The following is a hypothetical account of the life of Aruna Ramchandra Shanbaug, the nurse who worked at King Edward Memorial Hospital in Mumbai. In 1973, she was sexually harassed by the ward boy in the hospital during her night shift which left her in a persistent vegetative state for 42 years untill her death by pneumonia last year on 18th May. With her death anniversary approaching, this piece is a tribute to the victim who was punished. This diary acts like a perpetual voice in her head and offers a glimpse of what many of us will not be experiencing even once in our lives: the medical state of human vegetation – explored through a first-hand personal perspective. I sincerely hope all of us be a bit more humble after living through this experience that you will be entering from the next line.
10th November 1973. Hostel room
It is now decided. I have made up my mind and he has too, I guess. I was living in constant dilemma all this time but, things are now clearer to me. In fact, they couldn’t have been clearer. I had to marry Pratap or as they call him, Dr. Pratap Desai. Aai and Baba are not agreeing. They never will, I know. Although dada has assured me that he’ll support me throughout, like a pillar. I just hope things go well.
As for today, you remember Sohan, who I had written about? Well, he was there again today, asking for a day off. Can’t do a job in the day properly and he has the audacity to ask for a day off! Well, it soon turned into an argument, something which seems to be happening too much these days. Plus, his little steals- he knows I know. Done with the warnings, it is the time I report him. Only then will he know.
27th November 1973, Supervisor’s office
The work seems to be going in a relaxed pace today with no more in-patients arriving – those times in the week when we got to sneak off a chai or two in the office. My fever seems to be settling down now. Hopefully, I’ll get through the night shift. Shanta asked me to take a leave but I need to save up for my holiday to my hometown, Haldipur next month.
I was responsible for the dog cages today and just like the last time, Sohan left them unclean. Let me see him when he comes this evening.
28th November 1973, Unknown
All that I have are flashes- flashes of a tackle, of a snatch, of hits; flashes of the running of a gurney, of Pratap, Shanta looming over me. My hands and feet are constricted. My face feels like the only flexible part of my body right now. I try to roll my eyes all over the place though there isn’t much to capture except the cream finished ceiling and the plastic tubes that run all over me.
There are phases- of dreams, of sleep, of blurry faces and nodding heads. Well, there was an interesting dream last night or what that night before? I saw Sohan in it, with chains in his hands. Dreams can often be meaningless, can’t they?
1st June 1974, My bed
Funny how I still make it a point to mention the location in these entries, as if they’re going to change another day. Well, maybe not the location but there is something different about today definitely. Shanta came to visit today. I wished to ask her of my brother, my mother, ask whether they would arrive anytime soon or well, anytime. They gave me the meethi pills today. I let its sweetness linger on my tongue for a little longer before letting it slip down my throat.
My supervisor also rounded up to my bed today spelling the word ‘birthday’ as he waved at me. I think I smiled a little.
4th January 2011, My bed
Pinki came to visit today. It had been so many years since I had seen her that I had to make an effort to get her name right. She was circulating some kind of papers around the room, to the patients, the nurses. Some talking was done too though I delved away before I could make out anything. The last of what I could catch was the glint of hope in all their eyes as they looked at me. What could that be for? Are they getting me out? After all these………………years?
7th May 2015, My new bed
They’ve shifted me to a new place today; in a bigger room with cleaner sheets and more machines. My head sometimes jolts with a rage of pain these days. I spend more time sleeping now, my most comfortable phase. It feels as if someone is knocking their finger on my forehead all the time. My nurse nods her head in understanding though I wonder if she means it.
Sometimes I wonder what it would be like on the other side. Who will I meet there? Dada? Pratap? Will there be light? Light in the spaces I couldn’t go back to- our aangan in Haldipur, my hostel in Dadar. Sounds? Voices of those moving mouths I could never hear or that of mine, the one I have now well forgotten.
But it will be easier, won’t it? Well, now it feels like it all isn’t so far, my place among those twinkling stars.
Aruna Shanbaug’s died in the afternoon of 18th May 2015 due to severe pneumonia. A case filed by Pinki Virani, a social activist and Aruna’s friend for granting her mercy death in September 2011, led to the development of laws on euthanasia in the country which were earlier absent in the constitution. Although the Supreme Court rejected her plea, the case led to the legalization of Passive Euthanasia in India, the latest amendment to our constitution.