Reliving ‘Aruna’s Story’ – on stage

October 6, 2015
Lushin Dubey returned to the stage after her performance. As the applause died down, she introduced the production crew of her play about Aruna Shanbaug, an Indian nurse who died this year. She had been assaulted and raped, and was in a coma for 42 years. Dubey fought back tears as she spoke.

Even in death, Shanbaug’s story seems to lack closure. “Isn’t it true of so many cases?” Dubey said as we chatted after the show.

“Aruna’s Story”, directed by Arvind Gaur, is an adaptation of journalist Pinki Virani’s non-fiction book of the same name. The show debuted on Sept. 26 in New Delhi.

Shanbaug was 25 when a sweeper strangled her with a metal chain and sodomised her at Mumbai’s King Edward Memorial Hospital, where she worked as a nurse. She spent the rest of her life on a feeding tube. Her case ignited a debate on mercy killing in India, leading to the legalisation of passive withdrawal of life support to such patients.

The play begins with Sohanlal Walmiki’s assault on Shanbaug. The set resembles a hospital, with iron rods erected on the stage to symbolise a cage. Under the neon blue light, Shanbaug struggles with her attacker as he strangles her with a chain used to tame dogs, then rapes her.

In an interview with The Indian Express after her death, Walmiki talked about a “troubled relationship” with the nurse. She was always picking on him, he said, and refused him leave when his mother-in-law was seriously ill. In 1980, he completed a seven-year sentence, but was never convicted of rape.

“The beginning was a bit sensational,” I told Dubey.

“But unless I hit you (with) the contrast of her prettiness, it will not come out. I have to show that. She was one of the most spunky creatures and she was very disciplined. That’s why what happened to her happened to her,” Dubey said.

Dubey, a veteran theatre actress, is the sole performer in “Aruna’s Story,” and she plays about 20 characters. She adroitly shuttles between playing Shanbaug, her attacker, the nurses, Shanbaug’s fiancé, a police inspector, a journalist. She’s also the curious taxi driver who wants to know everything about the case from a policeman. She’s also Shanbaug’s conservative mother, who disapproves of her daughter’s spiritedness.

Born into a Konkani-speaking Brahmin family in Karnataka, Shanbaug was a rebellious girl. She moved to Mumbai at the age of 17 – against the wishes of her family – to make a career in nursing. She was a good student and “the prettiest girl in school,” who ‘would talk to boys”. A vivacious and chirpy girl, she loved to dress up and was a fan of Hindi movies.

So one day, in the play, you find her at a beach in Mumbai sipping coconut water, talking about her plans to marry the man of her choice. He was a doctor, an employee of the same hospital where she was a nurse. She sings from a Raj Kapoor film, fantasising about her marriage and future. A giggling Dubey, now transformed into a young girl wearing a long skirt, keeps the South Indian twang intact as she croons to the delight of the audience.

The artist’s mastery over the script is evident as the performance keeps you locked in your chair for a little more than an hour. There’s hardly any movement inside the auditorium and strangely no phones rang either during the performance.

The most poignant scene in the play is the doctor’s interaction with his wife-to-be inside the hospital ward. She’s unresponsive, as usual, but he speaks to her in a way that reminds one of a typical lovers’ feud.

“You have just made me cry. Do good … Brahmin girls make their husbands cry like this? Shame on you, Aruna Shanbaug. I command you as your husband to open your eyes,” he says to her.

“You know what he used to do? He used to sit by her side and used to speak for her. Can you imagine that?” Dubey said later, speaking about a chapter from Virani’s book.

Four years after the attack on Aruna, the doctor got married in 1977, opened a clinic, and leads an “ordinary life”, he said in an interview.

It’s a story that has elements of a fairy tale – a girl fighting family pressure to chase her dreams in career and personal life – that has a tragic ending. But even in her vegetative state, you can argue, her rebellion is strong enough to ward off death for four decades.

The show, it seemed, ended in no time. Dubey walked off the stage and was greeted by many young boys and girls who congratulated her for the performance. Some touched her feet too. A few were overwhelmed. They met her with tears in their eyes. Others couldn’t stop looking at her.

(Editing by Robert MacMillan. Follow him on Twitter @bobbymacReports and Ankush @Ankush_patrakar | This article is website-exclusive and cannot be reproduced without permission.)

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