It was in Rajasthan, India where I met an awe inspiring bundle of positivity in the form of a woman named Rani Raul. At only 23, she had already survived what seemed unsurvivable: 80 percent of her body had been burned when a man she had refused to marry had thrown acid at her. She spent nine months in an ICU, then fell into a coma for five years. Yet here she was, sitting in front of me at Sheroes Cafe in Udaipur.
As one of the estimated 1000 people a year in India to be attacked with acid, Rani not only made it through to survive, but she has found herself a job — no small feat for an acid attack survivor — at Sheroes Hangout. The chain of cafes in India is run entirely by acid attack survivors.
After a really hard interview with Rani — admittedly hard for me, not for her — she asked that the portrait of her we had discussed taking be taken with her mother. It was then that I realized that the quiet woman sitting in the back of the room was Rani's mom, Kavita. Turns out, Kavita goes with Rani just about everywhere. The result of Rani's attack left her not only disfigured, but blind, as well. Sheroes has even given a job to Kavita so she can work alongside her daughter every day.
One wonders, how can such attacks happen? Why? Unfortunately, Rani's attacker had an all-too-common reason used to excuse these atrocious attacks. Simply: she denied his advances. He wanted to marry her. She was under age and wanted to get her education, so she asked him to wait. He said no. As incredible as it is to believe, that is it. He harassed her over the course of a year, telling her family he would stop at nothing; but no one expected he would go this far.
So, this lovely girl who has gone through more than I will in a lifetime is now sitting across from me with an incredibly bright smile, thankful for an opportunity to tell her story. My guess is that this brightness — and as I will soon find out, this optimism — comes in large part due to the special bond Rani shares with her mother.
Support and acceptance from family is one of, if not the most important thing that can lead to a positive quality of life after an acid attack. The women and girls I met who have their mother or sisters (and so far, this has not proven to be something you can count on) seem vastly more positive about their futures and happier in the present. Many women who survive acid attacks are spurned by their families and communities. But despite being ostracized from much of society, survivors who have family by their side seem to feel hope.
"I can't see from my eyes but I am very strong and I can do anything," Rani tells me. Rani proudly adds that she types on her phone faster than anyone else she knows. "When I retain my sight, I plan to be the best computer programmer there is," she says, "and I will always be connected to Sheroes because they helped me. The friends that I've made and the mindset of helping people in need at Sheroes is what I appreciate the most."
Rani's mother, however, is clearly carrying a great deal of grief. After we did our mini photoshoot we sat down to talk. Kavita rolled up her sleeves to reveal scars of her own. The acid eating away at Rani's skin boiled over onto Kavita's as she tried to bring her daughter to safety. "I just want for Rani to get a little bit of eyesight back and if she can see she will do well," she tells me. "That's all I want." At one point in the interview, Rani smiles at her mom, and says to me: "She is always crying".
Toward the end of the interview, Kavita got up quickly and went into the other room. She wanted to show me a photograph of her daughter before she became quite literally unrecognizable. She handed it to me with a sense of pride. Very quickly her smile fell. Kavita covered her face and began to cry.
I felt instantly connected to, and at ease with, these women — but moments like these, when a mother shows me a photograph, and we both look at a youthful full of life face shining back, I simply don't know what to say.
The only solace I have is that it feels clear when my translator Dushyant and I went to the cafe that there was a great happiness there. We did not need to do anything or even say anything. Sitting there in the cafe and simply having a cup of coffee really felt like we were somehow becoming part of a community of women doing incredible things every day, however small, however briefly.
The NGO that is responsible for Sheroes, Stop Acid Attacks, is currently raising funds for Rani's eye surgeries. If you would like to learn more and perhaps contribute to Rani's cause, please check out the link at Generosity.