Sonali Mukherjee is a blind, nearly deaf, and penniless 27-year-old woman. At the age of 17, she was assaulted by three intruders who broke into her Dhanbad, India home in April 2003 and poured acid on her after sexually harassing her for years. Since then, her family has spent their savings treating her injuries, her assailants have been released from jail, and now they have begun a campaign of death threats that have turned Sonali and her family into fugitives. Sonali lost her grandfather to shock shortly after the attack, and her mother has slipped into a depression. Today, she needs approximately $30,000 to pay for the balance of restorative surgeries.
Nine years later, Sonali has requested the Indian government to either intervene by controlling the assailants and providing funds medical treatment or grant her permission to die.
Here’s Sonali’s plea for help. I’ve hired translators to translate and transcribe it into English, which I’ve reproduced below.
My Name is Sonali Mukherjee. For the last few days you have been listening about myself & reading. The Halabol website has taken an initiative regarding the inexpressible incident happened with me; they want to give me justice & to help me. If you want to know about myself then go to the website “www.halabol.com” & sign the petition that Halabol has created for me. With all of your signatures I will get help & strength. I will go to the President & Prime Minister with that petition and will appeal for the help. I need all of your help. If I get all of you with me then I want to go forward. All of your help will make the road of my upcoming life. If you want to help me financially then you can transfer the fund into my father’s bank account online. His name is Chandi das Mukherjee.
Account No# 0612000103217964, Punjab National Bank, Naruji Nagar Branch, Newdelhi. [CG: Please verify the accuracy of this information before choosing to send a donation.]
You can online transfers into this account & help me financially. With all of your small help I well be strong & will fight this battle. In addition to that if you sign the petition then I will get a partner & will be able to raise my voice strongly to the President & Prime Minister. I need your assistance. Please help me, Assist me & sign the petition. Thank you so much.
Let’s be clear: Sonali is pleading for roughly $30,000 and protection from her assailants OR the right to die.
How has the world reacted?
As of 8/2/2012, there were about 130 Google News results for acid “Sonali Mukherjee”. There were 9 results for acid indiegogo OR kickstarter OR donate OR halabol OR 0612000103217964 OR petition OR wishberry “sonali mukherjee”, a search intended to include articles that called for either donations or petition signatures. Her story was posted on Reddit, yet less than 5% of the top 200 comments appear to suggest intervening.
I was able to locate two online fundraising campaigns for Sonali: one on Wishberry, the other on Indiegogo. These two campaigns have raised a total of about US$6,500, roughly 25% of her stated need. She’s received other support as well, including direct donations to her father’s bank account and offers of medical treatment from local physicians and surgeons. The tide has begun to turn for Sonali, though a long road remains ahead.
In the US, citizens raised a whopping US$703,833 raised on Indiegogo for Karen H. Klein, a 68-year-old bus monitor who had been viciously and chronically harassed by middle school students in Greece, New York. Several individuals started a campaign on Indiegogo for Petra Anderson, who was shot and critically injured during the shooting at The Dark Knight Rises premiere in Aurora, CO on July 20th, 2012. As of this moment, 4,304 funders have contributed a total of US$255,628.
So what’s the point of this blog post?
I think we have an opportunity to change the world. History and popular culture is filled with stories of people who have gone from rags to riches, victim to victor, and oppressed to advocate. Wikipedia lists Rocky, Citizen Kane, My Fair Lady, Scarface, The Pursuit of Happyness, Charlie Chaplin in The Gold Rush, Goodfellas, The Blind Side, Guru, Slumdog Millionaire, and Magic Beyond Words: The J.K. Rowling Story. Business Insider shares “15 Inspirational Rags-to-Riches Stories.” Keep in mind that these are primarily poverty to wealth stories; examples exist for many different types of underdogs who became champions in their own right.
Jonathan Haidt’s book “The Happiness Hypothesis,” a survey of “10 great ideas” about the origins and mechanisms of happiness, devotes a chapter to “the uses of adversity.” Although my own story is far too involved to share online, I too know the uses of adversity.
Adversity can give us strength, courage, willpower, and humility. Having known bitterness, we can appreciate the sweetness of life. For those of us who survive with our sense of compassion intact, we are often driven to be agents of change. Given the opportunity, we can become activists, advocates, and role models.
Rafe Furst talks about investing in “super stars” and—although he isn’t the first to think of it—is beginning to popularize the notion of personal investment contracts. Rafe invests $300,000 in his carefully selected super-stars in exchange for 3% of their gross income for the rest of their life.
Let’s take this a step further. Rafe invests in people that he likes with a hope of earning a financial return, which is a very interesting idea. I think that we as human beings should invest in people that we come to love out of compassion with the hope that perhaps they will use it to improve our lot as a species.
I don’t know what Sonali Mukherjee, Karen H. Klien, or Petra Anderson will make of their lives. (I still think we can do more for Sonali, by the way.) What I do know is that thousands of people have effectively said to them, “Although I don’t know you personally, I love you, want to help you, and demand justice on your behalf.”
These gifts were given to right a wrong and that’s a great place to start. But what if we were able to say to someone, “Not only are we going to right a wrong, but we’re going to do so with such ambition and gusto that you will have the opportunity—but not the obligation—to stop whatever else it was you were doing and become an agent of change. We believe in you.”
Thanks to her strength and courage, Sonali held strong for nine years. Only now was she prepared to die for want of legal justice and $30,000. Imagine the change she could produce in the world if we raised $500,000 for her, provided a mechanism to protect her from her assailants (such as citizenship in another country), and gave her support and access to resources to become whomever she desired to be.
I agree that it will not be possible to do this for everyone who could benefit. However, individuals who receive a lot of publicity for their story and are clearly on the wrong side of fate are more likely receive funds commensurate with their reach. Individuals who become “famous” might also be able to use this exposure in concert with their newfound resources. Finally, even if we are not able to reach all individuals who can effect change, at least we can start somewhere and help foster a culture of loving-kindness and compassion towards one another.
I can think of a few ways to make this possible and smile at the opportunity. I invite your ideas.
Update Aug 8 2012: A variety of benefactors have come forward to assist Sonali financially and she will be admitted for further care in about a week. (via The Times of India)