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Cover Story

Kumudini Welfare Trust

The Legacy Of Caring

Kajalie Shehreen Islam
Photos: Zahedul I Khan

Built on the dreams of philanthropist RP Shaha, Kumudini has been providing health care and education, especially to the poor, for over six decades.

Kumudini Complex in Mirzapur, Tangail.

A fresh breeze blows through the trees covered in red, yellow and pink flowers. Raindrops fall into the river around which the grounds are centred. The buildings of ancient architectural design have been maintained well and adapted to serve modern purposes. The environment is clean, the atmosphere serene.

Lal Mia, a pick-up truck driver from Madhupur, has been at Kumudini Hospital in Mirzapur, Tangail, for

The spotless wards of Kumudini Hospital provide refuge for poor patients.

five days. His leg locked in a contraption, he awaits surgery. In the female medicine ward, 70-year-old Surajjunnessa from Hatubhanga complains of diabetes and back pain. Her daughter-in-law and two grandchildren suffering from stomach problems are also admitted in the hospital, she says. In the outdoor facility of Kumudini Hospital, Shewly, in her 40s, has just seen a doctor for ear problems. She says she has been here before and is happy with the care, especially at prices much lower than at other clinics.

Inside the hospital, 18-year-old Maloti is being taken off a hospital stretcher and being put onto a bed in the gynaecology ward. The wife of a shoemaker, Maloti has given birth to a baby girl the couple has named Mukta. Both mother and child are well, fulfilling the dream of the hospital's founder, Rai Bahadur Ranada Prasad Shaha.

RP Shaha, born on November 15, 1896 to Srimati Kumudini and Debendra Kumar, witnessed his mother dying from tetanus infection during childbirth when he was only seven years old. Since then, he dreamt of establishing a hospital for the poor, so that people, especially women, would not suffer from lack of medical treatment the way his mother had. After working as a ticket collector on trains during British rule, Shaha joined the Medical Corps of the British Bengal Regiment during the First World War. He was given a gallantry award for saving some British officers from a fire.

Following his return from the war, Shaha began to trade in coal and later started a river transportation business. After making a fortune in the business and encouraged by his friend Satish Binak, Shaha in 1943 set up a dispensary and a 20-bed outdoor facility in the name of his grandmother, Shova Sundari.

Thus began Kumudini Hospital, named after his mother and formally inaugurated in July 1944. Today, with 750 seats, it continues to serve the poor, providing them with free beds, meals and treatment, and charging only nominally for surgical procedures. Only in recent times has the hospital begun a Patient's Participation Program under which patients who are able to afford it must buy their own medication. The hospital also has a Village Outreach Program, under which its doctors and nurses periodically visit and train people in nearby villages on midwifery, family planning, prenatal health, sanitation and general health awareness.

When Kumudini Hospital was first started, foreign nurses were brought in, while local destitute women were given nurse's training or rehabilitated as hospital workers. In 1973, Kumudini Nursing School was established, offering a four-year Senior Nursing Course approved by the Bangladesh Nursing Council. Women who have passed their HSC exams are eligible to apply for the course and receive free education in nursing. This has now been upgraded to a BSc. Nursing College.

The legend, Rai Bahadur Ranada Prasad Shaha. Daughter-in-law Srimati and grandson Rajiv Prasad Shaha, Director and Managing Director of Kumudini Welfare Trust.

Nineteen-year-old Tori Azim from Netrokona has wanted to be a nurse since passing her SSC exams. “I like looking after my parents when they are unwell,” says Azim, “and so I wanted to become a good nurse by studying for it.”

In 2001, another dream of founder RP Shaha was fulfilled by his grandson Rajiv Prasad Shaha, now Managing Director (MD) of Kumudini Welfare Trust in the establishment of Kumudini Women's Medical College, a residential college within the Kumudini premises.

Waiting for classes to start, students of the college talk about how they had always wanted to be doctors and how Kumudini is renowned for a good education in a safe environment. Lutfun Nahar, a first year medical student from Pabna, says the experience so far has been better than what she had expected. Arefin Akhter, a fifth year medical student, says that after passing out from the college, she wants to practise in her maternal grandmother's hometown in Joypurhat, rendering free monthly service back in her own hometown in Jessore. The importance of serving one's people and nation are instilled into everyone involved with Kumudini.

