A Dancer’s Search for Her Face

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Eight years after an acid attack, a woman finds a reason to live

In the church of Transfiguration, which is across the road from where she lives, the bells ring and prayers begin. Jesus, as the believers report, underwent transfiguration upon a mountain, which made him radiant.

The faceless woman is seeking her own transfiguration. When they assemble for their evening prayers, she sits in her dark room with an ice box and a bottle of whisky, to forget that the road to her own transformation is fraught with many uncertainties. Sometimes she wishes she dies. Four times after an acid attack melted away her face, and the corrosive liquid destroyed her eyes, she tried to kill herself, only to be rescued.

She survives her days patting her dog, listening to Hindi film songs about unrequited love, cooking and cleaning. It is only in the evenings that she begins to panic. That’s when she downs those numerous pegs. Helps her sleep through the long nights, she says.

It has been eight years since the acid attack one December evening.

Anu Mukherjee, now 33, was beautiful once. She cannot see what the acid has done. She can only run her fingers over her face and feel the damage in its scars, and a half-reconstructed nose, and above what were once her eyes, she can now feel little hair sprouting in the shape of eyebrows. She can feel her stitched-up skin. Her eyes were so badly destroyed in the attack that she could not even shed tears for the next few months.

She hopes to get multiple surgeries done, but she may never reclaim her lost face. Perhaps she could get what’s close to a human face, with features in place, but not what she owned and was proud of. Her face, and her two magical feet that danced to film music. The magic of her feet is still there.

She still dances. Because dance is also a state of trance. She forgets the itch on her face, the burning sensation she sometimes feels, and the fact that she needs money for all her surgeries that are pending. She forgets that hope is such a sly little firefly, the bitter truth that she may not be able to see again, and that behind those dark glasses of hers, there are no eyes, only flesh.

Sometimes, she sings and smiles through a song: “Hoshwaalon ko khabar kya, bekhudi kya cheez hai…” (What do conscious people know, what it’s like to be enraptured.) And then in the same vein, another song: “Dil mera tod diya usne, bura kyun maanoo…” (He has broken my heart, why should I take it badly?) And another: “Usko haq hai voh mujhe pyaar kare ya na kare…” (It’s his right whether to love me or not.)

The phone rings. She knows it is her new lover, a man she met at a temple in South Delhi two years ago. She tripped and fell, and he helped her get on her feet. She mumbled a ‘sorry’. They met again near the shrine, and then once more. He drove up to her, and asked if she needed a ride. She hesitated for a moment, but agreed. In the car, he asked her if she would tell him about her life and the scars on her face. She recounted the story. They exchanged numbers.

He is married with a daughter. But everyone is looking for a little love, or for a little extra to fill their empty hours. Lala Ji, she says, is a nice man from a village near Faridabad. Simpleton, but has money, and can afford to send her Blender’s Pride bottles. She can manage to speak a few lines in broken English. She wears Western attire and drinks with him, and projects an image of a liberal, outgoing woman. For him, it is a new experience.

Anu Mukherjee was the victim of a woman who she claims was jealous of her beauty and success as a bar dancer. The December attack in 2004 was about jealousy, she says, and betrayal. Meena Khan was a friend who stayed in her house, and whose wedding she attended. Both of them were bar dancers. In time, they became rivals.

In Anu’s court statement, she said, ‘[Meena Khan] was envious of me and I was more beautiful and was a good dancer and for this reason she used to hate me. During that quarrel, the accused, Simran (alias of Meena Khan), threatened me…and said “Agar mujhse panga legi toh” she would get acid thrown on me and would get me killed.’ In the FIR she had lodged with the police, Anu said Meena Khan was mad at her because she danced better than her and was the No 1 dancer for four years in a row at Rajdoot Hotel in Delhi’s Jangpura locality.

On 19 December 2004, just as she had stepped into Parvez Alam’s autorickshaw to go to Rajdoot Hotel, a man lifted his shawl and hurled acid on her face. The man, Anu later said in her statement in court, was her friend Simran’s brother.

Meena Khan and her brother were sentenced by trial courts after the case dragged on in Delhi’s Patiala House  court for about six years.

The second betrayal, Anu says, was by the man she earlier loved. She had met him at the bar, and he’d slipped her a note with his number; at Rajdoot, where Anu was among a dozen girls who danced in the bar in two shifts—6 to 9 pm and from 9 pm to midnight—customers could not speak to women on the premises. But she knew he was enamoured of her.

