There is only one photograph of Aruna Shanbaug before she was raped in 1973 and it does not show how much fun she was. In more familiar images, the nurse, who passed away in May this year, lies in a vegetative state at King Edward Medical College in Mumbai for 42 years, as a legal battle of euthanasia is fought over her. A new play by Delhi-based Lushin Dubey seeks to reclaim Shanbaug, the person, from the cause. Aruna’s Story is a biographical script based on a book by Pinki Virani, a Mumbai-based journalist and writer who had followed Shanbaug’s case since 1982 and filed a plea for passive euthanasia for her. In this interview, the playwright speaks on reimagining Shanbaug and playing 20-odd characters.
How have you interpreted Aruna’s story?
Aruna was from a small village called Haldipur in Karnataka and had very big dreams of being a nurse in Mumbai and then going abroad to work and study further. The play operates on broadly three levels: the spirited Aruna, the aftermath of the rape and the fight for legal redress. Aruna’s assailant, the dog lab helper, Sohanlal Walmiki, was sentenced to only seven years in jail on charges of robbery and attempt to murder. The heinous sexual assault and rape was not even mentioned because no one was willing to be a complainant. Aruna’s case resulted in a landmark judgement allowing for passive euthanasia. Today, if a woman is raped and left in a semi-vegetative state, the rapist is tried as a murderer.
Is the play as dark as Aruna’s life?
The play begins in fear. The curtain rises to a very powerful rape scene, which can happen to anyone. It is not devoid of lighter, comic moments because these are also elements of life. Above all, we focus on Aruna as the radiant, determined, outgoing and sprightly personality, devoted to her work, cheerful with patients and colleagues and, of course, in love with Dr Sardesai to whom she was engaged.
How did you recreate the multiple layers in a solo show?
I play 18 to 20 characters — from Aruna with her lyrical southern accent to Dr Sardesai, the journalist with her clipped diction, the matron, the nurses, the policeman, the bureaucrats, the taxi driver… I also found that the play needed a modest set to bring out the characters. Small things like a nurse’s sari or a policeman’s cap can distinguish one from the other.
How has your stand on gender abuse influenced the direction of the play?
If Aruna were a man who had pulled up a sweeper boy for doing his work badly, I don’t think she would have been raped. There is a scene in which the matron says, “Why do we always have to be on guard and not speak our mind, just because we are women… when will they make the workplace secure for us?” We shine a torch on all girls who are achievers in an environment that insists on patriarchal definitions of womanhood.
Do you also portray Pinki Virani, the author and an activist for Aruna Shanbaug?
She was adamant that she should not be portrayed so she is mentioned only in the third person. Even Sohanlal has only been mentioned. Aruna herself is never shown either through action or image after the rape; her story moves forward only through other characters talking about her or to her.
The play will be staged at India Habitat Centre in Delhi on September 26 and 27