In 2003, when she was 17, Sonali Mukherjee had a bright future in front of her. She was captain of the National Cadet Corps (NCC), president of the student union and an honors student, wishing to pursue a degree in sociology. All she wanted to do was provide a better life for her family, whom she had seen struggling for the most basic things. She was a very pretty girl then, as one can see from the photograph below. Unfortunately she had to pay a heavy price for her beautiful face and charming personality. She was not prepared to tolerate any nonsense.
Three men, one of who was in his 40s and one was an 18-year-old, would follow her every day, pass lewd comments and harass her. “When it increased, I decided to protest. I had lots of guts then… I was part of the NCC and was a senior sergeant…I told them to stop troubling me or I will complain to the police,” Ms Muherjee said. The three criminals, who she named as – Tapas Mitra, Sanjay Paswan, and Bhrahmadev Hajra – told her that she had become very “ghamandi” (arrogant) and they would teach her a lesson. Tapas Mitra, had proposed to her but she turned it down. She told her father of the incident and he in turn complained to the families of the three men. Nothing happened for one and a half months. And then the men struck back, pouring acid on her as she lay asleep alongside her sister and father on the terrace. “It was 2 a.m., on 22 April 2003.” The acid melted her nose, her right ear and some of it went into her ear drum, but luckily it did not enter her brain. She can’t hear from her right ear, which has been reduced to a small glob of flesh.
Her father, Chandidas Mukherjee, who had a menial job in a mill earning about Rs. 5,000 a month, had to give up his job. He makes ends meet by working as a priest in homes. He spent Rs.10-15 lakh in the court cases and on her treatment. They had also borrowed Rs.3-4 lakh from relatives, who were demanding the money back. Ms Mukherjee had approached Safdarjung Hospital for treatment, but has been told to wait as they have lots of patients, she said. Recalling the days immediately after the attack, Mukherjee said all she remembers is waking up in excruciating pain. “I would scream in pain, and fall unconscious. I was like that for six months…I would tell God to end my life. It’s very easy for victims of acid attacks to swallow poison but I made the choice to stand up and scream and shout against the violence.”
It is a shame on our judicial system that the youngest of the three men was let off on account of being a juvenile, while the other two were convicted and sentenced by the district court in 2006 to nine years in jail. However, they appealed in the high court, which granted them bail, after serving just four months in jail .Justice is really blind! She and her father met the chief minister of Jharkhand, all the legislators, and MPs, but all she got was ‘assurances’. She also approached the union women and child development ministry and has been assured of help. Her younger sister, who also suffered acid burns on her hands and feet, was married off early. “We were getting threats and did not want it to ruin her life, so we got her married off” said her father. Her family were forced to flee Dhanbad and her mother fell into a deep depression. After the incident she shifted to Delhi. Asked whether she would like to go back to Dhanbad, she replied “No, never. I hate that place. Nobody came forward to help me there. I have lost a lot. I also fear for my life there as the attackers are out on bail.”
Sonali’s plight drew global attention when she appealed for euthanasia. It was not granted, being illegal in India. “But then my case caught the attention of media and they gave me a platform to air my grievances. After that, support poured in from all quarters. Now I know I am not alone, so I have dropped that idea and am determined to fight like a soldier till the end. If I am alive today, it is all because of media support” said Sonali. Earlier in 2013 some Rs 30 lakh was raised by Mumbai-based Company ‘Beti’ as part of Project Hope which aims to give Sonali a new identity. Celebrities such as Bollywood actress Juhi Chawla and producer Ramesh Tauran also donated funds to the appeal. A Community was created on Facebook “Help Sonali Mukherjee Acid Victim”, which elicited overwhelming response from all over the world. Sonali went to Boston in Oct 2014 to consult doctors regarding further facial reconstruction and regaining her eyesight. Doctors took skin from her thighs and grafted it on her nose and cheeks, to give it a modicum of shape. After 22 surgeries Sonali can now hear and talk after four years.
Sonali’s one wish was fulfilled when she got to meet Amitabh Bachchan on the sets of Kaun Banega Crorepati, season 6. The special episode ‘doosra mauka’ (second chance) was for those people who have been unfortunate victims of trauma and violence.” I could never imagine that I would meet big people. Meeting Big B was the best thing. He is such a big star, but is so humble and down-to-earth. He held my hands and escorted me to the hot seat. He was behaving just like a father would do. I even met Lara Dutta Bhupathi for the first time on the sets. Since I cannot see, Lara came to help me with the questions.” When asked “What will you do with the prize money? She replied, “If I recover, I want to help people like me. I’ve had 22 surgeries and nine more are remaining, so that at least my eyes and ears are functional. I will also keep some amount for my rehabilitation. “
Emotional Amitabh Bachchan applauded Sonali’s courage of rising from the ashes and facing the trauma of her life and yet not giving up hope. He posted on his Facebook page several pictures of Sonali who lost her eye sight after the acid attack, with the comment “They that inflict such damage are not humans …” Sonali, won Rs 25 lakhs on show. Sonali’s winnings would pay for the next round of plastic surgery but she continued appealing for donations to help fund further operations once the money has run out. Her determination not to be a victim inspired viewers and members of the audience were in tears when she won the contest. Amitabh Bachchan, called her “the epitome of courage” for “continuing her fight against all the odds”
On 04 Feb 2014, during a function at Kasmar’s Kasturba Vidyalaya in Bokaro on the occasion of Saraswati Puja, Chief Minister Hemant Soren, along with education Minister Geetashree Oraon, handed Mukherjee an appointment letter for a Grade III clerical job in the welfare department of the Bokaro deputy commissioner’s office. Sonali said she would always work for women’s empowerment. “Being posted in the welfare department, I would love to work for disabled as well as the needy,” she said.
Mr Chittaranjan Tiwari an Electrical Engineer from Odisha, happened to see Sonali on ‘Crime Patrol’. Wanting to know more about her, he checked up on Wikipedia from where he got her brother’s phone number. When he spoke to her, he was so impressed that they used to talk daily. During one of their long talks, he suddenly proposed to Sonali.She appeared shocked and was dumb for a while, then said “are you trying to gain sympathy like some people in the past, I feel hurt if you talk like this”. “I was in so much shock I told him I had to think about it. I asked him ‘why do you want to marry me; I’m blind?’ and he answered saying that if two people were married and there was a tragic accident they would not separate, they’d stand by one another so this was the same thing. “He told me I was a complete woman for him and that was amazing to hear. I never thought a man would ever say that to me. He part-funded my treatment from his salary as well.”
After persuading for two months, Sonali agreed, as she was convinced about his sincerity. Chittaranjan never considered her as an acid victim, but just a good friend.”I wanted to do something in which I could take pride, and change the outlook of society” said Chittaranjan. Although Sonali’s father couldn’t believe it, but he was overjoyed. On 15 April 2015 Chittaranjan did what one in a million won’t dare to do. He made Sonali his life partner in a court marriage at Bokaro . Their marriage with proper rituals will take place later this month. “My life had come to a standstill but Chittaranjan has brought me back the joy and happiness which was lacking,” said Mukherjee, after coming out of the courtroom in Bokaro city, Chittaranjan’s parents were disappointed because like all parents they longed for a beautiful bride, and were also apprehensive what would people say? Most of his friends were happy but some ridiculed him when they learnt about his marriage from the media. “It was like a bomb explosion.” he said.