Death of a star

I was in deep trauma after the news came in and wrote this which I strongly urge you to read. Often, I am compelled to write about events that are beyond the purview of my research in economic history but I am a whole person, not just someone doing this research. When something affects me, I talk about it, I grieve and I write. Writing is my way to sort out the conflicts in my head and to seek catharsis. If I don’t write about it, the grief and trauma will stay repressed and never find a release.

The piece I wrote was issue #4 of my newsletter EconHistorienne. I never wanted to write it but I couldn’t stop. Like today when India’s apex court rules in favour of a CBI inquiry into the death of the star that SSR was, I can’t help but lay out these points that are baffling me no end:

  1. Legally, when police registers merely an accidental death report in a death case, it has limited investigation powers. Yet, Mumbai Police ill-treated a Bihar cop who landed in Mumbai to investigate after the registration of an FIR in Patna and forbid him from doing his job; challenged the Bihar Police’s jurisdiction in the case in Supreme Court (which is now dismissed by the SC), and did not register an FIR in the case even after sufficient grounds for it. It’s been two months since it stepped its foot on the case and has relentlessly kept at crushing it. Let this sink in. Let this also be your cue to knowing that something is terribly fishy about Mumbai Police’s behaviour.
  2. Rhea Chakraborty filed a petition in the SC seeking the transfer of FIR filed against her Patna to Mumbai. She even did a U-turn on her stance on CBI investigation, first asking for it and later challenging it in the court. Now, the logical question here is: why is she bothered beyond the point that there should be fair investigation in the case? No one knows what her position in the case is except that she was SSR’s girlfriend (which she publicly stated only after his death), and as solicitor general Tushar Mehta rightly pointed out in the SC: “We do not know what is the role of Chakraborty in the case — witness, accused, complainant or nobody? Yet, she moves an application in the SC seeking transfer of the FIR to Mumbai. What is her interest in seeking transfer when she should be interested only in a fair probe, irrespective of the agency which investigates the case,” Mehta said. Whatever RC’s motives or compulsions are, there is definitely something to know more here too.

I won’t say much beyond this point, though a lot can be said. Today, I just have these two questions in my mind. I am not particularly on the moon after the SC order for CBI probe given that fairness of the investigation still can be a debatable issue. However, I am hoping there is some movement now on getting down to really knowing what really happened to SSR. Amen to that.

Changing approach to dealing with rape

The young girl, visibly bruised and shaken, was brought for questioning amid blaring sirens and numerous cops stirred by her sudden appearance. She was reporting rape on a summer day in 2001 in a police station in central Delhi, where the policemen struggled to make sense of her distress.

In an instant, they went hurling questions at the girl; but she wouldn’t stop sobbing. Their questions to her were intimate and rattling—details on the rape, reconstruction of events leading to the crime, finding witnesses and identifying the accused.

Rajat Mitra watched the proceedings with unease. A trained clinical psychologist, he was at the police station in connection with a case at Sanjeevani, a non-governmental organization (NGO) for mentally disturbed people, where he worked; but what he saw that day was to lead him to an unusual career.

“The whole attitude (of the police) affected me deeply. The family needed emotional support and not someone yelling at them. I came back home and talked to my family about it. I began thinking very deeply about the lack of counselling services for rape victims,” Mitra recalls.

There, according to Mitra, the police’s method of questioning was weakening the case. “A rape affects the victim’s memory and perception, and when dealt with roughly, it can just emotionally wreck her. That’s where a psychologist is needed,” he reasons.

Mitra hadn’t imagined a life dedicated to picking threads of crime from psychological enquiries into pain, but what he proposed to the commissioner meant the same: his services as a dedicated rape counsellor for the Delhi Police.

His proposal that police refer rape cases to him for counselling, the first such initiative ever considered by the police in India, was approved the same year, though on an experimental basis.

In the years since, Mitra, a trained clinical psychologist from Delhi University and who has a doctorate from the University of New Orleans, Louisiana, has counselled nearly 7,000 rape victims; but, unlike before, he is no more alone in this endeavour.

 

While the Delhi police engages with Swanchetan to counsel rape victims, the Mumbai police has been engaging with Sehat, an NGO, and a few hospitals in recent years.

In Chennai, the city police has formed a separate cell to deal with rape cases and also work closely with NGO Tulir, which works exclusively for child victims of sexual abuse. In smaller cities, rape activists say the word on counselling is still to reach the local police, though rape continues to be a prominent crime with cities such as Bhopal, Jabalpur, Jaipur and Pune reporting the crime in large numbers (see box).

