A teacher, a counsellor, Uttarakhand’s ambassador for women empowerment, and an acid attack survivor — Kavita Bisht (31) has many labels to go by. But the foremost is that of a young, jovial girl, who had hopes, dreams, and her entire life ahead of her.
“My childhood in Ranikhet was full of joy and an abundance of freedom,” Kavita tells The Better India. “My family never put any restrictions on me in terms of where I should go, who I should talk to, or what I should be doing. I was always interested in social work, so I spent most of my time doing that. I spent my childhood learning art, painting, and sewing. I was also very mischievous.”
Kavita lived with her parents, brother, and two sisters. Her elder sister died at 21 due to a kidney infection in 2007. This affected her father severely, and the family began suffering because he was often unable to go to work due to the trauma. To earn additional income, Kavita moved to Noida, Uttar Pradesh, in 2007.
A twist of fate
“After high school, I went to Noida to work. A man, who used to live a few gullies down from where I stayed, wanted to befriend me. I think he would see me come and go to office, but I’d never seen him, and didn’t even know who he was. My friend’s brother used to live in the same area as him, and he managed to find my number through his contact. The messages started coming around November or December, and they’d all entail him asking me to [at first] be his friend, and later to marry him. He also sent me a present for Christmas. I was not interested, and turned him down repeatedly,” Kavita recalls.
She would later find out that this man had warned her friend in January that Kavita seems to be “too proud of how beautiful she is”, and that if she wouldn’t marry him, he wouldn’t let her be with anyone else. But Kavita was never informed of his clear threat that he would disfigure her somehow, and when she heard, it was already too late. “I’m not sure why she didn’t tell me. Maybe she didn’t believe it herself,” she says.
On 2 February 2008, Kavita was at the bus stop early in the morning. “I remember the time very clearly — 5:15 am. Two men with their faces covered came on a bike, and one threw acid on me,” she says and adds, “ I’d just turned 19 only two months before.”
Till at least 2-2:30 pm that day, no hospital admitted her. They all demanded she be accompanied by a guardian, and file an FIR before she’s admitted. At the police station, too, they demanded a guardian accompany her. “I, along with a few people who had come to help me, took several rounds of Noida that day,” she says with a grim chuckle. “When I failed to report to work that day, my manager called my landlord. The company eventually found out I’d been attacked, and they finally sent an ambulance to come get me. I was taken to Safdarjung Hospital in Delhi at around 3:30 pm.”
Coming to a standstill
For six days, Kavita remained unconscious. “When I finally regained consciousness, I couldn’t even open my eyes. My parents had come a few days before, and they initially weren’t told that I’d been attacked with acid. They just thought I’d been in some sort of an accident,” she says. Kavita underwent treatment for months, with doctors attempting to salvage as much of her face as they could. Throughout, she slipped in and out of consciousness, and her eyesight remained a concern for doctors. A year later, she was told she’d never regain her vision.
The man was caught and arrested, but this would not be the end of her woes. “While I was unconscious in the ICU, the man’s family threatened mine, and asked us to take the case back. They even threatened my younger sister,” Kavita says. The man was later given bail.
She credits her company as having saved her life. “They paid for my expenses. I might not even be alive today if they hadn’t,” she says. After the attack, Kavita returned to her village. “I remained locked inside my room for two years. If I heard footsteps, I’d be terrified. If I heard a man’s voice on the television, I’d be terrified. Sometimes, even hearing my brother or father’s voice would scare me. I’d jump every time I heard the noise of a bike,” she recalls.
She further adds, “People in my neighborhood were vicious. They’d scare my parents by telling them that now that your daughter is blind, no one will marry her. ‘How will you spend your entire life caring for her? She’s a burden to you now’, they’d tell them. My parents, who had been trying to remain positive and offer their unconditional support to me, were also dragged down by the things they had to hear on a daily basis.” The trauma she was dealing with led her to take her own life a few times. “I didn’t have anyone to tell me better,” she says.
A beacon of hope
Two years later, Kavita received a letter from the Drishtiheen Training School for the Blind. At first, she refused. But her sister and mother encouraged her to take small steps forward. So Kavita went to the school but didn’t find herself fully immersed in what was being taught to her. “At that time, I thought it was only me who had to live with being blind. I was very dejected. But the centre counselled me, and told me that even the visually impaired can lead a life of happiness. I met many people who had similar stories,” she says.
Later, Kavita took admission in the National Institute of Visually Handicapped in Dehradun. She underwent training in using computers, writing shorthand, and making candles and envelopes. Once her training was complete in 2012, she returned to Haldwani. At a medical camp held by a US-returned doctor, she was encouraged by one of the organisers to move out of her village and aim higher.
Around the same time, she lost her younger sister as well, and this put an additional strain on the family. Her father, who had taken time off to care for Kavita after her attack, lost his job as well. He would remain unemployed for around seven or eight years. In these days, Kavita would have Rs 100 or so to travel to Dehradun from Haldwani and back via bus, and would remain hungry and thirsty most of the time.
She was later employed in the Nirbhaya cell in the district in 2014. From here, things started looking up. With help from government officials, Kavita was recognised for her ongoing social work of counselling and training women in arts and crafts, and awarded around 18 awards, including the Uttarakhand Rajya Mahila Puraskar, and was declared as Uttarakhand’s ambassador for women empowerment in 2015. In 2016, she became the state icon for Uttarakhand, and in Gujarat, was awarded under the Beti Bachao Beti Padhao programme.
In 2017, Kavita was acquainted with Sandeep Rawat, who runs U S R Indu Samiti School in Ramnagar, Nainital, which caters to children with various disabilities. Here, she teaches them basic alphabets and arithmetics. She says, “Some of these children can’t see, some can’t hear, some can’t walk, and some can’t talk. I see them and sometimes feel grateful for where I am. Maybe I don’t have my vision, but I have many other things.” The school houses around 82 children, who all love Kavita. “I just want to see them prosper and grow,” she adds.
During the COVID-19 lockdown, Sandeep started a centre for needy women, and named it Kavita Women Support Home. She divides her time between the two, and offers counselling and basic training to the women in the home. Many of these women are senior citizens, who are taught how to make decorations for festivals, and other such creations. “We teach them craft and sewing, and then help them sell the products,” she says.
“What I find lacking is government support. My compensation stopped when the government changed. They never reached out to survivors, even during the lockdown, to ask how they were doing. I believe even in society at large, survivors who have lost everything are not cared for. We know there have been movies made on acid attack survivors, but I didn’t think it showed the full severity of the situation. So many of us survivors have lost our ears, eyes, noses, mouths, and limbs. I feel as if we are sidelined,” she says.
She adds, “Receiving all the awards was an honour, but it does get hard to remain positive all the time,” she admits. “I only remind myself that this must have happened to me for a reason. If life had gone another way, I might have been married off and living with two kids right now. But today, I am an independent woman, who can provide for my family and is helping empower women and children who come from tough backgrounds. This keeps me going.”
(Edited by Yoshita Rao)