That’s the narrative she plays in her mind. In order to forgive, or perhaps make herself feel less betrayed, or at least not utterly worthless. She remembers her bar dancing stint in glorious terms. She wore expensive clothes and danced to Bollywood numbers, swaying, swinging and loving it. She also took care of her younger brother Raju. Given her situation, regretting the choices she had to make would not have helped matters.

Anu was born in Kalibari, Kolkata. Her father was an advocate, she says, and mother a housewife. She has two elder sisters. When she speaks of home, her voices trails off as if she is in a faraway land. It was a kuchcha house with many rooms and a tin roof. In those days, slums hadn’t yet subsumed the city.

Here they were. A family with daughters and a yearning for a son. The daughters went to school, the mother cooked and cleaned, and the father worked to provide for them all. But Anu’s aunt, her mother’s sister who lived in Delhi’s Mehrauli area, was a barren woman. She wanted a child and asked Anu’s parents if she could adopt her. Anu was barely three when she came to live with her aunt and her husband, a wealthy trader of gems and stones.

That was too long ago. Memories have now blurred, except that she remembers her aunt as abusive. She did attend a school, and later worked at a factory cutting threads to earn money. A brother was born almost a decade later, and her parents sent the boy, too, to the aunt. That’s how Raju came to live with Anu.

When Anu reached adolescence, her aunt tried to pimp her. In shock, Anu decided to move out. She had made a few friends, and one of them, a slightly older girl called Seema, took Anu and her brother under her family’s roof. Anu did the housework and kept her factory job.

The aunt tried to pressure her into returning, but she wouldn’t. One day, her parents died in a car crash, and Anu was suddenly an orphan.

Anu loved dancing. She and Seema used to play Bollywood songs and imitate the steps. They would choreograph their own moves. One Sunday, they came across a classified ad in a newspaper: Rajdoot Hotel was looking for dancers. The two girls went over to the hotel and were asked to dance. “They selected me,” says Anu, “Seema was asked to come back later with more practice.” At first, she borrowed clothes from other girls, sequin ghagra-cholis, and was rather shy. The other bar dancers in the city’s only dance bar (back then) hung around the pool, cigarettes dangling from their glossy lips as they sipped their drinks before their shift began.

Rajdoot Hotel, she says, was a safe space. Customers couldn’t approach the girls directly. They could pass on their numbers, and it was entirely up to the dancers if they wanted to call. She called a few men, went to discotheques with them, and had an affair with one who was married but promised to leave his wife. Not that she wanted him to. She was in love, and willing to make sacrifices for moments of togetherness.

After the acid attack, he left her. He couldn’t bear the stench of her disfigured flesh. She felt betrayed. She had thought love was deeper than just sex. “Imagine having lost a face that everyone loved, you loved,” she says, “Imagine losing your eyes, imagine losing everything because you lost your face.”

Anu’s brother Raju, who was 14 when she was attacked and had to drop out of school, is a quiet man. Only in a discotheque, with music rattling the senses and alcohol reviving the courage of his memory, does he speak about those days. “When I used to see others attending school, I used to feel bad,” he says, “I used to cook, clean, work and see her go through those horrible days. We have seen tough times, real harsh times. I would cook, feed her, and go without eating for days. I used to earn a mere

Rs 2,800. I’d get up, wash her clothes, cook, and then had to latch her room because she’d want to kill herself all the time, and go to work. I still can’t sleep.”

At night, Raju roams the streets of Delhi’s underbelly. He doesn’t reveal what he does to run the household. “I am not into bad dealings,” is all he says, laughing, “But I have had to do certain things. Otherwise, how would I be able to take care of her?”

He indulges her and doesn’t interfere with her faith or newfound relationship. Anu had given up on religion after the attack that left her blind, but says she believes in Christianity now and visits churches. In her dark room, there is a shrine to Jesus Christ. He is her saviour. “Praise the Lord,” she sings.

On Sundays, she joins a congregation in an open field in Faridabad, Jivan Dham, led by a high priestess called Mani Di and her family. It is run on a school campus, and the priestess invokes the poor and the infirm, the sad and the hopeless, to praise the Lord. On stage, she then calls upon divinity as a witness to miracles. “We call you God. We thank you, Lovely God,” she says over a microphone, “Please forgive our sins. For our redemption, you carried the cross. We pray that you will always fill us with hope. Please remove our struggles and pain. Absolve us of our sins.”

Anu, led by her maid Lakshmi and a woman she calls ‘Mummy’, walks to the middle of the congregation and sits in the shade, her hands folded and face covered with a chunni, like a veil.

