Life can change overnight.
Ask Sonali Mukherjee, for the night of April 22, 2003, left an indelible scar not just on her mind, but on most of her physical appearance too. Then an 18-year-old topper at a Dhanbad college, Sonali wanted to be a professor and free her father of spending his nights guarding a mill. But tragically, her dreams ended while she was still asleep. Three men, whose advances Sonali had somehow spurned for two years, broke into her home and hurled acid at her. The result: 72% burns, melted eyelids, nose and ears, 100% blindness, partial deafness, loss of speech and a future damaged irreparably.
It’s been almost 10 years since that night of grave injustice. After a move to Delhi and 22 reconstructive surgeries — for which her family had to sell almost everything they owned — Mukherjee can now speak and hear. But that’s little consolation for her, given her attackers have returned to their lives of old. None of them were convicted — neither the middle-aged married man nor the 18-year-old boy. They spent a half their nine-year sentence in prison; a slow judicial system has all but absolved them.
So it’s understandable that in July this year, after a decade of physical and emotional turmoil, Mukherjee’s will finally broke. With her father Chandidas in tow, she gave the government an ultimatum — give me justice or let me die.
Her plea brought her some much-deserved attention, and it also earned her the ‘hot seat’ on the popular quiz show Kaun Banega Crorepati. With Amitabh Bachchan egging her on, Mukherjee answered her way to R 25 lakh. The money certainly helped soothe the pain, and that hour watched by millions of Indians earned Mukherjee sympathy and respect in equal measure. For many, the quiz show is a life-changing experience, but for Mukherjee, KBC only offered a little respite on the long and winding road to justice.
Sonali says her surgery-related expenses till date amount to about R13 lakh. Over the next 18 months, she needs to undergo another nine surgeries. “The treatment alone will cost us a minimum of R30 lakh. I’ve sold everything but what are we to do now?” says her father Chandidas. He says the KBC money won’t cover the costs, as post tax deduction Mukherjee’s bank account will only get a R17 lakh credit.
Rajya Sabha member Derek O’Brien has made a case in Parliament for a tax break on Mukherjee’s earnings, but even if the approval is obtained, the financial struggle is far from over with medical expenses touching nearly R 20,000 a week at times. “A lot of people made promises to offer money with even the doctors saying that they would contribute for her treatment but that hasn’t come through,” says Chandidas. “After she won some money on KBC, they may feel that we don’t need the money as much but we’re still struggling.”
And now a chunk of the KBC earnings will have to be put into accommodation, for the family has been displaced. After staying free of cost at a gurdwara in New Delhi for the past five months, the Mukherjees were asked to leave last week, as their room was required for another purpose.
But with a decade of practice, Sonali has learnt to be grateful for the small things in life. “I have no complaints, I’m grateful that they kept us and served us for such a long time, moving was inevitable, it had to happen someday but now we have no option but to stay in a rented house. It all happened so fast,” she says.
As she shifts home, Sonali’s also finding it difficult to aid the process of re-growing tissue, implants of which were recently inserted in her scalp and neck. “I have thyroid too so I don’t feel hungry and don’t eat as much as is required so the tissues are not forming yet,” she says.
While Sonali heals, you can help quicken the process by joining the social media movement to help her have a shot at reclaiming a once-promising future. She has several Facebook community pages, a Twitter account and a blog on Tumblr dedicated to her called ‘Friends of Sonali’. In addition, there is an an open group on Facebook called Help for Sonali Mukherjee from Dhanbad with over 5,000 members.