How India acid attack victim found love
Eight years ago, Laxmi's world turned upside down, and she began hating men.
It happened on a scorching April day in the Indian capital, Delhi, when she was on her way to a bookshop where she worked part-time as a salesperson.
Someone came up behind her on a crowded street and tapped her on her back. When she turned around, a man splashed some liquid on her face and neck.
"It felt cold first. Then I felt an intense burning. Then the liquid melted my skin," she remembers about the acid attack.
The offender was a 32-year-old man who had taken revenge on her after she spurned his advances and rejected his proposals for marriage. Laxmi was only 15 then.
"I hated men for a long time after that," recounts 23-year-old Laxmi.
"Love was a word that unsettled me. That idea of love, the one that you get to watch in Bollywood films, haunted me. I would sing love songs but the words were hollow. They didn't mean anything to me."
This was until she met Alok Dixit, a former journalist from the city of Kanpur, during a campaign to stop acid attacks in India, and fell in love with him.
Today the couple live together and run the campaign out of a bustling, small office in a Delhi neighbourhood.
Some 50 acid attack survivors are engaged in the campaign. They rush teams to meet traumatised victims, help them financially and offer them other support. Laxmi is the face of this campaign.
"Alok was a breath of fresh air for me. I had been feeling suffocated and burdened. I felt he was ready to share the burden with me," says Laxmi.
Mr Dixit, 25, who quit his day job to join the campaign, says it was the "mutual respect and togetherness which blossomed into love" with Laxmi.
"I have immense respect for Laxmi. She is a tremendous life force. She chose to fight in the face of adversity when other victims like her were discouraged by families or were reluctant to come out of their homes," he says.
"She has instilled confidence in other young women who see her as a beacon of hope. She has compelled them to come out of the closet and face the world. Mind you, it's not easy for them to face people staring at them which often reminds of the event that has altered their lives."
In the grimness of their everyday work, there is a certain playfulness that Laxmi brings to the relationship.
"Alok used to dress up drably. I have made his wardrobe more colourful. He watched the film Cinderella recently. He had never heard of Cinderella before. I told him he was my prince charming," she says.
A question they have to face a lot these days is whether they will get married.
"We will live together but won't get married. We are fighting against social sanctions, be it marriage or the treatment of women in our society. How can we be part of it?" Mr Dixit asks.
Laxmi, however, believes that the two will tie the knot some day.
"I respect Alok's decision and I stand by it. But I secretly hope that our love and friendship will gradually lead to marriage."
It has not been easy for Laxmi to pick up the pieces, and find love.
The attack left her face disfigured. She underwent several painful surgeries that left her weak and her family penniless.
Last year, her father, who worked as a cook to support the family of four, fell ill and died. Then her brother was diagnosed with tuberculosis.
It is still a struggle to keep the home fires burning. Her mother often runs out of money to buy cooking gas and water. Laxmi is the sole breadwinner and her income is highly irregular as the acid campaign is dependent on donations.
But all this does not deter Laxmi from soldiering on in her campaign.
Last year, acting on her plea, the Supreme Court directed the state government to formulate a policy to regulate the sale of acid.
"I got in touch with other acid attack victims; I felt it's just not right that acid is available so freely. Anyone can buy it off the shelf. It makes women hugely vulnerable," she says.
Now, along with Mr Dixit and other volunteers, she has launched a new campaign to raise awareness among people to intervene when such attacks take place.
"Nobody came forward to help me when I was attacked with acid that day. I remember asking for help from people who were present there but no one came forward," she says.
"The acid blinded me and I was hit by passing vehicles on the road. The indifference of people was disgraceful. If I were taken to hospital in time, I wouldn't have suffered so many burns."
Laxmi says that Alok takes care of her health and is mindful of her "special needs".
It is not easy to live with an acid attack survivor: Laxmi's skin is susceptible to infections and she suffers from mood swings.
"There was a man who destroyed my life and there is another man who is nurturing it. Alok gives me reasons to live a worthy life and grow as an individual," she says.