Punam Rai remembers the date clearly — 2 February, 1997.
At first, the fight had seemed routine; Punam had been listening to brutal taunts from her in-laws and husband for delivering a baby girl for the last two months. This seemed like any other jibe she received. After she put her baby to sleep, she returned to trying to reason with her family, but in vain.
As things escalated, she was thrown off the third floor of the building.
When Punam opened her eyes a few days later, she was in a coma and her entire body was paralysed. All she could do was cry and blink her eyes. The doctors gave up on her and declared she won’t ever walk again.
To a certain extent, they were right. Punam was left bed-ridden for almost 15 years. But slowly, hours of physiotherapy, exercises and every possible treatment started showing signs, and her condition began improving, albeit slowly.
But things changed after her father, who she says was her biggest support, passed away in 2014.
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Now 47, Punam recalls in conversation with The Better India, “My father was the strongest pillar of my life, especially after the incident. I lost my will to live knowing that I will never be able to talk to him.”
After his death, she opened Bindeshwar Rai Foundation, an NGO in his name to keep his memory alive.
A Banaras Hindu University (BHU) graduate in Painting Honours, Punam has been emancipating hundreds of children through painting and taekwondo. While she has hired taekwondo trainers for her NGO, she teaches painting herself.
Punam was born in Bihar’s Vaishali district to a PWD engineer and a homemaker. She grew up with two brothers, and says that there was never a time when her parents discriminated between their sons and daughter. She was encouraged to study and complete her graduation when the family moved to Varanasi due to her father’s job transfer.
A year after graduating in 1995, she was married. Within a week, she learned that her husband had not studied beyond Class 12, contrary to what his parents had told her family.
“We were told he was an engineer who had studied in Manipal University. His parents also took dowry because of this. In fact, my father gave two trucks worth of gifts to them, and it included everything — from a needle to a fridge, a washing machine to a television set. I was unaware of the dowry deal,” Punam says.
Despite giving dowry worth lakhs, Punam was ill-treated by her husband. Mental and physical harassment became an everyday occurance, and a month after the marriage, Punam left the house.
However, when her in-laws found out she was pregnant, they begged her to come back and her husband promised to treat her well. The situation seemed to improve but when the baby was delivered, everything fell apart.
But thanks to her family’s love, strength and support, Punam’s upper body started recovering through tedious physiotherapy sessions. Considering this as her second chance at life, she kept a positive attitude.
Naresh, her elder brother, says, “My sister is made of steel, and as a brother, the least I can do is be there for her. She has inspired so many individuals, including myself. All I want to say is that if your family member is going through a crisis, do not let them be alone.”