Subhashini Mistry

built Humanity Hospital for poor in Kolkata; once worked as a maid and sold vegetables in the streets, after her husband passed away. 

                                                                                                                                                                                                      - by Subbu

SMIt happens once in a while that we hear stories of people going the extra mile to serve humankind, and setting an example in stone with their iron-clad will.

Subhasini Mistry toiled for years as a manual labourer, a housemaid and a vegetable-seller, is living proof that one does not need to be young, rich or educated to be an achiever, but that immense hard work and the audacity of hope can go a long way. She was also one among the 12 winners of Women Transforming India Awards in 2017. Indian government honoured her with Padmashri award for her social work.

Misfortune dogged Subhashini Mistry from the moment of her birth. She was born during the Bengal famine that drove impoverished farmers to starvation and death across the countryside. Her father, a marginal farmer who owned a tiny patch of land in Kulwa village about 30 kms south west of Kolkata, was unable to feed his 14 children. Her mother scoured the land, begging for rice from the churches, ashrams, NGOs, government offices and landlords of the area. Over the next few years, seven of the children died.

At 12, Subhashini was married off to Chandra, an agricultural worker who lived in Hanspukur village, a one and a half hour walk away. He earned Rs.200 a month. Subhashini struggled to make ends meet, cooking and cleaning all day long for her husband and four children.

SM01Disaster struck in 1971. Her husband began writhing in pain and she rushed him to the district hospital in Tollygunge, Kolkata. The anxiety over her husband’s deteriorating condition gave way to horror as she realized that the doctors and nurses refused to pay any attention to him because he was penniless. This government hospital was mandated to provide free service to the poor. But reality was that patients needed either money or connections to get treatment. Death ended her husband’s torment.

But that was only the beginning of Subhashini’s torment. Her husband was the sole breadwinner of the family. She was poor and illiterate with four small frightened, hungry children to raise. She sobbed over the body of her dead husband, overcome with grief and desperation. A poor, puny housewife with no education, training or skills, how on earth was she going to raise her four children, the eldest eight years old, the youngest not even two? Her parents and brothers were so poor, they could barely support themselves.

SM3Through her tears and fears, Subhashini made an oath that fateful day. No one should suffer her fate. Basic medical attention could easily have saved her husband who had nothing more than a bout of gastro enteritis. But poverty and callous hospital staff had killed her husband. She vowed she would do what it takes to spare people of this nightmare. She would build a hospital for the poor.

People laughed at her impossible dream. But Subhasini was no ordinary woman. For the next 20 years, she worked as a domestic help, manual labourer and vegetable vendor. She saved most of her earnings for her dream hospital, while spending the rest on raising her four kids.

She only knew housework, so she started working as a maid servant in five houses nearby, earning a total of Rs. 100 a month. She recalls: “There is no work my hands have not done. I have cooked, mopped floors, washed utensils, cleaned gardens, polished shoes, concreted roofs.” Her son Ajoy was a good student. She sent him to an orphanage in Kolkata so he could get a decent education. The other three children helped with housework.

SM6Soon she discovered she could pick vegetables that grew on the wayside in Dhapa village and sell them. She realized that selling vegetables would fetch more money than doing other people’s housework. So she and her children moved to Dhapa village where she rented a hut for Rs.5 a month. She began selling vegetables in Dhapa village, and gradually, as her business grew, she headed for bustling Kolkata. She set up her wayside stall on bridge Number Four in Park Circus in central Kolkata. She started earning about Rs.500 a month. During the cauliflower season, she earned more. She opened a savings account in the post office and deposited a little money whenever she could. Sometimes Rs.50, sometimes Rs.200.

In 1992, she bought one acre of land in her husband’s village, Hanspukur, for Rs.10,000. She moved back with her children to her husband’s hut that had been lying vacant all along nearby. She donated her one acre land for the hospital.  With the help of villagers, a 20 feet by 20 feet temporary shed was constructed in 1993. Then they plead with doctors to offer their free service at the newly opened Hanspukur shed at least once a week for the poor and needy.

SM7The first doctor to respond to the call was Dr. Raghupathy Chatterjee. Five others followed in rapid succession. Each one of them offered free service, ranging from two to four hours a week. They decided to build a concrete roof covering a 1,000 sq feet area. This required much more money. So Subhashini and her son Ajoy cast the net wider.

Ajoy knocked on the door of the local Member of Parliament, Malini Bhattacharya and she supported the Humanity Hospital whole heartedly. She helped them to raise sufficient funds and so the foundation stone was laid in 1993.

In the meantime, Ajoy got admitted into the prestigious Kolkaka Medical College and after graduation, attended to the day to day running of the Humanity Hospital. A group of trustees – including doctors, eminent local citizens and serving IPS officers guided the hospital, which has now expanded to include gynecology, cardiology, ENT, urology, oncology, diabetology and surgery. They now have 3 acres of land and the hospital has expanded to 9,000 sq feet spread over two floors.

SM5Through all this growth, Subhashini was clear about her goal. This was a hospital for the poor. This was not a business. Yet, she knew that the hospital had to be self-sufficient. It cannot survive forever on donations. So while the poor got free treatment, those who lived above poverty line had to pay Rs.10 for consultation. Still, this is not sufficient to cover the day to day expense of running a hospital.

With her son Ajoy at the helm of the hospital, the doughty Subhashini went back to doing what she knew best – selling vegetables, back at Bridge Number 4. She still lives in the same house. Her elder daughter and son too sell vegetables. Her youngest daughter has become a nurse and works in the hospital.

SM1If she had kept all her savings to herself, Subhashini might have lived in a better house and had more possessions. But she says: “What’s the use of material things like bangles and saris. We can’t take them with us when we die. But the happy faces of the cured poor people have given me such joy and meaning in this life.”

Now, Ajoy persuaded her to stop selling vegetables. She was getting old; her knees were giving her trouble. She now tends the sick in the hospital. But her mission is not yet over. Says she: “Only when this hospital becomes a full-fledged 24-hour hospital can I die happy.”

At 70, she can look back with satisfaction at a two-storeyed, whitewashed building, the realisation of her dream to build a hospital for the poor - all because she couldn't afford proper medical treatment for her husband and became a widow at 23. Now 47 years down the line, Humanity Hospital, in Hanspukur village near Kolkata, stands tall and proud, serving the poor free of cost since 1996, a testimony to a single woman's grit, determination and never-say-die spirit against all possible odds.

The Humanity Hospital is testament to the iron will and tenacity of Subhasini Mistry, a truly extraordinary woman.

SM8

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