A rape that has left people wishing her dead-II: Interview with writer Pinki Virani

10 years ago
This article was written by a member of the SheKnows Community. It has not been edited, vetted or reviewed by our editorial staff, and any opinions expressed herein are the writer’s own.

In my post last week about Aruna Shanbaug -- the young nurse who was sodomized and strangulated in 1973 in a Mumbai (Bombay) hospital basement, and continues to live in a vegetative state -- I promised an interview with journalist Pinki Virani, who has written perhaps the most authoritative account of the case in her book Aruna's Story. There were many questions raised about this case in blogs and we have tried to cover as much ground as possible.


The author also raises a point that many Indian women fear -- not much has changed in policing, jurisprudence and social attitudes since Aruna was attacked 35 years ago.

Since this interview was conducted over email, I have reproduced it verbatim. I have made minor changes to format, remove typos, and include questions in their entirety.

Pinki Virani, photo by Shankkar Aiyar

Pinki Virani rose from working as a typist at 17 to becoming the editor of a Mumbai publication. A victim of incest herself, she has written probably the first and only book on child sexual abuse in the Indian subcontinent. She was recently recognized by the Indian government for her work in the field of women's empowerment and social development.


Snigdhasen: Following the attack on Aruna Shanbaug, it seems that no one was willing to be the complainant in the case, even after the doctors at KEM (King Edward Memorial Hospital) had established that she had been sodomized. The Bhoiwada police had to put on record a sub-inspector's name as the complainant.

(a) Why did none of the nurses file a complainant despite their support for Aruna? [I understand the hospital would have to provide medical proof for it and the dean wasn't willing to. But given the amount of pressure the nurses were able to exert -- the country's first recorded nurse strike -- I wonder if that was the only reason stopping them from press KEM to file a complaint?]

(b) Why did her fiancé, Dr. Sundeep Sardesai, who was willing to sign required documents for a carotid angiography, not agree to be a complainant? [I know he says -- ref. Page 248 -- that too much was going on in his life at that time and he couldn't handle it. Is that the only reason he decided not to push for a complaint?]

(c) You mention that her mother died not knowing what happened to her. After the attack , the cops and KEM tracked down her brother and sister. Why not the mother?

(d) Her cousin's family -- Nirmala or her brother -- were they not willing to file a case either?

Pinki Virani: (Response to a, b, c, d. ) The word 'Why' is the question in all of Aruna's story, isn't it? The book tries to show the dynamics of that time as also all the minds of the major protagonists (for want of calling them by all their names). There is a reason for everyone's action, or an ostensible lack of reason for their inaction. And that is what I realised I needed to do in the book -- let it be recorded in each person's perspective even though no cohesive answer to those all-important 'Why's' would emerge. Meanwhile, let's fast-forward this to today. Should a case happen like this in India today, would there be similar actions, reactions? Frighteningly, there might be similar lack of actions. If anything, the legal system rewards you even less today for standing up to be counted; you could spend ten years going to court just for the hearings.

SS: Does KEM have any medical records of the rape? If yes, can charges be brought against the perpetrator now, or is it too late? Why?
PV: Aruna is in a semi-coma; she cannot speak. How would she have attested to the sodomy even in the first year of her rape? By the way, the fact that he was not arrested for the rape and not tried separately for 'attempt to murder' were realised only when I started the research and put it down in the book. 

Aruna Shanbaug's photo on her job application to KEM
SS: The book points to rumors that the perpetrator has moved to Delhi and is working as a ward boy in a hospital under a different name. Did the police system at the time (or even now) have a way of profiling the guy so they'll know who he is in case he repeats the offense?
PV: There is no system in India -- yet -- to permanently profile offenders on a computer system. There is no shared data-base amongst the law and order. This is why so many paedophiles walk free and commit so many crimes on children in India.

