Jane Nona

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I had the wonderful privilege of spending one week next to Jane Nona?s bed at the Peradeniya Teaching hospital in Kandy. 75 year old Jane Nona?s statistics could well have been 15, 15, 15. The smallest 75 year old woman I must have ever seen. She had married when she was just 15. Very proudly she tells me about how she gave birth to six strapping baby boys and one girl, all in her own home. A midwife had come and cleaned her up and held burning coals on which medicinal herbs were thrown in, her only means of sanitization. ??He was tall, fair and very kind to me? she says about her husband who had died 15 years ago. ?I knew nothing when I married him, I was only a child. He knew so much more? That had been sufficient for her. She didn?t have any complaints about him, her life, her children, her economic status or her even her reason for coming to a hospital for the very first time in her life. Her grandchildren had forced her to have a check-up. She suspected something was wrong but had no idea what it was. ?I am ready to die but my grandchildren want me to stretch it some more? she says. I looked at her file. She had a prolapsed womb. A small repair was scheduled. She had never before needed to see a doctor and never stayed in a hospital even once in her 75 years. What a blessed life, I thought. I was a veritable live-in compared to her.
She was daunted by the procedures, the examinations, the numerous scans, blood tests, especially because the doctors were mostly male. ?I have no idea what they are telling me child, what on earth is a isscan? Can you come with me when he does it?? I check with doctor and he smilingly says ok. She was schoked he could see right inside her womb. ?If my husband was around and he knew I was doing all this he will jump in the well and die? she embarrassingly declared. We went through most of the tests together. This supposedly more educated and informed 41year old from the city, was learning so much more about life from Jane Nona than any other lessons she must have learned.

She got over her own apprehensions by helping others. She moved with ease amongst the patients in the general ward. Like an angel she would visit every patient, creasing out the sheets, covering exposed feet and butts, filling in flasks with hot water from the pantry, taking waddling post-op women to the washroom, carrying messages to the nurses, combing and platting hairs. She only scolded me once, for wearing my hair so short. A proper girl should wear her hair long. I was far from proper but still in her good books. Gosh, she was a ball of energy in the ward. The nurses took her in their stride and let her help them. She even gave up her bed for a late night admission and slept on the cold floor. But she could hardly sleep with all the work to be done. She was off scurrying away to help someone throw up into a bucket. She would carry someone?s file over to me to read and explain. All this Ingirisi was only making things complicated for the patients. She was angry with docs for not telling everything. She shared food, tea and fruits with as many as she could manage. She must have got back in return much more. She would send her youngest son on errands for other patients. When visitors came, she would go over and hug family members and give an update on the patient. She never once complained about any of her own aches and pains.
She would sit on my bed with legs dangling way above the floor and rub my aching back while telling me about her pepper plants, plantain groves, clove trees and tea bushes back home in old town Galaha. Some government institution was trying to buy her land and build on it. Jane Nona was determined never to sell her husband?s hard work. Money will get spent but the land will sustain her family for generations to come, she wisely adds.
We sat in a row outside the prep room all dressed in white blouse and white cheethey (lungi) looking like a scene out of ?Thaaravo Igilethi? with Jane Nona right in the middle. There were 8 of us scheduled for the next morning (of course after my drama, doc had cancelled all other surgeries so I wasn?t so popular with the gang later on!). We turned the whole process into a laughable matter so that she won?t be so nervous. We called the ?cleaning procedure? her first ever bikini wax. She caught on and was cracking her own jokes. The nurses shushed us and were shocked to see Jane Nona laughing uncontrollably. But on the morning of the operation, she was terrified. This tiny angel was shaking all over. On the list for OT, Jane Nona was no:1 and J Fernando was no:2.? So I helped her with her files and urine bag and put on her socks and surgical cap. At one time I thought she might jump off the stretcher and make a bolt home, all the way to Galaha. But she held on, her tiny, aged fingers clutching mine. My heart broke and I held back my own tears. I promised I will be outside the OT when she comes out. When she was finally taken, we all sat in silence in a row on the wooden bench holding our hands, each one praying a prayer for Jane Nona. She had touched each one of us in special ways in that one week.
And I kept my promise and touched her icy cold hands when she was brought out of OT. I was the first to see her. Jane Nona had changed in those few hours.? I wondered if she will ever recover. She was shaking like a leaf even under the blankets.? Over the next week, I watched helplessly as she struggled to regain her earlier composure. She mostly slept. She shook with weakness and pain and could hardly raise herself. Her family was large and crowded her bed most times wondering what happened to the sprightly old lady. I wished she had never had the need to go through this procedure. But alas she had to. I only pray that her life will be indeed lived longer and with never another need to see a doctor.
Of course, she had been all kick-ass in the OT prior to being anesthetised. The surgeon had us in fits of laughter during ward rounds.? She had managed to embarrass the younger residents by asking why they like to surround an old woman and stare at her ?Don?t you guys have younger girls to look at here?? she had asked them!! When asked if she knows why she is being operated, she had said ?doc wants to look for fruits in a fruitless womb? (best said in Sinhalese though)! She got a basket of fruits with compliments from the younger resident doctors when she was back in the ward.
Her kindness was repaid a thousand folds. Many hands went towards helping her to sit up, wash and comb her hair, change clothes and feed. One could have carried her with ease, she looked even tinier than before. She couldn?t recognize me, now moved a few beds away from her. Her children came over and told me she was asking how I was. My sister took food for her. My children went over and hugged her for me. ?A week ago I had never known a Jane Nona existed. She taught me lessons about kindness, equality, generosity and contentment, in a fashion no academics could have. If not practiced in our everyday lives, none of those traits hold any value. I have been invited to bathe in her well in her home garden in Galaha one day. She says it has the sweetest and most soothing water ever.
I somehow believe that.
Jeevani Fernando

Author: Shahidul Alam

Time Magazine Person of the Year 2018. A photographer, writer, curator and activist, Shahidul Alam obtained a PhD in chemistry before switching to photography. His seminal work “The Struggle for Democracy” contributed to the removal of General Ershad. Former president of the Bangladesh Photographic Society, Alam set up the Drik agency, Chobi Mela festival and Pathshala, South Asian Media Institute, considered one of the finest schools of photography in the world. Shown in MOMA New York, Centre Georges Pompidou, Royal Albert Hall and Tate Modern, Alam has been guest curator of Whitechapel Gallery, Winterthur Gallery and Musee de Quai Branly. His awards include Mother Jones, Shilpakala Award and Lifetime Achievement Award at the Dali International Festival of Photography. Speaker at Harvard, Stanford, UCLA, Oxford and Cambridge universities, TEDx, POPTech and National Geographic, Alam chaired the international jury of the prestigious World Press Photo contest. Honorary Fellow of Royal Photographic Society, Alam is visiting professor of Sunderland University in UK and advisory board member of National Geographic Society. John Morris, the former picture editor of Life Magazine describes his book “My journey as a witness”, (listed in “Best Photo Books of 2011” by American Photo), as “The most important book ever written by a photographer.”

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