It’s not every day that we find ourselves in presence of someone great; and are faced with the realization that no matter what we do, we could never amount to even a fraction of all that they are. It’s even rarer to relish that feeling and bask in its afterglow, rather than detest it.
When I decided to go to Sheroes Hangout Lucknow for a reading session of our book Defiant Dreams, I knew what I would be witnessing. And yet, I wasn’t prepared in the least. I was overwhelmed, still am, by the effortless grit and the spry resilience, displayed by the women I met there. It was nothing but the simplest and most profound example of the indefatigable human spirit.
Sheroes café is run by acid attack survivors with the help of Stop Acid Attack Organization and Chaanv Foundation. I was fortunate enough to spend a lot of time in discussion with Ashish Shukla, the man who along with Alok Dixit, is the brains behind this initiative. As he walked me through his thoughts and ideals, I was reminded of the power of an earnest endeavor. His words were simple, but his thoughts revolutionary and deeply heartwarming. He spoke of his struggles, and yet, not even for a single moment did I see a shadow of pessimism flicker in his eyes. Ashish and Alok decided that while they would want to create a support and rehabilitation system for the acid attack survivors, they would not fall for the covert metaphors behind the usual choices for a livelihood that they were suggested. Making candles, rolling papads, crafting home décor items; these were the kind of industries they was advised to set up. But they refused; because they could hear what the society wasn’t saying out loud. Put them behind closed doors; hide them, for their scars remind us of our cowardice.
Alok and Ashish chose to go the other way, and by quite a mile!
They decided to start Sheroes Café and put these survivors in a customer facing job. Was it easy, to convince these women for a work profile like that, I asked? Yes; came a simple answer.
These women had a life, career, hopes and dreams before someone – who couldn’t handle petty emotions like being jilted in love or anger over family feuds – decided to burn it all with just a small bulb of acid. As I saw the café staff negotiating their way around the customers’ tables, balancing both the smiles and the furtive glances with grace and charm, as deftly as they were balancing trays full of food and coffee; I could see the reason behind Ashish’s ‘Yes’. Because the spirits of these women had escaped that horrific incident, unscathed. That is a choice they made. That is a choice they now live by. Every day.
Just as I was wrapping up my rather long and emotional discussion with Ashish, a pleasant surprise unfolded. I was informed that Lakshmi, the very face of Stop Acid Attack Foundation, is on the premises with her life partner Alok Dixit and their adorable little daughter Pihu. Lakshmi is a TV anchor, a model for a top apparel brand, Director of Chaanv Foundation, an International Women of Courage Award recipient, NDTV Indian of the Year Award recipient and a devoted mother of an adorable little girl. When I requested to spend a few minutes with her, little did I know that I we would end up chatting till it’s time for the café to close down for the day. We sat and watched her fifteen month old and my four year old bond; and discussed the usual things that mothers discuss, exchanged notes on teething troubles, griped about our kids not eating properly or giggled about them being naughtier than we could handle. There was a sweet sense of ordinariness that
hung in the air around us, and a part of me was hugely ashamed to be surprised at that. Did I expect Lakshmi to be any different; bitter, standoffish, still fighting the pains of her past? I guess I did. To me, that assumption was a proof of how I must lack the strength of character and soul, which this petite woman, easily ten years younger than me, displayed with such panache. The fact that she was sitting there next to me, absolutely comfortable in her skin – the one that is a testament to the cruelties this world has inflicted on her – was such a wordless yet loud statement. In her rather youngish twenty six years, Lakshmi has fought off the horrific odds that very few ever recover from, attained a level of success which very few women her age manage to, and a level of maturity and tranquility that very few people do in their whole lifetime. There was so much radiance Lakshmi was bringing to that room, even without making the effort, or even realizing it.
I felt a lump rise in my throat, but I didn’t want to acknowledge it in front of her. How could I cry, for a pain that she clearly has outlived and outclassed? Wouldn’t that be insulting her valor? But once inside the dark confines of my car, I had to surrender to that lump, convulsively and completely.
What was I crying about, I wondered? The answer escaped me. A big part of it still does. But I do know, some of those tears were tears of happiness too. For knowing that people like Lakshmi, Alok and Ashish exist amongst people like us. For learning that while this world, drunk on the feelings of hatred, jealousy or revenge could burn you; the choice of whether you let the scars stick is yours, only yours.
I salute Lakshmi and her team, the real ‘Sheroes’, for that lesson.
This article is written by Radhika Maira Tabrez, the Associate Editor of Incredible Women of India. To know more about her go to our Know The Team page.