Indian woman survives acid attack, to become a national hero

When attackers threw acid in Sonali Mukhajee's face she thought her life was over. Now ten years and over 20 operations later, she is changing the lives of others. Photo: Sonali Mukherjee

NEW DELHIDecember 1, 2012 – Sonali Mukherjee was a typical 17-year old college student in 2003 when three men broke into her home and poured acid on her face while she was sleeping. Mukherjee’s crime? She had refused the sexual advances of her three attackers.

Though difficult to believe, the Acid Survivors Trust International (ASTI), a London-based charity, reports that there are approximately 1,500 such acid attacks around the world each year. ASTI states, however, that global estimates are dramatically lower than the actual number because so many victims do not speak out of fear. 

Suffering severe burns and disfigurement which literally dissolved here eyelids, nose, mouth and ears, leaving Sonali partially blind and deaf, she became a recluse in her own home because the expense of reconstructive surgery was beyond her family’s finances.

Eventually Sonali’s attackers were caught and convicted, spending just three years in prison before being released.

For nine years, Sonali Mukherjee’s life was a living hell, devastated to such a degree that she begged the Indian government to let her kill herself rather than live “half a life with half a face.”

Then, last week Sonali’s life changed thanks to “Kaun Banega Crorepati.” We know it in the United States as “Who Wants to be a Millionaire.”

In 2008, a movie titled “Slumdog Millionaire” told the story of a teenager from the slums of Mumbai who becomes a contestant on “Kaun Banega Crorepati.” When he displays incredible overall knowledge he is arrested because he is suspected of cheating. During the investigation, the events from his life begin to uncover the reasons why he is able to answer the questions.

Though hardly the same set of circumstances for Sonali Mukherjee, the real-life parallels between her and the “slumdog” captured the imagination of an appreciative and empathetic Indian population.

Guided to the set by popular Bollywood film star and game host, Amitabh Bachchan along with former Miss Universe Lara Dutta, Sonali’s celebrity teammate, the 27-year old acid victim received a standing ovation from the audience. Wearing sunglasses and a red scarf around her head to cover her face, Mukherjee conjured images of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s “Phantom of the Opera” as she answered an eclectic array of questions en route to winnings of 2.5 million rupees.

By American standards Sonali’s earnings of slightly more than $45,000 might seem insignificant compared to the million dollar prize in the U.S., but in India the amount is substantial.

As Mukherjee said in The Times of India, “I’ve had 22 operations and nine more are remaining, so that at least my eyes and ears are functional. If I recover, I want to help people like me. In my nine years of struggle, I have faced a lot. I know the kind of difficulties we have to face, with no help from any quarter.”

Now a national celebrity in India, Sonali’s goal is to use her status to become an outspoken advocate of acid violence against women in countries where such attacks are most common: Cambodia, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Afghanistan and her home, India.

First Mukherjee must deal with other challenges. She will use her winnings to complete the remaining surgeries that will complete her physical battle. Mentally and emotionally Sonali’s challenges may be considerably longer, a lifetime, in fact.

Thankfully, Sonali Mukerjee’s world has gone from despair to hope, knowing that she is now in a position to make a difference by creating awareness about a horrible and vicious crime that goes largely unnoticed by the rest of the world.

Sonali Mukerhjee’s “acid test” has defeated her attackers. She has become the “face” of victory.  


Reuters News Agency contributed to this account

Peabod is Bob Taylor, owner of Taylored Media Services in CharlotteNCTaylor is founder of The Magellan Travel Club, which creates, and escorts customized tours to SwitzerlandFrance and Italy for groups of 12 or more.

Inquiries for groups can be made at Taylored Media has produced marketing videos for British Rail, Rail Europe, Switzerland Tourism, the Swedish Travel & Tourism Council, the Finnish Tourist Board, the Swiss Travel System and Japan Railways Group among others.

As author of The Century Club book, Peabod is now attempting to travel to 100 countries or more during his lifetime. To date he has visited 70 countries. Suggest someplace new for Bob to visit; if you want to know where he has been, check his list on Facebook. Bob plans to write a sequel to his book when he reaches his goal of 100 countries. He also played professional baseball for four years and was a sportscaster for 14 years at WBTV, the CBS affiliate in Charlotte.

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Bob Taylor

Bob Taylor has been travel writer for more than three decades. Following a career as an award winning sports producer/anchor, Taylor’s media production business produced marketing presentations for Switzerland Tourism, Rail Europe, the Finnish Tourist Board, Japan Railways Group, the Swedish Travel & Tourism Council and the Swiss Travel System among others. He is founder of The Magellan Travel Club ( and his goal is to visit 100 countries or more during his lifetime.


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