There are few people in life who leave an everlasting impression on us. Their lives, struggles, and achievements drive us to strive for better, and inspire us long after they are gone.
Some exceptionally talented girls identified from slums across Delhi recently had this experience as they got to interact with the “International Woman of Courage” Laxmi Agarwal. These girls have been awarded the merit based Swabhiman scholarship by Smile Foundation to complete their schooling and higher education.
In the course of the long and candid conversation, Laxmi and her colleague and co-founder of Chhanv Foundation, Ms Rani, invoked the deepest emotions in the girls. While some had their faces wet with tears, others were astounded by the struggle and strength of these incredible women. But the one common thing that remained was every one of them was inspired. At no moment did she ever let herself be branded as a victim – by herself or by others.
Below are a few snippets from the stirring session:
Q: How did you feel when your parents told you not to work and stay at home?
I knew I couldn’t let that happen. They kept saying how I too young to work or go out. But something in me kept pushing. That was the only way for me to do something, only way for me to pursue my dreams of becoming a singer. I told them I couldn’t keep holding their hand, and they couldn’t keep holding on to me. At some point, they would have to let go, and I will have to look out for myself. It was my way of believing in me and gathering my courage.
Q: After the attack, were you always determined to change something and make a difference?
For months after the attack, I had lost hope and I had given up – on myself, on my identity. I wanted to kill myself. I didn’t think it mattered anymore. What the attacker had said to me earlier, before the attack – “You want to do something in your life; you want to make your parents proud, right?” kept ringing in my ear. At that time, how easily I had replied with a ‘Yes’ surprised even me. It felt like that was another Lakshmi talking.
Q: What motivated you to do more and to change your situation and of others around you?
This one time, as I was looking into the mirror, I started talking to myself. While on one hand, I thought life had no meaning anymore, on the other, images of my parents surfaced in front of my eyes. My mother who hadn’t taken a shower in over two months because she was too busy looking after me, or my father who didn’t lie down for a nap so that he could sit next to me in the hospital – I couldn’t do this to them. I would have ended my life in an instant, but they would have died every moment after that.
Q: If you could change one thing, what would it be?
Talk to my parents. I wish I would have talked to my parents more often. I can’t stress enough on how important that is. I made the mistake of not talking to them before my attack, but I didn’t make that mistake again. When I wanted to finish my life, I told my parents what I was feeling. While they couldn’t answer any questions on why this had happened to me, my father stood next to me, put his arm around me, and said, “There is nothing in this world that is impossible. Everything is possible. There will be a day when THIS is the face that you will be proud of. And you will go places in life.” I think that has been my biggest motivation till date.
Q: What would you say to those who stress on how important a girl’s face is?
I don’t think I would be standing here if that were true. I don’t think I would have walked down the ramp or hosted my own television show if that were true. I don’t think you would be listening to me if that were true. But at the same time, I know that’s the common perception of so many people. Ever since I was growing up, I too was told how important my face was – more important than my education, my journey in life, and really, more important than anything else. But I know that isn’t true anymore. The attacker threw acid on my face, not on my dreams and my courage.
Q: How has been your journey since your victory with your PIL to regulate sale of acid in the country?
It was still not easy. The society had rejected me, and I wasn’t surprised. They judge even if your lipstick is too dark a shade, and here I was with a burnt face. I couldn’t find any job because of this. And in 2012, my father passed away, and that made everything a lot worse for me. Then the ‘Stop Acid Attacks’ campaign was launched next year. That was when I realized I was not alone, and that there were so many women who were facing similar struggles as me. Some of them were struggling with worse. That ignited a fire in me – it made me angry. We started a movement. Prior to 2013, acid attack was just one-time breaking news. But today, there are laws, people are aware, and they are talking about it.
Q: What do you envision from here on now?
Right now, we are all focusing on the first ever café run by acid attack survivors – Sheroes Hangout in Agra, Lucknow, and Udaipur. It’s our safe place where we all support each other, and help each other overcome our struggles. I also want to use social media to reach out to the masses even further. I believe it’s one of the most important tools we have today to deliver a message. I want to continue working for what I believe in, because that is what makes a difference in the end – not our faces.
Q: What message would you give to our young scholars today?
Move from ‘Me’ to ‘We’. I ask all of you to think about not just yourself, but others around you. However I will also say, that before I try to change someone else, first it my duty to change myself. Only then can I think of changing anyone else. That is something we must never forget. Today, I am here to do just that, change myself.
Q: What kind of a world do you want your daughter and India’s daughters to grow up in?
A world that is free of acid attacks. A world where no girl wishes she were a boy. A world that is, over anything else, equal.
(Laxmi ended the conversation by inviting the girls to her café. She went on to talk about her love for her daughter Pihu, shared her experience of visiting the USA and receiving the International Woman of Courage Award by Michelle Obama, and also sang a beautiful song in her ever so melodious voice.)