In her column on June 1, titled The woman whom God forgot, Times of India editor Bachi Karkaria -- who I have had the pleasure and honor of working for -- had a death wish for a woman on her 60th birthday; a woman trapped in a hospital bed and a vegetative state for 35 years with an acute sense of pain. The desperation in the tone of a no-nonsense editor like Karkaria had me glued to the story:
Not all women are as sexty as India is this year. In a lonely room in a crowded Mumbai hospital, the woman turning 60 today remains trapped in the perennial midnight hour into which she was pushed on November 27, 1973. Do her a favour. Wish her a happy deathday.
Aruna Shanbaug, a staff nurse at Mumbai's (Bombay) historic King Edward Memorial Hospital, was sodomized and strangulated with a dog chain on the hospital premises in 1973. The attack sent her into a coma from which she progressed into a semiconscious state and has remained thus ever since:
Aruna never come out of the semi-coma into which she lapsed; she has remained on the same hospital bed since 1973. The strangulation took away her sight, speech and mobility, but, perversely not her ability to feel pain. Her tormentor walks free. He was convicted for seven years, only for stealing her jewellery and watch, but not rape. Her hymen, after all, was intact.
The article led me to a book (Aruna's Story), by journalist Pinki Virani, who first heard about Shanbaug when she confronted her mother, who wouldn't stop warning her well-traveled daughter about the risks for being a woman and her late hours. Virani later mentioned Aruna to her then editor, Bachi Karkaria, who commissioned her to do a story. Virani followed her story for years after the Sunday special hit the stands, which subsequently turned into a book.
Aruna's story was a sensation every time it made news; in 1973 when the attack happened, several years later when Virani did her special story, when it became a book, and now, when I read the story in Karkaria's column. Aruna's story has all the ingredients to make your innards flip.
Virani's book tells a story -- in remarkable detail -- of courage, of unbelievable love and hate, overwhelming humanity and cruelty, the sad machinations of government-run hospitals and our legal system, a beautiful life that was so close to being successful, a spirit that is so indomitable that it refuses to leave a body crushed by pain. And the injustice of it all -- while the perpetrator, despite being the focal point of so many people's rage, remains free, the people who care for her want the victim relieved of her misery.
Life, please, let go of her.
Aruna's tragic journey goes something like this: She is all of 25 and a staff nurse at one of the country's most prestigious and historic hospitals. She came from a less-than-well-off family in a coastal village near Mumbai, and was determined to break free of the poverty and mundane existence that came with it. She was known to be sharp-tongued, a rule-breaker, but smart and well-intentioned. And she was pretty, a head-turner. She had ambitions of studying in England, which, of course, she was ready to give up to be married to the most promising doctor at KEM. She was just about to go on leave when tragedy struck.
Or more precisely, a disgruntled sweeper, who couldn't deal with being reprimanded several times by Aruna for slacking off and, as she alleged, stealing food meant for dogs at an experimental lab in the basement of the hospital. Aruna hated her posting in the "dog lab", but made the best of it.
The morning of the attack, Aruna had told the sweeper she was going to complain to the dean about his behavior, and that it would be his last day at KEM. The same evening -- after she changed out of her uniform at the dog lab, [despite repeated orders from the matron and seniors not to do so, many nurses changed in the lab instead of the designated area some floors above] -- she was attacked by the sweeper.
Since she was menstruating, he sodomized her, strangled her with a dog chain while doing so, and left her for dead.
And then began a saga that has left so many who cared for her so dispirited that they'd rather see her dead than have her deal with her excruciating pain. Her family abandoned her for the most part, but wouldn't sign off her custody to the hospital, preventing some crucial tests from being conducted. Her fiancé, after waiting patiently by her bedside for years, moved on, giving her listless body one final hug and her first and only kiss.
She still lives because of the unflinching love of her nurse-colleagues, who went on strike for her cause (Virani notes in her book that this was the first recorded strike by nurses in independent India), who became so possessive that they were ready to block doctors from trying any radical, untested treatment on her. The doctors gave freely of their time to treat her. There were times when the city corporation (that ran the hospital) tried to move her out of the premises to a convalescence home (a veritable death trap) and even succeeded once. KEM nurses found her rotting away in the home, raised a stink, and brought her right back.
The most bizarre part of the story is, however, the accused getting away with a seven-year sentence for robbing and attacking her. Why? Because no one was ready to be the complainant for the sexual assault. Her hymen was intact, so her rape was "unnatural", which is severely punishable by the law. But the hospital -- already beleaguered following the attack --- didn't want to report an "unnatural offense", which could lead to further unrest.
Aruna was attacked before I was born. But her story resonates with so many of us who continue to live with the rage against and fear of such debilitating sexual attacks. Bloghers like Preeti Zachariah at Tenacious Thoughts and And miles to go before I sleep...are angry at Aruna's condition and the innumerable rapes across the country.
Usha Vaidyanathan at Agelessbonding took a stab at understanding why men rape and what in our culture allows this to happen.
I have so many questions swimming in my mind about Aruna Shanbaug, as I struggle to come to terms with what happened to her. Is her case so hopeless? Is there not the slightest chance that her suffering can be mitigated?
Why do these brave women who have followed her case want her to go?
I wrote to Pinki Virani, who was kind enough to respond quickly with an email she sent out a day before Aruna's 60th birthday. She has agreed to answer my questions and I will update this post or repost next week. Meanwhile, I quote from the email she sent me:
tomorrow, june 1 2008, a woman called aruna shanbaug turns 60.
she does not need money. the people of bombay -- the city she came to from coastal karnataka to become a nurse, get engaged to a doctor, live happily ever after -- pay for her upkeep through their taxes to the bmc (the hospital aruna lies on a bed in, is run by the bombay municipal corporation).
she does not need publicity. she has the dubious distinction of being recorded in india's first faction book -- it is exclusively on her -- as the only case of her kind in the world.
she does not need food or clothing. the mashed food she is fed, ironically, is what is keeping her alive. her new clothing tends to get stolen. she can't control the theft because she can neither see, nor speak, nor move from her hospital bed.
all she can do is scream.
this, she does. because it is her last memory -- of being sodomised in her workplace, of being strangulated with a dog-chain while being raped.
the coming november 27, 2008, will make it 35 years for that incident.
what aruna needs from you is a small, quick prayer. to whomsoever you believe in: God/Khuda/Malik/Bhagwan/Lord. that she be allowed to die.
Four women India forgot (TOI)
The Power of One
Author demands KEM nurse's brain scan (Indian Express)
The Gory Story (How Pinki Virani came to write this book) (IE)
Pinki Virani wins national award (Deccan Herald)
National Award for Author
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