The Girl Without A Face

Tuba Tabassum, 15, was attacked by four men with acid in Siwan district of Bihar in September 2012.
Tuba was attacked by four men with acid in Siwan district of Bihar in September 2012.
 (The piece was published in the New York Times India Ink on August 2, 2013.  I have added a few more photographs of Tuba collected over the years. I must warn the readers that the image can be very disturbing.)
In the last week of December, Mohammed Arif, a petition writer from Bihar, silently joined the crowds in New Delhi protesting the gang rape of a 23-year-old physiotherapy student in a moving bus in the city. Mr. Arif did not shout slogans or hold placards demanding the death sentence for the perpetrators. Yet every time a television network camera turned toward him, Mr. Arif would take out a passport-size photograph from his pocket and hold the four-square-inch image in the air, hoping a news camera would capture it.

 

The photograph Mr. Arif held in his right hand was of his 15-year-old daughter, Tuba Tabassum, a grade 10 student in a government school in the village of Harihans in Siwan district, around 150 kilometers (90 miles) from Patna, the capital of Bihar. A few months earlier, in September 2012, Tuba had gotten herself photographed, as she needed it for her grade 10 examination application. A white headscarf encircled her oval face and her deep, dark eyes looked directly into the camera.

Tuba was anxious about her grade 10 examinations. She enrolled for science and mathematics tutoring at a private institute in her village. She would wake up around 4:30 in the morning, get ready and walk to her tutoring sessions. “She would then come back, eat something and go to school,” said Mr. Arif. “That was her routine, every day for the last three months when she had started her tuition classes.”

Her tutor taught a group of boys and girls. A young man who was in her class became infatuated with her. He had often tried to talk to her. Tuba resisted his advances.

On the warm morning of Sept. 26, 2012, Tuba woke up around 4:30 am, got ready for her class and stepped out of her house. “I had barely woken up,” recalled Mr. Arif. “It was just a regular morning. We were getting ready for the day.”

Tuba must have walked a few hundred meters from her house when her father and grandfather heard her scream. “I thought she must have fallen down,” said Mr. Arif. Moments later, her family saw Tuba running toward her home, her hands covering her face. “She was screaming, ‘Someone has poured hot water on my face!’ ” he recalled.

Mr. Arif saw fumes rising from her face. Her skin was vanishing. He immediately realized that the warm water was acid and that it was going to hurt his family for a long time. He carried his daughter in his arms and ran toward the local bus station. Tabassum Parveen, his wife, grabbed Mr. Arif’s wallet and ran behind him.

The nearest hospital was in the town of Siwan, nine kilometers from their village. They drove to Siwan in an oversized auto-rickshaw known as “Tempo.” Throughout the ride, Tuba’s flesh was melting away. At the ill-equipped Siwan district hospital, the doctors seemed helpless. An hour later, she was moved to a hospital in Patna. A few weeks later, she had to be transferred to Safdarjang Hospital in New Delhi.

I met Tuba at the burns unit of the hospital in the third week of November. Tuba lay on a side on a bed. A tube attached to her nose was helping her breathe. Very little was left of the oval face that had once beamed out of a scarf. The acid had burned her lips. Her deep, dark eyes, which had stared directly out of that passport-size picture, were shut. She had lost one eye to acid. Her arms were crossed over her chest as a nurse examined her wounds. They were sore and bleeding.

When Tuba had fallen to the ground after the first splash of acid hit her face, the attacker, who was carrying acid in a bottle of Sprite, had poured the rest on her back. A series of complex wounds affected her muscles, tendons, nerves, blood vessels and her breathing. Her eyebrows stood out as the only recognizable feature of her former self.

Doctors had told Mr. Arif that it would take several surgeries before the redrawing of Tuba’s face could even begin, before she could frown, laugh or have a recognizable expression on her face.

Mr. Arif’s hands trembled as he placed a picture of his daughter in a large brown file, which was filled with medical reports. “My beautiful daughter,” he repeated every few moments.

Tuba was conscious of her deformed face, aware it might appear ugly even to her family. “Can you recognize me? Do I look the same?” she would often ask her mother. “Has it healed?”

Her mother, Ms. Parveen, would break down. “Yes, I can,” Ms. Parveen would answer. “How can I not recognize you, you are my Tuba, you will always be my Tuba.”

