I had met Rupa two years ago at a home for acid attack survivors set up by Stop Acid Attacks. She was a shy girl, unsure of herself. With her thin dupatta, she covered the scars of an attack so brutal that it had shaken her very belief in people, family and love. Rupa had been acid attacked by her step-mother as she slept in her house at Islampur Ghasaoli village, in Muzaffarnagar district of Uttar Pradesh. Rupa was fifteen years of age at the time. The acid had melted her skin, burnt her eyebrows, disfigured her upper lip, and that wasn't the end to the pain she had felt. The carefree spirit of a teenager, the twinkle of the eyes as it dreams of the future - all lost behind the shroud of unimaginable pain and trauma.
This time when I met her, it was in Agra and she was a different Rupa. As she walked into the Sheroes Hangout Café, I could see confidence in her stride. Dressed in jeans and a tee, Rupa came in and shook hands with everyone in the team. She quickly slipped into work clothes - and stood behind the counter. Yes, Rupa now works at this unique café, an initiative of Stop Acid Attack. The transformation is evident as Rupa smiles for our cameras. "Meri photo print karna is baar," she says. I recall how the last time we filmed her she had requested her face to be blurred. The days of hiding are over, the scars are now worn as a symbol of a battle won - a symbol of survival.
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At our table, Ritu, another attack survivor, comes in to take our order. "Honey chilly potatoes try kar sakte ho," she recommends from the menu. There are six of us placing orders, and Ritu doesn't even have a pen or paper. But of course, each dish reaches our table without trouble. I request Ritu and Rupa to join us for a bit. It is a slightly easy hour at the café and the girls join us for a chat.
Three years ago, acid was thrown on a 17-year-old Ritu. The attack had been orchestrated by extended family. Ritu, the youngest of the five siblings had been chosen so as to cause most hurt to her parents. "It was a property dispute," she says. The corrosive acid took away her left eye, her nose melted and as the liquid ran down her cheeks and neck, her skin shriveled up. Ritu remembers the incomprehensible burning sensation, and between her screams of agony, she remembers how no one came to help. As she squirmed in pain in the middle of a busy road in Rohtak, where the attack had occurred in broad daylight, Ritu says, precious time was wasted as people did nothing but stare.
Time has passed, the pain has numbed, and numerous surgeries have reconstructed faces albeit a reflection of what had been. Today Ritu, Rupa and other survivors think and believe that they are independent, confident professionals. "Corporate offices don't want to employ us because of the way we look, working at the Sheroes Hangout Café makes us feel empowered," Ritu and Rupa smile.
Five of them shifted to Agra last December. They have rented an apartment and are enjoying the days of independence, like any young professional. "Does the name Sheroes stand for you all?" I ask. "She + Heroes, I guess it could be us," and both of them burst into giggles.
I'd say, if you are in Agra, do visit the Sheroes Hangout Café. Try the Singaporean noodles and the grilled cheese sandwiches. A "pay as you wish" policy means you can leave whatever you wish, in the knowledge that the money the café makes will eventually go into medical and legal aid of the survivors.
Done up in interesting graffiti art with laid-back cane furniture, the café has corners that tell a story. On the walls, you will spot pictures of the fashion photo shoot done by photographer Rahul Saharan which went viral on social media."These are all my designs," Rupa has a talent in fashion designing which she wants to pursue. In fact, you can even buy clothes designed by her at the cafe.
Ritu, a state-level volleyball player before her attack, now wants to finish school and follow her dream of doing something in sports as well. But for now, the cafe is their world. And you will feel the happy vibes here, the fairy lights on the windows, the bright walls and the happy smiles. In my final question I hesitate, "Ask, don't worry..." Ritu assures me. "What is the meaning of beauty for you?"
"Outer beauty is momentary. I have been able to move on from the anger and hurt. I feel being beautiful inside is more important. That lasts a lifetime. What will you do by just being bodily beautiful? Even the ones who threw acid at me were beautiful from outside...Right?"
This post was first published on ibncj.com.
All images have been provided by Megha Mamgain.