As she peeked through the wings to scan the crowd that had gathered in the talk show studio to hear her speak, Nisha tried to calm the butterflies in her stomach. She had not expected such huge numbers and though it gave her confidence it also made her jittery. Five years ago, she would have loved all the attention coming her way. She knew the camera loved her and the ramp walk was a cakewalk for her. No wonder, she had gone on to win the local beauty pageant and was aiming the Miss India pageant and then who knows, Miss Universe, Miss World. There was no stopping her. Suddenly she heard her name being announced on the stage that snapped her into the present.
As she gingerly stepped on the stage, the arc lights focussed on her, she knew there was no turning back. But when she took her seat with her NGO members, she slid into the familiarity of the comfort zone she had come to love.
On cue, the show’s host, Kaveri, set the ball rolling by introducing herself and Nisha’s NGO ‘Agni’ and its key members. As the perfunctory applause died, Nisha started squirming uncomfortably in her seat but then she heard Kaveri’s kind voice, “So Nisha, tell us about yourself and you NGO ‘Agni’.”
Nisha started haltingly at first and then gained ground, “Kaveri, our NGO is actually just a bunch of girls trying to stand on our own two feet.”
“Nisha, you are being too modest. Your journey from a beauty queen to an NGO activist is the stuff from a Bollywood potboiler. We would love to hear it from you.” Kaveri said looking Nisha straight in the eye.
Taking a swig from the water bottle, Nisha began, “Kaveri, I was named Nisha because it means ‘night’. When I was born, my relatives suggested this name to my parents to ward off the evil eye, the ‘buri nazar’. I’m told my parents heeded this well meaning but baseless advice because apparently, I was so pretty, they just didn’t want to take a chance. Growing up, a lot of offers to act in short commercials came our way, but my parents steered clear. I was an average student but with good public speaking skills, I found myself on stage first in school and then in college. In one of the college festivals, a talent scouting agency contacted me to run for the beauty pageant of our city. This was way too big to pass on so I somehow convinced my parents and went on to win it,” she paused with a faraway look in her eyes.
“Go on, we are all ears”, Kaveri prodded.
“The crown came with certain obligations and though my parents would be afraid, worried for my safety, I was enjoying all the eyes that turned to see me. Late nights would make me afraid but this fear would dissolve in the heady excitement. One such night, when I came home, I found my parents waiting for me, looking afraid, very afraid. Apparently, it was a nasty caller who had called to ask for my hand in marriage or else face the consequences. I tried to calm them but it was as if their worst fears were coming true. Sleep eluded us and next morning we went to the local police station to file a complaint. The police refused saying that one call was not a ‘good enough’ reason to file a complaint. Just the name ‘Rajesh’ was hardly anything to go ahead with. We came home, hoping we wouldn’t get any more of those calls. But we were wrong. Calls kept coming, their frequency and nastiness increased. Agreeing to the marriage was preposterous but the nuisance was hard to ignore. The police had filed a complaint and tried tracing the calls. In the meantime, I started sensing that someone was stalking me. Threatening notes appeared out of nowhere and then one fine day, the unthinkable happened. On my way to inaugurate a school’s new lab, some guys walked through, looked me in the eye and threw a bottle at me. I ducked and fell into the pool of acid that they had meant for me. I felt my face melt away from my physical being as I was literally stripped to the bone. In all the confusion the boys fled and I fainted from the pain”, she swallowed hard and looked around. You could have heard the pin drop.
“When I came to my senses, my loved ones were around, their concern shown in their eyes. I tried to speak but that was impossible. A series of surgeries and intensive therapy later, I was out of the woods, but too afraid to look in the mirror. The admiration in the eyes that would turn to see me was now replaced with horror, disgust, pity and fear. My crown, the source of my pleasure and ironically my agony, was taken back and as per rules given to the runner-up. It took months of my family’s and my psychologist’s support that brought me on my feet. Trips to the police stations to nail the guilty just made my job tougher. There was a line in the movie Titanic- ‘When you got nothing, you got nothing to lose’ and THATrescued me finally. That gave me the courage to look the culprits in the eye. And they knew then, that I was fearless. Because I’ve been afraid. But not anymore. They are behind bars now and though the legal battle continues, I have a life to go back to,” said Nisha allowing herself a moment to choke back her emotions. By now there was not a single dry eye to be found in the studio.
Kaveri too was so overcome, she had to be prompted with a cue to talk. Clearing her throat, she asked, “So how did the NGO figure?”
“Ah yes, the NGO’, she said, “My psychologist referred me to these support groups where victims of acid attacks would come and talk. I found solace in our collective agony. And this agony gave rise to Agni,” she smiled at the way she had just twisted those words around. “Now we are no longer victims but girls who are fearless. Because we’ve been afraid once but now that fear has given way to courage. Between us, our skills have helped us secure loans to start up a small handicraft business and now we plan to start a restaurant which would be totally run by acid attack victims. The land has been donated to us through a CSR initiative and we are now trying to crowd source the rest of our dream, which has brought us here.”
An aide of hers passed on the pamphlets to Kaveri which were distributed around. Kaveri brought up the end of the show with an honest plea for help.
As the call for ‘cut’ came and they all rose, an applause from the audience started and the camera whirred on as it got louder by the minute. And this one wasn’t perfunctory, not prompted by the studio hands, but genuine admiration for the brave ‘bunch of girls trying to stand on their own two feet’