ONCE A NURSE, ALWAYS A NURSE

ABOUT MY MOTHER.


I saw very little of my mother growing up. Perhaps if her mother had allowed her to follow what she felt was her true calling, our lives would have been vastly different. At 16, growing up in Portuguese Goa, my mother wanted to be a teacher, like her older sister. But funds were scarce, which meant her choices were limited to none. Her mother decided to have her train as a nurse since my grandfather had a friend whose two daughters were nurses. “I was forced into because it was the cheapest form of education they could afford,” my mother explained. She was distraught at the time. “I cried,” she told me during one of our more recent conversations.

Now nearing 75, she is able to retrospectively muse about how her mother’s decision defined her own life’s trajectory. By 1959, she had completed her training and internship at Hospicio in Margao. During her three-month stint with the Red Cross, she received word that she’d topped Midwifery studies in Goa. She was invited to receive her cash prize at a ceremony during which the then Dean of the Goa Medical College, one of the oldest hospitals in Asia, “noticed” her. “My father had just died and I was dressed completely in black, I wore a long plait,” she recounted. It is one of those details that have been pressed into my memory through her constant retelling of it. In my fictive memories I can almost see her seated plaintively, a thin black veil that my imagination has her adorned with, a black dress over her dark, coastal complexion, and a single long braid extending along the length of her spine. “Still he noticed me and asked me if I’d like to come and work at the GMC in Campal,” she continued. For a resident of Salcette, the administrative appellation for the South Goa region of which she was a native, to contemplate such a dramatic move to the north, where the GMC was located, was a life-changing decision. For my mother it was a no-brainer. If she continued to work at Hospicio, she would have to wear the nun-like habit as the accouterment to the nurse’s uniform. At Campal she could sport the more chic-looking nurse’s cap. Was it vanity that impelled her choice, or did she see the fashion-forwardness as a sign of modernity? Either way her mind had been made up. A friendly male nurse served as her accomplice, helping her convince her mother that this was the most appropriate career move.

In the beginning she alternated between 24-hour shifts, from 10am until 10am the next day, which was when she would be relieved, with a 10pm to 2am scheduled sleep slot. Eventually she graduated to 12-hour shifts, which she continued to work until she formally retired at 60. At first each shift earned her Rs 40, but by the time she left GMC in 1971 to move to Bombay to potentially marry a suitor she was earning between Rs 600 to 700. The marriage never took place, she found the candidate ineligible, but it led her to adopt the city. She went to a hospital in Tardeo, where one of her friends worked, to seek a position as a staff nurse. The resident matron, upon learning about her generous income, advised her she was better off as a private nurse. She gave her the number of the Sion-based Bina Nurses Bureau, which my mother soon joined, promising them a commission from each case she was assigned through their network. At the time she lived as a boarder in Dadar, near Portuguese Church, which is around where she eventually met and fell in love with my father. For most of their early married years and even later when we were born, my mother would earn more than my father, a certified L&T-trained mechanical engineer.

The Bureau’s make-up reflected the city’s cosmopolitan set-up. There were two Assamese nurses even, my mother recalls, who, much like her, were living the independent single-women life in the big city and earning their keep. My mother remembers a fellow Goan girl who had temporarily moved to Bombay and joined the bureau so she could earn enough money to make herself a pair of gold anklets. The nursing profession seemed to offer women of my mother’s ilk opportunities not only to support their families but also to individually prosper. If you proved your worth during a short time you were often retained for months or years, which was what happened with my mother’s first case, which initially began at the Bellevue Nursing Home in Breach Candy. “His name was Chinoy. He was Mangalorean and had a printing press and lived with his daughter-in-law and her two children.” His wasn’t a dignified condition and my mother had to dress his open stomach and clean him up after he urinated. But my mother, she reveled in her caretaking abilities. “He took me home afterwards,” she said, her short-hand way of communicating that he was so impressed with her services he asked her to care for him after his discharge. She served as his nurse for two years after.

I sometimes wonder what it was my father saw in her during their first acquaintance. He has often confessed it was the darkness of her skin. It set her apart. Perhaps that was what his brother saw in her too, since it was my Uncle Gabriel who first had eyes for my mother. He introduced her to my father’s mother, who invited her to dinner at their tiny one-room home that once doubled as my late grandfather’s workshop where he repaired musical instruments, including Stradivarius violins and mandolins, and where my father then made and sold guitars, guitar strings, and drum sets as a hobby. They fell in love and were married in 1973.