‘Kumudini Cares’ – a fitting slogan for the legacy of RP Shaha. Dr Sudha and Nitai Shaha have been volunteering at Kumudini Hospital for several years.

Manika Debi Barua spent 11 years of school life in the 1960s at Bharateswari Homes inside the Kumudini complex, topping everything from classes to cleaning to best conduct. After graduating from the University of Dhaka, she taught at various colleges before joining government service. After retiring, she has come back to Bharateswari Homes as its Principal.

“Every inch of the Homes has my touch on it,” says Barua. “We had to do everything, from studying to cleaning the toilets and drains. At Bharateswari Homes, we believe in self-reliance. Discipline, duty and diligence -- the three D's, I tell my girls, are all-important.”

“One can't differentiate between our girls,” says the Principal. “You can't tell which social class they are from, or who is a Muslim, Hindu, Christian or Buddhist. RP Shaha believed in equality for all and we continue this tradition today.”

Life at Bharateswari Homes begins at 5 in the morning, with drill display, cleaning duty and breakfast. Morning classes with tiffin breaks are followed by lunch, rest, cleaning duty again, study hours and dinner. In the kitchen are girls cutting up vegetables to be cooked for dinner, while others on the veranda are dusting the railings. The dormitories are spic and span, the beds tightly made with the girls' minimal baggage stored away to one side.

From its inception, Kumudini has worked towards the development of the nursing profession.

Sixteen-year-old Mahbuba Islam, a student of Class 12 and a hostel Captain, says she feels more at home at Bharateswari Homes than she does with her family in Mymensingh. “We study hard, but we have a lot of fun amongst ourselves, and the teachers are like friends.”

Prerona Chakma from Khagrachhari has been here since Class 6. Now in Class 12, she is also a Captain. “The best thing about the Homes,” says Prerona, who aspires to be a magistrate, “is the sense of security.”

Jethamoni believed in making women self-reliant,” says Protiva Mutsuddy, former Principal of Bharateswari Homes from 1967 to 1999. “In the beginning, the girls at Bharateswari Homes used to cook too. It was only later that we hired cooks for the job. But the girls must do everything else. They study, they clean, they are involved in music, dance, drama and sports. Jethamoni also believed in the importance of community life, which is why the girls have to share rooms at Bharateswari Homes. He believed in simple living and high thinking.” RP Shaha would never eat alone when in Mirzapur, recalls Mutsuddy: “He would always have students and teachers from the school eat with him, for their company as well as to watch how the students ate, whether they were being trained well and maintained proper etiquette.”

Along with health care, RP Shaha recognised the importance of education, especially for women, in making them self-reliant. In 1944, he established Bharateswari Homes, a residential school for girls. The home currently has 1,200 seats and is renowned for producing well-rounded, socially responsible students who have gone on to excel in their respective fields.

In 1947, RP Shaha placed all his companies in a trust by the name of Kumudini Welfare Trust (KWT), with the earnings from the income-generating activities such as a jute baling press and a river transportation business, being used to run the welfare activities. After the Partition of 1947, friends and well-wishers had advised Shaha, being a Hindu, to move to India. But he insisted on staying in Bangladesh, the land of his birth, and serving the people there. “If I leave, who will look after my girls, my hospital, my home?” Shaha is quoted as saying.

In April 1971, despite a good working relationship with the Pakistani authorities as well as all preceding and successive governments, Shaha, with his 26-year-old son Bhavani Prasad Shaha, was picked up by the Pakistani army. They returned home after about a week, but were picked up again a day later, after which they were never heard from again. Shaha's daughter-in-law, Srimati Shaha, was widowed at the age of 20, four years into her marriage. Her only child, son Rajiv, was three years old at the time.

“For the longest time, my mother, as well as my grandmother until the day she died, thought my father and grandfather would come back,” says Rajiv. But they never did.

