Sunday Story: A girl called Aruna Shanbaug

It was in Mumbai that Aruna Shanbaug blossomed and found a new life, till its sudden end.

Written by Johnson T A , Tabassum Barnagarwala | Updated: May 24, 2015 3:55 pm
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On the morning of November 27, 1973, Aruna Shanbaug got up with a slight temperature. Her niece Mangala Naik, who was only three years younger, urged her to take rest. “A wisdom tooth was emerging. I told her to take leave.”

Aruna ignored the advice. When she did not return home to Mumbai’s Worli from work that night, Mangala and her mother, Aruna’s sister Shanta, thought little of it. They were used to the 25-year-old keeping irregular hours as a nurse. The next day Shanta got a call from King Edward Memorial Hospital in Parel where Aruna worked as a junior nurse. “They said she was attacked. Who thought this could just change her life?” Mangala says.

In the months before, Aruna had been sending frantic letters back home to her family in Coastal Karnataka’s Haldipur village, including seven other siblings apart from Shanta. She planned to get married outside her Brahmin caste to a young doctor at KEM Hospital, she told them.

In a letter to her younger brother, Anand Ramachandra Shanbhag —Aruna spelt her surname differently — she pleaded support to marry the man of her choice. “She wrote saying none of her elder brothers was willing to come for her wedding. My husband replied saying he would be there to bless her. He was very fond of her,” says Bhagirathi Shanbhag, 60, Aruna’s sister-in-law.

By the time Anand and Bhagirathi got married, in 1981, Aruna had already been in hospital for eight years. Anand would tell Bhagirathi about Aruna, and how she was attacked around a month before her wedding. “I had her letters till recently,” Bhagirathi says.

Anand and she often visited Aruna at KEM later, but the semi-comatose, cortically blind woman who lay on that hospital bed for 42 years was not the person anyone who grew up with her recognised.

***
Aruna Shanbaug, after all, was not a woman to forget.

Haldipur is a sleepy village on NH-17 in Honnavar taluk. Aruna was born into a Konkani-speaking, tradition-bound Saraswat Gowd Brahmin family.

While the Saraswat Gowds are generally into business, the Shanbhags were not rich. After Aruna’s father Ramachandra died when she was 10, her brothers Balakrishna and Govinda provided for the family.

Aruna, fondly called ‘Bai’, was the eighth among the six brothers and three sisters. Two of the brothers had mental ailment.

To support the family, Balakrishna and Govinda moved to Mumbai to work at Kamala Mills. Later Balakrishna set up a hotel in Shimoga, Karnataka, and Govinda opened one in Ratnagiri, Maharashtra.

It was tough but the brothers ensured Aruna, a good student, completed school.

In the 1960s, very few girls were sent to the co-education Rural Education Society (RES) High School in Haldipur after they had finished primary schooling, where girls and boys studied separately.

“There were 10 girls for every 90 boys in high school. The times were like that,” says H M Shanbhag, 82, a former mathematics teacher and clerk at the RES High School, who was also a friend of Aruna’s elder brothers. “The boys would all migrate to Mumbai to study or work, while the girls would get married,” he adds.

Aruna again proved an exception. “I taught mathematics to her in Classes VIII and IX. She was smart and would score 60 to 75 per cent marks,” H M Shanbag says. She would borrow books from school seniors if she could not buy them.

Unlike her, none of her siblings completed higher education.

Aruna next became among the first women to leave the shores of Haldipur, with its limited opportunities, in search of own fortunes, after finishing schooling in 1965.

The boys who studied with her — now old men — remember her distinctly, especially, they admit coyly, her looks.

“She was a smart-looking person,” says Shivappa Shanbhag, 68, who was a year senior to her. He now runs a small grocery store.

“Aruna was good at studies and also good-looking,” says Ananth Prabhu, 67, another kirana store owner, who studied with Aruna from Classes VII to X.

“I had forgotten her but remembered when I saw her on television after she died. She was an average student involved in a lot of activities in school. We used to share pickles because my house was right next to the old high school building and her home was too far for her to walk there for lunch,” recalls Dr G G Sabahit, 67, now an Ayurvedic doctor, who still lives in the same house.

An old classmate of hers, Malathi Prabhu, 67, now lives in a room in what was once Aruna’s family’s joint ancestral property, the run-down ‘Garave Nivas’. They were together from Class V onwards, and being neighbours, would walk to school together.

“We shared books and notes. She was a fine girl, very beautiful. She wanted to break out of her lower-middle-class existence. There is nothing to do here. She wanted to go abroad, work as a nurse. Whenever she came on visits later, she would bring me a gift,” smiles Malathi.

“She used to go to school and come back home. No loitering around,” adds Kusum Bhatt (67), another childhood friend. In those days, girls were not allowed to mingle freely with boys. Aruna, in her knee-length skirt, long blouse, glass bangles and gandha ka tika (white-colour tika), stood out, Kusum says.

They would play hopscotch and ‘Ghorpade’, a game with 14 blocks in a box.

