A Woman of Substance II

Continued from part  1

A Dream Come True

Connecting with the past is surely an ongoing process, for an individual’s personality, way of life and chain of thoughts are all influenced by people who are closely connected with one’s past. In the first part of my story, I have referred to the early life of the person who influenced me most in my life: my mother, Sati Ghose (nee Bhattacharya, fondly called Ranee) who travelled from New Delhi to Calcutta after her marriage and continued her professional career in the West Bengal Nursing Council. She served in this office as Assistant Registrar from 1959 to 1967 and was the Registrar from 1967 to 1980.

Young Sati, Registrar Nursing Council

 Under her able leadership and administrative acumen, the West Bengal Nursing Council went from strength to strength. After conscientious and prolonged hard work and due to her single-minded determination, she overcame many hurdles and challenges and finally was able to fulfil her dream of establishing a Nursing College in West Bengal. The West Bengal Government College of Nursing, in the SSKM Hospital1Campus in Calcutta was established in 1974, and it was registered with the West Bengal Nursing Council –a Herculean task and a tremendous achievement indeed! Her colleagues, who were also her former students, Shubha Das Gupta and Reena Bose, helped and supported her in this venture. Shubha Das Gupta was appointed the first Principal of the College.

Government College of Nursing

The Lamp Lighting Ceremony of the West Bengal Government College of Nursing was a unique programme that my mother initiated, to be held annually on Florence Nightingale’s birthday, where newly admitted students, wearing the uniform(designed by my mother and her colleagues), of yellow sarees and white nursing caps with yellow border, would be inducted into the Nursing Programme ceremonially, each holding a lighted lamp. When all the lamps were lit by the students, they stood in a semi-circle on the large stage in the Rabindra Sadan auditorium2, chanting a Sanskrit hymn: Shrinwantu vishwe amritasya putra3. It was truly a magnificent sight! The programme in later years included a graduation and prize distribution ceremony, followed by a cultural programme by the nursing students. This ceremony continues till today.

                        Students singing Sanskrit hymn

The then Chief Minister of West Bengal, Shri Siddhartha Shankar Ray, was present at the inaugural ceremony of the college, and in his speech appreciated the untiring and sincere efforts of the Registrar, Nursing Council, Mrs. Sati Ghose, in starting this new venture that would benefit thousands of nursing students and teachers in West Bengal in years to come. After his speech, my mother walked up to the podium and I listened spellbound as she spoke, in fluent and lucid English, on the aims of Nursing education and the vision of the newly formed institution. Always an outstanding speaker, she spoke extempore, with confident poise and grace. After the programme was over, the Chief Minister personally congratulated my mother on this mammoth achievement, and smilingly said that if ever West Bengal had a woman as Chief Minister, she would be the best candidate for the post! This was a compliment indeed, and I said so to her later. With her characteristic self- deprecation, she smiled and brushed it aside. She was later the key person to initiate and encourage the writing of articles by sister-tutors and doctors in a book ‘Principles and Practices of Nursing’, which has been revised subsequently, and is referred to even today.

A Magnetic Personality

My early memories of my mother include the arrival of a cottage piano in our rented house on Ekdalia Road, which she bought when I was about four years old.  I remember her learning to play Western classical music on the piano with the help of a teacher, a middle –aged, unassuming gentleman who would visit our house once a week to give her lessons. She would also play Rabindra Sangeet4 and old English and Hindi songs on the piano and sing in her melodious voice. My interest in music came from her and she encouraged me to take lessons in piano, enrolling me in the Calcutta School of Music to learn Western classical music, which I continued till Grade 6. Our neighbours on the upper floor, the Bose family, drawn by my mother’s warm and loving personality, grew close to us, and their elder daughter also started learning the piano with me. Decades later, my daughter would enrol in this school and learn the piano as well, studying music up to Grade 6, and would play at many concerts at Sandre Hall, Sunny Park, Calcutta, winning numerous medals as well as Certificates of Merit from the Royal School of Music, London. My mother’s piano is a cherished possession in my home even today.

