Culture & Society

Of Resilience And Perseverance: Account Of An Acid Attack Survivor

The extraordinary twists of her life, akin to Bollywood dramas, unfolded off-screen, leaving her to navigate a new reality with strength and resilience.

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Resham Fatma (white scarf), acid attack victim and National Bravery Bharat Award winner from Uttar Pradesh. Photo: Getty Images
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February 1, 2014, is a day forever etched into my memory. The day before, when my classmates in Class 11 gave a formal farewell to our seniors in Class 12, was a joyous occasion. The moments were captured in a group selfie, where I proudly stood at the centre, showcasing my glossy black hair. Little did I know that the next day, my peace would be shattered. As I headed to tuition, Riyaz Mama, my mother's cousin, pulled up in his car unexpectedly, persistently pestering me. Over the years, I had learned to avoid him. But on farewell day, he confronted me, brandishing a butcher's knife, demanding marriage.

After dragging me into the car, as I struggled, he resorted to a barber's razor, revealing an even darker side. The auto-locked car soon became a prison, and he poured a burning yellowish liquid, claiming it was a sugar solution, over me. In that split second, confusion clouded my senses as the substance touched my skin. The ensuing burn made me snap, my eyes shut, my face, arm and thigh engulfed in searing pain. With a knife at my throat and my hair in his grip, an unexpected surge of strength overcame me. In a moment of incredible strength, I pushed him away and he crumpled towards the door. Fumbling blindly with the acid dripping from my head to my eyes, I unlocked the car and tumbled out.

This harrowing incident unfolded on a desolate highway in Lucknow, known as Shaheed Path, concealed under the veil of a dark winter evening. Providentially, an autorickshaw appeared, and I urgently pleaded to be taken to the police station. Luck sided with me as the driver rushed to my aid. During the journey from the police station to the hospital, a stop at a railway crossing revealed the shocked reactions of onlookers. It was then that I grasped the severity of my injuries. That's when I learned that my face was black, and I had my first shudder, I recall. In desperation, I screamed, "Riyaz mama ko mat chhorna [Don’t let Riyaz get away]."

Until that day, my life had known only unconditional love. The eldest grandchild on my maternal side, I was cherished by my uncles and grandparents and I grew up in the warmth of their affection. Resham, meaning silk, took on new meaning as I discovered my own reserves of steel. Friends struggled to come to terms with my transformed appearance, but my diary became a constant companion. Riyaz mama, once a part of cherished childhood memories, had become a source of discomfort as I grew older. His intrusion into my personal space led to my grandfather banishing him from our home. The extraordinary twists of my life, akin to Bollywood dramas, unfolded off-screen, leaving me to navigate a new reality with strength and resilience.

In the aftermath of the attack, my long tresses were gone, replaced by a scarf to shield my skin from the sun. Surgeries became routine, with ongoing work on my face and thigh. Despite the physical and emotional toll, I embraced my new identity, facing the world with confidence. Despite my family's suggestion to take a year off for surgeries and recovery, I resisted, questioning why I should willingly prolong my suffering. "I am already facing the consequences of trauma I don't deserve. Why should I suffer more? I want to continue my school," I asserted. Juggling hospital stays, home study and the weight of mental, physical, and emotional challenges, I persevered. My determination paid off as I scored 87 per cent in the ISC board exam for Class 12. Simultaneously, I cracked the entrance exam for Jamia Millia Islamia, securing admission in the same year. In 2015, I earned the prestigious Bharat Award (National Bravery Award), a coveted recognition for children, presented by the Prime Minister and the President of India. As a participant in the Republic Day parade in 2015, I had the honour of meeting Barack Obama, the guest of honour. These experiences significantly boosted my confidence and strength. Initially, I believed that overcoming my struggles marked the end of my suffering. However, I did not know that it was just the beginning of a challenging life. At the age of 16, I found myself navigating through a world filled with obstacles and hardships.

A year after the traumatic incident, I landed in Delhi, a new city for my studies, surrounded by unfamiliar faces. With courage as my steadfast companion, I embarked on the challenging journey of facing the world alone. While it wasn't an easy decision, I firmly believe it was the best one. Confronting the world head-on, I gained the confidence to declare my story, shouting out loud, “I am a proud woman”. I came to realise that a woman is not confined by her looks. While it wasn't a walk in the park, and each day presented a new set of obstacles, I embraced the challenges. Whether it was classmates inquiring about my scar or a random aunty staring at me in the metro, I overcame every hurdle with a resilient smile.

After graduating, I earned a spot in the Jamia Millia Islamia Residential Coaching Academy for civil services preparation. Successfully clearing the prelims on my first attempt, the Covid-19 lockdown served as a transformative period. Realising that civil services were not my true calling, I discovered a passion for presenting women's stories and the challenges they face. Converting my personal experiences into a professional pursuit, I am currently pursuing a master’s degree in politics with a specialisation in International Relations at Jawaharlal Nehru University. My ambition is clear: to live and showcase 'the stories of her’. Rejecting the societal belief that a woman is confined by her looks, I am determined to break the stereotype. Even after a decade of continuous struggle and ongoing treatments, I steadfastly believe that my scars, far from limiting me, eloquently narrate my story. I take immense pride in the woman I have become through resilience and perseverance.

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(Resham Fatima is an Acid Attack Survivor, Scholar, Storyteller and Activist)

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