When Samreena Nazir joined the Christmas function of the small Christian community serving the Josh Bishop Memorial Hospital, it was a history tour to the past and present of one of the oldest health facilities in south Kashmir
It all restarted with a theft. Back in the 1960’s, a 19-year-old medical school student stole a book from her college. Years later, she confessed her guilt in the Church and sought repentance. There and then, she heard a consoling voice suggesting her to use her knowledge in the service of people in Kashmir.
Two months later, Sarah was on her way to Kashmir in utter disregard to the suggestions of her family, friends and colleagues in Andhra Pradesh. They all suggested her against getting into a place which is passing through a seriously violent phase. It was January 1996. Almost on a daily basis, there were killings as Jammu and Kashmir was heading towards an election for the first time after 1987.
The 2019 Christmas completed her 24 years service in Kashmir. Days ahead of the festival, Dr K Sarah was busy distributing gifts among children in the church after finishing her Sunday prayers in the John Bishop Memorial Hospital premises in Anantnag.
“Everyone opposed my decision because of the situation prevailing then,” Sarah said. “Destiny is unavoidable.”
When Sarah arrived in Srinagar, it was snowing. The snow-flakes symbolized the beginning of her new journey. She eventually ended up restarting one of Kashmir’s oldest missionary hospitals that was literally on a ventilator since 1990.
The John Bishop Memorial Hospital (JBMH) was established somewhere late nineteenth century by Isabella Bird, a Scottish lady who has travelled most of the East. She married a doctor, John Bishop. A few years after their marriage, the doctor died.
Isabella sold some property left by her husband and travelled to Srinagar in 1888, where she met Dr Fanny Butler who was one of England’s pioneer women doctors. She found Dr Butler working for the Kashmiri women without a hospital. Isabella felt a dire need of a hospital, which led her to invest her savings into a small hospital in Srinagar in memory of Dr John Bishop. With great efforts, Isabella established a base to serve Kashmir. A few years later, a disastrous flood washed it away.
Renewed efforts by many philanthropists led to the setting up of the Diamond Jubilee Hospital for women in Srinagar. However, there was no such facility in the periphery.
Then came an opening. Field Marshal Lord Roberts was returning to India after visiting Gilgit. During his Srinagar stay, Maharaja organized a feast in his honour and asked if he could grant something to him. Lord Roberts had heard of the difficulties Isabella was facing in obtaining a piece of land for a women’s’ hospital in Islamabad. The Maharaja promised the space, a piece of land.
It was on this land that the JBMH was established at Sarnal Bala. In the foothills, it is almost 30 kanals of land. It was literally founded by Dr Minnie Gomery and her Nursing Sister Ms Kate Nowaham.
According to the details available with the hospital, Dr Gomery had left behind a note of that era. It suggested that no European lived in the south Kashmir town excepting the two.
The two pioneers Dr Gomery and Ms Newnham retired in April 1935. The baton passed to Dr Berly Burt and sister Pearce. They managed the hospital for a short period. In 1938, Dr Fletcher became medical superintendent and served during the Second World War era.
After Fletcher’s retirement in 1964, Dr Marie Mitchell came to serve in the hospital for a few years. Later, Dr Millicent Xavier took over. Along with her husband, Dr Xavier served till 1989.
Being the oldest hospitals, JBMH has been serving the people for more than a century now.
“Earlier it served as general hospital, not maternity particularly as it is now,” Dr Sarah said. “It used to take a couple of days for the patients from Baramulla, Ramban and Srinagar to reach the hospital when there were no roads in Kashmir and people would travel in boats. Those days sterile water was held in some pots and used instead of saline water as Intra Venous fluid.”
As one enters the premises of JBM Hospital fenced with the evergreen pine rich mountain, the hospital buildings are guarded by the decorated cypress and Chinar trees. The well-manicured gardens are fascinating. It looks beautiful when the small Christmas community decorates these trees with balloons, stars and bells during the Christmas.
This Christmas witnessed the children making a snowman outside the OPD. Achsah Sybil, daughter of G Sumalini, the Principal of John Bishop Memorial Nursing School and Roules Prabakar, whose mother Veena is a hospital nurse, had invited their school friends to celebrate with them. Holding gifts in their hands which they have received in the church, Nida and Ayesha, two local girls were enjoying in this totally different environment.
“Happiness is to be celebrated with your close ones. It is children’s Christmas today and we have invited our best friends from School,” Roules said in broken Kashmiri. She said she is picking up the local language in her school and through the TV.
“We are not Kashmiris but we were born in Kashmir,” Achsah said. “I have visited Andra only thrice in my life. I don’t have any memory from there. I can’t speak Kashmiri but I am Kashmiri by heart.”
Facing the OPD is the green stone church, a rare sample of English architecture that Dr M Gomery built-in 1942. “Our parents used to pray here but as this church is not so spacious from inside so they built another one where we all gather every morning,” John Daniel, another child, who understands and speaks Kashmiri, said.
On the right side of the entrance are attendant quarters, which were gifted by Khawaja Saif-ud-Din to the hospital. Earlier, these were used as private wards. Khawaja had donated these wards in memory of his family, who were swept away by a disastrous flood in Pahalgam.
