#WonderWoman – Acid attack survivor Laxmi Agarwal shows incredible will in the face of repeated odds
In our month-long series #WonderWoman, we profile Laxmi Agarwal, India’s most high-profile campaigner against the horrors of acid attacks.
Born to a middle-class family in New Delhi, Laxmi Agarwal was like any other teenage girl growing up in the city. It was the year 2005. She was fifteen, worked at a book store in Delhi’s Khan Market, and had just enrolled for violin lessons.
One day she saw 32-year-old Naeem Khan at close quarters in the market, and stiffened. Khan aka Gudda was a long-time stalker, and a former friend of her brother. Suddenly, the woman he was with pushed Laxmi to the ground, and Khan flung a cold liquid on Laxmi’s face from a beer bottle he was carrying.
Laxmi felt an unimaginable burning sensation on her face. She felt as if she had been set on fire. She rolled from side to side on the street in a desperate attempt to stop the pain. Eventually, a taxi driver came forward and splashed some cool water on her face.
The driver rushed Laxmi to a nearby hospital, shouting, ‘Acid attack! Acid attack!’, so that people would make way. It was only then that Laxmi realised what had happened. Her skin was just coming off, it was dripping from her hands and face.
Laxmi had to undergo multiple surgeries. The last one left her on a ventilator for four days.
She was in hospital for almost three months.
There were no mirrors in the ward I was in and every morning, the nurse would bring me a bowl of water to help me freshen up. All I could see was glimpses of my face. When I first saw my face afterwards, I was shattered. I had no face to speak of. – Laxmi Agarwal, Acid attack survivor
When the bandages finally came off, Laxmi looked into a mirror and saw that she virtually had no face to speak of.
This in a world that so focussed on appearances.
Laxmi was in despair as she stared at her life. She struggled with deep physical and psychological scars. And in the process, rediscovered herself.
Laxmi filed a PIL and started the Stop Sale Acid campaign, which resonated across the nation. She is the reason that our laws were changed and acid attack was classified as a major crime, with a compensation to be paid to victims. Basis her petition, stringent laws were made against the easy availability of acid, and harsh punishments were set for offenders.
“Laxmi shows us that nothing is impossible. I have seen her touch the lives of people who had given up hope and were even contemplating suicide. She made them strong in the face of strife. I salute a Laxmi. She is a symbol of woman power and the voice of those who cannot speak for themselves, said Pawan Dubey, social worker.
In 2014, Laxmi received the International Women of Courage award from former First Lady of the United States Michelle Obama.
Then she found love. She and her partner, social activist Alok Dixit, moved in together.
Sadly, Laxmi’s fight with life wasn’t over. Soon after Pihu’s arrival, the couple separated on account of personal differences. Laxmi lives with the child, but her finances began to falter.
Despite all her accolades, and in spite of experience as a social worker as also a trained beautician, she did not get a job. She also risked losing the roof over her head as her landlord had hiked her rent, and she could not find a cheaper place. Some potential landlords told her that her face might scare their kids. Laxmi posted on social media about this.
“I salute Laxmi for her work while enduring the hardships she suffered. Hers is the face of courage, said Dr. Divya Gupta, CEO, Jwala.
As news of Laxmi’s predicament spread, job offers and financial aid from the likes of Bollywood star Akshay Kumar came pouring through. Next, she got the news that Bollywood star Deepika Padukone will produce and star in director Meghna Gulzar’s film about her life. And once again, her life went on a different trajectory.
“Society needs to learn how to accept and include everyone who is different. Laxmi is changing the way people feel about physical differences, said Anurag Chauhan, Founder, Humans For Humanity.
We don’t know what lies ahead for any of us. But we know this: Laxmi will abide and she will provide succour and power to the world for years to come.
Other stories in the #WonderWoman series: