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Man of healing determined to beat racism
Old 8th January 2010, 12:53 PM   #1
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Default Man of healing determined to beat racism

SOURCE:Sydney Morning Herald
January 8, 2010

Shiu Ramrakha, 1931-2009.

Shiu Ramrakha was born in colonial Fiji, with several things potentially going against him: the circumstances of his birth, his ethnicity in a country that had taken in his Indian forefathers as indentured labourers - a country where racial conflict was starting to brew - and being black at a time when Australia was committed to the White Australia policy.

But he rose above all that to become a surgeon and physician serving both the Fijian and Australian people.

Shiu Chand Ramrakha and his brother, Ramchandra, were born on January 4, 1931, sons of a Fijian public servant, Odin Ramrakha, and his wife, Mohan Dei. The boys were delivered in a government station at Nabouwalu, on the Fiji island of Vanua Levu, a virtual backwoods that would have had little provision for medical complications. The family were proud Hindu Brahmins, anxious to cast off the shackles of the indenture system.

It quickly became apparent that the twins were intellectually gifted. They profited by attending a Marist Brothers high school and came first and second in the colony in an exam sponsored by Cambridge University. Their one handicap was that they were both stutterers, and for that reason were denied a scholarship to study in India.

Australia was not seen as welcoming to Fijian students, though New Zealand was. The family was set to go to New Zealand but it revalued its currency, putting the family at a disadvantage.

Deciding to try Australia, Odin was delighted that his sons were able to get study visas there.

He cashed in his superannuation and life insurance gratuity, amounting to 2000, and in 1951 sold his second house in Suva for 2500. He bought a house for 800 in Annandale that became home for the twins, and a brother, Karam, who had also done brilliantly at school. There the boys made friends with the locals and supported the Labor Party.

Ramchandra was accepted into medicine at the University of Sydney. Shiu tried to get an apprenticeship to become a surveyor but was unsuccessful - a failure he wrote down to the White Australia policy - so went into medicine as well.

He and his brother made history as the first set of twins to graduate in medicine from the university. Shiu did his internship at Royal Prince Alfred Hospital but found that his term there was not extended - for which he blamed attitudes of senior doctors who did not want to see black professionals get into senior positions. He finished his internship at Mater Misericordiae in Newcastle.

After a stint as a doctor at Nyngan, Ramrakha embarked on a Russian freighter travelling to Britain with the aim of becoming a fellow of the Royal College of Surgeons. But when he went for his oral exam for the fellowship, his examiner would not pass him.

The examiner said: ''If you were a local [British] boy and I passed you, it would be years before you did any serious surgery, and you would have the comfort and support of colleagues. However, if I sent you back to Fiji with a fellowship, you would be plunged off the deep end and doing all sorts of surgeries.''

Ramrakha eventually did pass both the oral and written exams and returned to Fiji as his country's first FRCS. He went through an arranged marriage in Fiji in 1962. His wife, Aruna, then 19, turned out to be the perfect companion for him.

Ramrakha joined the government service, which appointed him a ''registrar with a surgical bias''. His fame spread and because of his general practice experience he was soon at the beck and call of many, including a large circle of family and friends. The ultimate accolade he got was from expatriates, who started to have complicated surgery in Fiji rather than Australia or New Zealand.

Ramrakha was promoted to consultant surgeon, then senior surgeon, at the Colonial War Memorial Hospital in Suva. After Fiji gained its independence, in 1970, he was appointed the permanent secretary for health.

Fiji was acquiring a reputation with the World Health Organisation, which Ramrakha belonged to, for the successful delivery of public health. Independent Fiji was held up as an outstanding success.

But there were storm clouds. There were ugly stirrings among the indigenous Fijians that Indo-Fijians like Ramrakha were taking over the country. The goodwill and co-operation were starting to turn.

Ramrakha was suffering from failing eyesight, making surgery more difficult, and in 1980 decided to join Ramchandra, who had a general practice in Balmain and Pyrmont.

Ramrakha maintained his relationship with Fiji and loved to travel, read, cultivate friends and experiment with food. He was catholic in his tastes as to who he mixed with and who he had in his house.

According to his son, Sanjay, they included ''prime ministers, dignitaries, politicians and vagabonds''. His son said: ''When I was younger I questioned why he had befriended what I thought were hobos. He would say: Kab jane is bes me, Narayan mil jahe [In this world, we do not know when we shall meet god].'' These were fine words, the son said, from a self-proclaimed socialist and atheist.

Shiu Ramrakha is survived by Aruna, their children, Sanjay, Anuja, Rekha and Tarun, seven grandchildren and his siblings Ramchandra, Karam and Bhim.
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