Typically, when they begin, no one is allowed in the counselling room, not even the police, and sessions run into hours. “There are certain strict no’s during counselling: don’t probe, don’t go deep without permission, don’t ask deeply personal and leading questions,” says Pubalin Dash, a 31-year-old counsellor based in Delhi, adding that the victim’s version, as gathered after hours of patient counselling, requires a confident submission in court to be accepted.

While the provision of counselling is yet to go a long way in India’s criminal justice system, it’s already making substantial contributions in helping victims report the crime and get over the emotional trauma.

Dash recalls an incident where the lawyer defending the offender argued that the rape was consensual since the woman who claimed to have been raped had undressed as the rapist so desired. “Rape victims don’t shout. They freeze. Research shows 80% of rape victims freeze during rape. During rape, a woman shows passive resistance, and only a counsellor can convince the court about it,” says Dash.

In another case, Vidya Reddy, a health professional with Chennai-based Tulir, recalls a gangrape victim breaking into a giggle in court as the defence lawyer asked a range of embarrassing questions. “The lawyer argued that because she giggled, she must have consented. Rape trauma may shock or make one hysterical, but this aspect is often overlooked by the police,” she says.

Mitra, so far, has testified in a hundred rape cases in Delhi, a far cry from the days when the courts would simply treat counsellors to cross-examination. Justice V.S. Malimath, who recommended counselling for rape victims in his report on reforms for the Indian criminal justice system, says that while testimony is viewed with great care and caution, “courts do accept it provided the counsellor is experienced and certified”.

In a first where a Delhi court accepted the testimony of a rape counsellor, Swanchetan’s counsellors helped the police corroborate evidence against an offender.

In another rape case—of a mute girl—the rape counsellors helped police nab the offender by interpreting the gestures made by the victim.

The involvement of counsellors, already an established norm in rape cases in the West, is more evident in India’s metros such as New Delhi and Mumbai, where rape continues to be perpetrated with impunity. In 2010, Delhi accounted for nearly one-fourth of the total rape cases in India. “I have seen the largest number of sexual assault cases in Delhi in the last 10 years without exception,” Mitra says.

The victims are mostly young, apparently vulnerable, from lower income groups, and, in many cases, known to offenders. In 2009, for example, 94.9% involved offenders were known to the victims, according to the National Crime Records Bureau.

And while a vast majority of rapes still go unreported due to the stigma attached with the crime, rape counsellors have also helped survivors report it with the police. “A girl from a Muslim family was brought to New Friends’ Colony police station bleeding. We saw signs of sexual abuse, but the child was afraid to testify against her father. She finally opened up; and for four years, our counsellors fought the case,” says Nidhi Mitra, another rape counsellor at Swanchetan.

For the first six months, he got no cases to handle as the cops didn’t refer any. “When the cases slowly started coming in and we began appearing in courts, defence lawyers would often question why we (counsellors) were included when there was no provision for the same in the criminal laws of the country. One defence lawyer once told me: ‘Why do you come in courts? You should stay in hospitals’,” recalls Mitra, adding that the response from lawyers still needs improvement.

 

Then there are other challenges, such as the lack of evidence in rape since it’s a private crime, and, often, weird responses from victims. “One victim once said about the offender: ‘He loves me enough to rape me.’ Now, how do you explain that?” asks Dash, citing examples from the West, where rape survivors would talk of violation during counselling as opposed to women in India who would talk about the way in which rape has lowered their worth.

 

This was first published in Mint.

The Girl With The Peacock Tattoo

It was always the tattoo that stood out. Peacock tattoo on the waist. It hurt to get it done but then, is there ever any gain without pain? Neetu Singh Solanki knew it only too well. She was a girl from Matiala, the congested suburb in West Delhi that we hear of only during elections, or when a teen has shot himself to death over a family altercation, or when a man is shot dead for marrying out of his gotra. Matiala is that kind of a place you never want to go to because you don’t expect any good to come out of the suburb, notorious for illegal factories and colonies.

It is in this milieu that Neetu Singh Solanki appears like the proverbial phoenix attempting to emerge out of darkness, unhinged, a winner of life. Everyone used the words “courageous” “smart” “bright” “vivacious” to describe her. The fact that she was pretty was a bonus. Nothing could ever pull her down, not her modest roots, not her sexist locality, not her contemptuous neighbours. One day, she said to her parents what they always expected she would: she was moving to Singapore. Trusting parents them all, they dropped her at the airport and expected her to stay in touch.

