Sohanlal Valmiki, the man who disappeared after serving a seven-year jail term after he sexually assaulted nurse Aruna Shanbaug, says his life has been a penance for 42 years during which he gave up his “bad habits”.
Less than a fortnight after the death of Shanbaug, who had been in a vegetative state for four decades after the brutal attack on her in Mumbai’s KEM Hospital, Valmiki was traced to Parpa village in Uttar Pradesh, where he lives with his wife, two sons, a daughter and three grandchildren.
“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,” Valmiki told The Indian Express.
Valmiki blames all this on the “haadsa” (incident) involving “Aruna didiji” (Shanbaug). “I have deep regret, I want to seek forgiveness from her and God,” he said.
It was on the night of November 27, 1973 that he attacked Shanbaug at the King Edward Memorial (KEM) Hospital. A sweeper at the hospital, Valmiki throttled Shanbaug with a dog chain and sexually assaulted her, leaving her in a vegetative state and triggering a debate on euthanasia before her death on May 18.
Valmiki was convicted of assault and robbery, but not rape as it was not included in the complaint made to police, and served a seven-year sentence at Yerawada jail in Pune. And then he disappeared.
Reports said he came back to KEM Hospital, had moved to Delhi to work in a hospital, died of tuberculosis or of AIDS. But all these years, Valmiki lived in his ancestral home in Dadupur and then moved to his father-in-law’s house in Parpa, 60 km from Ghaziabad.
He worked as a labourer to make ends meet. Age has caught up with him — he says he is 66 though his son puts his age at 72 — but he continues to work for a labour contractor at a NTPC power plant 25 km away.
Wearing a rudraksha mala and carrying a photograph of his guru in his wallet, Valmiki says he learnt of Shanbaug’s death only after a journalist from the Marathi newspaper Sakaal Times came looking for him earlier this week. The TV in his 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?” he said.
Valmiki’s sons too work as labourers, earning Rs 200 to Rs 300 a day. His wife has gone to Pune to attend a wedding.
He rubbishes reports that he returned to KEM Hospital after serving his sentence.
“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 has heard that people believed he had died of “a deadly disease.” He added, “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 assault on Shanbaug, he opened 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 said he did not “remember anything” about the rape.
He spoke of a “troubled relationship” with Shanbaug, who was with the animal experimentation unit at the 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)?”
Valmiki could not 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.
His eldest son Kishan said he told his father about the rejection of the mercy killing plea on behalf of Shanbaug four years ago.
“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,” Kishan said.
“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 said 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?”
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