Model Reshma Qureshi Recounts The Horror Of Being Attacked With Acid In Shocking Detail
"Even if I practised hard I could never again scream the way I did that day. Even the devil would cover his ears if he had heard me that day."
‘Reshma, my girl, it’s time to get up,’ said my mother, gently tapping me on the shoulder. ‘Five more minutes,’ I insisted.
I have never been much of a morning person. Unfortunately, on that day, I had no choice. The date, 19 May 2014, would prove to be significant for three reasons, and on that particular morning, I was still unaware of the third and most harrowing one.
My Alimah exam was today, and a crippling fear had me in its grips since the previous night. There was a strange foreboding in my chest and I was certain it was a warning that I would fail my exam. My panic clashed with another kind of excitement, a much happier one – my sister was going to pick Saufi up from the police station and bring him home today.
I ignored the voice in my head that tried to convince me to get back into bed for a final five more minutes. Not today, I told myself. I had worked far too hard for my Alimah exam and the promise of seeing my nephew in the evening meant that the day had to pass by as quickly as possible.
Looking back, I often wonder if this had been Mistake Number One.
It’s just an exam, I said to myself, as I finally left the bathroom after changing into Gulshan’s niqab. I had forgotten to ask Abba to bring my old niqab from Mumbai and had bought a new one, but I wasn’t going to wear it unless there was a special reason, so Gulshan had offered me one of hers.
I later wondered if accepting my sister’s niqab had been Mistake Number Two.
I stepped out into the living room where Gulshan was putting on her own niqab. ‘Hurry, Reshma, we’ll get late,’ she said, without a hint of anger in her voice.
I knew that her interest in being on time had little to do with my exam. But of course I did not mind. I was happy for my sister. I had witnessed her mapping out uncharacteristic revenge plots the past few days and seen a sad, ugly side to her that no one should have to witness in a person they love. But today Gulshan was herself again. She was finally going to see her son. She had to be at the court by 11 a.m.
Still, my palms continued to sweat, and her happiness was not as infectious for me as it should have been.
‘Beta, drink some tea and eat this,’ said my mother, offering me a steaming cup of sweet tea and some toast. I quickly sipped the tea, my tongue singing from the heat. I took a bite of the toast without saying a word. Before I could object, my mother rushed towards me again, this time with a bowl of dahi and sugar and shoved a spoonful into my mouth, apparently to ward off evil.
‘Is everything alright?’ my mother asked, placing her hand on my forehead to check my temperature. She would often do this, always associating uncharacteristic behaviour with illness. ‘Are you still nervous?’
‘I don’t know what it is, Ammi. I’m afraid I may fail, or that something worse might happen.’ My voice was shaking, and I felt a lump in my throat. ‘Shh …’ Ammi shushed me, as she held my face in her hands. ‘If you’re not sure, don’t go, beta. It’s just an exam. You can take it another time. Stay here ...’
The author months before the attack
Just then, my neighbours and friends, Firdoz and Afroz, came knocking at the door. Gulshan let them in and I told them that I had no wish to take the exam.
‘But we’ve worked so hard, Reshma,’ said Firdoz. ‘We’ll all be writing the same paper,’ said Afroz. It won’t be so bad, was the general consensus and it was too late to back out now anyway.
‘I might as well get it over with along with everyone else,’ I said to my mother as I followed Gulshan, Firdoz, and Afroz out of the house. Our exam was at 8 a.m. and we had quite a distance to cover.
We set off in two pairs. Gulshan walked ahead with Firdoz, while Afroz and I walked behind at a much slower pace. The streets were so narrow that walking side by side with Afroz was challenging. I kept glancing back to make sure there was no ambitious vehicle attempting to make its way down the constricting road.
Suddenly my hands felt kind of empty and I forgot what I had been thinking about. I reached into my handbag. ‘Allah, I’ve forgotten my phone at home,’ I shouted as I grabbed Afroz’s arm. ‘I have to go back and get it.’
I never left home without my phone.
Afroz waited as I searched through my bag again. Gulshan and Firdoz walked back to where we were to fi nd out what was holding us up. ‘I’ll just rush home and get my phone. I’ll make it quick, promise. You three carry on or you’ll be late for the exam,’ I said as I closed my bag.
‘That makes no sense,’ said Gulshan. ‘All of us are here, why do you need your phone? You can use ours.
I knew there was no point arguing because it was clear Afroz, Firdoz, and Gulshan were getting annoyed with the delay I was causing. I told myself I wouldn’t really need my phone during the exam anyway.
I realized later this was Mistake Number Three.
