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Long Live Aruna Shanbhag, If That’s What She Wants.


In 1973, Aruna Shanbhag, was a young, vivacious nurse in the KEM hospital in Mumbai. She thought her life was in order. She had a good job, was engaged to be married to a doctor. Little did she knew that the a tragedy was waiting in corner that would change her life and the life of people around her forever.

In November of 1973, while working alone late at night, she was sexually assaulted and choked by a ward boy. The resulting damage to her brain left her in permanent vegetative state. Aruna’s long journey in a single room began. She lived through the nurses’ strike, the lawsuits of her perpetrator and the debate about euthanasia.

After 42 long years of life bordering life and death, far more than the sentence served by her perpetrator, she took her last breath on 18 May 2015. There was no hope of recovery for her. Her family was not able to care for her and had abandoned her. She was kept alive by nurses who fed her, cleaned her, changed her sheets and sang to her. In 42 years on bed, she did not have bed sores even on a single occasion. For 42 years.
Was it pure noble and kind act?

I have been to KEM hospital and I have found nurses there to be just like nurses at any other places. Some good, some bad. Many of them do excellent job. But they all are humans. They have nagging in laws and kids who won’t do home works. They snap, crib, flip, gossip, fight and do every good and bad human thing possible.

Then how and why did they accomplish such a superhuman task of keeping a fellow nurse alive, well fed and clean, for four long decades? Was it out of pure love? Or was it an action serving their self in intricate, indirect ways that is not too obvious otherwise?

What was at the heart of extreme kindness of nurses was an acute sense of vulnerability that the profession of nurse brings. Nurses work in shifts, they travel alone, at late hours. They work with people who are sick, angry, disturbed. They see death up close every day. They put themselves in unsafe situations every day.

What happened to Aruna, the rape, the coma, and subsequent abandonment by family, a deadly combination of trauma, stigma and helplessness, is every nurses worst nightmare.

In nursing Aruna, every nurse was nursing herself. Nursing her own sense of vulnerability that is something like that was to happen to her, she will be taken care of. She will be looked after by her sisters even if her family abandons her.

This nursing of your own insecurity is not at all uncommon, but very difficult to spot. Consider this. If you are lawyer of a rape victim and if you are choosing a team of jury that will decide the fate of the rapist, who would you prefer to be on the jury panel? Women or men?

Obvious answer at the first glance seems to be women. You want harsh punishment for the rapist. Women are more likely to be sympathetic to be the rape victim and punish the rapist, right?

Wrong. Facts state otherwise. In fact a panel of women is more likely to hand a lenient sentence to the rapist. Because the possibility that a totally innocent woman can get raped is too scary to a woman’s mind and thus she is likely to believe that it must be the woman’s fault somehow. When she go to bed at night, she needs to believe that an innocent woman will not get raped. To preserve that belief, an all-woman jury is more likely to give benefit of doubt to the rapist.

Breathing Aruna gave them something that the police and the society and the hospital management weren’t able to give. She gave every nurse a hope.

We all, men and women, adults and kids, play these games in one or the other areas of our life. There is no good or bad in these games. This is all part of being human. However if we were to build a strong and mature society where such acute vulnerability or fear will not exist, we must somewhere begin to call these games what they are – just mind games. Understanding these games is going to need a different level of maturity.

First and foremost question- Would Aruna have liked to be kept alive like that? People love their life, but people love their dignity more. No one wants to be seen as helpless, dependent person. It’s a self-respect thing. Also no one likes to be burden on their family or friends. Was it fair to Aruna that the nurses used her a symbol of their hope?

Second, a room in KEM hospital was allocated to Aruna for 42 years. KEM hospital is run on taxpayer money. Is it fair to the taxpayer? The nurses were kind to Aruna indeed. But did they take time out of their shifts?

These are bitter questions. But they must be asked. In order to unmask self acting as God, fear acting as mercy. In order to expose the truth and build a stronger, safer society.

One Response

  1. […] A follow up post from my previous one. […]

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