NEW DELHI — It was love at first sight for Prashant Pingale.
He watched as a speaker introduced Aarti Thakur. She was dressed casually, wearing black jeans and a pink-colored top, and had a large scar on her neck.
Thakur was speaking about how — in January 2012 — a man threw acid on her while she waited for a train in Mumbai, India’s largest city.
It was the third time she’d been attacked in under two months, by men she says were hired after she rejected a marriage proposal.
For years afterward, she told the crowd, she had struggled with depression and fear on top of mounting medical bills.
An acid attack survivor himself, Pingale said listening to Thakur was a revelation. Her voice was clear and loud and strong. As she spoke he thought: “That’s it, that’s what I want in a life partner.”
In 2013, India increased the penalty for throwing acid on a person to 10 years in prison, and limited the sale of certain over-the-counter acids.
But experts say attacks continue. “We haven’t seen a deduction in incidents,” said Mukul Varma, a regional director with the Acid Survivors Foundation India (ASFI).
Varma’s team recorded at least 249 incidents in 2015, which he said was likely an underestimation as they rely on a network of survivors and hospitals to gather information, with no official figures available.
India’s Ministry of Law and Justice and Ministry of Home Affairs did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
According to ASFI, acid attacks result from a number of situations: family disputes, revenge, jealousy, mistaken identity and sex crimes, among others.
Thakur said she was attacked after she rejected a marriage proposal from her landlord’s son. She told the man she was already engaged, but he and his mother hired two men to attack her and disfigure her face, according to documents her lawyer filed with police. The case is currently in court, pending trial.
Following the attacks, Thakur began volunteering with an organization which supports the survivors of acid attacks and was invited to speak at an event held by the Human Rights Law Network in November 2015.
It was there that she met Pingale. They became friends and would talk constantly, but she never expected that she wanted more.
Her former fiance, a man she had been with for five years, left her a few months after the attack. He stopped answering her calls and refused to see her, leaving her “heartbroken” and in a deep depression.
Thakur said she felt she was in no place to start dating again. But Pingale was already in love: he reached out to a mutual friend who communicated his feelings to Thakur.
On their first date, on Mumbai’s Juhu beach, surrounded by families and other young couples wading in the Arabian sea, Pingale proposed.
Thakur was taken completely by surprise and couldn’t respond. She told him she needed time to think about the decision.
“I was not at all ready to accept someone or trust someone,” she said.
She said yes. One thing which finally convinced her was learning about Pingale’s own story.
He jumped in front of his sister to shield her from acid a man threw over her, leaving Pingale with burns on more than 50% of his body. Similar to Thakur, his partner also left him after he was attacked.
“When something like this happens, people (normally) save themselves first,” Thakur said. “He got attacked while saving his sister.”
The pair are now planning their wedding. They plan to marry sometime in June.
Their cases are far from resolved however. Thakur requires further surgeries for her injuries and is fighting two cases in court: the criminal case against her attackers, and another for compensation for her injuries.
Both Thakur and Pingale’s attackers are currently out on bail as their cases proceed through the court system, according to documents provided by their lawyers.
But they are determined to see justice.
“I don’t want to be called a victim all my life,” Thakur said. “If I want to change the situation, I’m the only person who will take charge of it, nobody else can make it happen for me.”