In just a few months, a sack loaded with a woman’s mutilated limbs was found lying near the New Delhi railway station. It appeared like the gruesome murder of a young woman by someone whom she knew well. Her parents identified the body, and Neetu Singh Solanki became the most controversial figure of Matiala.

I wrote a story about her in Mint right after her murder. I travelled to Matiala, met her family, spoke to the cops and tried very hard to make sense of the murder. Eight years later, her boyfriend, accused of murdering her, died of multiple organ failure in Gurgaon and the case was back in news again. What stunned people was that Raju Gehlot had lived and worked in Gurgaon all these years and faked his identity to escape the police’s eyes.

Every report today seems to be calling her the tattoo girl, and she indeed was. But she was much more – a girl trying to rise above her circumstances to do make something of her life. But we aren’t asking any questions. To the police who couldn’t trace the murderer who was in Delhi all along. To the police who never even filed a chargesheet in the case. To the police who now wants to ask the court to allow them to file a closure report in the case.

This murder was no less gruesome than others. In fact, murders can’t be less or more gruesome. Murder is the forced discontinuation of life and no one has a right to do that to anyone. In Neetu Singh Solanki’s case, who was called many names, not all of it good, by her neighbours, her murder served as an excuse for many in Matiala to deny girls their rightful place within families and society.

Never could anyone doubt the free spirit of Neetu from the pictures on the walls of her home, but what was a matter of pride for her parents, became fodder for gossip for uncaring neighbours. All they could talk about was the tattoo. The tattoo stood for something profound: the courage of a girl to make her choices and live with conviction.

The girl with the peacock tattoo

One evening in February last year, a girl raised many eyebrows in the conservative Jat neighbourhood of Matiala in west Delhi. She was returning home from work when a group of young men passed lewd comments. Almost in a rage, the girl hopped off her autorickshaw and grabbed one of the boys by his collar.

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That day Neetu Solanki was wearing a boat-neck spandex top and low-rise jeans which revealed a peacock tattoo on her lower back, and a navel ring. “It was a classic Jat retaliation, rough and bold—except that it came from a girl,” says Alka Solanki, her 22-year-old sister, younger to Neetu by six years, and a postgraduate student of political science at Delhi University.

Just a week earlier, Neetu had come home with an eve-teaser’s bicycle. Her aggressive reaction had prompted the man to run away, leaving his ride behind. “She didn’t fear anyone, especially when she believed she was right. That day, she simply brought the bicycle home. Obviously, no one ever came to claim it,” says Alka, breaking into a giggle.

On 11 February, Neetu’s body was found stuffed in an airbag at the New Delhi railway station. Her throat had been slit with a sharp object. According to eyewitnesses, a young man rode up to the parking bay in an autorickshaw, dropped the bag and rode off. When the Delhi Police published a “hue and cry” notice to identify the body, the tattoo became a talking point. Eventually, her father came forth to claim her ashes. Now, investigators have named her boyfriend Raju Gehlot as the prime suspect.

Feisty: Though petite, Neetu was very courageous, says her sister Alka—not the kind to stay away from a confrontation. Javeed Shah/Mint

Alka reminisces about the day her sister got the tattoo: “She was different from all of us. She was good at studies but that never meant she had to be simple. She picked up fashion trends quickly and tried them out on herself. She came home and showed it first to our father, who was amused. She was in pain for the next three days but the tattoo was like a hard-earned medal for her; it symbolized freedom and that kept her excited despite the pain.”

Even if an earthquake shook their building, Neetu wouldn’t be found running with her hair uncombed or dress crumpled, qualities she picked while growing up with her uncle in Jammu and Kashmir, who worked in the Indian Air Force, till she was 8.

Neetu’s sartorial experiments often attracted unwanted attention. Her father Kartar Singh Solanki, who used to sell milk and is now a property dealer in the neighbourhood, would hear of such instances frequently. “It would happen at least once a week. Every single time, Neetu would yell back or chase whoever it was,” he says. Then, of course, “she was beautiful”, Alka adds, pointing to a framed photograph of a petite, clear-skinned girl with an impeccably made-up face and long straight hair, placed on the fridge next to her room at their three-storeyed home in Matiala. “She straightened her hair when it became a rage even though it was very expensive,” recalls Alka, who was often reprimanded for her frizzy hair and promised a beauty treatment by Neetu at a parlour when she cleared her BEd exams.

