The hospital was an hour away from Haseena’s house, but our journey was filled with conversation, debates and laughter. As soon as we reached the hospital, Haseena felt it was her moral responsibility to warn me of the horrors that lay ahead. And for good reason. She knew that what I was about to witness would haunt and torment me forever. She knew, with the clairvoyance of someone who had been to hell and back, that by the time I emerged from the ward, I would realise that I had walked into a relentless nightmare.
Victoria Hospital, a government-run hospital, is affiliated with the Bangalore Medical College, and has now been renamed Bangalore Medical College and Research Institute. It is the largest hospital in the IT City, set up in 1901 by Shri Krishnaraja Wodeyar, the erstwhile Maharaja of Mysore. Despite its royal heritage, it is pretty much like any other government hospital in India – with standards that would not be acceptable anywhere else in the world.
Once through the door, it took me a while to accept the fact that I was actually there. No amount of forewarning would have prepared me for what I saw, heard and felt.
Firstly, thanks to my ignorance, I had no idea that a ward meant there were more than two patients per room. I also somehow managed to miss out the part that a ward did not have any rooms at all. This one in fact had sixty beds, to be specific, and endless floor space where the less fortunate patients lay. The doctor who was showing us around had a pleasant face and a warm personality that seemed to put me at ease. She warned me that no photography was allowed inside the ward and I soon knew why.
I could not stick to my original plan of breezing through the ward, eyes shut, until I reached my victim Rekha’s bed. Since Haseena was with me, I had to guide her. So my eyes had to be wide open and my steps, painfully slow. And my brain was to register the blood-curdling sights, sounds and odour.
Every step I took, seemed to take me deeper and deeper into a horror film scene. Or worse. I was shocked beyond words. Almost numb. It seemed a never-ending walk to Rekha’s bed at the end of the ward. I walked past women with disfigured faces. In some cases, the face did not even exist. All these women had one thing in common – they were all victims of that one-second of anger that had corroded off their existence. The value of human life or the lack of it, was painfully visible.
As we neared Rekha’s bed, I saw this girl sitting upright on her bed. And she just sat there. She was burnt from head to toe and she just sat there.
It would have given me more comfort if she had cried or yelled or screamed because that is what normal, sane human beings would do. But then it hit me – she was not sane and why would she be? She turned towards our approaching footsteps and kept waving at us in a slow, almost agonising pace.
As I got closer to Rekha, I braced myself. She had no face. Her eyes were bandaged and since Haseena was visually impaired, neither of them could see the horror on my ashen face. Haseena felt me trembling and grabbed my hand to tell me silently that it was going to be all right. I felt weak, foolish. I had always thought I was a strong one. But this moment, this day told me that I knew nothing.
Rekha was too weak to talk, and we thought it would be best that she be allowed to rest. We were about to leave when the doctor asked us if we would like to meet another victim – an acid-attack case that had just come in. Judging by Rekha’s condition, I didn’t even want to imagine what this “fresh” case would be like. But this ward left nothing to imagination. As much as I didn’t have the courage to, I obviously had to talk to her. After all, what kind of a social worker walks away from a victim?
My kind. I was perhaps better off sitting in Delhi, reading up about acid-attack victims. Raising funds. Theoretically I knew everything there was to know about them. I knew that when someone threw acid on you, your face started to melt and fume and practically burn off right on the spot. Having met Rekha, I knew what it was like to live that nightmare.
I signalled to the doctor that I was ready to see this new victim and we again took slow, painful steps to the other end of the ward.
I closed my eyes for a brief second before looking at her face and when I did, I was stunned. Her face was fine. It was normal. I could tell she was in pain and I could see where the acid had hit her because it was about three shades darker than her skin tone, but she was fine. Features intact and everything! I was almost thrilled.
Maybe this was reversible, I was suddenly optimistic. She was going to be just fine and she was the lucky one. My euphoria was short-lived. The doctor told me to take a good look at her and when I started off about how lucky she was, the doctor burst out laughing. A bit insensitive, I thought to myself. But she went on to ask if I actually knew how acid worked. I had a sinking feeling that I was about to be proved wrong about everything I knew, yet again.
The doctor began to explain that acid was a substance that once thrown on someone, cannot be retracted. The first few days in the life of an acid-attack victim were probably the only good ones she would ever have. The darker shades of skin that I could see would start to disintegrate in a couple of days. The area would rip, bleed and melt. These darker patches would destroy all semblance to a human face and eat away this innocent girl’s identity.
As I listened to these words and looked at her face, I was overwhelmed with the urge to shake her, show her a mirror and tell her that this was as normal as her face was ever going to be. I wanted her to see her face, admire it and then say goodbye to it because she had no idea what lay in store for her.
I now knew why victims had so much hope, because they too believed that acid worked in the way I thought it did. The painful part was the illusion of hope that these darker patches gave to the victims. Her face was like looking into the past, looking at something that no longer existed, something that would cease to be in the days to come. I did not see this one coming. I did not think that an intact face could be so much more horrifying that the absence of one.
At that moment, everything I thought I knew, believed and had faith in, was destroyed. Welcome to the burn ward they said. Your life will never be the same and trust me, they were right.
Excerpted with permission from Make Love Not Scars: A Story Of Fighting Back And Winning, Ria Sharma, Westland.