March 30, 2020
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Ten Minutes To Hell

A well-researched expose which fails to take the debate further

Ten Minutes To Hell
Aruna'S Story: The True Account Of A Rape And Its Aftermath
By Pinki Virani
Viking India Rs 295, Pages: 256
IN 1973, when the horror of Aruna Shanbaug's experience permeated middle class psyche, rape, incest and molestation dwelt within the inner recesses of homes and dark alleyways, hardly articulated in 'polite' company, and rarely in the media. Twenty-five years later, when Pinki Virani's reconstruction of the traumatic movements in the CVTC basement of the KEM Hospital and its aftermath appeared on Aruna's 50th birthday, violence against women had become much more a part of everyday discourse. Aruna was waylaid by a disgruntled hospital sweeper in the basement (where she had gone to change her clothes), sodomised, molested brutally and almost strangled by a dog chain. Those 10 minutes transformed the pretty, curly-haired young woman into a sightless, unspeaking body who countered the outside world with manic laughter and heart-rending sobs. For, as Sohanlal Bhartha Walmiki tightened the dog chain around Aruna's neck, it cut her windpipe, depriving the brain of oxygen which resulted in the death of several vital cells.

Virani's easy style and evocative descriptions trace the events which led to the assault on the young nurse; her spirited accusation that Sohanlal was stealing the food of the dogs used for medical experiments and threat to report him precipitated in the man's anger against Aruna. We are taken on a sentimental journey to "Konkan land", to Aruna's modest home, her ambition to overcome it all and to become a nurse in Bombay. Her romance with Dr Sundeep Sardesai who woos her in a somewhat chaste manner—as he leans over his semicomatose fiancee "he realises when he kissed her eyelids he was kissing her for the first time since they met"—is sketched as is his devotion, albeit in a rather Mills & Boon style. Sundeep spends many days by Aruna's bedside, speaking to the unseeing woman who laughs and cries with a strange passion, for he knows that it is very important for the patient that people talk to her, to assure her that she is not alone in a miasma of darkness and pain.

Aruna's sister and brother want to have as little as possible to do with her, and when the hospital suggests that it is time to take her home, they refuse; but Aruna's colleagues are caring and involved, conveying their sense of commitment of their successors. For except the brief unhappy period in a convalescent home, Aruna has been in the KEM Hospital for the past quarter century.

Aruna's Story is perceptive and spine-chilling in parts, mawkish and tedious in others; on the whole, it holds one's attention as Virani delves into the past, reconstructs events, dialogue and recall effectively; but for those looking for more than a tragedy well-narrated, the book is disappointing. To start with, the subtitle is misleading, a concession perhaps to the USP worldview; Aruna was not raped, but was a victim of what, according to Section 377 of the IPC, is an Unnatural Offence; the only charge made by the hospital was "attack on nurse with attention to rob". Thus Sohanlal was sentenced to seven years' imprisonment on charges of attempt to commit murder and robbery. There was no mention of any form of sexual abuse; the fact that Aruna was menstruating and the totally irrelevant—but commonly heard—reasoning that the sexual history of a woman who was to be married should be impeccable, apparently prevented the hospital from suing Sohanlal for attempted rape and outraging the modesty of a woman, much less for committing an unnatural offence.

Aruna used her authority as a nurse over subordinate staff; Virani retells the acrimonious conversation where Aruna asks Sohanlal not to question his superiors; "Keep to your limits, remember you are a sweeper, a bhangee," she warns; shades of a Bollywood script take over the narration as the lower caste Sohanlal has his diabolic revenge. Virani does not take the opportunity to look more deeply into the implications of the caste-class divide, typical of most of our public institutions—and often the cause of tensions within them.

Parts of the last section are flabby, padded with deterioration in the KEM Hospital, a brilliant doctor's disillusionment with the system, an aside on euthanasia and so on. Instead, Virani could have used her well-researched material to ask some questions of the legal system and the women's movement as well as look at Indian thinking on euthanasia. For some years, the women's movement and legal activists have been asking for a change in the law on rape which would mean much more than penile penetration of the vagina: if such an amendment comes about, Aruna may indeed have been raped, and not subjected to an unnatural offe-nce. Despite her apparent involvement and investigative skills, Vir-ani does not encourage the reader to engage with any of these issues or those of a woman's sexuality, her constant abuse and vulnerability in a male-dominated universe.

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