The JBMH also runs a nursing school since 1965. It offers GNM and FMPHW courses and produces almost 40 female professionals a year. “In the late 1950s a memorable event occurred, a student who had just completed her studies at Anantnag Girls’ High School asked that she might be enrolled as a trainee nurse. This meant that her cherished dream became a reality,” Dr Fletcher wrote in her book, The History of John Bishop Memorial Hospital. “Since,1964 and the coming of sister Butt, a number of girls have asked for training and the hospital is now a training school for auxiliary nurse-midwives, recognized by the state.”
One of the students currently being trained as GNM is Asmat. “I believe this is the best nursing school of the town,” Asmat, who was part of the Christmas crowd, said. “The tutors here prepare us for the competition outside. They train us in well-equipped demonstration labs. Almost every student from this school gets a government job.”
Jawahara is one of JBMH’s nursing orderlies. She takes home Rs 10,000, a month. “I have been here for the last 30 years when I was studying in eighth class,” Jawahara said. “I learned nursing from here and then started working here at Rs 60, a month. At that time, the hospital was managed by local staffers including Tajaji, Zainaji and Hanifa ji along with others. Taja was also a tutor at John Bishop Memorial Nursing School.”
Not far away from the church, a group of men were busy preparing special Sunday lunch.“We are around 60 people from 14 families,” Samuel, one of the managers of the event said. “During Carol singing days, we usually dine together.”
Samuel is from Vishakapatnam and lives within the hospital premises, like all others, for the last eight years, after he married Smalini who teaches in the JBMH nursing school. Samuel has masters in English and also an MBA in Human Resources. He teaches at First Step International Academy in Awantipora and earns Rs 13000, a month.
“Most of us belong to a place where the temperature is at a minimum of 20 degrees Celsius when Kashmir freezes,” Samuel said. “I believe God has chosen us to serve Kashmir who requires our talents and skills.”
Despite being non-locals, they say they were received with love, respect and support in Kashmir, by the staff and the people. The hospital faced bad patches. Between 1989 and 1996, when visiting doctors stopped coming to the JBMH, the 30 local staffers did not permit the facility to shut down.
In August 1994, somehow, Joseph Daniel, an orthopaedic surgeon with Saint Stephens Hospital, Delhi visited the JBMH. The local staff requested him to treat the patients and try to restart it. Being orthopaedic, Joseph was unable to handle the obstetrics patients.
“The third case we witnessed was a lady, who was brought dead in a taxi,” Dr Joseph said. “A 90-year-old hospital unable to serve people, this feeling made me helpless and I went back to Delhi.”
Back in Delhi, he told the plight of the heritage hospital in Kashmir and approached the Church of North India to which the hospital belongs. They wrote to all mission agencies and several groups of mission hospitals, but no one from the Church of North India was willing to serve, owing to the challenging security situation.
Joseph finally informed Joshua Daniel, president of a small Church called Laymans Evangelical Fellowship. Daniel thought that this is the time of greatest need and should help Kashmiris when nobody is willing to come. Joshua ordered Joseph to go to Kashmir and try to find some local gynaecologists and start the hospital.
After a year, Joseph got three months leave from Saint Stephens Hospital and returned to JBMH. He found the situation worse than before. Even the staff was unpaid for half a year.
“The next day after my arrival, the entire staff came and told their agonies. Some had to remove their children from schools while others had nothing to eat on festivals, it was miserable to hear them,” Dr Joseph said. “I had no answer.”
Those were the days when six tourists were kidnapped from Pahalgam. Scared by the situation and lacking any answers, Dr Joseph thought of a way-out – escaping to Delhi.
After night-long thinking, he finally called four local staffers and tried to convince them on certain conditions. While he was talking, a group of gunmen barged in. It led to an argument between the gunmen and the staff. Frightened, Dr Joseph thought he is going to be kidnapped.
Almost after half an hour, when the gunmen left, Dr Joseph came to know that they had come to take the hospital ambulance so that they could ferry their people from one place to another. The staff told them that since they have not been paid, they have kept the ambulance hostage.
“I went to the bank and emptied all the accounts to pay three-month salaries to all the thirty people,” Joseph remembers. He had flown specially from Delhi to join the staff in the Christmas celebrations 2019.
That was a major milestone in its revival. As it restarted, there was no looking back. Nobody obstructed in its operations. “During 2016, dozens of processions passed from here but no one pelted a stone towards us,” said Joseph, whose wife, Gita Dibora, works as a staff nurse. “Even this year, when the non-locals left Kashmir, no one amongst us even thought of leaving Kashmir.” Joseph said, a former private school staffer, now on hospital rolls.
The 20 bedded hospital is associated with the Diocese of Amritsar and belongs to the Church of North India. “The hospital is affordable to the poor sections and every year 350-400 births take place here,” Joshua, a protestant, who serves as the JBMH administrator, said. “We charge no more than Rs 15,000 for a cesarean. Till 2014, the consultation fee was Rs 20, which has now been increased to Rs 100.”
The hospital is part of the local society. Parveena, an expecting mother, waiting to see Dr Sarah, said her mother was born in this hospital. “In this hospital, it is hard to find any male around that makes us to prefer this hospital,” Parveen said. “They respect the patient’s privacy.”
Dr Sarah said the staff is devoted and works on low salaries. This helps the management to save funds for expanding infrastructure. In her tenure, Sarah said six buildings were added to the hospital.
When she took over as Medical Superintendent in 1997, the hospital was struggling with no doctors and was having trouble in providing basic medical facilities. “There was resistance. Apart from militant attacks, I was once served broken glass with the sugar during my initial years,” Dr Sarah alleged. “After people’s acceptance, we became friends.” She said she wishes to die in Kashmir.