An iron bed in a dark room in an obscure corner of a municipal hospital mocks all our complacencies and clichés about life, death and the presumed dignity of both. Aruna Shanbaug remained virtually non-existent for everyone except a small band of nurses looking after her and Pinki Virani, the angel-stranger who flapped her wings in the void for 25 years, in vain.
Now, overnight, this forgotten figure in a persistent vegetative state is the centre of the world’s attention. A woman who hasn’t seen sunlight for three-and-a-half decades is suddenly in the full glare of the media. Fortunately, she can no longer flinch.
Last Wednesday, the Supreme Court did the unthinkable. Opening a crack on its walled pro-life stand, it issued notices to the KEM Hospital , its minder the municipal corporation of Greater Mumbai , the Maharashtra and the Central governments, and even the Mumbai police chief – asking them to produce a complete status on Aruna’s medical condition. Hopefully, this is the beginning of the end.
It could end Aruna’s prolonged agony. It could end the anguish of Pinki Virani, the journalist who wrote the first piece on this horrendous case in The Times of India’s Sunday Review in 1990 and later published the book ‘Aruna’s Story’ . Virani has single-handedly and single-mindedly sought relief in life and justice in death for a woman she never knew as a mentally and physically active person. Virani is the ‘next friend’ who petitioned the Supreme Court on behalf of Aruna Shanbaug. The Supreme Court admitted her plea.
That caged KEM bed holds two unnerving issues. The most overused phrases in the breathless discussion of the past four days have been ‘right to life’ and ‘death with dignity’. But Aruna Shanbaug’s tragedy turned them both into farce.
A barrel-thumping brigade comprising doctors, religious figures, lawyers and assorted commentators has piously and passionately upheld life. Yes, only God (or biology) is entitled to take away what he (it) has given. Yes, the medical profession is committed to prolonging life and to terminate it wilfully is to betray the hipocratic code to which doctors are sworn. What sounds noble in abstraction acquires ghoulish dimensions in fact.
Issues and individuals are different and often conflicting entities. In a case like Aruna’s, what ‘right’ , what ‘life’ , and indeed what ‘wilful termination’ are we talking about? In her own night of terror on 27/11 in 1973, a pretty, bubbly, spunky 25-year-old nurse was strangulated by a dog chain and then sodomised by a sweeper in a basement of the KEM hospital; she was to proceed on wedding leave the next day. The strangulation damaged her brain stem, and left her blind, deaf, paralysed — and virtually a vegetable. But fate which had dealt this vivacious young woman so cruel a blow decided to grant her a perverse reprieve. It decided to open a small window of sensation in the nether world into which it had cast her. It left intact her ability to feel pain, which is why the only sounds that emanate from that dark room are screams.
Ms aruna was known to be quite rude and racial to Sohanlal, she would comment on his caste and demean him openly. To avenge himself after having had enough, he one day snuck to the basement of the hospital where Aruna was changing after her shift was over and committed the crime sadly specific only to mankind. But that does not seem reason enough to commit a sin enough to crack sanity and to rip the soul of the victim.
Aruna is now 61, and alas, sub-human. But this is what the law says “is life”. Which brings us to the ‘right’ to it — where we cannot interfere, intervene, and certainly not ‘terminate’. However, Pinki Virani and Aruna’s lawyer argue that technically their plea is not for that legally, medically and emotionally loaded intervention called euthanasia. They aren’t talking of any deliberate intervention or “action” such as a lethal injection or even pulling out a plug; Aruna is not hooked to any life-support system. They are asking instead for ‘nonaction’. If the argument against a mercy killing is that we must let nature take its course, this is precisely what they want it to do in Aruna Shanbaug’s ravaged body.
Anyone in such a persistent vegetative state would die a “natural” death in five or six years but, says the petition, the KEM hospital is keeping her ‘artificially’ alive by force-feeding her. Indeed, every day they shove spoonfuls of mash into her dribbling mouth and down a throat which can’t swallow. Incidentally, the same authorities have steadfastly refused Aruna’s right to be administered pain-killers and palliative medicines because they don’t want to take any ‘risks’. If self-denial of food is the Gandhian way of achieving political ends and Jainism sanctifies it as a way to attain moksha from the mortal coil, why should it be denied to the singularly unfortunate Aruna Shanbaug? This is her humble plea to the loftiest court in the land.
Her tragedy is that she has been subjected to so much indignity for so long that by now, even the right to die with dignity has become as hollow a shell as her lifeless life. Once again, a phrase so sensitive in theory gets numbed by real life.
What does the right to life, to death with dignity, or even to justice mean in the context of this woman? The Supreme Court needs to ask itself many big questions and not forget a small one. If Sohanlal Walmiki was allowed to walk free after just six years in jail, doesn’t his savaged victim have the right to be set free after 36 years of an incarceration far, far worse? I am Enraged.. Helplessly so. But not for long.