Subhasini Mistry toiled for years as a manual labourer, a housemaid and a vegetable-seller. At 70, she can look back with satisfaction at a two-storeyed, whitewashed building, the realisation of her dream to build a hospital for poor – all because she couldn't afford proper medical treatment for her husband and became a widow at the age of 23, writes Abhay Jere.
She was born underprivileged during the time of Bengal famine that led people to abject impoverishment, and death. Her parents could not feed the 14 children and she saw seven of her brothers and sisters dying in front of her. At the age of 12, she was married off to Chandra, an agricultural worker, who lived in Hanspukur village, a one and a half hour walk away from her native village. They worked hard to make ends meet till 1971–when one day her husband was writhing with pain, and was taken to a district hospital in Kolkata. Treatment was refused as they had no money to pay. Though government hospitals are mandated to treat the poor for free, the reality is that all patients cannot be accommodated due to lack of adequate facilities. Her husband died in front of her eyes due to
lack of basic medical treatment. He suffered from a minor ailment called
That fateful day, wailing over her husband’s dead body, Subhashini Mistry might have had taken an oath inwardly that no one else should ever suffer her fate of having to lose loved ones due to lack of money for treatment. For that day onwards, she lived in single-minded pursuit of building a hospital that would offer free treatment to poorest of the poor.
After her husband’s death, she was stranded with four children. Her husband was the sole breadwinner of the family. Being an illiterate, she was wondering what job to take up for sustenance. She took up work involving physical labour. “I had no education. So I decided I would do whatever work that was available. I started out as an aayah (domestic help) in the nearby houses.” This fetched her Rs 100 a month. She recalls: “There is no work my hands have not done.” She worked as a house maid, worked in tea stalls, even cleaned ponds, worked in paddy fields, also collected coal
from dumps, and polished shoes for sustenance.
Soon she realised, that picking vegetables would fetch her more money than doing household work for others. So, she moved to Dhapa (previously outside Kolkata) along with her children, where they stayed in a hut for a rent of five rupees a month. She started growing vegetable at the wayside of Dhapa, and sold them. Eventually, after toiling for years, when her business grew, she headed for Kolkata. She had set up a stall by the roadside at bridge number Four in Park Circus, in central Kolkata. Her earning grew to 500 rupees a month. Her earning was more during the cauliflower season.
She did not spend all her earning just on sustenance, but saved considerable amount from it to build up the fund—bit by bit—required for her dream hospital. She opened a savings account in a post office, in which she would deposit her little savings from time to time—sometimes 50 rupees, at times even 200 rupees.
For around 30 years, she scrimped and saved from day-to-day. She spent nothing on herself and little on her children, except on her younger son – Ajoy’s education, whom she wanted to become a doctor. With the industriousness of an ant, she labored on.
In 1992, when she heard that a landlord was selling off his land in her husband’s village, Hanspukur, she went and fell at his feet, and pleaded with him to sell off the land to her at a little lesser price. The landlord relented, and a part of her dream was realised – she bought one acre of land for ten thousand rupees. She then moved back with her children to her husband’s hut nearby, which had been lying vacant all these days.
She gathered the villagers and told them that she would donate her one acre of land for free treatment of the poorest of poor, but the villagers would also need to raise money to build a thatched shed that could serve as a clinic for the poor. The villagers got together and scrounged to raise money. While some contributed in kind—providing bamboos, palm leaves, truckloads of earth, wooden planks; the poorest offered their labour. A total of Rs 926 was raised through public donation. In 1993, their collective effort yielded a 20-foot by 20-foot shed on the one acre of land–and the Humanity hospital was created.
An auto-rickshaw fitted with a loudspeaker plied the nearby countryside, spreading the message of urgent need of free-service from doctors, at least once a week for the poor and the needy. Villagers also went from door to door requesting residents to donate their surplus medicines. The first doctor who responded to the call was Dr Raghupathy Chatterjee. Five others followed suit – a general physician, ophthalmologist, orthopedic, pediatrician and a homeopath.
The shed was however, not a long-sustainable one. During the time of rain, there used to be knee-deep water inside it. The patients had to be treated on the road. Therefore, a concrete roof covering 1000 sq. ft. was decided to be built. To raise money, Subhashini and her son Ajoy reached out to the local Member of Parliament, Malini Bhattacharya. With persistent requests, they convinced the MP, who helped in raising sufficient fund to lay the foundation stone in 1993. In 1996, a permanent building was inaugurated by the then Pashchim Banga Governor KV Raghunath Reddy. In 2009, Mistry won the prestigious Godfrey Phillips Bravery Award in the mind-of-steel category. Hers is a testimony of a single woman's grit, determination and never-say-die spirit against all possible odds. At present, the two storeyed hospital stands over 9,000 square feet of land. It has 45 beds, with ICU, modern OT, and a small pathology department. Various tests like EEG, TMT, HOLTER, Spirometry, and USG are conducted here. With the help and support of a group of trustees that includes doctors, eminent local citizens, and serving IPS officers, the hospital has now expanded to include cardiology, oncology, ENT, gynecology, urology, diabetology and surgery.
Patients who live above the poverty line are charged a nominal fee of Rs 20. Those who are poor are treated free of charge. A high majority of the patients are from below poverty line. Another hospital at Sunderban has also been constructed. There are a total of 25 beds in this hospital. Treatment offered at this hospital is completely free. A total of 24 doctors are presently serving at the two hospitals.
The hospitals majorly run on donation. But, donations alone cannot sustain them, that is why a nominal fee of Rs 20 is charged from those who live above poverty line. Even this is not sufficient. “There is a perpetual shortage of funds. We live from month to month,” reveals Ajoy, Subhashini’s son, who’s at the helm of affairs at the Humanity hospital.
Notwithstanding old age, Subhashini tries to come to the hospital daily, and spend time with the patients. Her younger daughter is also a hospital staff. However, her mission is not yet completely accomplished. She says, “Only when these hospitals become full-fledged 24-hour units, can I die happy.”