Inspiring story of vegetable seller who built hospital for poor

Subhashini Mistry lives in a village called Hanspukur just about 20 Km south of the city of Kolkata. 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 Sadhan Chandra Mistry, an agricultural worker who lived in Hanspukur village.. He earned Rs.200 a month. In 1971, he was working on small farms on a daily wage basis. During the off-season, he served and washed utensils in his village tea-stall. He supported his family of five- his wife Subhasini and four children, frequently on earnings that amounted to less than one rupee a day. The Mistry family lived in a thatched house in Hanspukur – a village in the 24 Parganas district on the outskirts of Kolkatta.

Disaster struck in 1971. One particular cropping season, the rains were exceptionally heavy in Kolkatta. Her husband Sadhan fell ill while working on the paddy farm. He had diaorrhea, but Subhasini did not know what to do. There was no money in the house. 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. After remaining ill for three days, he succumbed to the disease, and died of dehydration. Poverty and callous hospital staff had killed her husband.

But that was only the beginning of Subhashini’s torment. She became a widow at 23. Her husband was the sole breadwinner of the family. She was poor and illiterate with four small frightened, hungry children to raise. Subhashini struggled to make ends meet, cooking and cleaning all day long for her family. Her parents and brothers were so poor, they could barely support themselves.

Subhashini made an oath that fateful day. No one should suffer her fate. She vowed she would do what it takes to spare people of this nightmare. She would build a hospital for the poor.

She only knew housework, so she started working as a maid servant in five houses nearby, earning a total of Rs.100 a month.


Mistry told IANS: “When my husband passed away, I was in shock initially. Then I realised I had four hungry mouths to feed. My oldest child, a son, was four-and-a-half-years old at the time. My youngest, a daughter, was one-and-a-half.

“I had no education and couldn’t even tell the time. So I decided I would do whatever work that was available. I started out as an aayah (domestic help) in the nearby houses.”

” I don’t regret that I had to put two of my children in an orphanage, that I couldn’t educate them. There were things needed to be done for the greater good.”

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 her with housework.

Soon 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 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. She spent nothing on herself and little on her children, except for Ajoy’s education.

Two of my sons worked in a tea stall. We survived on boiled rice for years. I couldn’t even send them to school,” Subhashini recalled. “I knew my children had to go to school and at least one had to be a doctor, or else my dream would never come true.” She said. In the meantime, her children grew up. The two daughters were married off. The eldest son chose to be a labourer, working in agricultural fields. Her other son, the youngest of the lot, Ajoy Mistry was identified by Subhasini to carry on her mission. He was a brilliant student even as he grew up in a children’s home.

“My mother could not afford to send me to school. But she wanted us to study seriously, which we did. I was initially not keen on taking up medicine. In fact, I studied chemistry because I felt that was my subject,” said Ajoy.

Ajoy changed track, too, and in 1990,he successfully completed his secondary education and passed the All India Medical Entrance Test. Aided by the German Scholarship, he joined Calcutta Medical College where he completed his medical course. He graduated a year before the foundation stone for Humanity Hospital was laid.

Subhashini had not given up on her dream. She was determined to build that hospital. She put aside the majority of what she earned and after around 30 years she had collected enough to buy a plot of land. One of the babus (landlords) was selling off his land. I went to him and fell at his feet to let me buy the plot for a lesser amount.He relented and finally a part of my dream came true,” said Mistry.In 1992, she bought one acre of land in her husband’s village, Hanspukur, for Rs.10,000

She gathered the villagers and told them of her plan. She would donate her one acre land for the hospital, but the villagers would have to donate money to build a thatched shed that could serve as a dispensary for the poor.

The public donation totalled Rs.926. Some villagers contributed in kind providing bamboos, palm leaves, truckloads of earth, wooden planks. The poorest offered their labour. Thus, a 20 feet by 20 feet temporary shed was constructed in 1993.


In 1993, the hospital was started from a thatched shed on a one acre land bought by Subhasini from her lifelong savings. In 1993, Ajoy Mistry authored the trust deed of Humanity Trust with his mother Subhasini Mistry as the co-founder trustee.

Then an auto rickshaw fitted with a loudspeaker plied the countryside over a 10 km radius, pleading with doctors to offer their free service at the newly opened Hanspukur shed at least once a week for the poor and needy. Simultaneously, villagers went from door to door urging residents to donate their surplus medicines.

The first doctor to respond to the call was Dr.Raghupathy Chatterjee. Five others followed in rapid succession – a general physician, paediatrician, orthopedic, ophthalmologist and a homeopath. Each one of them offered free service, ranging from two to four hours a week. On the very first day, 252 patients were treated. Humanity hospital, as the little shed was named, never looked back.

Not that the going was easy. Monsoon was pure hell. There was knee deep water inside the shed. The patients had to be treated on the road. So it was decided to build a concrete roof covering a 1,000 sq feet area. This required much more money.

Ajoy knocked on the door of the local Member of Parliament, Malini Bhattacharya. At first, he made no headway. The door remained firmly shut. But he persisted. Bit by bit, the door opened and finally he managed to meet the MP and explain his mother’s goal.

Over a period of time, he won her over and after seeing with her own eyes Subhashini’s single minded devotion to her charitable work, Malini supported the Humanity Hospital whole heartedly. She helped them to raise sufficient funds and so the foundation stone was laid in 1993. Not a single reporter attended the event.

However, after the hospital was constructed, with Malini’s and the local MLA’s help, Subhashini was able to get the governor of West Bengal to inaugurate it. The governor’s presence ensured the presence of a flock of reporters. The media coverage had a healthy fall out – a trickle, though not a torrent, of donations, followed.

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.

Through 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. “There is a perpetual shortage of funds. We live from month to month,” reveals Ajoy.

How did she achieve all this? She says: “Inner Strength.” She adds with rustic wisdom: “God in his infinite grace gave me a vision at the darkest moment in my life. From then on, my life had a purpose. I used whatever strength God gave me to make sure other poor people did not lose their loved ones for lack of medical attention.”

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.

Three years ago, 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. Says she: “This hospital means everything to me. It is my wealth, my knowledge, my happiness.”

But her mission is not yet over. Says she: “Only when this hospital becomes a full-fledged 24-hour hospital can I die happy.”

The multi-specialty ‘Humanity Hospital’ has a total floor space of 15,000 sq. ft, with two fully equipped operation theatres and 30 beds. There are 22 visiting doctors in the hospital. The hospital treats about 1000 patients per month. Nobody is refused treatment. And no money is ever asked for. Subhashini and Ajoy spend more than 16 hours at the hospital every day.

Subhashini’s story is a staggering account of what human will can achieve, of indomitable spirit, of a rise, phoenix like.

(Extract from the book ‘Unsung’ by Anita Pratap and Mahesh Bhat), Source: the weekend leader

View these videos to know more about her inspiring life

Visit the website of Humanity Hospital for more information.

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