Updated: May 31, 2015 8:36:59 am
Every time Aruna Shanbaug’s case made news, the world looked for her ‘rapist’. For some time after he came out of jail, he lived right near the hospital she would spend 42 years in. For over 20 years now though, it’s the yellow nameplate above that has marked Sohan Lal Valmiki’s address in Parda village in Hapur.
Aruna Shanbaug lived and died in public glare — 42 of her 67 years spent on a hospital bed. Sohan Lal Valmiki spent most of those 42 years trying to be forgotten.
The hospital sweeper convicted of sexually assaulting the Mumbai nurse and leaving her in a vegetative state dropped out of sight after he was released from Yerwada Jail in Pune in 1980 at the end of a seven-year sentence. He left his home in Mumbai, leaving no address. Some said he had gone back to working in a hospital, others said it was to the same KEM Hospital, and yet others that he had died.
Every time Aruna’s case was in the news though, the hunt for Sohan Lal would begin. It finally took her death to bring him out of the shadows.
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“Earlier, I would read the papers and her face would be clear in my head… Now it is hazy,” he says. Since he had stopped reading the papers, and the TV at home hasn’t been working, Sohan Lal adds, he didn’t come to know of Aruna’s death till journalists came looking.
For at least some of those years when people searched for him, Sohan Lal lived and worked next door to the hospital in Parel, Mumbai, where Aruna lay ailing. He says he is “65-66” now, about the same age as Aruna when she died. His younger son says he is closer to 72.
Sohan Lal’s father Bartha Valmiki worked at KEM Hospital, in its sanitation department. Of his four sons living in the family’s native village, Dadupur in Uttar Pradesh’s Bulandshahr district, Bartha had handpicked Sohan Lal to bring to the city and recommend for a job in KEM.
Bartha had always been proud of Sohan Lal, “invested” in his education, but the son could only study up to Class IV.
After his retirement, Bartha began working as a sweeper in Palav Sadan, a residential building a few 100 metres from KEM Hospital. He lived with his family in a hut in the backyard of the building. It was to this hut that Sohan Lal is believed to have come after his release in 1980.
A resident said Sohan Lal worked as a sweeper in that building as well as the nearby Sahayadri building. They say he avoided discussing the years he spent in jail with anyone who brought up the topic. Not long after, he left Mumbai.
Jagdish Kamat, who lives on the second floor of Palav Sadan, says, “After Sohan Lal did what he did, his parents were ashamed to be seen in public. They were simple people who always kept their heads bowed and never quarrelled with anyone.”
Residents also remember Sohan Lal’s mother as keeping her face hidden with a ghoonghat at all times, and wearing a solid silver anklet. The hut still stands, desolate and empty.
Even before his arrest, Sohan Lal had few friends. Retired KEM sweeper Dharam Veer, who worked at the hospital around the same time as him, remembers him as a dark-complexioned bulky man with a short temper but “relaxed” at his work.
“When we heard that he was pulled up for stealing dog food, we stopped talking to him. Back then, the matter was so serious that no one wanted to associate themselves with Sohan Lal,” Dharam Veer says.
Aruna’s niece Mangala Naik’s impression of him from jail is of a remorseless man. Having seen him just once in the Sessions Court in 1974, she says, “He had dark, blank eyes. He did not look ashamed at all to me.”
At the time of his arrest, Sohan Lal had been married just two years and had a daughter who was a couple of months old. He had married his elder brother’s widow, Vimladevi, who continued to live in Dapodi near Pune due to lack of space in Sohan Lal’s house in Mumbai. She would come down to meet him in the city. In prison, she would meet him only once, towards the beginning of his term.
“My wife told me our daughter was dead and she would leave me because everyone was pointing fingers at her. I accepted it. I was thinking about penance those days and I thought it best that she led a life without the burden of me and my sins,” Sohan Lal says.
Hazy on the precise details, he remembers being sentenced for robbery and assault for a total of 14 years. “But the sentences ran concurrently. I think my wife thought I would be in jail for 14 years and so wanted to leave. When I got out, I found she had not remarried. We were destined to be together.”
But as the Aruna case trailed him everywhere in the city, Sohan Lal decided Mumbai wasn’t for him. It was a hard decision. Back home in Dadupur village, Sohan Lal hoped to take up tailoring, a hobby he had picked up in jail. The clothes he stitched, including shirts, trousers, and coats, had sold well in prison. He dreamed of starting a business in tailoring when out. “It was the only thing which kept me going,” he says.
“I could barely sleep those years,” he adds. “I was confused and irritated about what had happened… Aruna didiji had been harsh and insulted me, but still, if what the papers were saying had happened to her was true, I couldn’t believe I had done it… It was all in a fit of rage.”
In those days, Sohan Lal says, no one said he raped her. “I did not rape her… In custody, police beat me up, trying to repeatedly make me say I raped her, but I did not… I don’t know why people still call me a rapist,” he says.
In Dadupur, the couple tried to settle into some sort of a routine. Sohan Lal gave up drinking, bidis and non-vegetarian food — “all my bad habits” — as a sort of penance.
However, his dreams soon fizzled out as he had no savings and could not afford to buy a sewing machine. He couldn’t turn to his siblings either as they were angry about the bad name he had brought.
“My parents were dead. My four brothers blamed me, saying I was my father’s favourite but had failed them all. He had thought I was the brightest so he got me the job at KEM. But I made this mistake and our life in Mumbai was thrown apart.”
Driven by his guilt, he decided to distance himself from his wife too. “I didn’t even touch her for a long, long time. My son was born 14 years after I left jail,” he says.
