'Millionaire' Acid Attack Victim Using Money for Surgery

ABC News
'Millionaire' Acid Attack Victim Using Money for Surgery
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'Millionaire' Acid Attack Victim Using Money for Surgery (ABC News)

Sonali Mukherjee, 27, the acid attack victim who went on India's version of "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire" to win big, told ABCNews.com she plans to use her first prize money to finance more reconstructive surgery on her face.

"My family is very poor," said Mukherjee, speaking to ABCNews.com Tuesday by phone from her home in New Delhi. "They paid all our money for my surgeries, and we had to stop my treatment."

Nine years ago, when Mukherjee was studying sociology in the eastern city of Dhanbad, three fellow students whose advances she'd spurned broke into her room at midnight as she slept and threw acid in her face as payback.

The attack left Mukherjee disfigured, blind and partially deaf.

Nine years after the April 22, 2003, attack, Mukherjee decided she could no longer hide. She made a public plea to the Indian government last July for help in receiving skin reconstructive surgery. She also called for tougher penalties on her assailants, who were released on bail after serving three years in jail.

Mukherjee went so far as to appeal to the government for the right to commit suicide (suicide is illegal in India), seeing it as the only way out of her pain.

"I felt hopeless and helpless. I didn't want to live anymore. The conditions for my treatment were very difficult," Mukherjee told ABCNews.com.

Soon after her plea to the state, Mukherjee started to receive some assistance. "I started getting phone calls and messages, and a lot of people came to help. … Now I feel there is some hope. … I don't want to die anymore," she said.

In a desperate attempt to receive more funds, and perhaps feeling somewhat emboldened, Mukherjee became a contestant on "Kaun Banega Crorepati," the Indian version of "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire," the same show that was the centerpiece of the 2008 Oscar-winning movie "Slumdog Millionaire."

Mukherjee answered 10 questions correctly, and took first prize -- 2.5 million rupees, about $46,000 -- which will go toward her next round of reconstructive surgeries.

Bollywood actor Amitabh Bachchan, the host of the show, called Mukherjee "the epitome of courage" when she won.

India was listed as the fourth most dangerous country in the world for women -- behind Afghanistan, the Congo and Pakistan -- in a July 2012 survey from the Thomas Reuters Foundation.

Sital Kalantry, an associate clinical professor of law at Cornell Law School, and faculty director of the Avon Global Center for Women and Justice, conducted a 2011 study on acid violence in Bangladesh, India and Cambodia, and reported that at least 153 acid attacks on women occurred in India between 2002 and 2010; 3,000 in Bangladesh between 1999 and 2010; and 271 in Cambodia between 1985 and 2010.

The recent public beating and rape of a 23-year-old student on a New Delhi bus -- and the throngs of demonstrators who marched in protest across India calling for tougher laws against molestation and rape and the death penalty for the six suspects -- has brought unprecedented attention to violence against women in the country.

As for Mukherjee, her stroke of good fortune on the "Millionaire" game show is only the beginning in mending a decade of pain.

"I've had 22 operations so far and I need many more. … When I recover, I want to help people like me," Mukherjee told ABCNews.com. "I want to talk to foundations to help other victims of acid attacks. But I have to get better first.

"I can cash my prize in two months," said Mukherjee, who said she hopes to return to university one day.

"I was really close to graduating before the attack," she said. "Now I have a dream of going back to university and getting a degree and learning to do more on the computer."

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