The Aruna Shanbaug story: 'Perhaps she's paying for all our sins'
It's a heartbreaking account of what happened to Aruna Shanbaug, how her body survived a horrific rape and how the medical staff of KEM Hospital resolutely stood by her and cared for her
EDITOR'S NOTE: The following extract is from Pinki Virani's book Aruna's Story: The True Account of a Rape and its Aftermath. It's a heartbreaking account of what happened to Aruna Shanbaug, how her body survived a horrific rape and how the medical staff of KEM Hospital resolutely stood by her and cared for her — even when it may not have been in Shanbaug's best interests medically — when she was abandoned by her family and betrayed by the justice system.
Virani decided to write the book when she realised that Shanbaug's rapist served sentences for assault and robbery, but not for rape. The only silver lining in this terrible history is that Virani's passionate plea for euthanasia for Shanbaug would start the debate that would ultimately make passive euthanasia legal in India. It couldn't be applied in Shanbaug's case because the nurses of KEM Hospital, where Shanbaug had worked before she was raped and became brain dead, refused to entertain the idea of allowing the former nurse to die.
One man. Plus a savage twist of one chain. And the thirty seconds for his sperm to release. Equals one broken woman. With brain damage so irreversible that it does not even register images. And perfectly healthy pupils but blind for life.
She lies in bed with hands and feet flexed. Splints are being used to assist in keeping her limbs straight. Sometimes she goes into a foetal position. Cries loudly, weeps softly. Laughs manically. Alternates between laughing and crying. Also has spells of screaming which can last upto two hours.
Cannot see. Takes feeds by mouth. Eats when given, stops apparently when full. Depending upon mood responds to commands. Sticks out tongue for some doctors only. Difficult to control when restless as she becomes rowdy. Able to hold up her head on her own for short periods. ... Recognises pain very well, unlike previously. Since she continues to keep all limbs, including knees, flexed, there are marked deformities at elbows and wrists. She cries when attempts are made to straighten these.
And thus Aruna dwells in her twilight zone.
Aruna Shanbaug is not blessed. She is partially brain dead. She is blind. She cannot speak. She as atrophying bones, wasting muscles. ... She feels pain, this part of her brain is a sly survivor, it continues to be healthily alive. She gets her periods, these are excruciatingly painful periods.
It is hot, so hot that the air itself seems to sweat. Senior assistant matron Kusum Upadhyay wipes her brow and tries concentrating on the simple task at hand, the rescheduling of nurse shifts. It is not helping that she can hear Aruna shouting from down the corridor. She has been shouting since the morning. Sister Upadhyay pushes back her chair and leaves her office to walk down the corridor. She is met half-way by trainee nurse Christine Gomes. 'Sister, I was coming to see you.'
'What is it?'
'That nurse, uh Aruna Shanbaug, she has been shouting from the morning.'
'I am aware of it.'
'The patients in ward 4 are getting very agitated.'
'I was on my way to her room, you can come with me if you like.'
The young Christine Gomes falls in step with her assistant matron, she has seen Aruna Shanbaug once before, she had peeped into the room when she was asleep. However, nothing has prepared her for the sight of a bony, wild-eyed woman with hypertonic limbs screaming hoarsely and continuously. Without realising it, Christine clutches Sister Upadhyay's arm.
'Aruna? Aruna! Stop this, you are disturbing other patients.'
There is an immediate cessation of sound in the darkened room. Sister Upadhyay briskly pulls back the curtains, opens the window and turns up the fan. 'I thought as much, you were shouting away because you wanted some attention, well what is it?'
Aruna cringes away from the afternoon light pouring into her room, she wails aloud. ... Sister Upadhyay bustles about, straightening the bedsheet, changing Aruna's sanitary napkin, made out of a folded piece of padded cloth.
'I know you are in pain because you have your period. But such pain is to be borne.'
She gestures to the young girl, let us leave the room. Outside in the corridor, Christine meekly asks of her senior matron, 'Can I please ask you a question?... Does she always shout like this when she wants attention?'
'When it gets very bad, she does. Earlier there were so many of her batchmates, even her immediate juniors, who would make it a point to collect around her bed and chat with each other so that she could feel like a part of them. Life is so strange, when she was a working staff nurse, she hardly socialised at this level with her colleagues, she kept mostly to herself. Anyway, now most of her colleagues have gone, they are married, they have moved to private hospitals. The new ones, like you, don't know her at all.'
'You were among them, Sister Upadhyay, when they shifter her to that other place?'
'You are asking whether I was in agreement about her being shifted?'
Christine is frank. 'Yes.'
'I felt that it was better if our person was under our care. But I saw it from the administration's point of view too, they were not wrong in wanting a bed to be vacant for patients more deserving of treatment.'
'You mean because she is brain dead she is not deserving of treatment?'
'She is not entirely brain dead. I cannot answer the rest of your question because it is an extremely subjective matter...But I do not think there can be too many people in this world who want to suffer, be a burden on others including their own children, be dependent on a breathing machine and then die physically several years later.'
...Aruna's shouts pierce the ward, more patients fret and grumble. Sister Upadhyay sighs, 'Come with me, you can give her the pain-killer injection she has been asking for from the morning.'
Trainee nurse Christine Gomes proficiently administers the injection. Sister Upadhyay smiles her approval. Outside the door, Christine once again asks a question. 'Last one, Sister. Why is God making her suffer like this?'
...'According to us Hindus there are rebirths. Perhaps she is paying for what she did in her last life. Perhaps, like your Jesus Christ, she is paying for all our sins. And if none of these thoughts can give us any comfort, perhaps we must just finally believe there is no God. Aruna Shanbaug's plight is proof of it.'
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Firstpost spoke to social activist and award-winning author Pinki Virani, whose petition to grant euthansia to her friend Aruna Shanbaug led to the 2011 Supreme Court judgment on euthanasia
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