SAM_0757The acid attack, as it often does, caused the flesh around Tuba’s nose to melt. The melted skin formed nodes, which blocked parts of her nostrils and made it hard to breathe. Doctors inserted tiny, tusk-like plugs in her nostrils to facilitate breathing.

Medieval alchemists called sulfuric acid “the oil of vitriol.” A splash of the pale yellow viscous liquid had wiped away Tuba’s skin first but also childhood scars, laugh lines, dimples, pores and moles.

When Tuba’s three younger siblings visited her at Safdarjang Hospital in Delhi, they refused to come near her. After their parents insisted, the children would sit with their sister, tugging at her clothes but keeping their gaze down.

After spending nearly two and half months at the hospital, Mr. Arif took his daughter back home to their village in Siwan in the last week of December. On the way back from Delhi to Patna Tuba kept her face covered in the train, but sometimes fellow travelers would stare at her.

Harihans is a small village of 2,000 people. Mr. Arif’s family lives in a modest blue and yellow painted brick house. A broken chair greeted visitors at the entrance. Mr. Arif and Ms. Parveen’s relatives have helped them collect about 300,000 rupees ($4,900) for their daughter’s treatment. The sum was exhausted in the first few months.

The head of the district administration of Siwan and a local lawmaker had promised to lobby the state government to help with Tuba’s medical expenses. But nothing came of it.

The family has since visited Delhi four more times for surgeries and medical examinations. The medical expenses and the costs of tracking the prosecution of four young suspects in the acid attack, who are being tried in Patna, have left them scraping the bottom.

“I can’t take her to Delhi in a normal train compartment anymore. She can’t bear the heat. I have to book her in an air-conditioned compartment. It’s very expensive,” said Mr. Arif. “We have never traveled like this. We can’t afford it, and we don’t know how long we can continue.”

By March doctors had been able to partly reconstruct her mouth.

Two long blue clips hold the ends of her mouth, allowing her to eat a little. Her mother feeds Tuba thin rice gruel with a spoon. She cannot fully open her mouth as acid had destroyed her facial muscles.

She still struggles to breathe and see. Her siblings have gotten used to her appearance. Sometimes she opens her books and tries to read with the partial sight she has in one eye. Occasionally, her friends from school visit and speak to her about the school and the new class. They have passed the grade 10 examinations.

“I have been left behind. When do you think I can go back to school?” Tuba has repeatedly asked her mother. “Will my face be fine after the next surgery?”

Tuba has a long medical journey ahead of her before she can even move closer to her older appearance. The doctors have told Mr. Arif that it would take at least four to five years before her face can be reconstructed. “We have spent about three lakhs [300,000] so far,” said Mr. Arif, adding he was told that it would cost an additional 2.5 million to 3 million rupees for all the treatment.

The electric supply in their village is erratic. Tuba has to wear a tight-fitting, elastic top, which is recommended for patients with extreme burns. Pressure garments, as they are called, have to be worn for 20 hours every day for a year to prevent scar tissue from thickening. In the stifling heat, she broke down and begged for the oppressive garment to be taken off.

After a hard, hot day, the family dreads the night. Tuba in particular has developed an intense fear of darkness. “After the incident happened, for weeks she could not sleep well,” said Tuba’s mother. “She would hold my hand all through the night. Even now she wakes up to any noise with sudden spurts.”

The four young suspects who are accused of scarring her were arrested within a day of the acid attack in the village and charged under various sections of the Indian Penal Code for causing grievous hurt.

Two of them later claimed in a lower court in Siwan that they were juveniles, or under 18 years of age, which would qualify them for a maximum sentence of three years in a juvenile home if they are convicted.

The legal proceedings continue in a Patna court and are expected to take months, but Mr. Arif was determined to get justice for his daughter.

In March, the Indian government made acid attacks a cognizable offense. A person found guilty would be sentenced to a minimum of 10 years in prison and the maximum punishment can be imprisonment for life. It also added a fine of up to one million rupees, nearly $17,000.

Last month, the Supreme Court of India restricted the sale of acid and ordered the Indian government to compensate the victims of acid attacks. The order lacks clarity on whether acid attack victims of the past can benefit.

After the ruling, I got a call from Mr. Arif. “Can Tuba get some compensation?” he asked. “Will there be some help for her medical treatment?”

I fumbled for words.

“Why is that? What happens to those young girls who are victims already? Aren’t they suffering?” he asked.