Another classmate, Annapurna Bhat, who lives in Bangalore but is currently in Haldipur, is another rare woman of Aruna’s generation in the village to have pursued a career. Coincidentally, she too became a nurse and retired in 2004 from government service.

Annapurna remembers Aruna as being “the prettiest girl in school”. “There was no one prettier than her. We were 14 girls in a class of 54. She came from a poor family. But she never spoke about her troubles. I remember her as a happy girl.”

They were together from Class V, and Annapurna says Aruna spent a lot of time at their house because it was next to the school. Annapurna, however, also remembers that “Aruna used to say that she would do what her brothers told her to do after Class X”.

Annapurna heard about what happened to Aruna, but couldn’t visit her as she didn’t have the means to go to Mumbai. Her husband died while she was pregnant with their first child. “I sometimes feel it was Aruna’s beauty that sealed her fate,” she says bitterly.

***
It’s not clear how Aruna rallied the strength to move to Mumbai, which at the time was a huge risk. She was just 17.

While some people, including relatives, say Aruna rebelled and left home, others say she had the support of her eldest brother, Balakrishna. The brother had once worked at a mill in Mumbai, but by 1965, had set up the hotel in Shimoga.

According to Arvind Karkikodi, the editor of a Kannada news magazine in Haldipur, who did a story on Aruna a couple of years ago, she left for Mumbai against the wishes of her brothers who did not want her to pursue a career in nursing.

“She wanted to make something of her life. For a woman to do what she did at that time was unique. My mother’s younger sister was a classmate of Aruna’s and I learnt from her that Aruna had more ambition than other girls,” says Karkikodi.

A cousin, who lives in Honnavar and doesn’t want to be identified, even lashes out at Aruna. “Let me be straightforward. She did not respect her brothers and went against their wishes. She was short-tempered.”

According to Shanthi Anand Shanbhag, 80, a first cousin of Aruna’s father who lived next door to their house, there were frequent fights between Aruna and her mother Sitabai in the period before Aruna left for Mumbai. “Her mother would be upset because Aruna would talk to boys,” says Shanthi.

Eventually, Aruna came to Mumbai in 1966 with her aunt’s son.

Aruna’s former Haldipur neighbour Umesh Pai, who later moved to Mumbai, claims her initial goal was to become a doctor. “She wanted to become financially stable and work in the social sector.” But Balakrishna had no money to spare for MBBS, and so Aruna decided to pursue nursing.

Over the years, her bonding with her cousin Nirmala Telang (the daughter of one of her father’s brothers) grew. Aruna nicknamed her ‘Nimma’.

Nirmala says that later, during her nursing course at KEM Nursing College, Aruna applied to several colleges in London. “She knew the salary there was higher, the exposure better,” Nirmala says, admitting to be in awe of Aruna’s guts. “She was smart.”

Following the three-and-a half-year nursing course, Aruna joined as a staff nurse in KEM Hospital. From 1966 until November 1, 1973, she lived at the nursing hostel, across the road from the hospital.

***
There were other changes following the move to Mumbai, says Shanthi, Aruna’s father’s cousin. After she became a nurse, Aruna cut her hair short and started wearing nice clothes, she says. “We had a photograph of hers with her haircut. She looked very nice. Somebody took that picture and never returned it,” Shanthi says.

Aruna’s friend and colleague in Mumbai, Pratibha Prabhu, remembers her as the “otherwise silent girl who would laugh at little jokes”.

Only on Sundays would she venture into the city, mostly Dadar Chowpatty, dressed either in a sari, salwar-suit or skirt-and-blouse. Mangala and Nirmala recall how thrilled she was to dress up, to be out of the clothes she wore in Haldipur. The only accessory that continued from Haldipur was her tika — now a red bindi.

Nirmala recalls that when Aruna came to Mumbai to their Kikabhai building to live with them, all she had with her was three pairs of clothes. “I gave her my clothes and we went to a tailor to get new dresses.”

The initial days were difficult. Aruna would feel disheartened and break down as she knew little English and could not understand Hindi and Marathi clearly. “She used to cry, feel like a total stranger. I used to calm her down,” Nirmala says.

On her off days, Aruna would often visit sister Shanta in Worli with her friends, pining for home food. “She never liked hostel food. She loved fish and my mother made it for her,” Mangala recollects.

One friend she was close to was Kumud Bhave, her classmate from nursing days. The only thing that separated them was their choice of food, Mangala laughs. “Kumud was a vegetarian.”

On most off days though, Aruna would buy movie tickets and insist on taking along Nirmala. “I always told her to inform me before buying. She loved listening to music and watching movies. Haldipur didn’t have these things. She even bought a radio from savings from her stipend,” Nirmala smiles.

Aruna watched only one movie with Mangala, and sisters Savitri and Vijaya, in a theatre though. And that was the then superhit Bobby.

***
In the time before the attack, Aruna had been bracing for another showdown with the family. She wanted to marry Dr Pratap Desai, and she wanted the support of her brothers and mother.

