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“And on the other hand she felt guilty: she had been secretly jealous of my good looks. And now, here I was, crushed to nothingness. She had to save her sister”
As Sapna Kumari, the fifty-year-old founder and CEO of Runnathon Co., walked to address the young girls, she was met with a large applause. Runnathon Co. was a leading sports training company in the country. She was there to address the little butterflies- young girl with keen eyes and big aspirations. When the audience looked at Sapna carefully, there were a few gasps and noises of shock. But this did not surprise Sapna. She had experienced this before.
“…you are all butterflies today. But one day, you will grow and develop into strong, powerful eagles, and you will fly high. Believe in yourselves and in your dreams. Do not allow anybody to mess with your dreams…” she began.
This was not the first time Sapna was addressing young girls. However, today was special – it was her sister Sujata’s birthday. Runnathon Co. had sponsored a running event for girls – The Sujata Trophy, and Sapna was there to present it to the winner. She was also there to share her life story with the hundreds of girls in front of her, and thousands others who were watching her on television.
“When I was in college, I was called Rose Queen. Every year, we would have a Rose-day when students would exchange roses, and the girl who gathered the most number of roses would be crowned the Rose Queen.
For two years I received that title – I had plenty of admirers. My sister Sujata would get jealous of me. To top that, my parents also adored me – I was their princess and not her. She envied me for that. Not that she didn’t love me, she was just jealous of my pretty looks,” Sapna starts
“Anyway, one of my admirers was rather unique – Raja my neighbour. The 25-year-old was in love with me. When he heard that I was crowned Rose Queen, he met me by the roadside and expressed his feelings for me.
“At first I thought it was a joke. But Raja was persistent. He tried again and again in the next few weeks. I politely declined his advances each time. And I told him that I wanted to focus on my running.”
She continues, “You see, I had a dream – I wanted to become a professional athlete. I had qualified for the 200 meters sprint race in the under-eighteen category at the state-level tournament and was practicing to qualify for the national level race.
“Anyway, one evening Raja came to my home uninvited, and told my dad that he was interested in marrying me. It angered overwhelmed me. I’d declined his advances on several occasions and yet he had the audacity to walk into my house and ask my dad if he’s marry me off to him! This made me angry and I blurted a few insulting remarks at him.
“He was enraged by my response. The following day as I was on my way to the race he stopped me. With a terrifying look in his eyes he said, ‘Run as much as you want today. I promise you that this will be your last race.’
“I did not take that seriously. I reached the tournament full of energy. “On your mark, get set go.” The whistle blew and I ran like the wind and won, thus qualifying for the national level tournament.
“After the race, I felt a weird sense of fear – Raja’s nasty words kept ringing in my ears. What did he mean to do? As I rode back on my moped, two hooded men followed me. As they got closer, one of them shouted “Hey Rose Queen. Too proud of your beauty? Let’s put an end to it.”
She takes a deep breath before continuing, “Before I could think or say a word, I was blinded – all I could see was darkness. I shut my eyes tightly, and held my hands over them; the rest of my face – my ears, nose and parts of my neck felt the heat of the strong acid thrown at me. And I collapsed under my moped on the side of the street and yelling and screaming in pain.
“When I woke up, I was in a hospital, my face bandaged completely. I could barely move it. A few days later the bandage was removed and my face and neck were exposed. I shuddered when I saw myself in the mirror. While my eyes, hands and legs remained safe, the rest of my face and neck had been completely deformed. Parts of my nose and ear had melted away due to the acid. The doctors said that I would require eight surgeries to heal from the injuries. Each surgery would cost lakhs.
My father wanted to punish Raja. However, mother was scared. She received an anonymous letter that said ‘Go to the police and your older daughter will face the same fate.’
Sujata was most disturbed by the event – on one hand she felt enraged – to satisfy his ugly ego Raja had ruined her little sister’s life. And on the other hand she felt guilty: she had been secretly jealous of my good looks. And now, here I was, crushed to nothingness, and the weight of guilt was too heavy for Sujata. She had to save her sister, and she had to give her a life.
Sujata decided to give up her studies and took up a job with an IT company in Gurgaon, to help the family pay for my surgeries. Over the following months, I had to undergo a lot of pain – the surgeries to fix my nose, chin and ears involved taking out skin from other parts of my body, to patch up the broken face.
The surgeries healed the injuries, but my looks were permanently destroyed. I simply locked myself up, too ashamed to leave the house. When I went outdoors I would get stares and insensitive comments such as ‘what’s wrong with her face’, ‘she looks weird’. The dream of winning the national level athletics tournament was crushed!
