At 17, Sonali Mukherjee had everything going for her. She was a beautiful, intelligent and ambitious young woman, dedicated to excelling in her studies.
She was president of the Student Union, captain of the National Cadet Corps and an honor student set to pursue a PhD in sociology despite her modest family background — her father used to work as a security guard in the eastern Indian state of Jharkhand and her mother was a housewife.
“I had seen my parents struggle for the most basic things, so I strived to achieve something big so that I could give my family a better life,” she said.
However, Mukherjee’s life changed after three male students from her college started harassing her. She didn’t respond to their advances, so they threatened to destroy her.
At first, she wasn’t intimidated. During her time in the cadet corps, an organization in all schools and colleges in India aimed at grooming students to join the military, Mukherjee had won several prizes for her shooting skills.
On a hot summer day when Mukherjee was fast asleep on the roof of her house, the three men threw a jug of acid on her. For the first few seconds she was in shock and didn’t know what had happened.
“All I could feel was this tremendous amount of pain, it was burning, like someone had thrown me into a fire,” she tells CNN 10 years after the 2003 attack.
In the fraction of a second it took for the acid to melt her face and part of her upper chest, Mukherjee lost her ability to see, hear, eat, walk and talk.
Mukherjee, now 27, said she looked and felt like a corpse.
“I had hardly even lived my life, but that one incident changed the entire meaning of my life. It felt like the light had gone out all of a sudden, and darkness had surrounded me on all sides. I had no hope, I didn’t know what to do,” she says.
Mukherjee’s heartbroken grandfather died soon after and her mother fell into depression — only her father remained resilient.
“I can’t tell you how much it hurts me to see my daughter in this state but being the head of the family I couldn’t afford to break down,” Charan Das Mukherjee says.
And with sheer willpower and determination both father and daughter continue their fight for justice and for recovery.
Sonali Mukherjee, acid attack victim
“I decided I don’t want to die like this, or live like this. I decided I can’t give up, I have to get better, I have to punish those guys and I have to support my family. I held my father’s hand and crawled back to life.”
Her father sold their family’s ancestral land, gold and spent every penny of savings on her treatment — she recently underwent her 27th reconstructive surgery.
In 2012, Mukherjee decided to participate in the country’s most popular game show — the Indian edition of “Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?”
She took part because she needed the money and she wanted the world to know her plight as a victim of an acid attack.
“I’ve grown up watching your films and now I can’t see you but I can feel you,” she told host Amitabh Bachchan, who is also India’s biggest superstar.
She won the $40,000 jackpot, enabling her to move to the Indian capital, New Delhi, for better medical treatment.
“When she came to us she had 98% burns. She had no ears, no eyes, no eyelids, no nose, no lips, no scalp and no chest,” said her doctor, BLK Hospital’s Sanjeev Bagai.
Bagai and his medical team have managed to reconstruct her lips, eyelids, nose, but the challenge now is to give her “some kind of a normal face, somewhere close to what a normal human being would look like,” he says.
The men who scarred her for life were freed after just two years in jail.
Mukherjee has appealed the court’s decision but years on she’s yet to get a date in court.
“My father spent every penny, hoping I would get justice. But in the end we lost everything, while the criminals are out there.”
India passed a new law in April that punishes perpetrators of acid attacks with 10 years to life in prison, along with a fine.