From 1971 to 1999, KWT was managed by RP Shaha's daughter, Joya Pati, former Chair and MD. Shaha's eldest daughter, Bijoya, also played an important role in the running of Bharateswari Homes. Bringing together women widowed or left destitute by the war, Joya Pati, later assisted by her sister-in-law Srimati, started working towards building Kumudini Handicrafts soon after the war, supporting traditional cottage industries, supplying handicrafts both at home and abroad. Since 1984, Kumudini has also had a Trade Training School for young boys from poor families who train in, among other things, electrical work, welding, plumbing, carpentry, etc. Pati also added to Kumudini's income-generating activities, establishing a pharmaceuticals company and later a garments business, which her nephew, Rajiv, later expanded.

Outdoor patients at Kumudini Hospital.

Income-generation is key now and Rajiv Prasad Shaha has a number of plans in the pipeline, including recycling of waste material from garments and processing jute for automobile interiors. In terms of welfare activities, he also dreams of establishing a university which will specialise in areas which are important but little explored in Bangladesh, such as environmental science. The nursing profession too has scope for development, believes Rajiv, where well-trained nurses can serve at home as well as abroad.

“Another important project which we have started on a moderate scale at Kumudini Hospital but which needs to be developed is an Intensive Care Unit (ICU) or trauma centre,” says Rajiv. “While this is essential for any hospital, it is particularly needed here, where there are several accident cases almost on a regular basis.” After the disappearance of RP Shaha and the devastation of war, it was difficult enough to manage the existing institution, let alone expand, says Rajiv, but now it is slowly becoming possible.

Another dream fulfilled -- Kumudini Women's Medical College.
Study, work and fun make up the day for girls at Bharateswari Homes.

It has not been an easy journey,” says Protiva Mutsuddy who has been with KWT since 1963, first as a lecturer, then Principal, and now an Administrator of the organisation. Mutsuddy recalls 1971 as especially frightening, with the Pakistani army raiding the premises while the Mukti Bahini too would at times suspect them of being collaborators, even though they had provided them with medical treatment and supplies. “We had a responsibility to protect our girls especially in the time of war,” says Mutsuddy.

In the case of patients too, no one would ever be turned back, reflects Mutsuddy. “If the hospital was flooded, Jethamoni made the doctors treat them on the top floors. He didn't care about the death rates as many hospitals do. He would take in any patients that came, he would not let anyone die without treatment.” There was a time when her Jethamoni could hardly sleep at night, worrying about how to make ends meet, yet he would never turn away a person in need, says Mutsuddy.

Former Principal Protiva Mutsuddy has been with Kumudini for almost half a century.

RP Shaha's family members as well as staff remember him as a simple, very hard-working, disciplined and dedicated man. Jagannath Poddar, a distant relative and former employee of KWT remembers his disciplined life, coming to work on the dot, and making his children work too. “He would make his son do menial labour,” recalls Poddar. “He did not have it easy just because he was a family member. He actually had to work on the ships with the other men.”

“All his children had to learn some skills,” agrees Srimati Shaha, RP Shaha's daughter-in-law and currently Director of KWT. “They did everything, from menial labour to horse-riding. He would say that if his daughters had not married, they would have been like Indira Gandhi!”

Even the family does not know the complete extent of RP Shaha's philanthropy, says Srimati. “In 1944, he donated Tk. 2,50,000 to the Red Cross. Every now and then we will get letters or calls from some organisation informing us about some large donation he had made or some way in which he had helped them. He never even told anyone. He donated generously and never worried about his family. He believed that if they looked after the Trust, the Trust would look after them, and it did.”

“Even today, when taking any decision, we think, 'what would Jethamoni have done?'” says Protiva Mutsuddy. “And we never do anything we think he would not have approved of.”

Health, education and women's empowerment are key sectors in development today. But RP Shaha had the foresight to understand their importance over half a century ago and to envision a world where the poor would have access to them. Helping people was his first priority.

Ranju Hashim, RP Shaha's granddaughter, remembers her grandfather as a dedicated, headstrong person. Home from school during vacations, she would spend a lot of time with him in his Narayanganj office. “He used to love me a lot because I was very blunt with him,” says Ranju. “If I didn't agree with him on something, I would argue with him and, if I was right, he would ultimately give in.”

