Published: 13th January 2018
From a 17-year-old acid attack victim to a 25-year-old survivor: Here's Rani's journey
Just a vial of it was all it took to change her life and turn her world upside down. And the bearer of it? A soldier. A man in uniform who took an oath of ‘Service Before Self’. What irony!
Pramodini Roul looks at an old passport-size photograph in front of her. The photograph is of a pretty 17-year-old school girl. Everyone called her Rani. Let’s call her that too. Her cheeks are chubby, her hair is thick and curly, and her skin...flawless. She loved going to school. A headstrong teenager, she knew what she wanted to be in life. She wanted to be an IPS officer — one of the khaki-clad saviours who always stand up for women and rescue young girls from the harassment they face. That young girl was Pramodini, eight years ago.
It is hard for anyone to recognise that version of Rani now. Her lustrous black hair is gone, her face is disfigured, and her flawless skin...scarred. She could barely see. But what remains is her unbreakable spirit and her dreams. No acid was strong enough to kill her spirit.
Yes, acid! Just a vial of it was all it took to change her life and turn her world upside down. And the bearer of it? A soldier. A man in uniform who took an oath of ‘Service Before Self’. What irony!
This was in 2009. Santosh Kumar Bedanta, was then a 28-year-old paramilitary officer in a camp in Cuttack, Odisha, near Rani's house. Rani's beauty caught the soldier's eye, who without a second thought approached her. "I politely said no to him. After all, I was just 17. I was in school. I had to work hard to make my dreams come true," says Rani. Later, he approached her parents too, who gave the same response as her. But Santosh couldn't take it. How dare she? What he did next was nothing short of heinous.
"I was going home with my cousin and I was riding pillion on his bicycle. All of a sudden, two men in a motorbike came next to us and poured acid over my head," she recalls, in horror. Her cousin didn't know what to do. No one there had seen an acid attack before. She was rushed to a hospital, but obviously lacked the initial first aid. She was burnt beyond recognition, she lost her eyesight and she was left paralysed.
But Rani was adamant. She wanted to make sure that the monster who killed her dreams was brought to justice. But this blind girl couldn't do much. Her case was dismissed due to lack of evidence. But she wasn't going to give up. She was a born fighter. She continued her treatment. She wanted to see the world again.
It was during one of those sessions when she met Saroj Sahoo. 2014, to be precise. "Saroj's friend was a nurse in the hospital where I was getting treated. I was hospitalised many times and was even in a coma once. Saroj would see me and my mother and one day, we started talking," narrates Rani, "It was an instant connection with Saroj. I was going through a very tough phase in life and he was my only source of motivation. We would talk for hours.”
Later, Saroj quit his job to become a social worker and help Rani. It was then that he started developing feelings for her. "I remember someone teasing Saroj with my name and asking him if he would want to marry me. He said yes. I was shocked," she says. A couple of years later, Saroj proposed to Rani and she blissfully accepted.
That moment in her life got the ball rolling. Rani’s life took a beautiful turn. Things were coming back to her, one thing at a time. She started walking again. She moved with Saroj to Delhi to work with Chhanv Foundation, supporting other victims of acid attacks. With the support of volunteers, she later travelled all the way to Chennai to get her eye surgery done at Sankara Nethralaya last July.
"I was very hopeful. They performed surgery on my left eye and I was told that my vision would be restored in two weeks," she says. But two weeks passed, then four, then eight. And Rani was still in darkness. She was slowly losing all hope. Until September. One day, when Rani and Saroj were flying back to Delhi from Mumbai, she felt something very different happen to her. "Saroj, I see light!" she exclaimed. Slowly, she began seeing colours again, clouds and, of course, Saroj's face for the first time.
Now that the light was back in her life, she had to do something; she had to fight for justice. "I promised myself that the day I get my eyesight back, I'll make sure that I put my attacker behind bars," she recalls. Rani's case was reopened soon after she met the Odisha CM, Naveen Patnaik. Santosh, who was appointed at a military camp in Jammu and Kashmir, was arrested in November. Though he tried to abscond, the police later arrested him in West Bengal. Today, he is behind bars and has been slapped with a non-bailable sentence.
"I'm happy that justice has been served. What kind of a person is he? How can someone ever do something so heinous? I hope his case serves as a lesson to others who intend to indulge in these crimes," says Rani, bravely.
So, what happened to Rani's dreams? They have new wings now, she says. "I can't become an IPS officer now, I know that. But I want to be a campaigner and an activist. I want to make sure that more survivors come back to life," she says.
Rani may not look like the 17-year-old in the passport-size photograph anymore, but she isn't a scarred 25-year-old either. Love and hope are fading her scars away.