Sunday Edition

Acid & after

| | in Sunday Pioneer
Acid & after

Monica Singh was just 19 when an obsessive friend threw acid on her, mutilating her face. Doctors worked on her relentlessly because she refused to die. Her entire family shifted to the hospital for over a year and since then she has had 46 surgeries and counting. The undaunting girl tells you her story of how she is pursuing her dreams despite the near fatal attack because she decided she would never give up

Ten years ago, I was 19 and living a good life in Lucknow. I had big dreams of becoming a well-renowned fashion designer. 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 with my friends from school. As the cliché goes — small town girl with big dreams — I wanted to become a model and a famous fashion designer.

I had a lot of trouble hiding myself from boys as 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 go away 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 who stalked me stopped following me. I never would have imagined that the safety I felt could turn out to be 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 all-India 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 that entire year spent in that hospital bed. My father took leave from his job to keep me alive. He used up his entire life savings to keep me alive and my mother and brother prayed every day for me to live. Even though I was 19 years old, I had become like a one-year-old child again. I couldn’t speak, couldn’t eat, couldn’t 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 watching him like that.

For the first month of my treatment, I couldn’t sleep at all. My eyes were wide open and tears would constantly roll 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 stood and watched my face melt. I kept wishing 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 that summer.

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 entire life was in front of me and I didn’t want to die. I never wanted to die, at least not like this.  

I wanted to fight for my parents’ tears. My entire family left home to be with me in hospital to take care of me with special permission from the hospital. We made that room our home for the next one year. Doctors used to say to my family, that my “will power” was keeping me alive, that I didn’t want to die and that’s why they wanted to do their best to treat me. Every second day, I had plastic surgery or 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, dreaming of resuming my career and working on my new mission: 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 father’s legacy as mine.

I want to ask every girl out there, what my dad asked me and told me once: “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 say that to me, I decided to finish my fashion designing course with good grades and follow my dreams of becoming a fashion designer. I am now studying at the Parsons School of Design, pursuing a degree in Fashion Marketing.

Though I say that I am following my dreams, these are also my dad’s — to see me standing again in society and to be successful in spite of all 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 who has a dream, 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 dreamt of living in New York 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 people who saved my life.

I would like to thank all the people who donated on the Indiegogo crowd funding site to let me pay the first installment 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 crowd funding and making my video to spread the word.

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 her life if her 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.

I have decided to open the Mahendra Singh Foundation to help this global issue and support every girl in need — http://mahendrasinghfoundation.org.

Ten years after my acid attack, I’m living proof that beyond your worst nightmare, you can still live your best dreams.

I fought for justice but did not get any’

From being feted by the media for her athletic achievements & scholarly accomplishments, she suddenly become ‘the girl attacked by acid by lover’. ‘My life changed forever’

You said your father left his job to take care of you. What did he do?

At the time of the attack on me, he was assistant general manager at the State Bank of India. He took off from his work to stay with me in hospital. From arranging blood to the money needed for surgery, he had everything planned well in advance.

What about the trauma your family faced?

Trauma was bigger and deeper than anyone can imagine. It was like, I am the only one who was the victim. My entire family is. Things which can never change to us.

Can you describe in detail the acid attack.

I was driving back home when I was stopped by a friend to say hello. I must have spent five minutes talking and just as I said goodbye and was driving away, the attack happened through the open window — obviously from the driver’s side.

What about the finances for your treatment and your dream to pursue a degree in fashion later on?

My family members spent their life savings to get me treated. My father took medical loans and also the State Bank of India helped my father by extending some money help with procedure.

Did you ever think that your ‘boyfriend' was capable of such an act? Did you ever see him after the attack?

He was never my boyfriend. But he always desired to be one. He wanted me to elope with him and get married. It was a one-sided love (from his side). I had already left to study fashion design a year ago. But he was waiting for me to come back to Lucknow and when I declined his offer, he took revenge. I saw him when I needed to identify him in court. It was scary for me to visit the same city. It was the fear of getting hurt all the time.

Where does the court case stand today?

I filed a case but never got justice. Initially, when I was questioned in court, the queries were horrible and scared me no end. Some of my answers were perceived wrongly. But I was clear about who had done this to me and stood my ground. It has been a year since I have gone to court for a hearing. Some witness turned hostile and I believe someone gave him money to not come to court. Now, my lawyer has appealed in the High Court where the pleas is pending. It may look as if I moved on, but that’s not true.

Any reason why it never entered your mind that he wanted more than friendship?

He was my friend and then he started turning possessive. Whether he liked it or not, I never wanted any relationship with him or with anyone else for that matter. I was 18 when I left for my graduation degree. All I was thinking about was my ambition and dream.

Has that incident changed the way you view life. How?

Any such incident changes people’s lives. I see the reality now. I was a normal girl who had dreams and had been admired by fellow students, Professors and co-workers. But now it's about my knowledge my thinking and my values.

One lesson that life has taught you.

Never look back and face your fears. As soon as you are ready to accept who you are and your fears, you will start loving yourself. Life will seem longer if you are sad. Engage yourself in work. Keep working on what you love and what makes you happy. If you didn't die back then, you have a long life at hand. So appreciate life.  Don't waste it away crying over what happened to you. You can't change your past but you can change you future.

Tell us more about your foundation.

The Mahendra Singh Foundation (in honour of my father) was founded less than year back to collect help from everywhere and give it back to acid attack survivors, physically disabled women and victims of domestic violence. I know, the world can be changed if someone finds a helping hand. I have had family support and other support to keep me walking. But many girl don’t because they are no longer ‘good looking’. This foundation collaborates with other foundations with the same mission and share support.




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