For 42 years, says Sohan Lal Singh, son of Bharta Valmiki, life has been a penance. “I gave up non-vegetarian food, bad habits like smoking bidis and drinking. I had a daughter before I was sentenced, and she died while I was in jail. She died because I made a mistake. For many years after my release, I didn’t touch my wife. A son was born 14 years after I left jail.”
All this, because of the “haadsa” (incident) with “Aruna didiji”. “Mujhe bahut pachchtava hai. Main unse aur apne bhagwan se maafi maangna chahata hun (I have deep regret, I want to seek forgiveness from her and god).”
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The “haadsa” Sohan Lal refers to took place the night of November 27, 1973 at the King Edward Memorial Hospital in Mumbai. A sweeper at the hospital, he brutally assaulted “didiji” Aruna Shanbaug, a nurse who remained in a vegetative state for 42 years, triggering a debate on euthanasia before her death on May 18 this year.
Sohan Lal spent 7 years at the Yerawada jail in Pune. And then disappeared. Some said he had moved to a Delhi hospital, other said he died of tuberculosis, still others said AIDS had got him.
But all these years, he lived in his ancestral home in Dadupur and then moved to his father-in-law’s house in Parpa, both villages in western Uttar Pradesh. He worked as a labour hand to make ends meet. Age has caught up with him — he says he is 66 but his son puts his age at 72 — but he continues to work for a labour contractor at a power plant 25 km away.
Wearing a rudraksha mala and carrying a photograph of his guru in his wallet, Sohan Lal says he learnt of Shanbaug’s death only after a journalist from the Sakal newspaper came looking for him earlier this week. The television in their two-room house was not working — the village was without electricity for a week — and the family does not read newspapers.
“I leave home at 6 am for work and return by 8 pm. I get Rs 261 a day. I have to cycle nearly 25 km to work. Where is the time to read newspapers?”
Sohan Lal lives with his wife, two sons, a daughter and three grandchildren. His sons also work as labour hands, earning Rs 200-300 a day. One of his two daughters is married and lives elsewhere. His wife has gone to Pune to attend a wedding in the family.
He rubbishes reports that he had returned to KEM Hospital after serving prison time.”My son told me newspapers wrote this. That I tried to kill her (Shanbaug)… I could barely sleep for 10 years after the incident. How was it possible for anyone to go back to the hospital after such a thing? I left Mumbai, why would I go back to the hospital to see her?”
He had also heard that people believed he had died of “a deadly disease.” “My son would tell us these things and my wife would cry. I wish I had died. My sons would have taken care of her. I am tired of the memories, I want to die now.”
Reluctant to discuss the KEM Hospital incident, he opens up after moving away from fellow workers and neighbours. “Everything happened in a fit of rage. There was a fight, it was dark, and I panicked. We both hit each other, I may have pulled the ornaments they said I stole during the scuffle. There was no rape… they beat me up in the police station and kept saying it was rape. I did not rape her, it must have been someone else,” he claimed. Later, he says he does not “remember anything” about the rape.
He spoke of a “troubled relationship” with Shanbaug who was with the animal experimentation unit at KEM Hospital. “Aruna didiji was always picking on me. She knew I was scared of dogs… there were other sweepers, but she picked me each time the dogs had to be fed or their cages swept. I told the doctor in charge and my supervisor to transfer me, I complained about her but no one listened. Who listens to a jamadar (sweeper)?”
He can’t recall the date of the incident that “destroyed everything.”
“That night I had gone to ask Aruna didiji for leave for a few days. My wife’s mother, who then lived in the house where I now live, was very ill. My wife wanted to visit her but Aruna didiji refused. She said if I took leave, she would complain about me in writing, saying I did no work, that I stole dog food, and still wanted leave,” he said.
“I had not done any such thing. I was scared of dogs, so how could I steal their food?… I had seen Aruna didiji playing cards with ward boys and other nurses during duty hours. When she threatened to complain and not give me leave, I told her I would tell her supervisor about her. After that, there was an argument and a physical fight. I don’t know what I did in rage,” he said.
Eldest son Kishan says that four years ago, he told his father about the rejection of the euthanasia plea on behalf of Shanbaug. “My father prays twice a day, but that day after I told him, he prayed five-six times. I told him what the papers said, that her family was gone, that she had been living in the hospital. He was agitated and began trembling. When the Supreme Court rejected the plea, he became stable again.”
“He does not talk about the case, and we don’t feel comfortable asking him. In our culture, you cannot ask a father what he did to a woman. But my uncles have told me so many times how he destroyed our lives. We could have lived in Mumbai…”
Younger son Ravindra says his mother told him about the case when he was 12. “She told me I should forgive my father, that the papers were exaggerating his crime. She said my brother was angry with my father but I should love him because he had made a mistake. But he never even sent me to school. I cannot even write my name, how do I forgive him?”