We went on our way, and soon arrived at the local market. It was located right next to the Mau Aima train station, so even though it was only 7:30 in the morning, the place was already bustling. Women in worn-down saris were hawking oranges, bananas, apples, and imitation jewellery …
The street was narrow, and bikers constantly whizzed by too dangerously close for my comfort. But the loud, blaring honks of the motorbikes, autos, and rickshaws did not faze me.
The right side of the street was filled with vendors. We walked on the left, where the remains of an old, dilapidated red brick wall still stood, perhaps built by the Mughals, or maybe even the British. I had no idea, but I knew it could not have been built after India’s independence. It just stood there, neglected, but lent us support as we plastered ourselves against it occasionally to allow the larger four-wheelers to pass.
As we continued walking, I suddenly thought I saw a familiar face pass by on a bike. It looked like my brother-in-law Jamaluddin’s nephew. That can’t be right, I thought to myself, as I kept pace with Afroz, while Gulshan and Firdoz walked ahead.
The sequence of events that took place next has seared itself into my memory; it is like a haunting film set that keeps playing on loop. Someone once asked me why I like to watch the same movies over and over again, and I had said it’s because I like the comfort of knowing what happens next. In this case, I later found myself revisiting the events over and over again to try and work out how things could have gone very differently.
I watched Gulshan stop in her tracks, next to the five-foot wall. She looked at it as someone called out to her, and from where I stood, it seemed as if a few bricks had fallen off from the centre of the wall, creating a hole through which one could see on the other side.
I watched Gulshan reach out for something through that gap in the wall, and the world went dark for a microsecond. I realized I had simply blinked, and during that briefest of moments, my life derailed into complete darkness.
As it turns out, Jamaluddin had been hiding behind the brick wall and had carefully removed all the weak bricks from the centre, so he could keep an eye on the passers-by. In his hand was a bottle brimming with what looked like a vicious liquid. When Gulshan noticed a hand reach out through the wall and realized it was Jamaluddin’s, she sensed danger right away. He was going to direct the contents of the bottle at her, but she reached out and grabbed his hand just in time, and managed to divert his aim.
The liquid was intended for her face, but as she kept her determined grip on the bottle, the acid began to pour down her arm.
I watched her buckle. Her elbow bent in pain, she clutched her burning arm and screamed with a desperation I had never witnessed before in my life. ‘Run, Reshma, run,’ she shouted. ‘Run, Reshma, run, run, run,’ she went on.
I froze momentarily, and then realized the urgency of the situation. I knew I had to run as though my life depended upon it. I could feel the blood rushing to my ears and the world around me ceased to exist. My survival instinct kicked in, just as I remembered Jamaluddin’s nephew’s face.
Firdoz was with Gulshan, and I had to save myself. I whirled turned around to find myself facing two men on a motorbike. I recognized them both: one was Jamaluddin’s cousin and the other his nephew, both of whom had dismounted and were now running towards me. I suddenly felt trapped and turned around to find Jamaluddin also running towards me from the other end. Gulshan made to run after him, but she was delirious with pain, still clutching her arm as though it was her own crumbling spirit.
The panic, the uncertainty, the shock of it all, made me lose precious moments. The nephew and the cousin had already grabbed me from behind; they were tugging at my hair from over my sister’s niqab and pushing me down to the ground. The men were heavy and strong, but still I tried to fight them off, clawed them with my bare hands, but my physical strength was at best a feeble shadow compared to those monsters. I was, after all, just seventeen.
For a brief second, I managed to open my mouth and take in a few gasps of air. I tried to scream, but was unable to produce any sound. I believe that was my body’s way of telling me that I needed to save all my strength for the screams that would later traumatize me for nights without end.
The men were now on top of me. Jamaluddin’s cousin grabbed my hands and pulled them over my head, so there was no way I could fight. Without even removing my niqab, he emptied over my face the contents of a flask he had been carrying.
I remember wondering why they would throw warm water on my face, but that thought lasted only for a heavenly fraction of a second. I wish that the embarrassment of being treated like an animal, being pushed to the ground, and having an offensive liquid poured over my face, was all I would have to deal with.
But within moments I could hear at a distance a strange, terrified, unnatural, desperate scream. It was me. I was on fire, and the haunting screams were erupting from my own being. Even if I practised hard I could never again scream the way I did that day. Even the devil would cover his ears if he had heard me that day.
I have later wondered if I should have slept in for those five extra minutes, worn my new burqa, stayed back with my mother, turned around for my cell phone, stopped and bought those shoes, or haggled over an apple.
Perhaps if I had done all those things, I would never have been attacked with acid.
They never even removed the niqab first so they could look at my face.
Extracted from Being Reshma, by Reshma Qureshi (with Tania Singh), with permission from Pan Macmillan India