trustable or ambitious, it’s taught you skills that has enabled you to deal with life.
Think back and name at least five people who have touched your life that is the divine working; that is love. Let us all appreciate the little things of life because at the end of the day you don’t carry all the material stuff you have accumulated, the truth is I don’t know if you take away anything at all. But in your last days it’s all the many little things; the love that has surrounded your life, the love you’ve given that will make life worth it. This is not about making the world a better place or helping people, I write this to tell each and every person to appreciate and recognize the love in their lives. You are all blessed, you are all loved.
You may leave the world knowing you have never been loved, you may leave the world empty and hopeless, but let the people you have loved with all your heart know that they are loved. We are people who don’t mind fighting on the road but shy away from saying an ‘I love you’ out loud to those who mean the most in our lives. We hide and criticize public display of affection. If that amount of criticism existed for fighting and talking like barbarians on the road, the world would be a better place. Life is too short to follow rules that are never going to benefit you, tell the people you love just how much you love them, whisper it if you have to, but don’t hide it. And if someone’s not whispered it to you, make sure to see it in their little deeds. The world is not ‘out of love’; it’s just full of blind people who are looking for something just below their nose. This is a privilege no man is deprived of, the privilege to love and feel loved. For once let your heart do the talking.
I end this with no answers to the question I asked you in the beginning but with a statement and a realization that might help you reach the answer. Love my dears friends, I know not is just four letters or something bigger than our understanding, but is in our very existence. Something that can touch and move you, something that could only be the reflection of God. And I am just one among the millions who has attempted to answer this question.
“They called us dogs, treated us like animals. In an hour’s time, they turned our land into a graveyard,” said Ulfath Jaffar. Tears rolled down her cheeks as she narrated her story. Ulfath is a mother of four children; her husband was an auto driver. She stayed along with her mother and 1600 other families in Ejipura, until that fateful day. Her house was torn down, her family split, her belongings lost, in one day her life changed drastically.
Carrying her daughter in her arms, she explained that her family was living there for 120 years. She was born and raised in that same place. “I am a tenant, I have a voter’s id, Adhar card, all issued in the same address. Unfortunately I was not given the house papers because I did not have money. The leaders made the papers in someone else’s name in front of me just because he paid them 5000 rupees. They did not even let me make a bio metric card. We have been cheated by everybody.”
Ulfath works as a sales woman at a cloth shop, her mother as a maid. Like any normal human being she says she too has dreams, she would like her children to study and stand on their own feet. “I am poor and uneducated but I do not want my children to see the same life. They were all going to school, but now we are stranded, we have no place to go, no roof over our head, I feel helpless,” she cried.
People gathered around us, eager to tell their story. They wanted their voice to be heard. Ulfath could not speak but the pain in her eyes spoke loud enough. The moments of silence was broken by the voices of the people around. Strangely there was no one consoling her, they all abused the political leaders, called them every name in the book, but nobody even rubbed her back. It was a group of angry, frustrated, hurt and most of all broken people, who had lost all hope and had nothing but their voices to support them.
“The media reports facts; everybody knows that we have lost our houses, they know of the bulldozers mowing our houses down but who really knows what we are going through? Until somebody comes and throws you out of your house and leaves you lying on the footpath, you really wouldn’t know our pain,” said Pande, one of the former residents at Ejipura.
Gaining her strength Ulfath spoke again. The past few months have been frightening for each one of us, she said. We abuse our leaders because they broke our trust. We had faith in them but all they cared for was their life and their money. Being deserted and helpless is one thing, being hurt and betrayed is another. I do not see even a slightest ray of hope.
“I do not know what my rights are, I do not know the things the government speaks of. All I know is, I have been wronged. It wasn’t a doll house that they brought down, we are human beings and those ‘so called’ tents that they destroyed, were our houses.”
That afternoon Ulfath had gone to work, she returned back after a hard day’s labour only to find bulldozers tearing down the houses. Her first reaction she said was that of panic. “I looked for my children, people were screaming, the police were beating everybody irrespective of whether they were men or women. I went in, my house was already broken, I ran to my brother in law’s house. He is handicapped, he cannot walk. The police were dragging him. I stopped them, and told them that he could not walk and that I would take him out. They did not heed to my requests, I had no other go, I yelled at them. They hit me on my hands and legs and lifted my brother in law and threw him down, they then dragged him and threw him out. I did not know how to react, I was shocked at their heartless behaviour, sad that I had to go through something like this and angry at everybody around,” she said fuming as she recollected the brutal incidents that had occurred.
She also said that her sister in law’s hand was swollen by the way the police beat her. Everyone who tried to resist the cops got a good whacking she said. After a while people got scared, nobody tried to go against the police.
“I turned only to find my children taking shelter at the petrol bunk. There were many children there. All of them were frightened. I went to them and asked if they were alright. All thanks to Allah they were fine. The cops did not hit the children,” she said.
