A haven for healing the brutality of burning

Every year in India, 1 million people are moderately or severely burned and 70 per cent of the injuries are self-inflicted

Some of India’s poorest women and children receive treatment in Agni Raksha, in the heart of Bangalore, treatment they would otherwise be unable to afford. Photograph: Thinkstock

Some of India’s poorest women and children receive treatment in Agni Raksha, in the heart of Bangalore, treatment they would otherwise be unable to afford. Photograph: Thinkstock

Tue, Jul 15, 2014, 01:00

I can look only at Suma’s face when I first meet her. I am afraid that if I look at the raw, bleeding flesh on the rest of her body, my face will betray me, and she will see the shock and revulsion I feel. Suma is naked. She is sitting on the edge of a plastic chair, holding her melted arms straight in front of her to allow two women to wrap them gently in medicated dressings.

She winces, and the tears crowd her beautiful almond eyes, but she does not let them fall. She grips my hand tightly and thanks me in English when I tell her how brave she is.

I can only think how much more of her body is still to be treated. As they work, the women chat brightly to Suma and me, rapidly translating into Kannada, the local language, the questions they ask me in English. I can see they are experts in the art of distracting from pain.

Livid scars

I can also see, from the livid scars on their necks and arms, that they too have felt Suma’s pain. On the other side of the flimsy screen around Suma, a long row of women wait to have their burn injuries treated.

I am on the third floor of a dusty, nondescript office block, down a side street in the heart of Bangalore. Only the discreet sign, Agni Raksha (Protection from Fire), gives a clue to the presence of a remarkable service which, since it opened in 2006, has treated up to 3,000 women and 1,000 children who are burn victims.

I am the guest of its dynamic founder, social worker Chitra Dhananjay, a woman with a warm heart and a hearty laugh, who believes in action rather than pity.

Her elder sister, Dr Prema Dhanray, the cofounder of the service, had plenty of reason to feel self-pity. An exploding stove left her, at eight years of age, with 50 per cent burns on her face and body. Her devout mother promised God that if her child survived, she would make her a plastic surgeon.

Prema survived, but it took 14 surgeries to reconstruct every inch of her face. She honoured the promise made by her mother. She returned as a doctor to the hospital where she was treated as a child, to specialise in plastic and reconstructive surgery under the same doctor who had treated her.

In time, she became a professor, and head of plastic surgery there. She is now recognised as a world expert on the treatment of burn victims.

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