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The unbearable agony of being Aruna Shanbaug: A great injustice

By Pinki Virani

The birthday of a woman doomed to a very painful — and very slow — death was celebrated last Friday. Outside the locked door of the room in which she is incarcerated, her care-givers posed for happy-happy photos, giving cheerful quotes about their daily devotion to her brittle bones, and how their reward is her grateful smile.

Such sanitised stories don't matter to the woman. She doesn't even know these people. She hasn't known anybody, or anything, after the night of 27 November, 1973, when parts of her brain died and locked-in her broken body to its most basic functions: eat, evacuate. And so she isn't even aware that her next birthday, 1 June, 2013, will break its own bizarre record.

When Aruna Shanbaug turns 65, she will have been locked in that room for 40 years.

After being sodomised while being strangled with a dog-chain a little after her 25th birthday, largely brain-dead, cortically blind, unable to speak or walk or have control over body movements, Aruna Shanbaug is incurable.

The picture you see on this page is of Aruna a few months before her 63rd birthday. They are screen grabs from a video, taken in the same room, as ordered by the Supreme Court. The video was distributed to the media by the court office but the image used by most outlets is the romanticised one, a 60s passport-photo of a girl-that-was. The SC also ordered a medical report after the letter written by the care-takers implied that she couldn't possibly have to lie in a soiled bed since she was walked to the bathroom with help.

Image courtesy: Pinki Virani

The medical report stated Aruna as fulfilling most criteria of patients in a permanently vegetative state. The report, however, did not state whether she was being given palliative drugs mandatory for such patients. Enquiries on this continue to be stonewalled. "Doctors have not prescribed," say the nurses. "Patient-confidentiality prevents giving this information," say the doctors.

They all say they love her; which is why they would rather not use a catheter to catch her body's wastes; catheters can lead to infections, these require drugs, they prefer to keep drugs to the minimal, just in case "something happens to her". Which is why — when her gums caught rot, her teeth fell out one-by-one in that locked room — two doctors stopped her full medical examination even though organised outside, in a private hospital. Even earlier, it is why nurses stopped the physiotherapy, causing her body to atrophy, her joints to lock into angles, her nails to grow inwards to cut into her palms. Medical mismanagement? They bristle with righteousness at the notion, everything is done in Aruna's best interests, only outsiders think otherwise. Look, they triumphantly point out, not even one bed sore.

A permanently vegetative state does not permit patients to know off, least of all enjoy, favourite foods, music, people. It also doesn't allow for them to smile in response to an external influence. Aruna has mush tipped into a nasal-feed pipe going directly into the stomach to keep her alive.

The Supreme Court announced its verdict last year (March, 2011). Passive Euthanasia will be allowed in India (with conditions set out in the judgement). It's a landmark law which places the power of choice in the hands of the individual, over government or medical or religious control which sees all suffering as "destiny". This Author, who knows Aruna since 1982, filed for Passive Euthanasia after Aruna's 60th birthday. She did so under the provision of "next friend", to be legally accountable of the outcome. And as her choice to be morally accountable to a Aruna, no matter the consequences in the Court of God. For it was clear then and even more so today — Aruna Shanbaug must be allowed to die.

Aruna can also avail of this new law which her condition has catalysed. With a caveat. Only a more "appropriate" next friend can approach the Bombay High Court on her behalf. This is deemed as the municipal hospital which looks after her since 1973, from the time she was brutally assaulted in its basement while working there as a nurse. The municipal hospital comprises of people who go home every night, they retire or move on to private practise.

None need pay her bills or return to that locked room. Collective conscience is, therefore, not called upon as it would for a family who would gather to compassionately see it from the patient's point of view.

[Aruna's family abandoned her after the hospital started insisting that they take her home. When visiting, or raising issues, or questioning acts of omission, this Author has also been asked to take her home several times in the past.]

For Aruna, if permission is granted, it would mean following the internationally-set procedure of tapering out feed over a period of time - eg over 10 to 15 days — along with the introduction of palliatives to prevent pain.

Please look at Aruna’s picture again. At her skin upon which no sun has been allowed to shine for over three decades. Shouldn’t Aruna Shanbaug be allowed to die? What would you do if it were your loved one (God forbid) in her stead?

Look at the ultimate irony. Despite her name bringing a law which allows people to die with dignity, she is being condemned to a living hell. Locked-in with both. Her torments: she smiles, she moans, she lies catatonic. And her tormentors.

This is the unbearable agony of being Aruna Shanbaug.

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