Barely 19, Meenakshi (not her real name) had just embarked on her career, following her mother into the noble profession of nursing the sick and the feeble. There must have been a lot that she wanted to do, much that she hoped to achieve. After all, a lifetime lay ahead.
Today, all that looks like a distant dream. Today, Meenakshi has no clue what the future holds. She does not even know if she will see the dawn again.
A few barbaric minutes in the intervening night of September 6-7 were all it took to turn her world upside down.
That night, Meenakshi, a private nurse for hire, was on duty at the Shanti Mukund Hospital in east Delhi, looking after a comatose patient. Having finished the day's work, she lay down in the same room to get some sleep.
Some time later she woke up to a nightmare. A 21-year-old ward boy was forcing himself on her. Meenakshi tried to fight him off, but the young man plunged his fingers in her eyes, gouging out the right and wounding the left. He then dragged her to a bathroom, raped her there, and locked her in.
That was where she was discovered the next morning by another ward boy. She had lain there, unconscious and bleeding, through the night.
Meenakshi's ordeal had just begun.
Her eyes were infected, and she was in need of urgent medical aid. But, according to the National Commission for Women, the very hospital she was working in failed her. After leaving her unattended for hours, they referred her to the government-run Guru Tegh Bahadur Hospital without proper treatment or even attention to transport, NCW chair Poornima Advani alleged.
The Guru Tegh Bahadur Hospital also did not provide prompt treatment. They merely noted the condition of her eyes, but did not examine them despite the severe injury, Advani told a press conference in Delhi last week. No seniors were called and she was sent back.
Meenakshi was eventually admitted to the hospital late at night. Senior doctors attended on her three days after the attack. Crucial time had been lost.
Now, more than 20 days later, she continues to undergo physical and mental trauma. Meenakshi spends most of her time sitting in a corner of her bed in the hospital, hoping she can recover enough to see the world again. But doctors are not sure when her left eye will heal. The right one is lost entirely and there is no scope even for a corneal transplant, D K Srivastava, medical superintendent of the hospital, said.
But her traumatic experience and the medical neglect have not broken Meenakshi. She still smiles at visitors -- if the hospital allows them in, that is. "I am okay," she says in a low voice. "Let me go out of the hospital. It will take a few more days," she says optimistically.
That is her strongest asset -- her optimism.
Her doctors and a counsellor from a non-governmental organisation console her every day. But that is not what keeps this gutsy woman going.
According to her mother, Meenakshi, an only child, has always been a brave and confident girl.
She is not exaggerating. Meenakshi, ever the fighter, is determined to get her attacker punished. The accused, a man named Bhura, is already in police custody, and Meenakshi says she is willing to make the rounds of the courts to ensure that justice is done. "I will start all that once I am out of here," she says. "But I also want to work. I have to earn for my family."
Work and the hope for a better life were what brought the family of three to Delhi about a decade ago. Meenakshi's father is a tailor in the Trilokpuri district in east Delhi, where the family lives in a single room tenement. But these days her father is unable to work properly. And her mother too rarely gets a nursing assignment. Meenakshi was thus the only regular earning member of the family.
Delhi Chief Minister Shiela Dikshit, who visited her at the hospital, has promised her a job. But there has been no written communication from the government yet.
Dikshit also announced a sum of Rs 50,000 as compensation to the woman. But she has not received anything yet. "You know how government departments work," says Raj Mangal Prasad, vice-president of Pratidhi, an NGO that is helping the woman. "But we will keep chasing it and try to get her a job."
Image: Dominic Xavier