And, though she appeared petite, “that’s the mistake people made”, says Alka. “Once she took on someone who whistled at her from his car. It must have been a Honda City, because when Neetu returned home, she said that it was a ‘big, expensive’ car. She was, to everyone’s shock here, very courageous,” Alka recalls.

This is why, when the Delhi Police repeatedly advertised last month, “we didn’t think it could be her”, Solanki says. “Neetu wasn’t someone to be killed or overpowered. She would never die without a fight.” The notice had appeared with a photograph which Solanki says was “too hazy” to recognize.

Matiala, the obscure urban village populated by small-time traders dealing in businesses ranging from scrap to property, learnt of the truth a month later.

Solanki claimed Neetu’s body in March; the police said it was a little unusual that her father appeared exactly a day after they cremated the body for lack of any claimant. “I was scared. Everyone fears the worst,” Solanki whispers when quizzed.

The last time Solanki saw Neetu, who was working in a Gurgaon call centre at the time, was in May, when she told him she was being transferred to Singapore. The police later claimed she had been living in Delhi with Gehlot, a crew member with Air India; the company says Gehlot has resigned. Neither the police nor Neetu’s relatives are sure whether she had married Gehlot. The motive for the murder remains unclear. The police haven’t found the murder weapon, Gehlot is absconding.

Various conspiracy theories are doing the rounds, but the story of the girl remains curiously robust with a string of tales about her choice of men and careers, an ambitious, independent woman who dressed and behaved exactly how she thought right, without worrying about what her conservative neighbours would think. Her late hours at the call centre jobs—her father claims, and the police corroborates, that she worked at BPOs such as IBM Daksh, Convergys and Teleperformance—the buzz around her murder, the bohemian tattoo and her ‘live-in’ relationship with Gehlot have become the subject of popular “off the record” gossip.

Rajdharam Sehrawat, an iron trader who lives a few blocks away from the Solanki household, has three daughters. Till a few years ago, “my daughters would play with them (Neetu and Alka) but now, two of my daughters are happily married”, Sehrawat says. “Who keeps a 28-year-old daughter unmarried for her to run away?”

When Neetu lived in the neighbourhood, the likes of Sehrawat often posed this question to Kartar Singh Solanki, a fellow Jat. He always replied: “They are my daughters. I want them to study.”

Today, Solanki says he is no longer in touch with any childhood friends of Neetu because “the girls she played with are all married now with children. Girls in the Jat community are married early. And who knows office colleagues these days? Children begin disliking their parents’ presence even in parent-teacher meetings these days. As for offices, you cannot even enter those places if you don’t work there”.

Despite the apparent secrecy around her friends and the nature of her job, Neetu’s video chats with her family were quite frequent and open. The chats, Alka says, would last for hours, and would only happen when their father was home because “she loved her father”. Conversation oscillated between inane and grim topics. “Once, she joked about donating her heart to our mother since she is a heart patient. She also promised our brother a sports bike if he did well in his Board exams,” Alka says.

Born in 1982, Neetu went to two public schools, first in Jharoda Kalan and then in Matiala; she signed up for a software engineering course at Aptech in addition to a correspondence course from Delhi University and later graduated from the university’s law faculty.

“She also enrolled for a management degree from Punjab Technical University (PTU) but abandoned it midway for a job because she wanted to start earning,” says Monika Roka, Alka’s friend and a student at PTU, Jalandhar, who had known Neetu for six years. Roka says she enrolled in the management course at PTU only on Neetu’s encouragement. “She was our career and fashion guide. She always listened to us and would make us laugh if we were anxious or worried about anything. But often, she would tell us how she being the eldest she had no one to lead her. She was a wise counsel for everyone younger to her, but for herself, she had no wisdom,” Roka says.

After university, Neetu also decided to try her hand at politics, and her relatives say the decision was guided purely by her own interest in the subject. In 2007, she contested the municipal elections in Delhi from Matiala as an independent candidate and lost, polling just about 150 votes. “She was a little child, enthusiastic about the polls, but I didn’t take her seriously. Wasn’t she a novice?” says her experienced opponent at the time and Bharatiya Janata Party councillor Rajesh Gehlot. Counters Roka, “Even as an independent candidate, people knew her!”

Neetu’s shots at education and later, call centre jobs and politics were all self-driven, and supported by her father, who always was eager to finance her education with an eye closed to details. “She brought her boyfriend home twice. I never interfered in anything she did. I trusted her to always do the right things,” Solanki says.