As a child, I was admitted in Modern High School for Girls, a reputed school in Calcutta, which was difficult to get admission into. Undaunted, my mother met the Head Mistress of the Junior Section of the school, Mrs. High, and told her that she was new in Calcutta, had heard that this was the best school, and so she wanted to admit her daughter here. Mrs. High, impressed by her confidence, frankness and professional profile, admitted me after making me appear for a simple admission test. Later, the Boses’ daughters also took admission in this school as my ‘cousins’, and indeed we were like sisters, a bond that exists even today! Many years later, I would teach in this school for more than seven years and would admit my daughter there as well. In this way, the legacy left by my mother, be it in music or education, continued through generations. She encouraged my reading habits, helped me and my young brother in our studies and arranged singing lessons for us at home. She also initiated impromptu cultural programmes involving the neighbourhood children, during the Durga Puja festival. What continued to surprise me as I grew up was her boundless energy and untiring effort to give me a balanced childhood and wholesome education, despite her demanding office schedule and intermittent asthmatic attacks.

When I was about seven years old, my mother received a WHO Fellowship for a three-month study tour on functioning and registration of nurses in the Nursing Councils abroad. Courageous and confident, she travelled to McMaster University, Canada in 1969-70, and visited Toronto and Montreal for this purpose.

“I was terrified,” she confided in me on her return, “when I reached Toronto Pearson Airport late at night and hired a taxi to reach the guest house. The road was covered with snow and quite deserted. I thought that if I were murdered, no one would ever know! But then, the radio in the car came to life, and the taxi driver was asked his location by the police. Throughout the journey, the driver went on giving his location to the police, and I relaxed at last, and felt safe.”

Her former student Basanti Majumdar lived in Ottawa, and my mother visited her on weekends. I missed my mother terribly during those months and used to wait eagerly for the lovely picture postcards she would send me every week. Once, during her stay there, she had a severe asthmatic attack, and had to be hospitalised. When I visited Toronto decades later and met Basanti, I learnt from her how, on that fateful day, when my mother had the attack, Basu Mashi, as I called her, not having a car of her own, stood recklessly in the middle of the road, stopped an approaching car and took her beloved teacher to the hospital. The love that she received from her former students was truly remarkable. Even today, her students, many of whom have settled in America and Canada as successful professionals, and with whom I am still in touch, speak of her with great affection and admiration.

On returning to India, despite suffering from frequent attacks of asthma, my mother went ahead with responsibilities in her public and private life. She worked with great sincerity, displaying amazing energy and warmth that drew her colleagues, friends and family towards her for help, advice and support. Quietly, she offered financial assistance to those in need and readily stood by anyone who required medical help. Like her father, grandfather and great-grandfather, she was involved in charitable work to help the poor and the needy, and even provided a few such people with jobs in her office while she was Registrar, Nursing Council. Always an extrovert, energetic and fun-loving, she took time out of her busy schedule to visit friends and relatives and spent quality time with her family as well, taking us out for picnics, movie shows and plays. She organised our birthday parties with aplomb, and during Christmas, she would always bake a cake, and light up a small Christmas tree at home! I still remember how she spontaneously composed the following poem on my birthday card once:

                                   “Since birthday time is wishing time, I wish to be in style

                       And wish you a thousand happy birthdays, dear, to help you each onward mile:

                                      Let each day be a perfect day, good fortune never hide,

                                      And as for little obstacles: just take them in your stride!”

These words are embedded in my mind and indeed, they seem to echo her own attitude to life, for she always tried to surmount every obstacle that came her way in her own life. No wonder that the lines – Climb every mountain, ford every stream/ Follow every rainbow, till you find your dream – were her favourite, in the song from the film, The Sound of Music.

