Friday, February 20, 2015

LIFE, HOPE AND ACID: A conversation with Acid Attack fighter Ritu

The first thing you notice about Ritu is not the scar on her faces, but mystical smile which she wears. An extremely young girl, Ritu loved to play Volleyball. She was a promising player and played state level tournaments in Haryana. She wanted to play for India. But on 26th May 2012, an acid attack changed her world.

Ritu was attacked with Acid at a tender age of 16, by a 38 year old man whose “love” for her was not reciprocated. Ritu has been covered by media extensively. Haryana government played a crucial role and helped her extensively after the attack.

What follows is an excerpt from a long conversation I had with Ritu. Interview was originally taken in Hindi. It has been translated for the readers of LokMarg.

Nihal: Ritu, you love to ride bikes?

Ritu: Yes. Few days back a group of Bullet bikers came to our cafe here. Many people came. I know how to ride Activa. I always wanted to learn riding a Bullet bike. I will learn driving a car later (laughs). I do not need a car right now. I love bike riding.

Nihal: So, you were able to ride a Bullet?

Ritu: No. I got my photos with Bullet! (laughs)

Nihal: That’s even better! So, as far as I know you are from Rohtak? How is the place?

Ritu: Yes, I am from Rohtak. Everybody loves their hometown. It is a nice place. It feels good to be in Rohtak. Just few days back decision came in my case, so I had to go to Rohtak. I tried playing Volleyball again.

Nihal: How was it- playing your favourite game after so many days?

Ritu: I tried playing after two and a half years later. My hands swelled. I was also very busy in Rohtak. I had to interact with many media people.

Ritu interacts with a smile in Sheroes Hangout
Nihal: Where did you play Volleyball in Rohtak? Is there any academy where girls can play?

Ritu: There is a ground in our school. Our teacher used to make us play there. 

Nihal: Which school was this?

Ritu: Saini High School. Earlier I studied in S.D High School which was a private school. But we were five siblings. Our parents could not afford private school for everybody. So I moved to a government school. It was also a good school.

Nihal: Is it problematic for girls to live in Haryana? There are many media reports which suggest this. Was it difficult for you to play Volleyball in Rohtak?

Ritu: Not really. Many girls play volleyball. Parents want their children to do well in life why will they stop them.

But I used to live in a city, in Rohtak district. My cousins in villages were supposed to wear only traditional indian dresses, and used to work inside home- doing various household work. If there is a marriage in our family, only men from villages would come. No woman was allowed to come out of village. But my father was very supportive. He would take me wherever he used to go.

Nihal: Who all are in your family?

Ritu: My mother, father, my three brothers and one sister. My elder brother is married, and has two children as well. One of my brothers recently got a government job. He has gone for training.

Nihal: In a short while you have travelled to many places. You are living in Agra. Earlier you were in Delhi for sometime. How has been they journey?

Ritu: I was in Delhi for five months. I was living at ‘Chhanv’ (shelter home of Stop Acid Attacks campaign). I can sense a change in society. People are supportive now. We were on a hunger strike at Jantar Mantar in December. People in large numbers came for our support. Many new people also joined our campaign.

Nihal: What was the Court’s decision in your case?

Ritu: Three people got life sentence, and two people got 10 years of imprisonment. 

Nihal: When were you attacked?

Ritu: May 26, 2012.

Nihal: Was it one person who attacked you, or more people were invoked in the attack?

Ritu: It was a group of eighteen people. Somebody gave his bike, somebody gave something else. When everybody was caught, ten people were left, as they were not really aware of the acid attack.

Nihal: Who was the main culprit who attacked you?

Ritu: Ram Niwas.

Nihal: Where is Ram Niwas now?

Ritu: He has been sentenced life imprisonment.

Nihal: How old is Ram Niwas?

Ritu: He must be forty-one years old now. I do not know what was he thinking. He used to like me…

Nihal: So, when he attacked he was thirty-eight years old?

Ritu: Yes. Two years back he must have been this old.

Nihal: Where did he see you?

Ritu: He was my aunt’s son- cousin.

(Silence for a while)

Nihal: So, he used to come to your home regularly.

Ritu: Yes. When his sister was diagnosed with cancer, it was my parents who took care of her. Their family just left her in our home and went away.

He used to say if I were not his cousin then he would have married me. Whenever he used to call my family, he would talk with everyone. He would ask to handover the phone to me. I used to refuse it. I stopped taking to him after a while.

Nihal: Now that you are associated with the Stop Acid Attacks campaign, how has been the experience here?

Ritu: It has been seven months since I have been part of the campaign. It has been a great experience. Earlier I used to cover my face always. After joining the campaign, I have stopped covering it.

I had stopped wearing red dresses after the attack. The day I was attacked, I was wearing a red dress. I had bought a red dress on 18th of May for birthday celebration of my niece. But I could not wear that dress on her birthday, instead I wore a black dress. I thought it is a new dress, let me have it only for a photograph. I love posing for camera (smiles).

Nihal: Yes, I can see that!

Ritu: So, after having a photograph in that dress, I changed it. After that day, I wore that dress only on 26th of May. It was for the first time I went out in that dress.

Nihal: Where were you going?

Ritu: I had gone for a volleyball game. I had played state level volleyball. I wanted to play national level as well…

The two girls who were present with me when I was attacked, left playing volleyball. Their family members were scared. One of them has started playing now.

Nihal: What was people’s reaction earlier?

Ritu: Earlier people behaved very strangely. Everybody was nice to me. But I could sense their pity. Now that I am part of the campaign, working properly, and roam around without covering my face, people have again changed. They are behaving normally now.