For many years, Alka says, her father has stayed home to cook breakfast and lunch for his children since mother Susheela Solanki’s cardiac surgery 10 years ago. “If I ask my children to make tea, they will never study,” says Solanki. Solanki also has two sons—Keshav, 24, works with him and Rahul, 17, is studying.

Dev Chowdhary, tuition teacher for Rahul, who is preparing for medical entrance examinations, often finds Solanki waiting in municipal parks for the time tuition classes continue.

“For many years now, he has never failed to bring him for classes. While parents from his community don’t generally bother to discuss their children’s education with teachers, Solanki always does that,” Chowdhary says.

Yet, somewhere between her academic pursuits and her ambition to build a career for herself, Solanki says his daughter perhaps lost direction. “She fell in love with the wrong man and started keeping a few facts from us. That destroyed her,” he says.

At his Matiala residence, where a group of women were mourning loudly, Solanki appeared visibly disturbed, but he was also active in hosting a steady flow of visitors who kept trickling in to offer condolences. “It (Neetu’s death) has shaken me. Now, I want to see my son addressed as ‘doctor’ in the next six years,” he says.

“I guess I’ve pretty much told you everything, right?” he remarks, promising to be back after seeing off a visitor.

By his own account, Solanki had spent years selling milk before reaching a position of moderate wealth. His struggles have become his children’s inspiration and he doesn’t want to stop, says Alka. “My father wanted to be a doctor but couldn’t,” she explains, while her brother Rahul looks up from the books he has been poring over for hours, startled by the sudden reappearance of his father.

“My son has his exam tomorrow. Will you please leave him alone now? You are disturbing his studies,” Solanki addresses this reporter angrily.

As this reporter prepares to make a quick exit, he asks wryly: “Won’t you even say sorry?”

This first appeared in Mint.

True Stories: Reconstructing Sonali Mukherjee

Sonali Mukherjee lives in a world of difficult extremes.

It’s a drizzly evening in Delhi and her thick fingers, a hesitant, trembling bunch, roll over a stack of medical prescriptions she is trying to arrange in a fluorescent-pink plastic file. Suddenly, she feels cold. She asks her mother for a sweater, shivering. It’s the middle of June.

Ten years ago, before three men poured acid on her, she felt the seasons like everyone else. And she could see dense fog and the summer sun. With more than 60-70% of her skin burnt, she now feels the chill at 22 degrees Celsius and cannot bear the heat beyond 25 degrees.

“There is always a difference of 6-7 degrees in temperature between what’s normal for her and what’s normal for us. The skin that regulates body temperature is damaged in her case,” explains Avtar Singh Bath, a plastic surgeon at central Delhi’s BLK Super Speciality Hospital, where Sonali is currently undergoing surgeries to reconstruct her face. “In other words, what’s pleasant for us is unbearable for her.”

Sonali now is a far cry from her past as an NCC cadet. Photograph: Priyanka Parashar/Mint

Sonali now is a far cry from her past as an NCC cadet

Dr Bath and his team at BLK are trying to restore some of her past. His work as a plastic surgeon is in essence the measure of medical science in human life—its role in making it better. In Sonali’s case, living better is relative. “She will never look normal. Our aim is to give her functional utility in life in which her vital organs work,” Sanjeev Bagai, a senior doctor at the hospital who is supervising Sonali’s surgeries, says.

When Sonali came to Delhi in 2003 from Dhanbad, Jharkhand, soon after the acid attack, her body was completely lacerated, a huge medical challenge. The corrosive acid thrown on her had burnt her eyes, nose, ears, cheeks, and parts of her scalp, neck, shoulders, breasts and back. She was 17. She had been caught unawares—she was startled in her sleep by the acid. “I bled for three months. All the doctors could do was dress my wounds. My body was on fire,” Sonali recalls. “I shouldn’t be sweating much, you know. It will affect my scars and wounds.”

Dr Bath shows one of the images from her scalp surgery. Photo: Priyanka Parashar/Mint

Fate intervened in Sonali’s life when three men whose sexual advances she resisted in Dhanbad, attacked her. Sonali’s surgeries were made possible by generous donations from non-governmental organizations, individuals, corporate firms and media houses, apart from the prize money of 25 lakh—about 16 lakh after income-tax deduction, which she won at the popular quiz show Kaun Banega Crorepati—in November. For the treatment at BLK, Beti, a Mumbai-based NGO working for girls, offered to meet a chunk of the medical expenses. Dr Bagai says Sonali’s treatment at BLK will cost 25-30 lakh and more than half the amount has already been sent by Beti.

