Heart and Soul: My mother had the makings of a wonderful nurse

Dawn Usharani Biswas holding her baby daughter Sheela Kanagasabai in this 1958 picture. — Sheela Kanagasabai

Growing up in a family of different cultures, I always wondered why my late mother spoke to each of her siblings in different dialects.

My grandfather was an immigrant from Bangladesh who spoke Bengali and Gujarati fluently. He learnt how to converse in Bahasa Malaysia when he was offered a contract to work as a general practitioner in a health clinic on an estate during the colonial days in Malaya.

He got married to a beautiful Peranakan lady from Penang who only spoke Hokkien and Cantonese. At that point, my grandparents were so much in love that they saw no difference in their union that could not be overcome. They raised seven children and practised multilingualism as simply a way of life.

My grandma slowly but surely picked up Bahasa Malaysia and started speaking in that language with everyone, including her children. Mother said that she took it for granted that this was her family’s first language, and never felt self-conscious since she also was able to speak in Cantonese and Hakka with the other siblings. Grandma passed away when mother was 12 years old.

My grandpa remarried and my mother soon realised that she now had a stepmother who was expected to arrive by ship from India. She remembered her father telling them that his new wife was from Gujerat and even though she could not replace their biological mother, she would act as their mother going forward.

By the time my mother reach puberty, she had a total of 14 siblings. Her responsibilities included taking care of the younger ones while her parents went to work. However, she continued to pick up other dialects by speaking with foreign migrant workers who frequented her father’s clinic. While she had to learn to speak and understand her mother tongue, her command of various languages improved out of a necessity to interact with her father’s patients and visitors.

When the Japanese forces invaded Malaya in 1941, vernacular schools focused on teaching the children the Japanese language and culture. My mother’s education also included reading in Hiragana and writing in Kanji which were the basis of Japanese alphabets.

According to my mother, her parents stood firm when faced with the challenges and difficulties that inevitably came with raising a large family. Everyone was encouraged to be civilised and respectful of the differences between both sets of children who spoke two languages or more. Based on their family’s method of communication and culture, they carried into adulthood their fluency in multiple dialects acquired in childhood.

Children in multilingual environments have extensive social practice in monitoring who speaks what to whom, and observing the social patterns and allegiances that are formed based on language usage, I gathered. My mother’s early socio-linguistic experiences honed her abilities to consider other people’s perspectives and communicate effectively.

When mum turned 18, her father felt it was time for her to join the medical field as a trainee nurse. In those post-war colonial days, you were not required to have a nursing certificate to qualify as a healthcare worker. By then, mum spoke eight languages/ dialects: English, Bahasa Malaysia, Japanese, Tamil, Bengali, Gujerati, Cantonese and Hakka.

Although my mother knew that nursing was going to be a hard career path, she persevered. Her brother convinced her about the job security and opportunity to learn on the job. My mother confided that she secretly envied her eldest sister, a registered nurse in the Malaya army, whom she considered as her role model. The truth is she could picture herself helping people, saving lives and becoming useful as a civil servant in the health sector.

Dawn Usharani Biswas (right) and a colleague in the 1950s. — Sheela KanagasabaiDawn Usharani Biswas (right) and a colleague in the 1950s. — Sheela Kanagasabai

Nursing aides were heavily relied upon, pre- and post-World War II. They received their training under the supervision of a registered nurse. Although the training period was short, my mother was utilised in every area of healthcare due to the shortage of nurses in the 1940s. She gained knowledge as a nurse through hands-on practice in all areas of healthcare setting and learnt about nursing fundamentals, communication, primary health care, psychology, and other subjects which were regarded as important. She was able to act as a translator for the visiting foreign doctors and specialists, and provided patient support whenever required.

In 1952, my mother was certified a registered nurse (RN) by the nursing board of Negri Sembilan. She was now a fully qualified nurse and a midwife who was licensed to practise in hospitals, outpatient facilities and dialysis centres. Her other responsibilities included performing patient diagnosis and case management. Her awareness and knowledge of technical things i.e. equipment, medications, diagnoses, and conditions became clearer because it was important to practise safe patient care. More importantly, she gained confidence and the opportunity to comfort, rescue, direct and shape other lives.

This Mothers Day, I choose to honour my mother Dawn Usharani Biswas for making a difference in this world through her career as a registered nurse. Her ability to communicate with patients shows that she had slowly acquired enough social, emotional and creative awareness to make the sick feel safely cared for. Having wisdom, grace, and discernment in critical situations is not something that everyone carries within them. Even if we are divided by colour, ethnicity and culture, we try to make sense of the world through language, she always advocated.

After her retirement, my mother continued her role as a faithful wife, caring mother and compassionate friend. Often, she placed her own wants and desires last, for the welfare and happiness of others. Above all else, she knew that she would leave behind something valid and significant in terms of her verbal language skills that brought about stimulating and meaningful humane interactions to everyone she met.

On this very special day, I uphold her spirited generosity in the highest degree of reverence, even though she is no longer present.

Dawn Usharani passed away on Aug 21,2019, aged 91.

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