New Delhi: "Main bahut himmatwali thi (I had lots of guts)", she says looking at you with eyes reduced to unseeing opaque white mottled orbs and her once-pretty face a mass of melted flesh. But acid attack victim Sonali Mukherjee is still a fighter, as she battles all odds for justice.
She was fast asleep on the terrace of her house in Dhanbad, Jharkhand, on the night of April 22, 2003, when she felt the burning liquid splashed on her - melting away the flesh on her face, neck, the right part of her chest and lower torso... That horrific acid attack on Mukherjee when she was barely 18 also ended her dreams of a beautiful future.
"Meri zindagi khatam ho jayegi, pata nahin tha (My life would finish, I did not know," Mukherjee told IANS.
The three men responsible, including a married man, were held and two of them were even convicted. But they got bail from the Jharkhand High Court. Ms Mukherjee and her father, who has sold all his land and family jewels in her treatment and in legal fees, are fighting to get the bail cancelled, coping with threats from the accused, besides paying innumerable visits to hospitals for her treatment.
Ms Mukherjee was studying sociology honours in Dhanbad women's college and also juggling a job with a private firm and was part of the National Cadet Corps when the acid attack ruined her life. She was a very pretty girl then, as one could see from the photographs her father shows the IANS correspondent.
The three men, one of who was in his 40s and one was an 18-year-old, would tail her everyday, pass lewd comments and harass her.
"When it increased, I decided to protest. I had lots of guts then... I was part of the NCC and was a senior sergeant...I told them to stop troubling me or I will complain to the police," Ms Muherjee said.
The three accused, who she named as - Tapas Mitra, Sanjay Paswan, and Bhrahmadev Hajra - told her that she had become very "ghamandi" (arrogant) and they would teach her a lesson. She told her father of the incident and he in turn complained to the families of the three men.
Nothing happened for one and a half months. And then the men struck back, pouring acid on her as she lay asleep alongside her sister and father on the terrace. "It was 2 a.m., that night. I never thought this would ever happen to me."
Her father has spent Rs.10-15 lakh in the court cases and on her treatment. They have also borrowed Rs.3-4 lakh from relatives, who are demanding the money back. Her father, Chandidas Mukherjee, who had a menial job in a mill earning about Rs 5,000 a month, has given up his job. He makes ends meet by working as a pujari (priest) in homes.
The youngest of the three men was let off on account of being a juvenile, while the other two were convicted and sentenced by the district court in 2006 to nine year jail. However, they appealed in the high court, which granted them bail.
"In the six years since I have not been granted hearing by the high court," she said.
Ms Mukherjee said she and her father have met the chief minister of Jharkhand, all the legislators, and MPs, but all she got was "aashwasan (assurances).. nothing else".
She has also approached the union women and child development ministry and has been assured of help.
Her younger sister, who also suffered acid burns on her hands and feet, was married off early. "We were getting threats and did not want it to ruin her life, so we got her married off."
Ms Mukherjee has approached Safdarjung Hospital for treatment, but has been told to wait as they have lots of patients, she said.
Her treatment in private clinics will cost over Rs.10 lakh, which she does not have.
Recalling the days immediately after the attack, Mukherjee said all she remembers is waking up in excruciating pain. "I would scream in pain, and fall unconscious.. I was like that for six months...I would tell god to kill me."
The acid melted her nose, her right ear and some of it went into her ear drum, but luckily it did not enter her brain. She can't hear from her right ear, which as she shows by lifting her dupatta, is reduced to a small glob of flesh.
Doctors took skin from her thighs and grafted it on her nose and cheeks, to give it a modicum of shape.
"I want justice, or allow me to end my life," says Ms Mukherjee.