To earn a living, Sohan Lal started working as a labourer in stone quarries and brick kilns, for Rs 30-50 a day. For a long time, his family continued to be ostracised, even by his brothers. “Log mujhe giri hui nazron se dekhte the (People would look at me with disgust). Sometimes the jibes were open and direct. At other times people would stare at me. My brothers would scold their children telling them not to end up like me. Those were bad days,” he says.
Sohan Lal found solace in religion. He started wearing prayer beads — he now sports them at all times, and started following a guru.
Now, whenever he refers to Aruna or describes events relating to her, he clutches the beads and brings out a picture of his guru that he carries in his wallet.
“I want to make sure I speak the truth. There are so many lies… that I raped her, that I went back to the hospital to kill her, that I worked in another hospital and tortured people, that I got a deadly disease. My wife and I would hear these things from our son, and she would cry,” he says.
The two now have four children — two sons and two daughters. His eldest son Kishan is the only one to have attended school. When he was in Class VIII though, Sohan Lal’s past again interrupted their lives. His eldest brother, in a fit of anger, pelted him with stones.
“He was old, and very angry with me. He would lose his temper now and then, and hit me and abuse me in front of everyone. That day he hit me with stones. I did not mind, I deserved it, but my wife was scared he would kill me,” he says.
So the family moved to Parda village in Hapur, around 80 km away, to the home of Sohan Lal’s parents-in-law where they have been living for the last 20 years.
At Parda, Kishan started going to school again but it was a walk of 3 kilometres. He failed in Class IX, started working, and dropped out of school permanently.
Kishan says he first learnt about the Aruna case during one of the rare visits the family made to Dadupur. “It was just two years after we had left the place. My parents were not around. My uncles were talking and made a reference to how our lives would have been different if my father had not committed this chhoti si galti (small mistake),” Kishan recalls.
He started asking questions, and soon had all the answers. Since then, Kishan is the only one in the family to have followed the case in newspapers and on television and occasionally updates his parents.
Around four years ago, it was he who read about a plea in court to allow mercy killing for Aruna.
“My father prays twice a day, but that day he prayed 5-6 times. I told him her family was gone, she had been living in hospital. He was agitated, started shivering. Then when the Supreme Court rejected the euthanasia plea, he became stable again.”
Sohan Lal lives in Parda with his wife, sons, their wives, a daughter and three grandchildren. He suffers from poor eyesight. His vision had started deteriorating while he was in Dadupur. He visited a doctor in Bulandshahr, who advised him cataract surgery and some injections. His sons saw the prescription two years later, hidden in one of his kurtas. “He told us he could not afford the treatment, so he had hidden it. We went and got the injections once. After that, we could not afford them,” Kishan says.
Kishan and brother Ravindra are not ready to forgive their father yet for the incident which, they believe, changed their lives. “We could have lived in Mumbai in a fancy house, he would have had a good job and we could have studied,” Kishan says. The two work as labourers with private contractors making around Rs 200-300 a day each.
To some, Sohan Lal has already paid for his ‘sins’. At the Valmiki colony in Parda village, Sohan Lal’s two granddaughters and one grandson sleep at night only with “daadu”. Pointing to a poster of two infants sitting on a cot in their courtyard, Kishan says his father loves small children.
His neighbours in the Valmiki colony say he is a good man. “Why should we judge him for his past? He is good to the children. In the evenings, he gathers them in the lane and tells them stories. He still works hard. He has served his sentence. What more should he do?” neighbour Babu Singh says.
Most neighbours in the Valmiki colony have heard of the case, but do not talk about it with the family out of respect. The Jat and Muslim colonies in the village, however, don’t know Sohan Lal lives among them.
Village pradhan Kirpal’s son tells The Sunday Express he didn’t know about Sohan Lal’s case till journalists started visiting. “His sons are now requesting me to hide details from journalists. Why should I do that? If you have committed such a heinous crime, who are we to protect you?” he says.
There have been curious visitors too. “We saw the case on TV, Aruna’s death was splashed across channels. We never knew he lived among us,” says Bhim Pal Singh.
This is precisely what Sohan Lal has lived in dread of these 42 years.
He has spent the past few days as long away as possible from home. He meets us in a field a few kilometres from the NTPC power plant in Dhaulana in Hapur where he is now employed, working 12-13 hours a day for Rs 261. He hasn’t been home in two days.
At around 5ft 8 inches, Sohan Lal is a scrawny, balding man, who walks with a slight hunch. He crouches at the corner of a field, holding a gamcha and the tiffin he has carried since he left home. He says he is glad his wife is away these days — to Pune for a wedding — but figures she must have heard of Aruna’s death there.
“She did not tell me because she thinks I will be scared. She (Aruna) will haunt me. But I am used to that. She has haunted me all these years. The memories never leave me… I would be happy if I could die,” he says.
Now that the world has finally discovered him back, Sohan Lal has other fears. “If my thekedar (contractor) finds out I am this man, he will throw me out of my job. I have one daughter left to marry off. Agar baki mazdooron ko pata chale toh woh mujhe giri nazron se toh nahi dekhenge? Gaon wale mere bachhon pe thukenge (If the other labourers come to know, would they not look at me with derision? The villagers will spit on my children),” he says.
Paying for your sins in the eyes of the law, Sohan Lal adds, is not enough. “I served my sentence. But the past always catches up. It’s like whenever I start looking ahead… I was with my children in Dadupur, and now with my grandchildren… this incident always comes back and grabs me by the neck. There is no escape.”
With Tabassum Barnagarwala in Mumbai
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