Most of Aruna Shanbaug's friends and colleagues have retired now. The memory of dates and years has faded in their minds, but what has not is the turn of events on the fateful day of November 27, 1973 and the misery that unfolded later.
“I remember the day this incident happened, there were many food poisoning cases in the paediatric ward. Children were lined up for treatment. Aruna volunteered to stay longer that day to help. Such was her integrity towards work. She was very committed,” Pramila Khushe, a nurse at King Edward Memorial (KEM) Hospital here and Aruna's senior, told The Hindu.
“I knew her since she was a student to the time she was promoted to be the staff nurse. We knew her as a very honest, punctual and committed girl. She was known to go out of her way to help patients,” she said.
“She was a good girl, a good student and a good nurse. She was a disciplinarian. That may also be the reason why she had to face the kind of misery she did,” Durga Mehta, the then matron of the KEM Hospital and a teacher to Aruna, told The Hindu. She is now settled in Amreli, Gujarat.
Aruna was sodomised and strangled with a dog chain by a ward boy at the KEM Hospital, Sohanlal Valmiki, who was convicted for seven years, though not for the crime he had committed. The strangulation cut the oxygen supply to Aruna's brain. She also suffered brain stem contusion injury and cervical cord injury.
“I still remember the day it happened. After the sister-in-charge informed us, matron Beliman and I rushed to the basement. The moment she saw matron Beliman, tears started rolling down her eyes. She was conscious, she wanted to say something. Her lips were moving, but she could not speak up,” Ms. Khushe said.
“We don't know when the incident happened. But I believe it was her will power that kept her conscious for all that period. Her condition was deplorable. Within 5-6 minutes after that she slipped into a coma and a team of doctors and neurosurgeons tried to pull her out of it, all in vain,” she said.
“The one who put her through all this pain, got off with a light punishment, but she is still suffering,” Ms. Khushe said.
“Her parents have passed away. She has a brother, but he himself is old. For four-five years after the incident, her niece used to come regularly and feed her. Then probably she got married and never returned,” she said.
Fiancé stood by her
Both Ms. Khushe and Ms. Mehta remembered the way Aruna's fiancé stood by her after the incident and religiously continued her physiotherapy treatment for years. Aruna was to get married within a month from the incident.
“He was a doctor serving with the hospital itself. He was a very nice boy. He took good care of her for years,” Ms. Mehta said.
“Aruna was very fond of Sister Pokhlekar. She used to feel very happy after hearing her voice. Even Sister Pokhlekar took very good care of her. She used to personally supervise the staff caring for her,” she said.
“Our dean Dr. Padma Pai had asked us to make Aruna wear colourful plastic bangles, just the way babies wear. We thought that would attract her to her hands, the sound would please her,” Ms. Khushe said.
“Whenever I call her, she used to roll her eyes and turn around a bit. How can anyone say she does not respond,” Ms. Mehta asked.
Both of them acknowledged the efforts of the Municipal Corporation of Greater Mumbai in treating Aruna.
“The Corporation spent a lot of money for treating Aruna. They kept a separate bed reserved for her, and hired specialists for her treatment,” Ms. Mehta said.
Ms. Khushe reiterated how the staff of KEM Hospital had gone on strike when a dean decided to shift Aruna out of the hospital.
“All her friends protested against the decision and went on strike. They had to retract the decision,” she said.
“She is ours. She is a part of the KEM family. No one can take her away from us. Nobody has the right to take away the life given to us by God,” Ms. Mehta said.