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April 23, 2013

Saving Sonali

A 27-year-old acid attack victim in India desperately wanted to end her life — until she landed a spot on the country's hottest game show.


Photo Credit: Europics/Newscon

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In 2003, Sonali Mukherjee was a vivacious 17-year-old college student living in Dhanbad in eastern India when her life was devastated by three male neighbors. The men sexually harassed Mukherjee every morning as she left for class. When she threatened to tell police, the men crept into her room one night and doused her with acid. She was brutally disfigured: The acid burned off most of her face, leaving her almost blind and partially deaf.

Although there are no figures for acid attacks in India, they're almost always perpetrated against women — as are nine-tenths of all violent crimes in India — and activists say such crimes are on the rise. Worse, many perpetrators escape severe punishment. (Mukherjee's three attackers were each sentenced to nine years in prison but were released after serving a little more than two.)

During the next nine years, Mukherjee underwent 22 painful reconstructive surgeries that bankrupted her family. Last year, needing still more surgery that she couldn't afford, the despondent Mukherjee wanted to end her life. "I thought it would be better to die," she says. Because euthanasia is illegal in India, Mukherjee wrote a letter to the government requesting permission.

Then something extraordinary happened. Before the government replied, Mukherjee's heart-wrenching letter was leaked to the media and went viral. Moved by her story, a producer on the country's most popular TV quiz show, Kaun Banega Crorepati (KBC), India's version of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire, asked her to appear. Mukherjee saw the invitation as a possible lifeline — if she won, it might help fund her treatment.

Last November, millions watched as Mukherjee, wearing dark glasses and a red scarf around her scarred face, discussed her plight. "For years, I have only left the house to go to the hospital. It has been like a jail," she said. Members of the studio audience were in tears.

Mukherjee went on to answer 10 questions correctly, winning the jackpot of 2.5 million rupees ($46,000). The audience erupted with joy. Mukherjee says the prize money helped pay for her next round of surgery and restored her will to live. "I know I will never be beautiful again, but now people tell me that my courage and words are beautiful."

By exposing millions of viewers to her tragedy, Mukherjee also helped highlight the problem of acid attacks. After years of inaction, in February the Indian government approved a law that would imprison acid attackers for 10 years to life. The Supreme Court also directed officials to discuss regulating the sale of acid, and to set up a fund for victims. Mukherjee believes the outpouring of sympathy generated by her appearance helped to spur the legislation. The brave survivor says that when she recovers from her operations, she plans to devote herself to speaking out on behalf of other acid attack victims. "I don't want what was done to me done to any other girls," she says.

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