Ten years ago, I was a 19-year-old girl living in Lucknow. I had big dreams of becoming someone well-known in the fashion industry as the cliché goes, “small town big dreams”. All my life I received many compliments for my confidence, my poise, my outgoing personality and my beauty. I was usually the most desirable girl in school, but apart from just my looks, I was thought to have enormous potential for creativity. Despite all the male attention I received, I was not interested in boys romantically, instead spending my time on sports or hanging out with my girlfriends from school.
I had a lot of trouble hiding myself from boys. They followed my every move and knew my high school class schedule. Then one of my neighbours became a good friend which made the other boys back off immediately. I saw him as just a friend, not realising he wanted to date me too. I viewed his presence in my life as that of a protector, because when he became my friend the other boys that stalked me stopped following me. I never imagined that the safety I felt would turn into the most dangerous and threatening part of my life.
After school I followed my dream of becoming a fashion designer by joining one of the best universities for fashion design in Asia, ranking second in the country-wide entrance exam. I was determined to achieve my dreams with hard work and make my parents proud. In the meantime, my “friend” had become dangerously possessive and obsessed with me. When I went home that year for my summer vacations my life changed forever. After rejecting his proposal to elope and marry because I wanted to continue studying, he hired people to throw acid on me. Perhaps his aim was just to ruin my face or perhaps it was to kill me. If he couldn’t have me, no one could.
I remember an entire year spent in that hospital bed. My father took leave from his job to keep me alive. He used his entire life savings for my treatment, and my mother and brother prayed every day for me to live. Even though I was 19 years old, I had become like a 1-year-old child again. I could not speak, I could not eat, I could not walk — in fact I couldn’t recognise myself or anyone who came to visit me at the hospital. I saw my dad crying after watching me screaming when the nurses couldn’t give me injections. I had never seen my father cry before, and I could not bear it when he did. For the first month of my treatment, I couldn’t sleep at all. My eyes were wide open and tears were constantly rolling down the sides of my face. I don’t know where I found the strength to bear that unbearable pain. I could not help myself from playing back the attack in my mind: being attacked with acid and screaming “HELP ME” on the road, as people watched me and saw my face melt. I kept wishing that I had not left my house that day or that I had rolled up the car window or even that I had not come to Lucknow for the summer at all.
My story became news all over the country. The girl who was previously covered by the newspapers for her athletic achievements and scholarly accomplishments had suddenly become the “girl who has been attacked by acid by her lover”. My whole life was in front of me, and I didn’t want to die at all. I never wanted to die; at least not like this. I wanted to fight for my dad’s and mom’s tears. My entire family left home to be with me in the hospital to take care of me (with special permission from the hospital). We made that room into our home for the next one year.
Doctors used to say to my family that her “will power” is keeping her alive. She doesn’t want to die, that’s why we want to do our best to treat her. Every second day I had plastic surgery or a number of other surgeries. Today that number is up to 46 and counting.
With the strength and support of my family, I am alive, walking again, talking again, dreaming again – to resume my career and to help other girls who have gone through agonising acid attacks and cannot afford surgery. All his life, my father helped everyone he could. This mission to help others like me is as much my fathers’ legacy as mine.
I want to say to every girl out there what my dad once asked of me: “I am willing to take care of you for the rest of our lives together, or you can just pick yourself up and walk the path that leads you wherever you want to go.” The moment I heard him saying that to me, I decided to finish my fashion design course with good grades and follow my dreams of becoming a fashion designer. Today I am studying at New York’s Parsons School of Design, pursuing a degree in Fashion Marketing.
Though I say that I am following my dreams, these are now also my dad’s — to see me standing again in society and to be successful in spite of all of the obstacles I have had to overcome. He passed away a year ago but his motivation and love have kept me strong. For his sake, and the sake of my family and every girl out there, I am overcoming the odds and I hope my journey gives hope and strength to others to follow their dreams.
In 2014, I came to my favourite place on the planet — New York City. I have dreamed of living here since I was in the sixth grade. This city gave me more confidence and the motivation to do everything myself. Now I am studying with people from all over the world and learning from each of them. My dream has become bigger, I now want to be an NYC-based fashion designer and repay my family and the people who saved my life.
I would like to thank all the people who donated on the Indiegogo crowdfunding siteto let me pay the first instalment of my tuition fee to study in my dream school. Make Love Not Scars, the foundation of which I am a vice president, helped me fulfill this dream by developing this crowdfunding and making my video to spread the word. All the news channels, such as IBN7 and many more, which helped to reach out to all of India and abroad to donate.
As I write about my experiences of the past 10 years sitting in my New York apartment, I feel that every person can achieve anything and everything in their lives if their passion and dreams are true. If I can reach my goals anyone can reach wherever they want to be and become whatever they want to become. So I decided to open international foundation, the Mahendra Singh Foundation, to help this global issue and support every girl who is in need.
Ten years after my acid attack, I’m living proof that beyond your worst nightmare, you can still live your best dreams.