Aruna had never been shown boys for marriage by her family. By then, it was an unspoken understanding among them that she wanted to study. But then she met Dr Desai, a doctor pursuing his MD at KEM Hospital.

“Marriage was not on her mind until she met that doctor in the neurosurgery department,” niece Mangala smiles.

Aruna had assisted in the neurosurgery operation theatre. Her family says she was “quick to learn” and was favoured by several doctors as she was quite good at stitching back after an open surgery.

According to Aruna’s widowed aunt Bhagirathi, who earns a living running a canteen in the fishing village of Bellambur some 50 km from Haldipur, the family was angry. “They were not happy that Aruna had decided to marry a man who was not from the community,” she says.

On November 1, 1973, Aruna shifted to Shanta’s home in Worli to save money for the marriage and for Desai to set up his own dispensary. She had been working as a nurse for over three years by then.

On November 27, Aruna, despite feeling unwell, reported to work, where she was in-charge of the laboratory that conducted experiments on dogs. “She never liked the dogs, said they ran around her when the cages were opened,” Nirmala remembers.

However, she adds, when she suggested that Aruna request a switch to other department, Aruna refused. “She said, ‘It is my job. I can’t refuse working in a department’.”

That department was where accused Sohanlal Bhartha Walmiki worked as a sweeper. He was responsible for keeping dog cages clean, washing clothes, and sweeping the department. Aruna had reported him for stealing and not working properly twice. A couple of days before November 27, she threatened to report him a third time.

“Aruna had issued a memo to scare him and torn it after he left. I think that incited him to revenge,” Mangala says.

On November 27, 1973, Aruna was choked by Walmiki with a dog chain in a changing room located in the basement of the cardiovascular thoracic building of KEM Hospital after her shift had ended, and sexually assaulted.

She didn’t gain consciousness again.

***
Aruna’s mother Sitabai could never be brought to Mumbai to see her daughter after the sexual assault, till she passed away a couple of years later.

‘Garave Nivas’, initially made of dried grass (gavat) and converted into a pucca Mangalore-tiled house in 1963, is now almost deserted. The four houses built there standing next to one another, for Aruna’s father Ramachandra and his three brothers and their families, have no one from the family living there now.

All of Aruna’s siblings except an elder sister, Shalini, who lives in Bangalore, are now dead. Most of the extended Shanbhag family appears to have lost touch with Shalini.

For his story on Aruna four years ago, journalist Karkikodi managed to contact Balakrishna, who was still running his hotel. Balakrishna reportedly told him he had stopped visiting Aruna in hospital because of fear of pressure to take his sister home.

Balakrishna died two years ago in Bangalore of cancer. The second eldest brother, Govinda, based in Ratnagiri, and a third Sadananda, who worked in Honnavar, had died earlier. The youngest brother, Anand, died three years ago.

“It is not true we abandoned my aunt. My father went several times to see her in hospital,” counters Subhaga Balakrishna Shanbhag, Balakrishna’s daughter, who lives with her family and her mother in Bangalore.

According to Subhaga, the visits stopped after a change of management at KEM Hospital. “It became difficult to see her.”

Aruna’s sister-in-law Bhagirathi, one of her few surviving relatives still living in Haldipur, claims the same. She and her husband (Anand) went to see Aruna three to four times while they were in Mumbai between 1981 and 1987, running a small restaurant in Ghatkopar, she says. “Every time, the doctors would ask us to take her. We could not do that. In the end, my husband began dreading going to the hospital,” says Bhagirathi.

Aruna’s brothers Gajanana and Prabhakar, who suffered from mental ailment and roamed around eating scraps from stores in Haldipur, died several years ago.

Relatives say till long after the assault, the two would stop any vehicle going past the village road and enquire whether Aruna was in it. “Villagers knew what had happened to Aruna. They would tell them she was coming in the next vehicle,” Mangala says, repeating what Shanta once told her.

Gajanana was killed in an accident involving a temple chariot. Prabhakar died of malnutrition, as per some claims.

Those who remain in the Shanbhag family and those who knew Aruna in Haldipur say they were all opposed to the idea of mercy killing for her. “We felt so many people live with organ failures, why should Aruna die when all her organs were fine?” says sister-in-law Bhagirathi.

The Shanbhag family is planning to immerse Aruna’s ashes, as per the Gowd Saraswat Brahmin custom, at Gokarna, some 40 km from Haldipur.

***
Sister-in-law Bhagirathi calls it their “responsibility”, adding their hope is that “Aruna has gone to a better place”.
Friend Pratibha Prabhu has no doubts. About 30 days after the “incident” (that is how the family calls it, never using the word sexual assault), Aruna had started laughing suddenly, Mangala says.
They all thought she would recover, only to find her crying afterwards — uncontrollably. The fits between bubbles of laughter, sobs and shouts continued until her death.

“What never changed in her was her willingness to laugh,” says Pratibha.

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