My brothers were born between three years of each other. My father landed a job in Kuwait. She soon followed and found herself a job at the Handicapped Society of Kuwait. I was born nine years after my second brother, by then my mother was 42. My sister was born a year after, in 1986. By then my mother had returned to Bombay with us girls (my brothers had been kept with family in Dadar). My father returned in 1989, before the First Gulf War flared up. Until my sister turned four my mother remained home. Sometime then, my sister’s godmother gave her a sounding. “Why are you not supporting your family?” she asked. At the time my father had yet to find a job. “She told me there were so many nurses who were widows who were earning enough to support their families,” my mother said. She was given the same advice when she was interviewing a potential maid, Mangala, who would end up taking care of my sister and I for at least a decade. “You go work, I’ll take care of your children,” Mangala told my mother. And that was that. She once again resumed her life as a private nurse, and was assigned a fair share of high-profile cases too (“Only rich people can afford private nurses,” she would tell us).

During most of our childhood, adolescence, and teenage years, we’d see her for an hour in the morning, during which she’d make us breakfast. Then she’d set off to work, usually dressed in a sari or a dress. She carried her uniform with her and changed on site, lest her impeccable white dress imbibe the city’s grime. In fact, I have no memory of her in her uniform, it was almost as if the attire represented an alternate identity. All these years later, I am tempted to invest it with the same mythic power as a superhero’s outfit. She always changed to save the day. When she returned, always at 9pm sharp, always dressed in whatever she was wearing when we saw her leave, we would run to the door like mother-starved children. We’d hug her and say the thing that became like a habit, “Mama what you brought for me!” Selfish brats that we were. And yet she almost always brought back something. Sometimes it was jackfruit, sometimes what we called Buddi-ka-baal, a thready son-paapdi-like roll that looked like what it was colloquially called, old woman’s hair. It was only when we were sick that both her identities could fuse. She was then both mother and nurse. She had her own way of restoring our health.

I learned, over time, that my mother had made a vocation out of her profession. She never skipped a day, worked even on weekends and most public holidays. She always resisted the temptation to take leave, except perhaps on Christmas Day. My father never questioned her commitment to her vocation. And so traditional gender roles were always being challenged in our household. My father would return home from work by 6pm, after monitoring our school work and watching TV with us, he’d start on dinner, my sister and I played the role of sous chefs. It was he who took us out every Sunday in BEST buses to Hanging Gardens, Juhu Beach, or to the museum. Growing up, it was wonderful to watch these two people who made a partnership out of their marriage, never shortchanging us, never letting us feel like we’d been cheated out of vacations or opportunities.

When my mother was in her late fifties, my eldest brother took on the role of breadwinner. He wanted my mother to retire and enjoy the rest of her life. She did, for a while, but found she was restless. She found out about the Parish Church’s plans to set up a Health Center to offer medical counseling and services at subsidized cost for people of all faiths and walks of life. It was the first time in her life that she had to prepare a CV. For almost a decade she worked as a supervisor in the clinic, assisting doctors, advising patients, and gathering the respect of the entire community. I realize now her attitude to nursing was an extension of her understanding of Christianity. It was a form of service.

At 74, varicose veins, which she believes was the bodily cost of all those years as a nurse, made it difficult for her to continue to work. That and Church politics compelled her to quit her position. My mother suffered through an existential crisis. She couldn’t deal with her sudden inutility. She had for all her adult life derived her identity and self-worth from her ability to help and care for others. What was she in the absence of that opportunity? Once a nurse always a nurse is what she often said to us growing up. She continues to advise and counsel friends and family. She satisfies her desire to be useful by visiting the sick at least every week. She is growing into her new identity as a grandmother.

As I age I find myself playing this little game in my head when I’m around my parents. I try to divine the attributes I inherited from each. I know my writerly proclivities stem from my father, as does my penchant for cooking. I know I have acquired my mother’s tendency to obsess about perfection. Sometimes I hope to god I have also inherited both her tenacity and her capacity for touch.

“Do you still remember your patients?” I asked her recently. “Of course, each and every one. I see them very often in my dreams.”

Byline: Rosalyn D’Mello


Motherland is a bi-monthly magazine with a focus on contemporary and emerging Indian cultures.

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