The first drops feel like cold water. Then they hiss through the first layer of the dermis, the acid combining with the skin on your face and arms and chest, sizzling their way onto tissues underneath. Tissues with nerve endings and blood. Less than a second since it started, your brain registers your screaming nerves.
Depending on how much acid your attacker had thought of shopping for, the acid continues its binge, gurgling its way downwards into softer tissues that hold your body in shape, carry your blood, regulate your perception of the world.
Your assailant speeds away.
I sit in a small room in east Delhi’s Laxmi Nagar, across a table from a 26-year-old woman. We talk of mundane things: rising rents, the wonderful chaos that characterises this city, the unseasonable warmth in the November air.
Scars line her arms, blooming upwards, disappearing under her sleeves and then climbing up to her neck. The skin on her face is taut but smooth. A product of several surgeries, she tells me. “This elbow here had to be re-attached,” she shows her dimpled, speckled right arm. “It was hanging from the bone.”
Outside, dusk deepens as vendors raise their pitches, hollering to the world. A mixer grinder goes off in the distance. Conversations waft in from the window. This part of the city is perfectly in line with the chaos we were earlier discussing. The streets are narrow, the houses even more so, each bustling with life and talk. Sweet makers, jewelers and greengrocers dot the ground floors; their houses lay on the floors above. A lot of them rent out parts of their apartments.
This is what brought Lakshmi here to a small three-bedroom apartment in 2015. It serves as a shelter for acid attack survivors, women who are brought to the city for treatment, housed here between reconstructive surgeries and nursed back to health.
She is the national coordinator of Stop Acid Attacks, the foundation that runs the shelter. It is a job that keeps her in constant touch with several survivors, keeping tabs on their recovery and stories. She talks about how most hospitals in the country aren’t equipped to deal with acid burns, how in such a state, delays in initiating treatment are common and how women, burned and writhing, sometimes wait on stretchers for the length of a day before they can be transferred to a better hospital.
Unchecked and unwashed, the acid continues its rampage on these women’s bodies, burning off layer after layer of tissue, eating through the eyes, or melting and sealing lips shut.
The acids in question -- most commonly nitrates and sulphides -- are openly sold across the country. They are your metal etchers, toilet cleaners and battery acids, available easily despite a 2013 ruling mandating its regulation.
What place is safe, then? The space for potential attacks is infinite, its hour unpredictable. You could be burned on your way to write an exam, at a birthday party, in your own kitchen.
Thousands set out each year, hoping to exact revenge with a vial of acid. In India, last year alone, the number hovered around 250. The stories behind the attacks are varied but predictable: jealousy, family disputes, gang violence.
For Lakshmi, it was one we’ve all heard of before -- an older man taking a shine to a beautiful teen; a story of insistent, unrequited love turning sour.
She was attacked in central Delhi’s Khan Market in 2005 while on her way back from her work at a bookstore. The splash as the liquid hit her skin made her recoil.
“When I opened my eyes, I saw my skin melting to the ground.”
“The pain was beyond description,” she tells me. “In the hospital, I had a bad reaction to anesthesia so the doctors had to sew my eyelids shut to prevent acid from seeping in -- all while I was conscious.”
The move saved her vision but her nose was burned to the point of collapse. To help her breathe and to reconstruct the nasal passage, surgeons left small pipes inserted into the orifices for six months. Several other surgeries followed.
Lakshmi saw her face for the first time around three months after the attack. A post-attack face can be a glob of melted, unrecognisable flesh. What she saw crushed her.
“It was so disfigured, so scary that it broke my spirit. I told my father that I wanted to die.”
A face goes deeper than just a few layers of tissue. For humans, faces are our passports to the world: a complex, visual language like no other, silently signalling our mood, health, history and possibly even genetics -- all before we say hello. We are also a culture heavily invested our appearance, the focus of which, unfortunately for women, lies on their faces.
“Before the attack, I had a lot of dreams; I was a teenager, after all. I dreamed of being a singer, going on to participate in "Indian Idol" (an Indian music reality show), being famous. So many plans! And then in a single day, my face, my teenage and my dreams were just… gone,” Lakshmi says.
“I couldn’t study further. I couldn’t get a job. I did several courses, to be a beautician, a call centre operator, a tailor, but nobody would hire me. At interviews, all they would ask about was the story behind the attack. When I tried to start tuition classes for kids in my neighbourhood, the parents came over to tell me that they wouldn’t let me do it. That my face would scare their children.”
Her story echoes that of hundreds of survivors across the country. Just like them, Lakshmi too was angry for the longest time. Angry that every time she shared a courtroom with her assailant, he would stare her down. Angry that he had been bailed out and had married within a month of the attack, that he had moved on with his life while she was left incapacitated. Angry that she felt ashamed of herself for what had happened. Angry that she had to cover her face every time she stepped out of her house.
“I’d tie scarves around my face when I went out. But at some point, years later, I discarded them,” she says. “I had enough, you know? I’d always loved dressing up and putting on makeup, and so I thought, why hide myself away? As if I had done something wrong!”
Lakshmi’s extroversion and courage has rippled out, touching everyone she works with at Stop Acid Attacks. “The other survivors took their time, but they abandoned their covers too, eventually. They saw what I had -- that 'beauty' was just something other people set the standard for. It’s strange that now that I’ve accepted that I’m beautiful, others see it too. I now get proposals for marriage! Suitors even contact Alok (her partner and the father of her daughter),” she laughs.
“I am loved. I have a daughter. I have friends and work that fulfills me. I have everything I once wanted.”
Lakshmi’s attacker was 32 when he repeatedly propositioned to and eventually attacked her. She was 15.
He was imprisoned for 10 years for his crime and completed his term last year.
The phone rings as our conversation meanders towards its conclusion. It is Lakshmi’s little daughter, Pihu, put on the line by a babysitting neighbour.
Lakshmi switches to speakerphone, and for the next minute, the child's happy babble fills the room.
Pihu is only two now and loves her stuffed animals, long stories, and oddly, peeling eggs. But one day, when she’s older, her mother will tell her about the afternoon that changed her face and her life. She will teach her about love and how some people confuse it with possession. She will tell her about why she and Alok chose to not marry each other. About what beauty really is: never defined by her face but by grace and tenacity; and what her skin will never be: a mark of her worth. She will teach her how to confront her fears, reading to her the letter she once wrote to her own attacker.
“You thought you could take away my beauty,” it read at its conclusion. “But I’m still beautiful. You thought you could take away my life. But I have found a wonderful man and we are in love. You thought you would break my spirit, but you do not scare me anymore.”