Before her treatment at BLK began last year, Sonali had undergone 20 surgeries, mostly free of cost, at the government-funded Safdarjung Hospital in south Delhi. Bleeding from her wounds and in pain, her father and she would queue up at the hospital in 2003, when she came to Delhi.

Sonali collecting awards for college-level dance and debate performances in 2002 from the then Jharkhand chief minister Babulal Marandi

Back home in Dhanbad, Chandi Das Mukherjee lost his job as a guard at a local dal mill and had to sell his ancestral house. Sonali’s younger siblings dropped out of school. Her mother suffered prolonged depression and refused to see Sonali for many years after the incident. Distressed, Sonali appealed for euthanasia in July 2012, a month before she enrolled for further treatment at BLK. “I had begun holding myself responsible for the miseries of my family. But the doctors at Safdarjung saved my life,” Sonali says.

Yet, when Sonali was brought to BLK for further surgeries, the severity of her deformed face stunned Dr Bagai—the chemicals in the acid had made a deep and direct impact on her skin tissues. “She had practically no tissue on her face. Whatever reconstruction of the scalp was done, it was giving way. She had no ear lobes, ear drums, no external ears. She couldn’t hear. She had lost practically all vision—in one of the eyes, the optic nerve that carries the impulse to the brain has been damaged. She had no neck tissue, no armpits,” Dr Bagai recalls. Worse, Sonali’s burnt skin had developed severe contractures—hardened tissues after burns, the affected body parts immobile. So she couldn’t lift her hand, couldn’t smile, couldn’t speak, couldn’t bat eyelids, couldn’t move her neck and couldn’t walk freely. She had shrunk from 50kg to 26, indicating acute protein malnourishment.

Sonali now is a far cry from her past as an NCC cadet

But there is nothing cosmetic about it in Sonali’s case. Her arms and legs are thin, with dark patches wherever flesh was sliced for grafting. She is constantly trying to gain weight so that the surgeries can continue. Dr Bath does most of the grafting with silicon balloons that are inserted beneath Sonali’s skin, which needs to be expanded and inflated with saline water. The surgeon, who spent years in the army, compares the expanders to invincible entities, “just like fighter aircraft”. “It never leaks, however much you poke it. Have you seen fighter aircraft whose petrol tanks don’t burst however lethal the attack?” he asks, forwarding a sample of a scalp expander. It’s imported, he adds, and each costs 50,000-60,000.

With her ‘talking’ phone at her Delhi residence. Photo: Priyanka Parashar/Mint
With her ‘talking’ phone at her Delhi residence. Photo: Priyanka Parashar/Mint

The frequency and scale of surgeries have put severe strain on Sonali. Besides the excessive and prolonged medication that keeps her away from infections, the cosmetic surgeries demand unusual mental strength. Chandi Das Mukherjee, in his 10 years in Delhi’s hospitals looking after his daughter, has seen many give up, such as an 18-year-old boy he knew who died after an ear surgery simply because he couldn’t take the shock. Not his daughter, he says.

For Sonali, every surgery entails strict adherence to the vital parameters, such as blood pressure, blood count, sugar levels and a well-functioning thyroid, apart from steering clear of viral attacks and other casual infections. The period after surgery is often more painful.

Sonali is quick to remember the painful exercises that finally helped her to open her mouth. “After my lips were reconstructed, I was given a dozen ice-cream sticks to insert in my mouth which was practically sealed by the lips. I would insert sticks every hour for the next two months to create a gap, and gosh, it hurt so much,” she says.

After a few surgeries at Safdarjung Hospital and a happy image from the album

How does she do it? “I take extra care. I follow rules to the book. I tell myself that I have to do this. I know if I don’t, the surgeries that have taken 10 years would take 20!” Sonali says.

We met Sonali inside her room at BLK last month. It was time for another surgery—the 25th in 10 years. Chandi Das Mukherjee signed the medical undertaking form taking responsibility if she died after the surgery, a ritual before every surgery. “With every surgery, she is born again,” he says, looking at his daughter lying on a bed covered by a spotless white bedsheet.

After the surgery, Sonali will have to sleep on one side for six weeks, as she has several times in the past, so her reconstructed external ear doesn’t break. To look human again, she willingly bears the pain and prays for more money to fund her remaining surgeries.

 

Sonali’s attackers have been out on bail for the last 10 years.

This story was first published as a Mint-Lounge Cover story.