Sonali Mukherjee lives in a world of difficult extremes.
It’s a drizzly evening in Delhi and her thick fingers, a hesitant, trembling bunch, roll over a stack of medical prescriptions she is trying to arrange in a fluorescent-pink plastic file. Suddenly, she feels cold. She asks her mother for a sweater, shivering. It’s the middle of June.
Ten years ago, before three men poured acid on her, she felt the seasons like everyone else. And she could see dense fog and the summer sun. With more than 60-70% of her skin burnt, she now feels the chill at 22 degrees Celsius and cannot bear the heat beyond 25 degrees.
“There is always a difference of 6-7 degrees in temperature between what’s normal for her and what’s normal for us. The skin that regulates body temperature is damaged in her case,” explains Avtar Singh Bath, a plastic surgeon at central Delhi’s BLK Super Speciality Hospital, where Sonali is currently undergoing surgeries to reconstruct her face. “In other words, what’s pleasant for us is unbearable for her.”
Sonali now is a far cry from her past as an NCC cadet
Dr Bath and his team at BLK are trying to restore some of her past. His work as a plastic surgeon is in essence the measure of medical science in human life—its role in making it better. In Sonali’s case, living better is relative. “She will never look normal. Our aim is to give her functional utility in life in which her vital organs work,” Sanjeev Bagai, a senior doctor at the hospital who is supervising Sonali’s surgeries, says.
When Sonali came to Delhi in 2003 from Dhanbad, Jharkhand, soon after the acid attack, her body was completely lacerated, a huge medical challenge. The corrosive acid thrown on her had burnt her eyes, nose, ears, cheeks, and parts of her scalp, neck, shoulders, breasts and back. She was 17. She had been caught unawares—she was startled in her sleep by the acid. “I bled for three months. All the doctors could do was dress my wounds. My body was on fire,” Sonali recalls. “I shouldn’t be sweating much, you know. It will affect my scars and wounds.”
Fate intervened in Sonali’s life when three men whose sexual advances she resisted in Dhanbad, attacked her. Sonali’s surgeries were made possible by generous donations from non-governmental organizations, individuals, corporate firms and media houses, apart from the prize money of ₹ 25 lakh—about ₹16 lakh after income-tax deduction, which she won at the popular quiz show Kaun Banega Crorepati—in November. For the treatment at BLK, Beti, a Mumbai-based NGO working for girls, offered to meet a chunk of the medical expenses. Dr Bagai says Sonali’s treatment at BLK will cost ₹ 25-30 lakh and more than half the amount has already been sent by Beti.
Before her treatment at BLK began last year, Sonali had undergone 20 surgeries, mostly free of cost, at the government-funded Safdarjung Hospital in south Delhi. Bleeding from her wounds and in pain, her father and she would queue up at the hospital in 2003, when she came to Delhi.
Back home in Dhanbad, Chandi Das Mukherjee lost his job as a guard at a local dal mill and had to sell his ancestral house. Sonali’s younger siblings dropped out of school. Her mother suffered prolonged depression and refused to see Sonali for many years after the incident. Distressed, Sonali appealed for euthanasia in July 2012, a month before she enrolled for further treatment at BLK. “I had begun holding myself responsible for the miseries of my family. But the doctors at Safdarjung saved my life,” Sonali says.
Yet, when Sonali was brought to BLK for further surgeries, the severity of her deformed face stunned Dr Bagai—the chemicals in the acid had made a deep and direct impact on her skin tissues. “She had practically no tissue on her face. Whatever reconstruction of the scalp was done, it was giving way. She had no ear lobes, ear drums, no external ears. She couldn’t hear. She had lost practically all vision—in one of the eyes, the optic nerve that carries the impulse to the brain has been damaged. She had no neck tissue, no armpits,” Dr Bagai recalls. Worse, Sonali’s burnt skin had developed severe contractures—hardened tissues after burns, the affected body parts immobile. So she couldn’t lift her hand, couldn’t smile, couldn’t speak, couldn’t bat eyelids, couldn’t move her neck and couldn’t walk freely. She had shrunk from 50kg to 26, indicating acute protein malnourishment.
But there is nothing cosmetic about it in Sonali’s case. Her arms and legs are thin, with dark patches wherever flesh was sliced for grafting. She is constantly trying to gain weight so that the surgeries can continue. Dr Bath does most of the grafting with silicon balloons that are inserted beneath Sonali’s skin, which needs to be expanded and inflated with saline water. The surgeon, who spent years in the army, compares the expanders to invincible entities, “just like fighter aircraft”. “It never leaks, however much you poke it. Have you seen fighter aircraft whose petrol tanks don’t burst however lethal the attack?” he asks, forwarding a sample of a scalp expander. It’s imported, he adds, and each costs ₹ 50,000-60,000.
The frequency and scale of surgeries have put severe strain on Sonali. Besides the excessive and prolonged medication that keeps her away from infections, the cosmetic surgeries demand unusual mental strength. Chandi Das Mukherjee, in his 10 years in Delhi’s hospitals looking after his daughter, has seen many give up, such as an 18-year-old boy he knew who died after an ear surgery simply because he couldn’t take the shock. Not his daughter, he says.
For Sonali, every surgery entails strict adherence to the vital parameters, such as blood pressure, blood count, sugar levels and a well-functioning thyroid, apart from steering clear of viral attacks and other casual infections. The period after surgery is often more painful.
Sonali is quick to remember the painful exercises that finally helped her to open her mouth. “After my lips were reconstructed, I was given a dozen ice-cream sticks to insert in my mouth which was practically sealed by the lips. I would insert sticks every hour for the next two months to create a gap, and gosh, it hurt so much,” she says.
How does she do it? “I take extra care. I follow rules to the book. I tell myself that I have to do this. I know if I don’t, the surgeries that have taken 10 years would take 20!” Sonali says.
We met Sonali inside her room at BLK last month. It was time for another surgery—the 25th in 10 years. Chandi Das Mukherjee signed the medical undertaking form taking responsibility if she died after the surgery, a ritual before every surgery. “With every surgery, she is born again,” he says, looking at his daughter lying on a bed covered by a spotless white bedsheet.
After the surgery, Sonali will have to sleep on one side for six weeks, as she has several times in the past, so her reconstructed external ear doesn’t break. To look human again, she willingly bears the pain and prays for more money to fund her remaining surgeries.
Sonali’s attackers have been out on bail for the last 10 years.
This story was first published as a Mint-Lounge Cover story.