She was very dutiful towards her mother-in-law and her two unmarried sisters-in-law, regularly visiting them in their ancestral home in Krishnanagar, West Bengal. She was extremely fond of her son-in-law, and took special care of him whenever we visited her after my marriage in1984. As I look back, I remember our home as always being filled with activity, music and laughter, my mother often spontaneously singing Que sera sera, whatever will be, will be, friends and relatives dropping in without notice, and staying as our guests for days that often stretched into weeks! She made all her guests feel at home and they reciprocated her love, almost idolising her.

‘Walk as if the World Belongs to You’

I remember one striking incident that left a lasting impression on my mind and increased my admiration for my mother. In 1978, the whole of Calcutta was under water due to torrential rain. We were all at home that morning, when suddenly our neighbour came down from the upper floor flat to inform my mother that a young couple was in desperate need of help just outside our house. The streets being waterlogged, the young husband, unable to find a taxi, had hired a hand cart to take his wife to the hospital for delivery of their baby. However, time was short, her delivery was imminent and there was no hospital nearby. I still remember the sight of the husband sitting helplessly on the cart, his wife lying in labour beside him, and onlookers from surrounding houses throwing cotton sheets on the cart to cover her. Without any hesitation, my mother went outside, asked the cart-puller to bring his cart close to our house, and with the help of the young husband, the cart-puller and our servants, the woman was gently carried in and placed on a clean sheet on the carpet of our small drawing room. My mother shooed us all out and said that she would deliver the baby herself.

“What if the baby or the mother dies?” objected my father, “There will be a police case!”

“They might die anyway on the cart,” she replied, “Don’t worry – I have handled many deliveries single-handedly during my work in the village of Chhawla.(a village outside Delhi). I’ll be able to manage!”

Directing our old maid-servant to get plenty of hot water and boil a large pair of scissors, my mother, with a neighbour in assistance, delivered the baby – a healthy boy – in a short time, and the entire neighbourhood celebrated the new arrival, for it was nothing short of a miracle! The new father, bemused and overcome with gratitude, thanked my mother profusely. After resting for a few hours, the young couple and their precious bundle finally left in a taxi which was procured with much difficulty. Once the flood waters subsided, the young father came with a box of sweets to meet my mother and expressed his gratitude again. This incident left an indelible mark in my mind and I was filled with awe at my mother’s confidence, determination and capability. She used to tell me as a child, “Walk as if the world belongs to you!” Indeed, through her actions and responses, she did make the world belong to her, not only that day, but throughout her life, as her presence touched and transformed the lives of many.

Sati Ghosh, Dy. Dir. Health Services(Nursing) Govt. of West Bengal

In 1980, my mother was appointed Deputy Director of Health Services (Nursing), Government of West Bengal. She was also a member of the Indian Nursing Council, a national regulatory body for nurses in India. Traditionally, the President of the Indian Nursing Council was always a doctor, but my mother, with her colleague, Reena Bose (who even today refers to herself as her beloved Sati di’s ‘shadow’) put forward a proposal requesting that the President of the Indian Nursing Council should be a qualified nurse. Dr. Bisht, the then President of the Council, was taken aback by this proposal, but my mother persuasively stated that since it was a Nursing Council, they wanted a nurse as President, and did not want a  doctor to preside over their Council. Following my mother’s intervention, official and administrative changes were initiated, and Harriet Chabuk became the first nurse to be appointed as the President of the Indian Nursing Council. The nursing community finally got its well-deserved recognition in the Indian Nursing Council. 

Finale

Like her distinguished father, Raisaheb Sindhulal Bhattacharya, and her two older brothers, Rabindralal and Sachindralal, my mother too died of a sudden heart attack on 12th June 1988, in harness, leaving everyone shocked and devastated. She was only 56. Exactly eleven days later, on 23rd June, my daughter Rini was born – whose arrival my mother had been awaiting with eager anticipation.

Traditionally, a doctor would always be appointed Director of Health Services, but significantly, the post of Joint Director of Health Services (Nursing) had been specially created by the Government of West Bengal in recognition of my mother’s outstanding administrative abilities and commendable achievements in her professional field. Unfortunately, however, my mother passed away a day before she was scheduled to join this post.

