When I first met Sanya Malhotra, guided by a morbid curiosity to see her burns, and the crushing feeling of pity, I was, to say the least, shocked. I couldn’t associate the picture of the somber burn victim featured in the papers that I had come to visit with this happy, bubbly lively girl. We were the same age, 24, and yet so different.
Much later, after we were close friends, I asked her how someone who had been through so much tragedy ended up so…happy. She gave me her trademark smile, with dimples and twinkly eyes, and said simply, “I choose to be alive.”
The fire was getting closer. She could feel the heat off it threatening to burn her skin, like a poisonous scorpion, withholding it’s sting till the moment was right.
Sanya stared at the flames, too close for comfort, licking the Persian rug. She thought about how much it must have cost, and realized that thousands of dollars were crumbling to nothing in front of her eyes.
“Ashes to ashes, dust to dust.’ The smoke curling off the rug gave off a pungent smell. Sanya turned her face away, took a deep breath of air.
The smoke caused her to choke, racking her body with violent coughs.
Through blurry eyes, she saw Anne, the office errand girl stagger towards her.
“Sanya Madam! Sanya Madam! We have to get out!”
Sanya staggered towards the window, stared out. The rescue workers had spread out a tarp, and were screaming for people to jump. Sanya froze. Should she risk the seven story jump, or wait for the ladders? Her thoughts drifted to her sister, Savita.
My darling. You are my everything. I love you. Raising her alone after their parents death had been difficult, but it had been the best experience of her life.
I will get back to her; I will. Sanya turned to Anne. “Bring me that chair, Anne!”
Anne staggered to the overturned desk of their boss, George, who was curled up on the ground, still.
George, their compassionate boss, who had hired Sanya when she had been on the edge of eviction, who had rescued Anne from an abusive home and given her a room at the office, who had kept the company together through thick and thin, dead.
Anne grabbed the chair, and staggered towards Sanya, her body shaking from the exertion.
How will she carry that? It must weigh more than she does, Sanya thought, and stumbled over.
She threw it at the window, and a myriad of cracks blossomed across the glass. One by one the secretaries, errand boys, and Anne herself leapt to the tarps below.
As Sanya prepared to jump, she felt the whole building tremble.A burning fixture fell onto sanya’s sleeve, and for a single panic-stricken moment Sanya batted desperately at the fire spreading up her torso.
The fire went out, and so did Sanya.
They told her she was lucky to be alive. She had too much damage to her vocal chords, her arms, her stomach.
She could never become a mother.
She was in a full body cast for six months,and rotated in and out of slings after that. She took seven vitamins for her burns alone,and even more for her damaged voice. Then there was nurturing her mind. She read the Bible, the Koran, the Bhagawat Geeta. She fed poor orphans and watched her sister grow up. But she had to get to work.The rebuilt office was to suffocating, and she quit her job to follow her other passion:painting. She sold one painting. Then another.
And she looks at me now, and I don’t see a woman with scars and burns on her face, I see a woman who is irreversibly, impossibly, at peace. She looks at me, and says quietly,
”I may be a burn victim. I may be repulsive and ugly. But it doesn’t define me. I am alive.”