Aruna Shanbaug – a personal note

Aruna Shanbaug was the original Nibhaya – long before the issues related to sexual harassment had crept into the national conscience, she was the victim of a horrendous crime. Rape, molestation, women’s safety and the various shades of patriarchy have all been brought center stage in recent times following the Nirbhaya case of 2012.  Today, victims names cannot be revealed, every organization is mandated to have sexual harassment committees, the filing of FIRs have become maybe a little easier because of the media pressure on the police and cases move faster with more severe punishments. But when Aruna Shanbaug was assaulted by a ward boy in 1993,  he name was probably flashed in all the newspapers!!

Aruna was a young, junior nurse working in King Edward Memorial (KEM) hospital in Parel, Mumbai. After a night duty, she went down to the changing room in the basement of the CVTS building, where the ward boy strangled her and sodomised her.  The asphyxiation cut off oxygen supply to her brain, resulting in brain stem contusion injury and cervical cord injury apart from leaving her blind.  The police case was registered as a case of robbery and attempted murder, and anal rape was not disclosed in the report by the doctors. This was under the instructions of the Dean of KEM, perhaps to avoid social ostracism the victim would face.  The assailant was caught and convicted, but served only two concurrent seven-year sentences for assault and robbery since he was never charged for rape or sexual molestation, nor for the “unnatural sexual offence” (which could have got him a ten-year sentence by itself). Aruna, on the other hand, was in a vegetative state, abandoned by her doctor fiance and then gradually by other friends and even family. She was lovingly cared for by the nursing fraternity of the hospital.

In the summer of 1982, Subhash and I joined the faculty of Seth G S Medical College which is attached to the KEM hospital. The head of the Pathology Department, assigned me lab space in very same CVTS building where this event had occurred. Ten years after the event the basement was still lying unused, because no one wanted to go down there. Her story would occasionally crop up in magazines and in papers,  especially on birthdays and on Novemeber, 27th the day of the attack.

Soon after we shifted there, the Bombay Municipal Corporation (BMC)  made an attempt to shift Aruna out of the hospital in order to free the bed she was occupying. This was the second attempt and as in the previous one, the nursing community agitated and forced BMC to revert the order.

And then entered Raji, who had an interesting history of his own.  He came from Subhash’s village and along with his brothers were childhood friends. He was a few years senior to Subhash and in those distant days of the 50s, Raji was convicted of a murder and served his time in the Portugese jail. It was not clear what he had done after his release, as his brother who was Subhash’s contemporary was in the Army and they met infrequently. But, sometime in 82-83, the brother contacted us and said Raji would like to visit us.

Raji turned up and we learnt that he had become a Christian and had moved to Denmark, through some church based charity – I do not recall the details. He had contacted us because he wanted help on the Aruna Shanbaug case. I’m not sure how he had got interested, but learning of the efforts of the BMC to oust her, he was keen to take her to Denmark. He had found the financial support for her transportation and housing in Denmark and wanted our help with the local systems. And, so I went with him to the Dean, the BMC Commissioner and various other functionaries.  The administration had no objection to her being taken away (maybe glad to get her out) but although the family had completely stopped visiting her, the lawyer did say that Raji would need their consent as well. However, the nurses were not at all agreeable – she had become a kind of  mascot.

I remember clearly the day I went with Raji to see her. She was in one of the ward side rooms, washed and in clean clothes, with a Ryle’s tube through which she was fed. Those attending to her, many of whom were not even in KEM in 1973, were certain that she could indicate with eye movement likes and dislikes etc… What I saw was a young woman (she must have been in her early 30s), whose beauty was still visible through her illness – and I must have thought – ‘for how long?’

Well, the whole project of Raji fell through for a variety of reasons, not least being ‘how does she apply for a passport?’.  Although I was in that campus till 1987, I never went to see her again – respecting the privacy she deserved, Every time I walked past that ward, I would remember her – as I have over the years when stories of similar episodes are reported. And her story has continued to crop up periodically, with the recent flurry of interest in 2010-11 when the Supreme Court heard a plea to stop her force feeding and finally rejected it.

And as the news that she is in the ICU and in a critical state has revived these memories – what a wasted life.

PS. I must appreciate the warmth and generosity of successive generations of the KEM nursing fraternity who have cared for Aruna.

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