Aruna’s Keepers

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Last Saturday, Aruna Shanbag, a former employee of KEM Hospital, Mumbai, completed 37 years as its ‘baby’. This is the story of the nurses and doctors at KEM who have taken care of one of their own ever since that fateful evening of 27 November 1973 when Aruna was raped and strangulated by a ward boy.

How Aruna Shanbag’s caregivers at KEM Hospital have lavished attention on one of their own ever since she was raped and strangulated 37 long years ago.

Jyoti Motilal Shrivastava was a young, 20-year-old, first-year nursing student at KEM Hospital in Mumbai, when she had her first introduction to the hospital’s ‘baby’. The woman on the bed had long black hair and smooth fair skin. A constant low-shrill whine emanated from her, but even then Jyoti couldn’t help thinking that she was indeed as beautiful as she had been told. Aruna Shanbag looked up at her with restless eyes. “I remember getting mad at God for having left her in that condition,” she says. Today, Jyoti is 58 years old and the matron of the hospital. Many nurses have come and gone during her tenure. Like her, every one of them is made to meet Aruna, who is introduced as the hospital’s ‘baby’.

On the evening of 27 November 1973, 25-year-old staff nurse Aruna had finished her duty hours. She had then gone to the basement of the Cardio-Vascular Thoracic Centre building of KEM Hospital to change her clothes. Several hours later, she was found unconscious inside the tiny room, bleeding from her vagina and anus. She had been raped by a ward boy, Sohanlal. A dog chain tied around her neck during the rape had asphyxiated her, cutting off blood supply to her brain. Aruna turned into a vegetable overnight, and continues in that state. She is 62 years old now, but has no knowledge of the time elapsed. Rare stretches of facial muscles reveal a possible smile, and a faint whimper is heard now and then in the narrow corridor of the ward on the hospital’s ground floor. The whimper is a sign for the nurses to check on her. The hospital authorities are protective of her; nobody other than doctors and nurses on duty are allowed into her room, which is locked from outside. The media has been kept at bay. Hospital dean Dr Sanjay Oak says, “We ought to give her the space she deserves.”

Despite her condition, Aruna is healthy. Says Shrivastava, “She has no ailment usually associated with someone in her sixties—no high blood pressure or diabetes, no loss of appetite or wrinkled skin. She doesn’t even have a single bed sore!” Aruna has a diet of chicken thrice a week. She also has an appetite for eggs. She says, “Dede, dede...” while being fed her daily quota of two eggs, Shrivastava says. It is only in recent years that her food is being ground to a thin paste—because all her teeth have been extracted. She turns her face away when she is fed any sweetmeat. She has a strange dislike for water, and spits it back at the nurse when goaded to sip some.

“The urinary tract of a patient can get infected if the catheter is used beyond a certain period. Also, it would be extremely uncomfortable for Aruna if she’s made to wear adult diapers. So she just wears the hospital’s patient uniform—shirt and pyjama. She cries when she has urinated or passed stools. We let her soil her clothes and bed linen, and then after a sponge with warm water, followed by a spray of some talcum powder, Aruna is made to wear a new set of clothes,” says Leny Cornelio, 55, who was sister-in-charge of the ward until two months ago. “Not a single nurse or even a grade IV employee of the hospital will ever complain about the amount of work s/he has to do to take care of Aruna.”

The hospital staff working the ward know exactly when Aruna is being bathed every morning. “She is extremely averse to bathing. Not a single day has passed in these many years when Aruna has not cried out loud while she is being sponged,” says Cornelio, who still visits Aruna after her day’s work.
Before she falls asleep for the night, a nurse runs her oil-dipped fingers through the tiny gray stubs that are Aruna’s hair. There has been not a single visitor from Aruna’s hometown in Karnataka for several years now. The resident doctor who was her fiancé waited for four years in the vain hope that Aruna would become normal again. He finally gave up, got married and has not returned to check on her. For doctors at KEM, memories of Aruna through the years run long. Dr Ravindra Bapat still remembers the weight on his arms as he carried Aruna’s limp body out of the basement on that evening of 1973.

On the day that she retired two months ago, Cornelio went to meet Aruna. “I told her ‘I will come to meet you on your birthday next year, on 1 June.’ She heard my words and began to cry. She may have so many things to tell us! I visit her daily, but honestly, I pray that she is blessed with natural death soon.”