Girls at Bharateswari Homes are taught to be self-reliant.

As a student at Holy Cross College, Ranju remembers standing by the window every Monday and Friday, knowing that her Dadu would pass by on his way to and from Narayanganj. “I thought that maybe he would come visit me or at least look up to see where I lived, but he never did. So one day I wrote him an angry letter, scolding him for being so heartless. The following week, I was told I had a visitor, and when I came down, I found Dadu standing there sheepishly with a large powder milk tin full of taaler pitha for me. That was how he was,” says Ranju. “He loved us all very much but he wasn't the kind to really express it. ”

But perhaps even more than his family, his service to the people took priority in his life.

Former student and current Principal of Bharateswari Homes, Manika Debi Barua.

“I remember being home for vacation one year,” says Ranju. “I was wearing a warm coat which I used to wear at school in Darjeeling. Dadu was sitting by the mandir when he saw a poor man, half naked, walking by, shivering in the cold. Dadu called me over and made me give him my coat. That was the kind of man he was.”

“Dadu was rejected by the father of the woman he had first wanted to marry on the basis that he had eaten beef with the British soldiers during the war. But he was so headstrong that he ended up marrying his daughter, my mother, to the son of the woman he could not marry. Perhaps that's where I get my stubborn streak from,” reflects RP Shaha's granddaughter.

Her husband, Anwar Hashim, a retired ambassador, remembers RP Shaha as “not only non-communal but truly secular”. “I being a Muslim and she a Hindu, we had to get permission to marry from the government of Pakistan, and it was Dadu who supported us. He hosted our wedding, the cards were printed in his name,” says Hashim.

After her marriage to Hashim, Ranju recalls coming home for Puja -- a big celebration at Kumudini even today -- and not feeling right sitting with the rest of the family as she had married a Muslim man. “So I, along with my sister who had also married a Muslim, sat at the back, fearing that people might criticise my grandfather because his granddaughters had married Muslims. But when Dadu noticed our absence, he found us and made us sit right by the mandir with the rest of the family.”

After completing her Masters and before her marriage, Ranju had taught at Kumudini College in Tangail for a year. “Dadu would hide behind the fence and listen to my lectures,” recalls Ranju. “He thought I was very good. So much so, that when I got married, he wanted me to stay back and continue teaching; he even told this to my husband, who had been posted abroad. But I didn't agree, as I knew I wouldn't have a family life if I did.”

RP Shaha's spirit touched not only his family but complete strangers as well. When Dr Sudha Saha met him in 1964, she was only a medical student in Calcutta. Despite RP Shaha's ardent request for her to come back and practise in Bangladesh, Sudha was unable to do so.

“RP Shaha tried to convince Sudha to come back to serve her country and her people,” says her husband Dr Nitai Saha, an urologist. “She could not commit at the time, but she told him that she would try, someday.”

About 10 years ago, Sudha, now a gynaecologist, came with her husband to do volunteer medical work at Kumudini Hospital for two weeks. The next year, they came back for longer, bringing with them some modern medical equipment which the hospital was lacking. After retiring from their private practice in the USA in 2006, the couple, now in their 70s, has spent increasingly longer times at Kumudini, their last stint being eight months long. This year, they plan to stay even longer.

In terms of Kumudini's services to the people, RP Shaha's dream has been fulfilled, believes his granddaughter Ranju Hashim. “But the world he envisioned does not exist. He would have been shocked at the erosion of human values,” she says sadly. “Dadu did not wait around for the government to do everything; neither was he the only person who could afford to do all that he did.”

River transportation and handicrafts are two of Kumudini's earliest income-generating ventures.  

Indeed, all the institutions Rai Bahadur (a title given by the Viceroy of India in 1944) Ranada Prasad Shaha has built or contributed to and all the lives he has touched through them is an inspiration for people, no matter how much or how little they own, to serve others. RP Shaha had almost nothing when he started out, yet, for many, he has given them the world -- a world full of love, security, basic rights and values to guide them throughout their lives.


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