A violin hangs on the living room wall of a cramped apartment in Laxmi Nagar in East Delhi. After 10 years, Laxmi has started thinking of music again. It was on the day of her first music lesson, on a parched April morning of 2005, that she had acid thrown on her. Eight months ago, a new note entered her life — a daughter, Pihu. It doesn’t matter now that she doesn’t know how to play the violin; Laxmi often takes it down just to feel the sound.
She remembers the taste of fear most of all from that April day. And how cold the acid had felt when it first hit her. The pain seared her moments later, as the acid corroded her pretty face and the person she had been: Laxmi Agarwal, 16. Student at Sarvodaya Kanya Vidyalaya, Pandara Road. New assistant at a bookshop near Khan Market. Would-be student at the music class next door.
“I had always wanted to be a singer or a kathak dancer, but my father was a cook and we didn’t have enough money for lessons. When I took up the job, I thought I’d put some money aside to learn music. The day before the incident, I had spoken to the didi who conducted the music classes. I was supposed to attend my first lesson the next day. That day never came,” says Laxmi, now 27.
She had been on her way to the bookshop when a man who had been stalking her for nearly a year — a close family friend, double her age — threw a beer bottle full of acid on her face because she had refused his proposal.
In the years that followed, in the flurry of operations — she has had seven so far and needs many more — and the psychological challenges of getting over what had happened to her, in her campaign to regulate the sale of acid in India and providing affordable treatment to survivors, music took a backseat.
That changed on March 25 this year, the day Pihu was born to Laxmi and her partner, activist Alok Dixit. 2014 had been a particularly difficult year for Laxmi. Her brother, who had been unwell for a while, succumbed to tuberculosis. In October, she lost her father to a heart attack. He had been only 45.
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“My incident had taken a toll on my family’s life, but they had never complained. My father was my biggest strength. He was the one who told me to file the PIL in the Supreme Court in 2006 (which resulted in a change in the law governing the sale of acid). Without him, I felt bereft,” she says.
Laxmi admits she was apprehensive about having the child. “After the attack, I was admitted to Ram Manohar Lohia Hospital and stayed there for nearly three months. There were no mirrors in the ward I was in. Every morning, the nurse would bring me a bowl of water to help me freshen up and I would try to catch my reflection in that water. I would only see glimpses of a bandaged face. I used to have a scar on my nose before the attack; I would tell the doctor to remove that during the operation. When I first saw my face afterwards, I was devastated. I had no face to speak of. My eyes were misshapen. The memory of that would keep coming back during my pregnancy. If I felt that way about how I looked, how would my child feel about it? Would she be scared when she looked at me?”
In the moment of Pihu’s birth though, all those fears died. “When the doctor lay her down next to me, all she did was snuggle up and go off to sleep. It was the most reassuring thing in the world,” Laxmi says.
In their tiny apartment, where they have recently moved, Pihu’s things take up most of the space. There are musical toys everywhere, a walker and a pram where Pihu spends her time when she’s not accompanying Laxmi and Dixit to Chaanv Foundation, the NGO where they work and which runs the popular Stop Acid Attack (SAA) campaign. She crawls after Laxmi, cooing every time she speaks to her, or when Dixit picks her up for a quick cuddle.
“Laxmi was quite apprehensive in the beginning about how Pihu would react to her. But I tell her she’s such a brave person and has done so much to bring attention to the cause and to help other survivors that Pihu will be proud to have her as her mother. Pihu is growing up among brave women. Hopefully, she will not need to be taught about empathy. She will imbibe it on her own,” says Dixit, who was a non-commissioned officer in the Indian Air Force before he turned to journalism and eventually found his calling with the SAA campaign.
Getting a birth certificate for Pihu proved a task because Laxmi and Dixit are not legally married. “Laxmi didn’t want a traditional marriage since so much emphasis is put on how the bride looks. I don’t believe in such institutions. We love each other and promised to stay true to ourselves and here we are. But we wanted the birth certificate to mention both our names and that proved difficult,” he says.
After her accident, Laxmi stopped using her surname. Pihu’s birth certificate too doesn’t mention any surname. “I want her to be whoever she wants to be, not be encumbered by a family name,” says Laxmi.
Will she teach her music? “You know, for the longest time, I didn’t know what to call her. But I realised she likes music. Whenever I sing to her, she seems happy. And then the name popped up just like that, out of the blue, in the washroom of all places! Pihu, because she’s the sweetest sound in my life,” says Laxmi.