Unaware of her unwanted fame, the 67-year-old became India’s metaphor for the right to life. Did she want that right?
Emphatically not, says Pinki Virani, the journalist who first brought her story to light. Ms Virani campaigned not for a mercy killing, but for a legal end to her being force fed; and she took the case all the way to India’s Supreme Court.
The nurses, who successively tended to one of their own, had a diametrically opposite opinion. They argued that Aruna Shanbaug responded to stimulus and actually “relished” her fish curry, albeit through tubes. Their stand was upheld in the landmark dismissal of Ms Virani’s petition in 2011.
In one more of the ironies that mocked Aruna Shanbaug over the decades, the judgment allowed for euthanasia in rare cases – it had been illegal in India – but denied it to the woman who had been at the centre of it all.
On 16 May, she was hooked up to a ventilator in KEM’s acute care unit following severe pneumonia. Mercifully, her body seized its own release two days later.
Aruna Shanbaug would have been a forgotten, faceless statistic if it hadn’t been for the intrepid Ms Virani.
She came to us at The Times of India’s Sunday Review in 1989, with an untold story dating back to 1973.
A feisty, pretty, 25-year-old nurse at KEM was eagerly changing from her uniform into a rose pink sari to go to meet her doctor fiance when she was vengefully sodomised by Sohanlal Bharta Walmiki, a hospital sweeper.
She had earlier publicly berated him for stealing the food meant for the hospital’s dogs.
Not content with the brutal assault, he strangled her with a dog chain and walked away.
She was discovered only 11 hours later, unbelievably still alive. But the miracle was a mockery.
She survived near-certain death, she actually emerged from her coma, some of her brain cells had survived the cutting off of the oxygen supply. But they were precisely those which kept her conscious only of pain.
Because it wasn’t rape as it was understood until the tough new law passed early in 2014 – after the 2012 gang rape and murder of a student on a Delhi bus – Ms Shanbaug’s attacker got a total of 14 years in jail. He was allowed to serve his two sentences simultaneously, and walked free after just seven.
Sohanlal’s freedom contrasted with Aruna’s mental imprisonment.
Days after his release, she was found unconscious on her hospital bed, the guard rail down and her tongue mysteriously bitten.
Someone reported seeing a male figure slipping into the room – it’s not clear who. So bars were put on her window, and a padlock on its door.
We asked Ms Virani to do an update on her 1989 lead article in 1997, which led to Penguin publishers commissioning her to write a book, Aruna’s Story.
During her prolonged legal battle to free Aruna Shanbaug from agony and indignity, Ms Virani then became the villain of the piece.
When the case reached the Supreme Court, television clips showed KEM nurses waving placards scrawled with “Pinki Virani Murdabad [Down with Pinki Virani]”.
In her book, Ms Virani had acknowledged the tender care of the nurses who had bathed, fed and medicated Aruna Shanbaug over the years, turning her over regularly to ensure that she had no bedsores.
To some she had became something of a possession, a sad trophy almost, for this corps which was then reluctant to let her go away forever.
Or even briefly to another hospital where Ms Virani had arranged for a check-up and remedy for her rotting teeth – she had also organised transport there in an ambulance which would have spared her the traumatising exposure to now unfamiliar daylight.
But the KEM hospital superintendent refused permission.
Ms Virani’s petition was not for a lethal injection, but permission to remove any artificial intervention that would keep Ms Shanbaug alive – in much the same way that Jain ascetics simply stop eating when they are ready to die.
But it turned into an ugly custody battle – the KEM nurses claimed that because they had looked after her for 37 years, “she belongs to us”‘ and has “become our bond”.
The Supreme Court eventually dismissed the petitioner as much as the petition.
Yes, it commended Ms Virani’s public-spiritedness in bringing the controversial subject of mercy killing into focus, but it summarily rejected her right to be the incapacitated victim’s “next friend”, in the absence of the family which had finally abandoned her. The doctor fiance had also got on with his own life, and married someone else.
The judgment bluntly stated that Ms Virani “cannot claim to have the extent of attachment or bonding with Aruna that the KEM hospital staff which has been looking after her for years claims to have”.
It may have been legally impeccable, but it was surely “the most unkindest cut of all” for the dogged journalist who, for years, was the sole voice of the forgotten Aruna Shanbaug.
One can sympathise with the nurses at KEM being “heartbroken” over Ms Shanbaug’s death. But let’s not condemn Ms Virani for any “heartless” sense of relief.