“I was three years old when the catastrophe dawned upon me. My father did this to me. My paternal family incited my father for the attack, to vanish us into ashes, for we have no brothers in our family. Also, greed for property and matter fuelled this adversity to the extreme cruelty. They would then arrange a second marriage for my father. The blistering burns of the acid remained with me while my sister who was a year and half at the time of attack could not withstand the ferocity and passed away at the hospital. My mother and I, then fled from there…”
Neetu finished her story with a sigh; a sigh of a long pertaining echo of anger and rage, of helplessness and loneliness and of brutal and inhumane act. Having heard the story, I gulped back my emotions and did my best to wear a smile, a smile to appreciate her journey through all the nuances. But I was rather stunned by the conviction and ease with which she held her composure and finished her story in the most subtle way.
Neetu is one of the eight women working in Sheroes Hangout, a restaurant in Agra that provides the acid attack survivors with a mean to re-live their lives, a moral support to rise and grow and a decent way to outlive all the rages and brutality that society once poured onto them. It started as one of the outcomes of an awareness campaign #StopAcidAttack on 8th March 2013. The other being Chhanv foundation which serves as a bridge between the survivors and society.
‘My mother and I joined Sheroes in 2014. The time when society wasn’t really ready to accept us, Sheroes gave us a home, a light to grow again. But… the initial 2 years were very tough for us. People used to make weird expressions and didn’t feel comfortable having us around. The restaurant building is a rented one, so we have to not only pay for the stuff but also meet the dues on time. We have seen such hard times…’
… A sudden halt to Neetu’s story and the air seemed standstill, with every elapsed second spanning to uncomfortable extents.
how could someone push a little angel, a daughter of his own to the verge of extinction, how did she compose herself through all those barbarity, how much sacrifice did she embrace to stand on her own, that too at this early age; she is strong, stronger than anyone in this room, maybe the strongest in this whole universe…
… I paused, dumbstruck and was not able to find the right words to speak out. I wondered about life for a second, as to how it leads a person through outbreaks and breakthroughs in its short span. Breaking the cobwebs of my inner self and the uncomfortably still air, I pointed towards the menu and the various photographs hanging on the wall.
‘When we started Sheroes, we thought of doing something new, something which people can cherish afterwards. And hence this idea of having no price tags in the menu, instead we let the customers pay as per their wish so that people belonging to every class, may it be of poor or rich, can afford to come here and have a good time.’
She added, indicating to one of the pictures there, ‘Akhilesh Yadav Sir, the then CM also visited us, appreciated our effort, promoted our campaign and gave a plot of land for two years in Lucknow to operate another Sheroes Restaurant. We are really grateful for his generous gesture. But… since the two years of time has elapsed by now, I guess we have to shut it down, and the lives of all 12 sheroe-ian will return to its primordial plight. I wonder how… ’ and she stopped amidst. I realised what might have caused her to stop and hence I didn’t ask further.
A cluster of emotions and thoughts preoccupied my mind. At this very moment when people are complaining about the poor Instagram filter for failing to mask their pimples, or the curry for being salty, or getting a mark less than the topper, or the car scratch on the bonnet, or the movie they have missed and what not, there are these brave souls at Sheroes who struggle every ounce of their existence for their identity and for bringing worth to their lives. The land where we poise the symbol of love, the Taj, do we really justify its significance? When we welcome millions of tourists from all over the world just to marvel this wonder and to become awestruck by the integrity that Shah Jahan beheld for his beloved wife, a daughter, a sister, a woman, have we really extended our gestures to all the love-deprived and terror-stricken people? Is it a metaphorical coincidence to be in the juncture of what is being believed and what is being bestowed? Isn’t it? Does it feel strange to just pause for a second from our productive, prosperous and progressive lives and look back at our footmarks and then look ahead to the path we have chosen? Doesn’t it? You and I, me and you have sensed it then, now, here and there. Have we just shake our heads in prohibition? Haven’t we? It is a truth that lies at the tip of the nose, seen by many yet overlooked by self; a truth that is known to all yet to be reminded again; a truth that is louder than a scream yet inaudible to many.
Now the truth has been told and portrayed as one of the biggest victories of good over evil, light over dark, humane over inhumane, justice over injustice, and love over hatred! Every Sheroe-ian is a spark of that truth, a glam of the victory and an inspiration to many. The best thing that I have learnt from these people is the way they have accepted reality. The lives of these people have shown that to live by the hardest way and to get a little less do not mean the end of our lives or do not decide its worth, it is the ethics we carry in hard times and the zeal to move past the adversities that decide the righteousness of our lives. The way they never lose hope despite being pushed by the odds, is a true inspiration to all. They are not just some people, they are ‘The Sheroe-ians’; an inspiration to many!
Sharing some pictures below.