Meghna Gulzar has just announced her next film, a biopic on acid-attack survivor Laxmi Agarwal, with Bollywood star Deepika Padukone in the lead role. Meanwhile, noted Malayalam actor Parvathy has said she will be playing an acid-attack survivor in her next project. Another survivor, Reshma Qureshi, who walked the runway at the New York Fashion Week in 2016 and is now a vlogger and anti-acid activist, is coming out with her memoir, Being Reshma, later this year.
On the face of it, the lives of these survivors now seem not only inspiring but also glamorous — with films, books, ramp walks and global recognition coming their way. But recently, when Agarwal, 30, revealed that she was on the verge of homelessness and how her struggle is far from being over, it came as a crude shock to the world.
Activists say this is the general plight of acid-attack survivors in the country. India reports more than 200 acid-attack cases every year, according to Kolkata-based Acid Survivors’ Foundation of India, which put the figures at 250 for the year 2015, reiterating that many more go unreported.
Agarwal, who couldn’t complete Class XII because the attack — 15 years ago — put her life out of gear, says she is without a job and is also facing eviction from her modest rented apartment in east Delhi because she can’t afford the increased rent. “That is when I thought people should know what my actual life is,” she says. “People think I have been rehabilitated and my life has changed, but that’s not the whole truth,” she says, pointing to pictures that were splashed in the media when she received the US State Department’s International Women of Courage Award in 2014 from then US First Lady Michelle Obama.
“People presume I must be well-off since I received so many awards, walked the ramps and gave talks, but I don’t even have money for my basic needs,” she says.
Sheroes Hangout, the first café started by acid-attack survivors in Agra in 2014, where a major portion of Parvathy’s Malayalam film will be shot, is a space where many of these survivors — scarred, smiling, confident, yet extremely vulnerable — thrive.
Behind the reception desk sits Bala, in her early 30s, with half of her face rebuilt after a corrective surgery. In a white T-shirt and red lipstick, she greets visitors with a broad smile. The vegetarian café gets mostly foreign tourists by virtue of its proximity to the Taj Mahal. Bala sits with many of them, chatting, sharing her story, posing for pictures for their social media accounts. Her half-a-dozen peers, who work at the café, also take turns to sit with the guests and chat.
While they mostly come across as affable, casual and fun, it’s when the guests are about to leave that they appear tentative and vulnerable. None of them asks for any money or help, as the café runs on a pay-as-you-wish model, but as the guests are leaving after finishing their meals, they seem to be wondering if they have got a fair deal. A screen on one side of the café continues to narrate personal stories of the staff through a five-minute audiovisual presentation.
“When foreigners visit, we feel more comfortable. Most of them don’t seem to judge us, and leave anything between Rs 500 and Rs 1,000 for us. Once or twice, a group of local boys have come, eaten a lot and left without offering any money,” says one of them. Most of the women are in their late 20s or early 30s. “Our livelihood depends on this café. We work very hard the whole day, expecting to square up financially at the end of the day. Sometimes, that doesn’t happen. There have been times our salaries have got delayed simply because people didn’t leave enough money,” she says.
On the wall behind the reception, there are sticky notes pasted by visitors. “What an amazing and happy place, with such beautiful and brave women here,” says one. “An inspiration to everyone who will visit. So glad we visited,” says another. Activists say various organisations in India support close to 500 survivors (there are around 30 organisations in the country that work for advocacy and awareness in the matter). The survivors get a lot of sympathy at these organisations, but little monetary help.
Sheroes Hangout opened a café in Lucknow, in 2016, which recently faced a shutdown after UP Mahila Kalyan Nigam wrote to Chhanv Foundation, which runs the café, saying that “there is no reason to run the unit”. The decision would have taken away the right to dignity for 12 survivors working at the café had it not been for Supreme Court’s intervention, giving them a nine-month breather.
Ashish Shukla, founder of the Chhanv Foundation that supports acid-attack survivors and runs both outlets of Sheroes, says, “The reason most of these survivors feel so anxious and unsure about their future is because there is no state policy for their financial inclusion. Civil society efforts can generate awareness, engage with them socially and psychologically, but states have to come forward and give them jobs, a permanent source of income. Financial empowerment will naturally lead to social inclusion.”
Agarwal, who was earlier involved with Chhanv Foundation and has a four-year-old daughter, Pihu, with its co-founder Alok Dixit as her partner, says, “I give motivational talks to people but I am suffering. Some private individuals came forward to offer me jobs but either they were not ready to pay adequately or the offer was short-term. If only there was a provision of a permanent government job for survivors like me, things would have been different.”
Shukla adds, “Courageous survivors like Laxmi get awards but that doesn’t ensure any earnings. Society is doing its bit, it’s now for the government to recognise this challenged and vulnerable section and come out with a policy to offer them livelihood.”
Agarwal is now pinning her hopes on Meghna Gulzar’s film to change things for her ilk. “So many more people know about me ever since the movie has been announced. I am hoping it will be a turning point in my life and that of many survivors.”
On whether she wanted to play herself in the film, Agarwal says, “It would have been odd. Deepika playing me will be more interesting for the audience.” But if given a chance, she says she would love to sing in the film.