Assalamualaikum.

My name is Asma. I am 32, and I am from the coastal town of Machilipatnam. I want to tell you the story of my little sister, Hajida.

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Hajida is two years younger than I. She was the smartest in the family. None of us went to school, but Hajida learned to read and write by herself. That is how smart she is. She was also Ammi’s favourite.

We had small dreams, like wanting to be photographed. Once, when we were young, we went to the studio and had a family portrait taken. Since then, Hajida and I have always yearned to be photographed again.

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Abba worked as a butcher in the market. Ammi sold packets of biryani. Our life perpetually revolved around helping our mother and making ends meet.

2014 changed our lives.

It had been two years since my marriage. Ammi had started looking for a groom for Hajida as well. One of them was Subhani. We initially agreed to the proposal, but my mother was not happy with him. She wanted the best for Hajida. We changed our minds and told Subhani we were no longer interested.

Nobody saw him till he resurfaced in March that year, with a bucket full of acid.

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Hajida and Ammi were stepping out of our house when Subhani emerged out of the darkness. Before they could react, he flung a pail of the liquid on Hajida. My mother ran in front of Hajida, and he flung it on her too.

It took both of them a few minutes to realise it was acid.

I lived a few streets away with my husband. When the news reached me, I ran like my life depended on it. I saw Ammi and Hajida lying on the pavement, by the side of the road, in a pool of fumes.

I tried wiping the burns. I tried dousing them with water. Nothing helped.

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We rushed them to the Government Hospital in Machilipatnam where we were told to take them to Vijaywada. Ammi had lost consciousness. Hajida was in shock.

The staff in the Government Hospital at Vijaywada didn’t know what to do with us. They gave us a corner in the common ward. The nurses would come close with their faces covered, hand me ointments and leave. Not once did they even touch Ammi or Hajida.

This went on for more than a month. I would wipe Hajida and Ammi with a moist cloth everyday, after which I would apply the ointment I was given. We looked to the nurses and the doctors for help, but none offered.

Ammi died in May. On this day I decided I won’t let my little sister die.

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I took her back home. I cleaned her wounds every day. I applied coconut oil on them. The thought that had crossed my mind several times was, 'Is there something else I should do?' Didn’t the doctors at the Government Hospital in Vijaywada know what needs to be done, if not me? Why didn't anybody at the hospital try to help my sister? I was desperate to find answers to these questions, but I didn’t have the time to. My sister needed me.

Everybody around us kept away. Neighbors wanted Hajida away from their sight, they called her an eye sore. They said they couldn’t stand the smell of her injuries. I told them Hajida will stay put.

My husband wanted me to stop tending to Hajida. Fights would break out every day about why she was living with us. I told him Hajida will stay put.

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It had been six months. Hajida’s nostrils had closed in. Her lips and her eyelids were gone. She was breathing through her mouth, barely so. I could only feed her liquid food. She couldn’t flex her fingers because of the burns on her wrist.

Help came in August. I received a call asking me to go to Hyderabad immediately with papers and photographs of Hajida. A meeting had been arranged with the chief minister’s relief cell.

I had never travelled out of Machilipatnam.

I told Hajida that something good will come out of this and left immediately. Alone. This was my first train journey.

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The meeting with the relief cell went well. The chief ministers’ son, Nara Lokesh, instructed the cell to take care of Hajida’s surgeries. Apollo Hospital agreed to perform reconstructive surgeries on Hajida. Dr Sudhakar Prasad, the surgeon, waived all charges. The NTR Trust agreed to take on the hospital charges. In the blink of an eye, we were rolling Hajida in for her first surgery.

I could tell you that the news of the surgery filled us with happiness. But we didn’t know that the difficult times were just starting.

The surgeries were painful, the recovery even more so. I could see it in the eyes of my little sister. After the surgery, we had to stay on in Hyderabad so that the surgeon could keep a check on her recovery. It usually took Hajida three months to completely recover from one surgery. By the time we would get back and try to restart our life, it was time for the next surgery.

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Going back to Machilipatnam meant facing the people who had ignored us since 2014. It also meant facing threats from Subhani.

The expenses were not small. The medicines to be bought after each surgery would cost a lot. I used to work as a domestic help to pay for Hajida’s medical expenses, but because I had to be with her in Hyderabad, our regular source of money was hit. My husband had stopped talking to me or contributing to the household.

In 2018, Subhani was awarded a life imprisonment sentence and a fine. He has told the court he has no money to pay us. Up until now, we have received Rs 4 lakh as compensation for my mother's death, Rs 3.5 lakh towards Hajida’s burns. We’ve also been allotted a piece of land.

Hajida has been operated on six times. The next surgery is due in a few months.

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I hope my sister's burns heal. I hope we can build a house on our land soon. I hope she remains hopeful. For her sake and mine.

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