SAN LEANDRO, Calif. — “If you have done enough crying, it’s now time to get back to the society and do what you always wanted to do,” Monica Singh, a 29-year-old fashion design student at the prestigious Parsons School of Fashion in New York and an acid attack survivor, advises other women who have faced similar tragedies in life.
The Indian American woman’s story is one of strength, courage, and hope, and an inspiration to many women going through tough times.
She was just 19 years old when a friend, whose marriage proposal she had rejected — because she wanted to pursue her education — allegedly orchestrated an acid attack on her, leaving her face severely scarred and in need of expensive medical treatment.
“I was hospitalized in the trauma center for one year and I came back home in a wheelchair,” Singh recalled to India-West by phone from New York.
Her father, she said, was her support system, both morally and financially. He spent nearly all of his life savings, about Rs. 50 lakh, for those reconstructive surgeries, which now total 46 in number.
“My dad took a transfer to Delhi to get me good treatment, because there are better doctors there,” she said. “After every second or third month I used to get my surgeries done, as much as my body could take.”
Singh, who was then an undergraduate student at the National Institute of Fashion Technology in New Delhi, was visiting her family in Lucknow, Uttar Pradesh, when the horrific attack occurred that changed her life and her perspective towards everything and everyone.
“I have started seeing life differently, and I started seeing people differently. I wasn’t afraid of anything but definitely for many years, I stopped trusting people,” she told India-West.
“For all these years, I wasn’t hiding,” said Singh. “I was preparing myself to get the maximum surgeries done so that I feel I am looking normal enough and I can get out.”
Despite the many hardships, Singh managed to complete her bachelor’s degree in apparel design in 2009 and began her job search. But her appearance came in the way.
“It took me one whole year to get a job, because of this appearance issue. I kept going for interviews, but not everybody wanted to hire a girl with a covered face, with a veil,” she recalled to India-West. “I was one of the top students in school and so my professor helped me as they knew I could go on regardless of how I look.”
But then her father passed away. Singh, who was putting up a brave front through it all, admits being shattered after her father’s demise.
“I was more shaken up after my dad’s death, even more than my accident. He built me practically where I am right now. So I quit my job to deal with that loss.”
After going through a series of devastating experiences in the last ten years, Singh, who is now even more determined to follow her dreams, is back to doing what she loves the most: fashion. She is currently pursuing her post graduation from the Parsons School of Design in New York, which boasts alumni like Tom Ford and Marc Jacobs. “It’s a challenging city, but you can come here and build yourself independently,” she told India-West with an air of confidence. Monica was in the first year of her undergraduate course in apparel design at the National Institute of Fashion Technology (NIFT) when she was attacked in her home town. After an entire year in a hospital in Lucknow and spending close to Rs. 50 lakh on reconstruction surgeries, she resolutely returned to Delhi to resume her studies.
But even after her acceptance to Parsons, she was $50,000 short of fulfilling her dreams.
A crowd-funding campaign was launched to raise the money by ‘Make Love Not Scars,’ an organization in India, which helps survivors in their rehabilitation. Singh is now the vice-president of the organization.
Singh, who refuses to be treated as a victim, now shares her journey as a survivor at various events during her spare time. She gives motivational talks asking women not to give up on life and their dreams.
“We have already handled our share of bad in our lives, so I tell them, the best thing is to believe that the future holds something bright for you,” Singh told India-West. “I tell them what I have gone through, the physical and psychological issues, and how I have faced society after all this.”
“I get a lot of thank-you notes and e-mails all the time,” she said.
In an effort to provide guidance and support to other acid attack survivors, Singh has established a foundation named after her father called The Mahendra Singh Foundation. It helps women acquire certain skill sets so that they can become self-sufficient and start living productive lives.
“When you don’t have physical appearance, all you need is some knowledge and good skills,” she noted.
The foundation also advises women on where to get the best medical help for situations like these. “So many times girls don’t get good medical treatment, because they don’t know good doctors who can really help them,” she explained. Singh is now trying to get the organization registered in the United States.
“In the U.S., with the help of people who are willing to help me run this organization, this is the place where I can use multiple resources and bring help from different countries,” she added.
“I have learnt a lot in a very small period of time, and I have seen things change when something bad happens to someone,” said Singh.
“Now I am a person who is a dreamer, who keeps giving herself ambition in life that one thing is off the checklist, what is the next thing,” said the budding fashion designer, who worships fashion icons like Alexander McQueen and John Galliano.
“I am thoroughly motivated,” said Singh, adding that her education gave her the “exposure” to understand things correctly.
“I am a changed person but not to my friends. I am the same Monica, who talks funny and is still bubbly and who gives them reasons to smile. I have grown into a woman who thinks about society, who feels more pain if she sees somebody else’s pain, because I can relate to their pain.”