(NEW YORK) — Sonali Mukherjee, the 27-year-old acid attack victim who went on India’s version of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire to win big, told ABC News she plans to use her first prize money to finance more reconstructive surgery on her face.
“My family is very poor,” said Mukherjee, speaking to ABC News on Tuesday by phone from her home in New Delhi. “They paid all our money for my surgeries, and we had to stop my treatment.”
On April 22, 2003, when Mukherjee was studying sociology in the eastern city of Dhanbad, three fellow students whose advances she’d spurned broke into her room at midnight as she slept and threw acid in her face as payback. The attack left Mukherjee disfigured, blind and partially deaf.
Nine years after attack, Mukherjee decided she could no longer hide. She made a public plea to the Indian government last July for help in receiving skin reconstructive surgery. She also called for tougher penalties on her assailants, who were released on bail after serving three years in jail.
Mukherjee went so far as to appeal to the government for the right to commit suicide — suicide is illegal in India — seeing it as the only way out of her pain.
“I felt hopeless and helpless. I didn’t want to live anymore. The conditions for my treatment were very difficult,” Mukherjee told ABC News.
Soon after her plea to the state, Mukherjee started to receive some assistance.
“I started getting phone calls and messages, and a lot of people came to help. … Now I feel there is some hope. … I don’t want to die anymore,” she said.
In a desperate attempt to receive more funds, and perhaps feeling somewhat emboldened, Mukherjee became a contestant on Kaun Banega Crorepati, the Indian version of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire — the same show that was the centerpiece of the 2008 Oscar-winning movie Slumdog Millionaire.
Mukherjee answered 10 questions correctly and took first prize — 2.5 million rupees, about $46,000 — which will go toward her next round of reconstructive surgeries.
“I’ve had 22 operations so far and I need many more. … When I recover, I want to help people like me,” Mukherjee told ABC News. “I want to talk to foundations to help other victims of acid attacks. But I have to get better first.”
“I can cash my prize in two months,” said Mukherjee, who said she hopes to return to university one day.
“I was really close to graduating before the attack,” she said. “Now I have a dream of going back to university and getting a degree and learning to do more on the computer.”
Copyright 2012 ABC News Radio
Dave Gilbert, CNN
Sugam Pokharel and Tim Hume, CNN
Nate Eaton, EastIdahoNews.com
Barbie Latza Nadeau, Tim Hume and Vasco Cotovio, CNN