Much loved and respected in the Department of Health, tributes poured in from the Health Minister, Prasanta Sur, the Director of Health Services, and other officials of the Government of West Bengal as well as from the Indian Nursing Council, and The Transactional Analysis Society of India, of which she was a member. Delegations of nurses from every Government hospital in Calcutta and its outskirts visited her beautiful home in Mandeville Gardens, South Calcutta, to offer last respects and floral tributes to their beloved Sati di. The garlands and wreaths that they as well as our neighbours, friends and relatives brought for their Ranee or Sati di, filled our large drawing room till it was literally overflowing with flowers.

Today, she continues to live in the hearts of her family, relatives, friends, innumerable colleagues and former students spread across the world. From 1989, in my own way, I have started the Annual Sati Ghose Memorial Awards and Best Student Scholarship, which are given away to meritorious Nursing students in each of the four academic years of the Nursing programme, at the Annual Prize Distribution ceremony of the West Bengal Government College of Nursing, SSKM Hospital Campus, Kolkata. In her short yet eventful life, she achieved much, overcoming all challenges and unbeknown to her, she set an example for us to follow. On the huge desk in her office she always kept a framed picture with the following quote, which, I believe, summed up her approach to life:                  

 Live each day, for it is life, the very life of life:

                         For yesterday is already a dream, and tomorrow only a vision;

                       But today, well- lived, makes every yesterday a dream of happiness

                                          And every tomorrow, a vision of hope.

I dedicate this story of an extraordinary lady – a woman of substance – to my daughter Rini, who has always regretted not meeting her Dida (maternal grandmother). I do hope, dearest Rini, that through the lines of my story about Ranee, your Dida will come alive for you, albeit for a fleeting moment!

 The author is indebted to her cousin, late Pronob Bhattacharya, whose painstaking research gave her access to details of the lives and work of her mother’s ancestors from her paternal side.

About the author

Ralla Guha Niyogi
+ posts

Dr. Ralla Guha Niyogi is an Associate Professor in the Department of English, Basanti Devi College, Kolkata

Footnotes

  1. A leading public hospital in Calcutta
  2. An auditorium in South Calcutta named after Rabindra Nath Tagore
  3. Hark ye on the earth, the children of immortality…” Shvetashvatara Upanishad
  4. Songs composed by Rabindranath Tagore

12 comments on “A Woman of Substance II

  • Swaha shome says:

    A very well written piece on Mashima as I called her thru the school years . Always encouraging and always a tower of strength whenever I would come to meet you in Ekdalia Road.
    It was so uplifting to read about her life .

    Reply
  • Anupama Maitra says:

    Thank you so much for sharing this story with me, Ralla di. It has brought tears to my eyes. I can see all your mother’s wonderful qualities in you too. Loved every word of your recollection of such an inspiring human being.

    Reply
  • Chiranjib Chatterjee says:

    I am in tears thinking about Jethima! 3 specifics come to mind:

    She gave me my first paid regular job – teaching Siraj.

    I remember playing a significant role in the bustle of activities leading upto your marriage. I was young and a greenhorn but Jethima gave me the courage of responsibility and the freedom to execute it!

    She knew of my love for driving but She wasn’t confident of my capabilities. Once when her car needed to be driven out of the basement garage up the steep slope – she sat with me while I drove it out!!

    It is wonderful to read your essay – I look forward to reading more!

    Reply
  • Rupali Dey says:

    Our Satimashima came alive for me in this little piece, and I think both her wonderful life and story ended too soon.

    Reply
  • CA. R. S. Paul says:

    Nothing to comment but just convey my sincere regards and a big salute to the great lady.

    Reply
  • Sivasish Biswas says:

    Very illuminating read, and also very emotional! Carry on the good work: I’m sure lots remain unsaid.

    Reply

Please leave a comment:

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *