2012-12-21 14:11:34

'O Jacintha, We’re Just Kidding'

Ed Note: The suicide earlier this month of Jacintha Saldanha, a nurse in London’s King Edward VII Hospital where Kate Middleton, wife to Prince William, was being treated for morning sickness, points to what Canada-based author and journalist George Abraham says is a lingering British tendency to treat those from former colonies as the “chattel they once were.” Saldanha’s death came just days after she took a prank call from Australian DJs, who duped her into believing they were Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Charles.

OTTAWA – Something about nurse Jacintha Saldanha’s death will stay stuck in my craw for a long, long time. I’m convinced that but for the response of her peers at the elite hospital where she worked in London, she’d still be with us, mothering her two children and being part of a large diaspora of Indian nurses who have been Florence Nightingales for millions around the world.

Of course, the circumstances leading to her suicide are no longer pure speculation. Among the three notes she penned before ending her life, Jacintha is reported to have outlined her disgust with the management and staff at the King Edward VII Hospital where she worked and where the Duchess of Cambridge happened to be a patient a few days before. We don’t know a lot more than that, but I have worked in enough multicultural workplaces to say with assurance that the threat of disciplinary action or formal admonition is not the only way an institution gets back at you.

Jacintha was acculturated enough to have just a wee trace of an Indian accent. As a Canadian of Indian heritage, I almost missed it when I heard her voice on the tape played back by the Aussie DJs. The nurse from India was the first one to take the call, which was then passed on to another nurse who unwittingly gave out personal medical information about the Duchess. Nothing is known about this other nurse, and the usual ferrets in the British press don’t seem too interested. Everybody is convinced that here was a woman from an impoverished nation who obviously had “psychological issues.” Happens all the time …


Don’t get me wrong – this is not a critique of privacy laws or the continued relevance of the Hippocratic oath from the 5th century that requires medical professionals, including a nurse such as Jacintha, to “respect the privacy of my patients, for their problems are not disclosed to me that the world may know.” The oath makes no distinction between the plebeian and royalty. And, if Jacintha worked at an institution whose patrons included the Queen and her family, she would have had impeccable nursing credentials and the manner to boot.

However, things went awry from the moment she took that long-distance call. The hospital, unfortunately, did not have a specific protocol to deal with callers inquiring about the health of its royal patients and Jacintha must have been lampooned by her colleagues for being so naïve as to fall for such an obvious hoax. There would have been a lot of tut-tutting all around. And, it is my surmise, that there could have been just a hint of that subtle British complex that still sometimes treats former colonial subjects as the chattel they once were.

But, in keeping with multiculturalism and all the political correctness that is the order of the day in such immigrant-receiving countries such as Britain and Canada, the jibes would end with the stock cliché, “O Jacintha, we’re just kidding …”

And, then, everybody would return to their workstations, while the victim sobbed and cursed her birth and fate. Quietly.

Jacintha hailed from the port city of Mangalore, in the state of Karnataka, but the bulk of the nurses who have travelled from India for over half-a-century, have come from Kerala – my home state. Her sad ending reminded me of a chance encounter I had with another nurse who was making her way from Kerala to England exactly 10 years ago. I forget her name and I met her en route to London. She was leaving behind her husband, an infant child and barely spoke English; I wondered then how she would survive and work among the stiff-lipped Brits. She sobbed the entire time while we transited Colombo.

Moreover, let’s not forget that colonial legacies don’t die easy. While Britain may celebrate the curry as their national dish and while a pickle maker from India may make it big there, “ravaged colonial peoples who for centuries endured summary injustice, unending economic oppression, distortion of their social and intimate lives, and a recourseless submission that was a function of unchanging European superiority” – to quote Palestinian scholar Edward Said – will not always be treated as equals in all quarters.

Not even Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, salving words from 2005 when he addressed his alma mater Oxford University, will help Saldanha’s widower, Benedict Barboza, and their two children, Junal and Lisha, understand why their doting mother gave up on life.

The prime minister had rather effusively attributed much of India’s longevity to the institutions that Britain had bequeathed its former colony: “Our notions of the rule of law, of a Constitutional government, of a free press, of a professional civil service, of modern universities and research laboratories have all been fashioned in the crucible where an age-old civilization met the dominant Empire of the day.”

One final bit of irony: The British establishment has generally gone with the communiqué put out by the hospital that “management offered [Jacintha] their support, and told her that they considered her the victim of a cruel hoax. They stood by her actions, and made it clear there was no criticism of her, and that there would be no disciplinary action of any kind.”

The only one railing against this rather simplistic post mortem is British MP Keith Vaz, who is of Indian descent. He is taking flak for this, with the Mail Online deriding his demand for an inquest and accusing him of playing the “race card.”

According to the Mail, “The only obvious connection between the Saldanhas and Vaz is a common Indian heritage. There are well over a million people of Indian descent living in Britain. Are they all incapable of fighting their own corner without the counsel of the Right Honourable Nigel Keith Anthony Standish Vaz MP?”

There you go again, erstwhile colonial masters. Just kidding ... I'm just kidding!

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