“You say ‘Come to me, I will give you rest’,” the voice continues.

A man in a wheelchair leans forward.

“Fear not, I am with you.”


Hands go up in the air, invoking the messiah. Anu’s hands sway faster than anyone else’s. Everyone is chanting in unison, and at first it is like a murmur of bees, and then like the drone of planes.

“Pain of the waist, loss of eyes, loss of limbs… Praise the Lord. Alleviate their pain, Lord.”

Anu is joyous. She has been coming here for years. She was once in hospital after having jumped from her fourth floor apartment in Garhi. Ended up with a broken leg. A nurse advised her to go to the Faridabad congregation. The hospital staff even took her there, though she had said she would believe only if God made her walk again.

It happened. “You know, I just stood up and I walked,” she says, “Since then, I have come here regularly. When all doors are closed, God opens his arms. Doctors can say anything. I know I will be fine.”

After the songs and prayers are done, Anu walks up to the woman for whose blessings everyone has queued up. She falls at her feet.

“I want my face and eyes. I don’t want to be dependent on others,” she says later in the car, “Maybe I will open a beauty parlour.”

Dr Kaushik Nandi, a specialist in cosmetic, plastic and reconstructive surgery, has been trying to help Anu get a face. Not what she lost. A new face.

For her eyebrows, his team has taken strands of hair from the nape of her neck. “See, they are arrow-shaped,” she says, pleased, touching her new eyebrows.  For her face, skin has been peeled off her thighs and sides, and they will soon take some more skin from her arms.

On 12 June, she threw a birthday party. She says she is 30. She isn’t. What she wants is timelessness; she wants to be 30 when she gets her face back, the right age to begin afresh. She had been waiting to celebrate her birthday. She undertook many trips to find the right sari, the right sandals, the right bag. Her bag is a deep shade of blue. Net, with sequins all over: “I felt the embroidery and liked this.” Her blouse, with strings at the back, is inspired by Bollywood. Her bangles were bought in a market near Hanuman Mandir, in Connaught Place. “That’s where you get the best ones.”

She spent about Rs 10,000 on all this. She even bought Lakshmi a pink sari, got herself a facial, and called a beautician home to apply makeup. Crates of Bacardi Breezers were ordered. There was whisky too. And cashew nuts, and fruits and kebabs and biryani, and Anu made the raita herself.

Her lover promised her a gold chain.

“He calls through the day,” she says, “After my first relationship, I swore off men. But he is just so caring. I am falling in love bit by bit. It is a different kind of love. We haven’t had any physical contact, but I know he loves me. Soul love.”

The idea of love fascinates Anu. With or without a face—or eyes. You feel love, she says.

A few years ago, a TV crew had shot a short film on her tragedy. She plays the disc. It’s her story. She is wearing an orange kurta, the same that she wears in a photo that hangs in her living room. She is laughing in it. The small apartment she shares with her brother and a friend, and her dog Frooty, is windowless. The walls are orange, and she has bought a new double-door fridge on instalments and a rexine leather sofa set. On the walls, hang two stuffed hearts. There is a clock that keeps the hour, and each time the longer hand touches the 12 numeric, the alarm goes off.

In the film, shot soon after the attack, she sits on a bed, and narrates her story to the sound of a sad tune. Towards the end, Anu pleads for help. She says how she has even approached Sonia Gandhi, but has not heard from her.

In January 2011, the judgment finally came. Meena Khan, alias Simran, and her brother Raju, alias Qayoom, the co-accused, were sentenced to five years of rigorous imprisonment. Anu did not know about it until it was reported in the papers.

Since the attack, Anu has changed many apartments. She used to receive threats from Meena Khan. The main accused and her brother had been chargesheeted under Sections 307/ 326/120 B (attempt to murder/causing grievous hurt/criminal conspiracy). The court acquitted them for ‘attempt to murder’ but sentenced them under the other two sections.

Both women came from poor families. Both were ambitious. Both were beautiful. Anamika (Anu) and Simran (Meena), the names they had adopted, were both good dancers in the opinion of one Babbuji from Rajdoot Hotel.