Nihal: For how many years you were able to play volleyball?

Ritu: For three years. I was not a great player, but was always in the ground. In volleyball a team comprises of 12 people, but only 6 people play in ground. Rest are extras. My brothers always asked me if I were in extra or on ground! Once my brother’s friend saw me playing. He told my brother that I play really well.

I used to go out of Rohtak for at least 3 tournaments every year. When I went out for the first time, everybody from our camp told that we will return as a loser. Our team never won any prize. I asked them to bet with me! We got second place in the tournament.

Nihal: Tell me something about Sheroes Hangout. I have noticed that you have taken full charge of the place here. You are working as the team leader here.

Ritu: When I joined the campaign, everybody treated me as a kid. I was also careless. If I am talking to someone, then work used to take a backseat. Now I have realised it is important to work as well. People take you seriously only when you show your seriousness towards work.

I look after accounts here. And also maintain the library.

Nihal: Do you also read books from the library?

Ritu handles Sheroes Hangout from behind the counter
Ritu: I am not very comfortable with English. Hindi books are available, but there is no time to read books. (After a pause) It is good that I am working with Sheroes Hangout. Earlier whenever I was alone, I used to think why did it happen with me. I could not think anything else. Even now whenever I am alone, I think about the attack. But for past few days, I have been able to keep myself fully occupied. Sheroes takes a lot of time.

Nihal: Yes, I notice that you people come here at 10 in the morning and stay till almost midnight!

Ritu: Yes. We go to home only to sleep and get fresh!

Nihal: What was your family’s reaction after the attack?

Ritu: My family supported me immensely. Of course they were tensed and worried. Just few days after the attack, my father fell from the bed and got fractures around his waist. The first operation was not successful. Second operation has been successful. He is bedridden for almost a year.

Nihal: Do you talk to him regularly?

Ritu: Yes, I try to. But here the schedule is very busy. Whenever he calls, I am busy. And by the time I get free, everybody in the family has already slept.

Nihal: You have a beautiful smile. Everybody must be complementing you for it?

Ritu: (Laughs) Thank you. There is a customer who comes here regularly. Her mother also comes. She has also liked my facebook page. she always says that she flips through the page and searches for a photo where I am smiling.

Nihal: And there are so many beautiful pictures here. These have been taken by Rahul Saharan? (the photos were hanging on the walls of Sheroes Hangout)

Ritu: Yes, Rahul bhaiya took these photos. He wanted to take the photos of clothes designed by Rupa didi. Earlier professional models were supposed to wear the dresses designed by Rupa di. But somebody suggested why should we hire models when we all are there! So we (Acid Attack survivors) posed for Rahul bhaiya.

Nihal: That is so good. And do you handle your Facebook page as well?

Ritu: Not always. Alok bhaiya does that. I visit it everyday. I am always occupied here. And there is too much to think as well..

Nihal: About what?

Ritu: I always think Rupa didi is known as a designer, I should also be known as a painter.

Nihal: You like painting?

Ritu: I liked playing volleyball. But now I cannot. I tried it twice. The first time I tried it after one year of attack. The ball hit my face. Now I cannot see the ball. Because of my left eye, my right eye has also developed some problem. (pauses for a while)

Now I want to learn something. People know me because I am part of this campaign. But people must know me for what I am.

Nihal: What does Ritu like the most?

Ritu: I love shopping (laughs)! But now I do not shop much.

I feel no one should hurt anyone. I cannot hurt anyone. There are few people who get pleasure in this. They must not do it. Everybody loves chocolate- even I love it. But I love to share chocolate. It gives a sense of satisfaction.

Nihal: Which chocolate you love?

Ritu: (Smiles) Dairy Milk.

Nihal: How old are you, Ritu?

Ritu: Nineteen years old.

Nihal: Nineteen years?

Ritu: yes, why?

Nihal: No, I was not aware of it. What did you study?

Ritu: Till tenth grade.

Nihal: And after that?

Ritu: I was attacked.

Nihal: You did not study at all after the attack?

Ritu: I could not see properly after the attack. (there was a silence for a short while)

And she laughs, always!
Nihal: Which is your favourite film?

Ritu: ‘Vivaah’. I really like it. But i rarely see any film.

Nihal: And your favourite actor?

Ritu: I love Salman Khan! (laughs) I also want to meet Aamir Khan. Aamir Khan was supposed to come here. But he could not.

Nihal: You plan to stay in Agra for a long time?

Ritu: Yes. I am here for a long time. I have not thought much about it. But have decided that I will prove to them I am living a very good and meaningful life. They are behind the bars. But they must have thought that eitherI would either die or be alone for my entire life. I want to show them from my work that I am leading a meaningful life. Whatever you did with me is past. Now I am leading life on my terms. I am special. I would like to thank him someday for whatever he did with me… (silence for a while)

Nihal: You get angry at times?

Ritu: Initially. I used to think it would have been better if he had killed me. At least I would not have to live with this face. But now, I love my face.

People are changing. I can see that. If everybody changes for better, thinks good about others, it will be so good. Few days back one customer came. He had a long conversation with me. Then he told me he has learned a lot of things from our conversation. I never thought this could happen.

Nihal: You want to say something to people who are reading this interview?

Ritu: Yes. I would like to address other Acid Attack survivors. There are many survivors who have still not come out in the open. It is important that they come out and fight for their rights- fight with the society. Fight for themselves. If one person takes a step, then the journey becomes easier for many others.

Nihal: Just like you!

With this we signed off. The long conversation with Ritu was full of positivity and hope. One can sense a deep love for human life in her. She taught me how beautiful this life is.

This interview was first published on on February 3, 2015

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