Aruna Shanbaug would have turned 68 on June 1.
As they do every year, the nurses at KEM Hospital were planning a celebration.
“Usually, we would work on a handmade greeting card and buy a cake, some of which would be fed to Shanbaug,” says head nurse Anuradha Parade. “She could no longer eat, since she had been on a feeding tube for two years, so we were thinking about what we could do that would be special. Then she took ill. I was confident that she would battle the illness, as she had so many times in the past, but she is at peace now.”
Ever since a violent sexual assault left the former KEM nurse in a coma in 1973 — a ward boy sodomised her in the basement of a hospital building, choking her with a dog chain to subdue her and cutting off oxygen supply to her brain — Shanbaug had lived in a small room adjacent to Ward Number 4.
When she died on Monday, of cardiopulmonary arrest brought on by pneumonia, she had been there 42 years.
Over the decades, as she transformed from a once-vivacious young woman to a senior citizen, prone to bouts of howling and maniacal laughter, the nurses at KEM cared for her, cleaned her, fed her and tried to keep her comfortable.
When a court ruled in a euthanasia petition in 2009, saying that it would allow food supply to be stopped if her primary caregivers — the hospital — approached them to do so, the hospital reacted with horror. They would never file such a petition, they said.
They argued that she could still feel some enjoyment. That she had a favourite dish — fish curry. And a favourite beverage — mango juice.
In fact, at her 2011 birthday celebration, that is what the nurses fed her.
As successive batches of nurses came and went, each dutifully took on the care of Aruna.
“There is no nurse in the hospital who has not attended to Shanbaug. All senior and junior staff nurses cared for her at some point,” says staff nurse Surinder Kaur.
They even tried to cheer her up, making her room colourful and making sure she had regular clothes to wear.
“From the hospital nurses’ fund, we bought clothes for her and curtains for her room,” says Kalpana Gajula, a nurse and tutor at KEM.
Former dean Dr Pradnya Pai remembers narrating stories to Shanbaug in Konkani, her mother tongue.
In 1977, when Shanbaug was shifted to Sarvodaya Hospital in Ghatkopar, the nurses protested and had her transferred back.
“We had to get her back to KEM,” says Parade, who has served at the hospital for 34 years. “She was one of ours. We would not abandon her.”
Now, the nurses are now contemplating a memorial for Shanbaug in the room she occupied.