Syed Fardeen is Ulfath’s eldest son. The nine year old volunteered to talk when he heard his mother describing the scene. He said everybody were running hither and thither, his siblings and he were bawling not knowing what to do. “I held my younger sister’s hand and ran towards the petrol bunk, I wanted my mummy but she was at work so we sat and waited for her on the steps. There were many other children with me but I was still scared. My house was broken, I kept thinking, where would we stay after this.”
Ulfath called her husband, Syed Jaffar. He sat with his head down, and said “I was angered by what I saw. I did not want my children to sleep on the footpath. I took out the top covering of the auto and covered them. The next day my auto owner found out about what had happened, he took the auto away. He did not think twice about me or my family. My children and many others took refuge inside a huge pipe. It was a gutter, we found it difficult to breathe. There were a lot of people inside, it was suffocating. My son fell ill because of the dust and the bad conditions in which we stayed. We could not take him to the hospital because we did not have money. We lived like that for 9 days until somebody told us about a place in Sarjapur and I came here.”
Describing the whole situation she said that the entire 15 acres of land on which their homes stood was now ruined. Fences were built around the land in a few hours and all the people were warned to stay 100feet away from the fence. “They treated us like animals, when food was being distributed to us the MLA called us dogs and said why are you distributing food to these dogs. If you give them food, they will not leave this place. Treat them how they must be treated he told the police,” we were all a witness to it said the others as Ulfath spoke.
Ulfath’s family has split her mother stays in the servant quarters at her employer’s house. I was curious to know how Ulfath and her family came to Sarjapur road, when I asked her she replied, “None of the government officials told us about this place. Some of the people who saw how miserable our condition was, informed us about the EWS (Economically Weaker Section) Quarters at Sarjapur Road. The mosque was giving money to Muslim families. Each one was given a coupon and on display of the coupon, money was provided. I received 5000 rupees. At that time the expenses were too much, all the money was spent on travel, food and other basic necessities. Now I do not have a penny in my pocket.”
Jaffar has been trying to look out for a job, if he does not go to work the family will starve. He says that though all he knows is to drive an auto, he is ready to do any kind of job for his family. He is trying his luck everywhere but hasn’t got a job yet. “I want my children to go back to school, at no cost do I want them to suffer. If they study they will not have to face the kind of life I am facing. They can be happy.”Even as the family moved to Sarjapur they encountered a lot of problems. Truck drivers and Lorry drivers were dropping us off for free, she said. “Many of us lost our vessels during the demolition. I lost 7000 rupee worth of belongings, there were a few things that I carried along but was stolen on the way. I realised that by sitting in Ejipura and crying, I wouldn’t get my house back. So we decided to move on and start doing what we have to. Only when I came here did I realise that there is no hope.”
Jaffar said that the thought of his future scares him, every time he thinks of tomorrow, a million thoughts cross his mind, a million questions for which he would never get answers. “I have lost all faith in humanity. There is no one who would help us, no one we can trust. Everybody we once looked up to and trusted be it the leaders who made false promises of giving our houses back or our religious leaders or the people around, everyone is selfish. We feel betrayed and lonely. It’s a huge world out there yet our world is so different, homeless and helpless,” he added.
Talking about the future, Ulfath looked up towards the sky and said that it is only hope that is keeping them alive. Hope of a better tomorrow, faith that god can do miracles. But then again after a long pause, she looked at her daughter and said, “If things still don’t get better, we have only one option. We will take poison and die. I’d rather die than live a life like this. Full of pain, fear and anger. People don’t cry anymore because their tears have dried up. Life has taught us so many things.”
At the end of our conversation, one lady tapped me on my knee, I turned to look at her. She introduced herself, her name was Fathima. She asked me you heard our story, you recorded our conversation, will this help us? So many people have written about this issue, will your writing bring a difference? I was speechless, I had no words to say and then I replied, “It is not my writing that would bring a difference to your life, it is your story, your truth that would make the change. I believe, humanity hasn’t died away. There is still a streak of hope.” I did not want to tell them to hang on or to be optimistic because no one could replace their loss. As they rightly said, until you stand in their shoes, you will really never know their pain.
As I got up to bid goodbye, I overheard a one woman saying, “We cannot help it, after all it is our fate. I only hope God does not abandon us.” Her words struck me deeply, the pain I saw in their eyes, their distrust towards the system and the aura of hopelessness that surrounded them brought out the dual face of our society.
It was then that a thought struck my mind, “They say it is god who writes our fate. But who really writes the fate of the poor, is it the government? Is it the media? Is it the corporate world? Who really writes their fate? I wonder…”
This story should have garnered far more attention that it has. This article was written for a book that was on the stories of those who were brutally evacuated in Ejipura. The project was dropped in between, but I sent it across to the Tabor Kirana. If you have anything to say or would like to know more, you can send me an email.
The article was originally published in The Tabor Kirana.