The famed KEM Hospital in Mumbai lost one of its longest surviving inmates when former nurse Aruna Shanbaug (67) passed away on Monday morning.

Her passing ends 42 years in a vegetative state, where she was cared for by her family of nurses in the hospital. Shanbaug’s condition was the result of a brutal assault and rape by a ward boy in November 1973.

In her silent struggle, the nurse’s life touched a chord with many beyond this bustling city. Across the country, working women saw in Shanbaug’s cruelly-cut-short life, the dangers that lurk at the workplace. The incident was long before the advent of 24-hour news channels, social media and the Nirbhaya case that shook the nation.

Besides conditions for working women that Shanbaug’s life inadvertently shines a light on, her prolonged days in coma also brought the country to debate euthanasia – whether it was compassionate to let her die before she finally stopped breathing. Or let her live, since the nurses fiercely believed that she was responding to their care, as they took turns to look after her.

On Monday though, patients continued to hurry through the corridors in KEM past Ward 4, oblivious of the story behind the grill door. The only tell-tale sign was a uniformed policeman and a security personnel deputed to keep prying eyes from the ward where Shanbaug had been kept and cared for.

Arundhati Velhal, head matron at Mumbai’s KEM Hospital, used to check in on Shanbaug before heading out on her rounds. But now on, she says sadly, there will be one less activity in her morning routine.

Like they rallied around in life, Velhal says, the nurses have stood beside Shanbaug in her passing as well, collecting funds for the last rites.

“I have taken my savings of ₹10,000 to conduct the rites,” she said, confident that others would contribute. Some nurses stormed the Dean’s room to insist they be allowed to conduct the last rites and not Shanbaug’s relatives, some of whom had turned up at the hospital.

As nurses recalled how Shanbaug was dressed in coloured clothes and had coloured bed-sheets and even music in her room, KEM’s College Building prepared its entrance for nurses to say their last goodbyes. With 10 minutes to 3 pm, Shanbaug’s body was placed on rose petals near the entrance, as the nurses chanted “Aruna Shanbaug amar rahe .”

As the chapter closes on Shanbaug’s life, India still does not have a final view on euthanasia. Four years ago, the Supreme Court allowed passive euthanasia for a person in a persistent vegetative state, according to press reports covering the Shanbaug case.

Raging debate The judgement was in response to a euthanasia plea by Pinky Virani, the journalist who authored a book on the nurse. Turning down the mercy killing plea, the Judge had said that Shanbaug was “certainly not brain dead” and expressed her likes and dislikes with sounds and movements, even smiling when given her favourite food, reports then said.

In Shanbaug’s passing, KEM will see the end to the nurses’ fight to keep alive one of their own, against all odds. But the real tribute to her will be if workplaces across the country, not just hospitals, are made safe for women and men to work without fear.

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