Every once in a while, in the midst of life’s everyday ordinariness, a chance encounter turns into an extraordinary learning experience and leaves an indelible impression on you. A conversation with Laxmi Aggarwal, television host, acid attack survivor and winner of the International Women of Courage Award is one such instance.
While many acid attack victims prefer to stay away from society’s censuring eyes, a spirit of sheer determination and positivity has brought Laxmi out into the spotlight, and has established in her persona an example for every survivor of an acid attack or otherwise, to emulate.
“It isn’t actually correct to say that we recede into a closed space away from society. It is society that pushes us into that corner and forces us to hide. If the people around us don’t let us live or think ahead or move forward, what choice do we have but to recede?” questions the 25-year-old survivor as she shares with us her journey since 2005, the year when her friend’s 32-year-old brother threw acid at her for rejecting his “love”.
“I believe that acid resides inside a man’s heart before it reaches his hands and gets thrown at someone like me. Two minutes ago someone said they loved you and it took no more than those two minutes for them to do something that does not even kill you but condemns you to a life worse than death?
At a very basic level, any girl in this position should be rehabilitated and the man punished. Earlier, families used to pull the wrongdoers among them up, but today support is given to them unconditionally. This needs to change. And change needs to begin at home,” she asserts and adds with enthusiasm that a wave of transformation seems to have already begun in the world since she decided to step back into it and stand up for herself.
“My parents and my lawyer have been such a strong support system, and I have found through them all the positivity I needed to turn a deaf ear to whatever society said and take my life into my own hands to make something out of it. My first step was taking admission in Class 10 again and completing it, after which I began learning how to make dresses and also took up a beautician course.
I would make dresses for myself, but since I used to wear a burkha there came a moment when I thought, what’s the point of making and wearing all this if I can’t show my face? I asked my mother, will it be okay if I move out without covering my face now? She said of course it would be and I began doing it.
I used to tell myself, people go to Agra to stare at the Taj Mahal, if people are staring at me too, there must be something special in me as well,” she reminisces.
Today, the same people who had only disapproving stares and words to offer, look to her for advice for their daughter’s marriage!
She says with a touch of amusement and irony, “They wouldn’t let their children befriend me because they were afraid something might happen to them if something happened to me again. Today, they tell them to learn something from people like me. They recognise me from my television show and from my appearances and even want a photograph clicked with me! Every time someone comes up to me or to any other acid attack survivor and says that we are inspirational to them, we feel proud of ourselves and our decision to live and be happy for our own selves. It just proves more clearly than ever how important it is to live for yourself and to come out and identify yourself to society, telling them who you are,” she emphasises.
Laxmi is at present an active part of the #StopAcidAttacks campaign reaching out to people across the country via social media initiatives.
“We have been gathering volunteers in several cities and have covered 10 out of the 50 we have our goal set on, so far. We have a support centre called Chhanv in Delhi for any acid attack survivor who needs help and all the survivors presently part of it derive strength and spirit from each other. We’re aiming towards establishing similar centres in as many cities as possible."
She further adds, "a support centre in the capital was the most important because this is where people come for treatment. With our campaigns happening, we can see awareness growing outside it as well. I have visited many places, met volunteers and they are doing a lot of good work helping survivors, gathering funding and supporting them through treatment. It has been a little above a year and we are taking our nascent steps in the long journey that lies ahead. Registering and setting up Chhanv, pushing our campaign that will be carried on by survivors the little team we have is working hard and we can see that we are finding our way forward gradually, but surely,” she concludes.