Months passed, and my self-imposed confinement to the house continued. The family tried to restart my education; however I was too timid to go back to college. My parents were afraid that they were on the verge of losing their daughter.
One evening Sujata gathered all her courage and confronted me.
‘By confining yourself to the house you are letting monsters like Raja win – he and others like him will feel encouraged to crush the dreams and aspirations of girls like you. You have a dream – to be an international athlete, and he said you’d never run. Why are you trying to prove him right? Why are you allowing him to win?
Look at yourself – yes, your face is different. But look, you still have your legs! And they are still just the same. You need your strong, powerful legs, your deep focus and your determination to make your dreams come true.
I want you to start training again. I know it will be difficult. You will have people looking at you, and saying things you don’t want to hear. But remember, each time you let them drag you down you are letting monsters like Raja win.’
Sujata brought out my running shoes and insisted that I wear them.
‘Let’s go for a run together. I am not fast like you, but I promise you my sister that never ever, will I leave you alone. I will be by your side, and will be with you at all races.’
Running was my passion; although my desire to live was dead, that passion to run still remained alive. I put the shoes on and we went to a park next door for a jog. It was physically hard for me to get back into the mode of running. I had not practiced for more than a year now.
But I ran and Sujata cycled next to me. In a few minutes I got cramps in my limbs and had to stop. Passersby noticed my odd looks and gave out a few gasps.
I could see that every single word uttered by people pricked Sujata like a needle in her heart. How could the world be so unfair to her sister? She was the victim of a painful acid attack, and was now being punished by the society while her attacker walked freely without guilt and fear.
Sujata stood like a rock between me and anyone who tried to drag me down. Her only objective now, was to get me back in shape for the race.
We continued practicing for weeks – me running and Sujata cycling next to me, monitoring my speed, pace and stamina. Once I had reached my basic level of fitness Sujata approached my old coach.
She wanted the coach to re-train me and consider my name for the national level athletics tournament. I had won the Haryana state level championship, and would have automatically moved into the national level, representing Haryana.
However, because of the unfortunate events in my life, I was unable to participate in the tournament. Sujata was hoping that I would get a ‘wild card’ to participate in the National Championship organised by the Athletics Federation of India.
But, the coach declined our request. Her excuse was that her students would feel ‘distracted’ by Sapna’s deformed face. How then, would they concentrate on the running?
How could the coach – a woman, show such lack of support to another woman in pain & distress? The world continued to shock us. But surprisingly, this did not distress me anymore – I stayed composed; you see, my old self was now back. I did not need the coach to train for the race, I was self-sufficient.
The next weeks were a test of stamina and grit – me on my feet and Sujata on her bicycle. I kept improving day after day. Our dedicated efforts were showing results. There was little doubt that I was ready to participate in the race.
Sujata was determined to get me in front of the Athletics Federation of India (AFI). She decided to use the power of social media to build my case. She spent her nights working on the support campaign, her early mornings training with me and the rest of day at office. It was hard, but she fought – she had to make sure I get there.
The campaign went viral very soon – thanks to technology. Thousands of people all over the country had offered me their support. In the meantime, with the help of a colleague, Sujata was successful at securing a meeting with a senior official at the AFI.
The case for my wild card was built. My past performance records were all shared, together with the tremendous support I had from the country via social media. Very soon, the AFI granted me the wild card.
“On your mark, get set go”. The whistle blew and I ran like the wind and won the race. I became the National Champion, but this was just the beginning. This was just the start of the dream. I have not stopped dreaming since then.
Sujata is no more – she left us years ago. Every year on her birthday, I take the opportunity to honour young athletes like you. And to share Sujata’s message for girls – ‘Each time you let people drag you down you are letting monsters like Raja win a point. Believe in your dreams, and fight to make them happen.’”
After the event, Sapna walked back home. She stopped at the park where she practiced with Sujata. Sat there on a bench, staring peacefully at the moon. She could see Sujata’s proud, smiling face at her.
“You said I left you years ago. But little sister, did I not promise you that I will always be there by your side at all your races? Your race isn’t over yet, and I am still just by your side.”
“It is strange
a bit of both.”
Editor’s Note: This post was one of the short listed stories from the Muse Of The Month Contest for the month of December 2019.
Picture credits: Unsplash
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Smruti Shanbhag was born and brought up in India.
She works full time as an
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