The court announced a compensation of Rs 1.5 lakh, which wasn’t enough for the surgeries she needed. Meanwhile, a PIL by Aparna Bhatt, counsel for the Delhi Commission for Women, is pending in the Supreme Court asking the Government to ban sales of acid over the counter. Bhatt, who has led an agitation for better compensation for acid attack victims and a stringent separate law to deal with such cases, had filed a writ petition on behalf of Laxmi—herself a victim of an acid attack in 2006. During this case, the Law Commission asked that a new Section 326 A be inserted in the Indian Penal Code for such cases that would award a jail term of 10 years to life imprisonment and a fine of up to Rs 10 lakh. Under the current law, says Anu, an acid attack is termed a ‘grievous injury’, the penalties for which fail to deter such vile crimes. “I want to make sure they shut down acid manufacturing units in the country,” she says.

Until last year, Anu wanted a harsher sentence for Meena. Now, she has moved on. Meena’s punishment will not help her. Her new religion has also taught her not to harbour such feelings. She has forgiven her tormentor.

At the beginning, her former patrons had been of help. But not for long. A few are still around. But she has run into huge debts, and worries how she will pay for her surgeries.

On her birthday, Anu was all dolled up. Glossy lips and ironed hair. She even had matching nail paint with little golden hearts. She wore heels after eight years. A young girl called Payal, who Anu says is her cousin, was there too. Lakshmi, Payal, Raju and Santosh, her brother’s friend, waited for guests.

By nine o’clock, she was upset. She had expected 25 people, but, apart from the hosts, there was just one Surjit, an old patron from her Rajdoot days, who came with a friend. And a man called Vijay.

“All men are the same,” she leans forward and whispers, “I don’t trust them anymore.”

She had sat on the edge of the bed at her party, her legs dangling, holding her glass of whisky. Her lover hadn’t come. And he hadn’t brought her the promised gold chain. She had just begun falling in love with him. After her first lover abandoned her, she had vowed to keep her distance from men. But you can’t keep running away from love, she says. “You run after them and they ruin you,” she says, trying to wipe away her tears.

After they operated on her to graft her eyebrows, they had opened up her eye sockets a bit, allowing a few teardrops to fall. Only a few, though. “But let’s not talk about such things. Let’s not talk about things that hurt. Too many surgeries are pending. Maybe I won’t survive. It is my birthday. Let us celebrate.”

She took a sip, adjusted her hair, and asked if the guests wanted another drink. Later, she danced. In a tight space between the refrigerator and a wrought iron bed, she swayed to the music of Jism. Her hands slithered over her frame, lingering on the curves, and her lips quivered as her hair fell all over her face. She scooped it up, and let it fall again. And then did it again. With her breasts heaving with her movements, she danced in that little space with complete abandon.

When she was a bar dancer, she would down several glasses of alcohol before going on to stage, where she would heave, sigh, twitch her lips, and wink at the men. And that was how she danced on her ‘30th birthday’. It was as if she was reclaiming herself.

Lala Ji called to say his mother was ill and would not be coming. Anu drank another glass, and tended to her guests—and her dog, who she calls her ‘daugh-ter’. Frooty is two years old, and is a pampered dog with silver anklets and birthday cakes.

Once she gave up on the rest of her guests, Raju lit the candles and helped her blow them out and cut the cake.

In her earlier life, men used to shower money on her, some of them even love. She had many admirers. She was young and full-bodied. She laughed easily. Her album pictures are a testimony to her years of youth and beauty, of love and wealth. She drove a Honda City, had the arrogance of a woman who knew she could get it all. After working in Rajdoot for three years, she was approached by a man who said Mumbai would make her famous. She left to work in Maya Bar in Mumbai and stayed in Bandra with other bar dancers. It wasn’t like Delhi. They’d mingle with the men, and the men would tip them directly, those crisp Rs 10 notes, and they’d dance in the aisles close to whoever beckoned them. Free and flirty.

Then, there was the sea. She loved the sea. Mumbai made her fall in love with its damp air, freedom and culture. She lived there for three happy years. Nobody would judge her for what she did, and the multitude just understood the yearnings and struggles of a young woman. But she returned to Delhi after a fight with one of the girls, and got back to Rajdoot. The next three years flew by.

‘Aak, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you.’ Letters etched on black granite outside the old church behind Khan Market. Candles burn, as faith renews its contract. Only when there is suffering is the soul closest to Him, they say.

Anu finds her way to the altar, kneels down and waits for the priest to come and touch her forehead. Mother Mary stands tall in her gold brocade. The flames dance around her, imbuing her with a certain surreal grandeur. Here, in this old church, Anu has come to ask. For she believes it will be given. And all she wants is a face.

In the unbearable heat of the small church, she murmurs a silent prayer. “Deliver me from evil,” she says.