A sau mein ek patrika for a horoscope, a loving and successful fiancé, a rewarding job, starry dreams for her future, and a zest for life- just about everything a 25 year old could dream of. As on 27 November 1973, she thought she was the happiest woman on the face of the planet. A staff nurse at (then) Bombay’s reputed KEM hospital; she had spent the day taking care of a batch of school children who were down with food poisoning. She was loving as well as disciplined. Unlike the seedhi saadi village belles Aruna was frank & fastidious; a senior nurse nicknamed her as Chatak Chandni, while her room mate called her a good hearted girl but with a ’’muscle in her mouth’’!Adored by most of her juniors and all her patients, she was Aruna Shanbaug. India’s most well known
living existing nurse.
At the tender age of 18, newly orphaned Aruna had moved from her ancestral home in Haldipur, Shimoga, Karnataka to Bombay with her older brother Balkrishna. She was young and ambitious. She soon finished a course on nursing and went on to join the reputed KEM hospital. Her remarkable good looks were soon the reason young doctors were falling for her. She, in turn fell in love with one of them- Dr. Sandeep Sardesai, a junior doctor in the same hospital. He was good-looking, caring and was soon going to do an MD. Aruna’s life was ‘set’. She decided she’d continue being a nurse even after they were married. They’d spoken of the children, their home and the two dogs they’d have after marriage. They were soon engaged, and their wedding date, fixed.
Her career was her priority, and Aruna made sure she was dutiful. She had recently been posted in the dog surgery research laboratory. One of the male nurses she supervised was Sohanlal Walmiki- irresponsible, rude and a thief- something his senior Aruna could not stand. She had rightfully accused him of stealing medicines and dog food; and had reported him to the admin and other concerned authorities. And this dutifulness would soon cost her a lot.
As her problems with Sohanlal increased, his grudges against her did too. He just needed an opportunity to get even with her. And so, when on 26 November 1973, she told him she’d reported his latest misdemeanours to the Dean, he decided it was time to get down to work. He thought the next day would be a ‘do-or-die’ day beca And so he hatched a plan. A sinister plan that no one could’ve dreamt of in the most horrific of dreams.
She went about her work smoothly on the 27th. She spoke to all her co-workers about how she was looking forward to getting married. She was unnaturally happy that day- like the lamp that burns brightly for once just before it goes off forever. Her shift ended at the scheduled time, 4:50pm. Now, she only had to change and go home. And so she headed to the basement of the hospital where she and her friend always changed, ignoring for the millionth time the matron’s advice to change in a more secure place. After all, changing was a daily thing and what could possibly happen to her in that tiny window of a few minutes? The next day, everybody who loved her wished she had not been so confident.
Early next morning, a cleaner found an unconscious Aruna on the basement floor, drenched in blood, a dog chain wound tightly around her neck, her body leaning against a stool. It did not take the cleaner long to correctly guess who the culprit was. Aruna Shanbag’s friction with Sohanlal was by now known to everybody in the hospital.
Medical exams revealed that Sohanlal, lurking in the shadows of the basement on that fateful night, had forced himself on Aruna while she was changing. Well-equipped with a dog chain, he used it to immobilze her as he attempted to rape the just nurse. On realizing that she was menstruating, he stooped to levels unheard of- sodomy. His revenge extracted, he left her to die.
Immediate medical assistance was provided but asphyxiation by the dog chain had caused irreparable damage to Aruna’s brain as she lost her hearing and motor functions. She also became cortically blind- she could see, but her brain could not register those sights. Paralysis was yet another effect that impaired her forever. Her doctors hoped against hope that she would recover, and they worked for years to bring her back to normal. The Dean of the hospital thought they ought not disclose the case of anal rape, for that would rob her and her future husband of all respect in society, if she were ever to recover and marry. Even as her immediate family deserted her, Dr. Sandeep Sardesai visited her daily and reminded his once lively and now vegetative fiancé of the dreams that they’d dreamt of together. Four years later he too lost hope and got married to another woman. A day before he got married, he visited Aruna for one last time and told her he was sorry. He was sure Aruna heard him and gave him her blessing. Doctors believed that she’d at least recognised him, if not heard him.
Aruna: then and now
Sohanlal, in the meantime was held guilty of ‘attempted murder and robbery’. He served his prison sentences- two consecutive 7 year terms. His involvement in the ‘unnatural sexual assault’ could not be proven in the court of law as the hospital had wanted. He then changed his name and went to work as a ward boy in a reputed private hospital in Delhi, but not before visiting Aruna in her hospital room and trying to push her off her bed in order to kill her. She was then shifted to a more secure room in Ward IV of the same hospital. Sohanlal’s lecherous ways brought about his death due to AIDS recently.
Cut to three decades later. Oblivious to Sohanlal’s fate, Aruna Shanbaug, beautiful as ever, still lies on the same cold metal bed in Ward IV of KEM. Attended to by the hospital staff, she’s still breathing. She’s still in the same vegetative state she was in, 39 years ago. In 2010, Aruna’s journalist friend and journalist, Pinky Virani moved the Supreme Court of India. She begged for permission for the plug to be pulled on Aruna. Crippled digits, a featherweight body, brittle bones that could break if somebody held on to the body for a long time, a toothless mouth, gray bristles to call hair- coupled with inability to hear, speak, or even see properly defied a human being’s right to live with dignity, she pleaded. Aruna’s situation was declared as incurable by the doctors anyways.
But the caregivers of the former nurse at KEM said she still exhibits signs of life- prominent signs at that. When she is fed mashed fish or chicken soup, she smiles. She blinks once in every 6 seconds like a normal human being does. She hyperventilates when she hears a man’s voice. She can sense if her room gets crowded with visitors- and on such occasions, lets out a very audible gruntle. And if she hears devotional music being played on the cassette tape kept next to her, she calms down. When she soils or wets herself, she whimpers to attract the attention of the nurses to come down and change her bedclothes.
And so, Pinky Virani lost the case. Passive euthanasia was denied to Aruna Shanbaug.
Aruna’s attendants wash her everyday; they clip her fingernails once a fortnight. Every night, a nurse, her fingers dipped in oil, massages her scalp and combs whatever is left of her hair. True, they do the best they can to give her the life she deserves. They want her to live the rest of her life comfortably, if not happily. And they pray everyday for a miracle. They come to her room everyday, silently hoping to see 65 year old Aruna cured. How, they do not know. But killing hope is impossible, right?