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An acid attack in May 2004 left her life and body in shambles, but Soniya Choudhury has risen above it. This is her story.
In a telephonic interaction, Soniya Choudhary, an acid attack fighter who is now a make-up artist and a beautician shares how much life has changed for her since a gruesome attack that occurred over a decade ago. This is a story of pain, heart-wrenching emotions but it is equally the story of grit, hopes and willingness to adapt to new opportunities and changes.
Perhaps it is the mentors or the inspiring people she has around her that has changed her perspective. “It was in the year 2004 in Ghaziabad where I stay that I was looking to own a simple mobile phone. I come from a background where my family had minimum resources. My father was running a very small business and my mother was a homemaker.
After my 10th grade, even though I wanted, I could not pursue further studies. I had to start working and I had begun my work in a beauty salon. Soon I was working in a bigger salon and I really worked hard. I learnt all the skills required to be good at my job.
When I was about 19 years, I wanted to have a phone to communicate with my family when required and it was a small desire. I went to two to three mobile stores to get my own connection. It so happened that I was denied obtaining a SIM card as I didn’t have an identity card. It was not just me, but my entire family who didn’t own any identity proof at all. I was unhappy that a simple thing like a mobile connection cannot be obtained. My neighbour, who got to know about this, suggested that he could get me a SIM connection and the mobile at a price.
Unwittingly I agreed and soon I owned a mobile phone. I was using the mobile for one week and everything was normal until one evening that a call came from a police station. I hadn’t done anything wrong in my entire life and I was petrified when I was speaking to the official over phone. He told me that I was using a stolen phone and I will be held responsible. Completely nervous I told the official everything. As to who gave me the phone, his name and address and that I was not the culprit. Before I could reach home, apparently the police had picked him up from his house.
Unfortunately as things happen, the very next day he was on bail and he came to me and threatened me of dire consequences if I didn’t apologize in front of his family and the entire neighbourhood.
I am not sure whether it was the right decision to be taken but I didn’t want to apologize for an act which I never really committed. However the matter didn’t die down there. I started getting more threats from this person. Even my dad supported me saying it was not my fault, but I had to be careful. I think the ‘male ego’ made this individual lose his sanity and the threats became more often.
More than saying sorry, I started avoiding this individual at all times. I am the eldest daughter and I was supporting my family financially too and was involved in my work. My father would drop me to my work place and pick me up whenever he could.
But one evening my father couldn’t come and I decided to reach home on my own. I was just about 20 to 25 steps away from my home. Suddenly two men came on a motorcycle, the first one –the rider was wearing a helmet and I didn’t even see him. The second one, the pillion rider was this neighbour. He suddenly opened a huge can and poured acid from a can of 5 litres. At that moment I didn’t even realize what was that liquid. I was just screaming in pain. Those two managed to escape and I was on the road lying down in indescribable pain.
Even now when the date comes closer; this happened on 12th May 2004 and to this date I feel very uncomfortable. Those memories invariably come back. I don’t know whether it was the shock or apathy but no one came forward to do anything. My mother who apparently thought a child was crying loudly came out to see what happened and she just rushed to me crying and hugged me.
I was then taken to the hospital and I had 65% burns with my right eye completely damaged. I was feeling I was on fire and did not understand what was happening to me. I collapsed on the way to the hospital.”
Soniya goes into a moment of silence before speaking again, “When I gained consciousness I was in the hospital was just numb at what had occurred in my life. My parents were naïve and hadn’t even filed a case. It was after a couple of days that a friend who knew someone in the media went to the police to file a case on my behalf. I was perhaps too ignorant or innocent, I hadn’t even heard of anything called acid attacks. I kept questioning ‘why me’? Soon the hospital visits became more often and there were a lot of expenses. We were hardly able to manage with the treatments and the expenses.
My mother had hidden the mirrors from the house. The first time I had seen myself I had cried for the longest time I could remember. The accused got arrested but came out soon too with the help of lawyers. It made me feel very depressed and I have even once tried to commit suicide.
One thing however changed, the entire neighbourhood stopped interacting with this individual. He had even got married somehow but when his wife came to know of this incident, even she distanced herself from him. His colleagues were not interacting with him and he became a loner. He went into a major depression and at the age of 24, he died of a heart attack.
The attacker was gone but I had my life to be taken care of and that of my family. I had to pick up the shattered pieces.”
When I ask her what about the rider? Was he arrested? Soniya replies, “He was never found out and recognized. The accused too never identified him and yes the rider is scot-free even to this date.
“For eight years after the attack, I used to hide my face and be myself completely covered. Only my eyes were seen little bit. I even now nightmares but I have learnt to cope up with the circumstances. I have had five surgeries and undergone many treatments. I wanted to get back to work but no one would be ready to employ me because of my scarred face. Least of all in the beauty industry. As a young girl I had many dreams like to become a known beautician and even an airhostess. Everything changes for a person when acid scars your soul more than anything else.
Last year I did get featured as part of a calendar like a model and it was awesome. It was in fact a news paper clipping where I saw other acid attack fighters like Laxmi, Rupa who seemed so confident and were not hiding their faces. By this time I had started working as a beautician in my own house. I had opened a salon within my small home. Many customers who started coming to me couldn’t see me at all for a long time. For the first customer I told her that she can pay me if she was happy with the service.
Gradually more number of people started asking about why I was covering my face and they could see some scars, I would get defensive and answer, I had an accident of gas cylinder burst, boiling water on me, all excuses but never the truth.
It took me a while to admitting to what life had thrown on me and asked me to face it. So I started talking to people about the incident and it felt better in healing to some extent. In fact people around me in the neighbourhood too started talking to me positively and were encouraging me to carry on with my life in a positive way.
It so happened that I got to know of Stop Acid Attacks organization and since the time I am with them my confidence and accepting myself has become better.
Soniya’s voice suddenly indicates a smile when I ask her what is she been up to these days. “We are setting up a café-salon and a lounge with a spa in Gurgaon. I also work at the Sheroes hangout café in Agra when time permits. ”
She tells me that through a reality show, she has had one of her wishes fulfilled of meeting beauty expert icon Shahnaz Hussain. The episode on Colors is yet to be aired.
To make the conversation little lighter, I ask her if she wants to meet an icon or a celebrity for whom she would like to do make-up. She is silent for a few seconds and shyly utters ‘Salman Khan’.
As I tell her perhaps after reading this maybe Salman Khan might try to reach her, she laughs and says she adores his carefree attitude in life.
As a dream Soniya Choudhary now is hopeful of becoming an entrepreneur and setting up more salon-spas in the country. For now she is working on her project in Gurgaon.
As the conversation comes towards an end, I cannot help but admire Soniya’s attitude towards life and as she says the scars are on her body but she has been able to rise above and looks forward to meet life every single day with hope.
Images source: Reshma Sharma Krishnamurthy.