SS: According to this 1998 news report in The Indian Express , you requested that KEM allow Aruna to be moved to Jaslok Hospital for a CT Scan/MRI. What happened to that request? Has any scan been done since?
PV: Actually, the hospital gave me all the permissions and the dean of that time, a woman, was supportive. But one doctor, a woman ironically, in charge of the section Aruna administratively fell under, withdrew permissions at the last minute. Perhaps she thought that if Aruna died on her way to the scan, she would be questioned -- and perhaps held accountable. This would possibly put a mark against her in her file, this being a government-job, perhaps even the government-given quarters she lives in would become problematic. None of this was put down on paper as being the reasons, of course. I have been in Delhi since the last few years, I intend returning to Bombay and when I do, I shall once again look into the possibility of an MRI with the new dean, even if that lady doctor is still in-charge. Brain cells do not re-generate when they die; so in many senses Aruna is, indeed, dead. But she is in pain, deeply within her and all over her. And I hope to get an MRI done so that modern scientific advances can at least soothe her catatonic state.

SS: Have there been no further developments in this field since then that may help mitigate Aruna's pain?
(i) It appears certain kinds of treatment were not allowed for various reasons over a period of time:
The brother wouldn't sign off on an angiography: Some nurses wouldn't allow any radical untested treatment to be tried on her; an American doctor never replied to a call for help/advice from a KEM doctor; KEM won't allow her to be transfered to Jaslok for a scan.
Have things changed now? Are people more willing to re-look at her case, or have the KEM doctors given up hope completely?
(ii) Given that global communication has improved so much over the years, has KEM tried to reach out to other doctors globally who may have dealt with similar cases?

PV: She is the only case of her kind in the world; there is no doctor anywhere globally who would have had a similar case, so an MRI might help document something for international doctors as well. Meanwhile, the Indian doctors I know in Bombay and who volunteered earlier are more than competent to prescribe appropriate medications after due medical procedures.

SS: Bachi Karkaria's column mentions that after TOI ran a story saying KEM suggested you take Aruna home since you were willing to become her legal guardian for the CT Scan, you were barred from visiting her: Did they lift the "ban"?
PV: I don't know if the "ban" is lifted. It was about to become a big "tamasha" and I did not want it to get politicised. So till the time I was in Bombay, I would drop off stuff for Aruna at the one point in the hospital and it would be passed on to the ward (small whimsical packets of fish-curry or mangoes when in season; or a change of clothes). I was later told that not all of it reached; unsurprising, since all government hospitals are staffed with attendants, helpers et al who are not held accountable.

SS: How do you stay in touch with her?
PV: Through the earlier dean's secretary. This year the secretary has moved out of the hospital on promotion to the Bombay Municipal Corporation's head office (the BMC runs the hospital). Now the new dean, the secretary to the nurse's welfare society and the matron keep an eye out for Aruna and we have worked out a system that they will let me know what little she needs on a monthly basis. They also, may God bless them, ensure that all her stuff sent for her is used only on her. (Pampers, soups, soaps, et al: all the things need by a very sick patient -- or an infant.) They also have all our emergency phone numbers -- mine, my husband's, Bachi Karkaria's. It is on their records that we three are part of Aruna Shanbaug's family and we will perform her funeral rites when she passes, so that she goes with the greatest dignity possible.

SS: Are the family members now ready to sign off Aruna's responsibility to KEM?
PV: I don't understand your question. There has been no "blood" family for Aruna since very, very long.
[Note: Aruna is one of three sisters and six brothers. One of her brothers was interviewed for the book in 1997. He was 71. So I asked the author to clarify if all her siblings were dead. Her response is below.]
PV: No, we can't say what we don't know. I definitely do not know how many members of her family are still alive, and this would include nieces, nephews, etc. What I do know is that none of them have visited Aruna in a long, long time which is why I say there has been no "blood family" for her in a while. Just us, her well-wishers -- all strangers.

SS: You say you'd rather see her pass on than suffer. Do you have no hope at all for any improvement?
PV: Aruna is brain-dead in most ways. Brain cells do not regenerate. Where, then, is the scope for improvement? Where is the chance of a life as it should be lived -- being able to see, walk, talk? So yes, she must pass on. God must finally give her at least this justice.

[Photo credit: All photographs courtesy Pinki Virani]

Related News/Blogs:

Usha Vaidyanathan is discussing this case at Agelessbonding
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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