It’s customary for us to teach leadership (or life’s lessons) using great and inspiring examples. We refer to Gandhi, Mother Teresa, Lincoln, Jack Welch or Tata. While they inspire, people come back saying I am not a Gandhi – I am just an ordinary individual and cannot do what he did. They probably miss the point that Gandhi could have remained just another ordinary (and wealthy) attorney but he chose not to be so.
Such thoughts lead me to look at unusual and uncelebrated examples of leadership, of initiative and courage in people who have not been put on a pedestal. When we see such inspiration, we can relate to them more easily and cannot give ourselves the excuse that they have a privileged background, and hence they succeeded. Such motivation makes me an admirer of Prof Anil Gupta and NIF (National Innovation Foundation) as they focus on grassroots innovators (those without a formal education beyond high school) – if they could innovate, despite their economic, educational and ecosystem constraints, potentially so can anyone else!
Search for leadership from such uncelebrated quarters attracted me to photographer Mahesh Bhat and his unusual book Unsung (co-authored with Anita Pratap). Unsung is the story of nine unsung leaders who rose above the challenges of their background to make a difference. In this blog, I will talk about one such inspirational person who made a difference.
Let me share with you the story of Subhashini Mistry, who began life in the midst of the most depressing economic conditions. Born during the Bengal famine, she was part of an impoverished family with 14 children, seven of whom died. Married off at 12 to a farm worker earning 200 rupees a month, her travails continued. Things turned for the worse when her husband died of gastro enteritis simply because the “free” government hospital in Kolkata neglected him as he could not offer money. Now an unskilled young woman with zero economic means is left to figure it out, alone, how to manage her life and that of her four children.
Such misfortune did not deter her from taking a vow – she will build a hospital for the poor so others like them are spared of the torment they faced.
She resumed her life doing any kind of work, as housemaid and cook, earning 100 rupees a month. She soon discovered selling vegetables fetched more money. Aspiration took her to Kolkata where she set up a vegetable stall and her income grew to 500 a month. She started saving money, sometimes 5, sometimes as much as 100 rupees a month. She spent little, except on educating Ajoy, the brightest of her four children.
Twenty years of toil later, she was ready! She bought an acre of land in her husband’s village and set up a thatched shed that served as a dispensary for the poor. She leveraged on the villagers who pooled in money, material, medicines and labor and urged doctors to offer free service. Humanity Hospital was born!
Needless to say, this was only the beginning. Today, another two decades later, Humanity Hospital is a 9000 square feet hospital housed in 3 acres of land. Her son Ajoy, a qualified doctor from the prestigious Kolkata Medical College, runs the hospital. It has been supported by local politicians, and gives free treatment to poor. Subhashini returned to what she does best, viz. selling vegetables. Challenges continue, and steady source of funds will remain a concern, but Humanity Hospital stands for a dream realized – through dedication and perseverance.
What are my lessons from the story of the unsung Subhashini, adroitly presented by Mahesh Bhat’s camera and Anita Pratap’s pen?
1. Current conditions are no block to a great and an inspiring vision. There was no encouraging silver lining to Subhashini’s trauma when she made her vow.
2. Just dreaming is not enough. It took two decades of toil to get that first shed, and another two decades to bring the dream to a shape where we can say – she has done it!
3. With the right inspiration, one can stay focused on the big goals, and problems of the moment do not have overwhelming control over our lives.
4. No work was small work for her.
5. Selling vegetables was more profitable for her than working for others.
6. She spotted the potential (her bright son, Ajoy), and gave him the right opportunities. She invested in his future, even with her means.
7. If she wanted to treat her four children “equally”, Ajoy might not have become a doctor.
8. She leveraged on support from villagers – and a large number of people pooled in with their limited means. I believe any initiative that engages a large number of inspired volunteers is more likely to succeed.
9. Doctors responded to her inspired call. If your vision is big and not self serving, someone will respond.
10. Don’t fail to notice that her vision was not inspired by hate – she did not want to take revenge on doctors or government hospitals.
11. She leveraged on politicians as well. She first acquired support of the local Member of Parliament. That helped bring in the Governor to lay the foundation stone, and the media flocked when the Governor came. When you need support, just look for anyone who can help your cause.
12. Success has not gone to her head – she has not forgotten her roots.
13. Her life was driven by her own goals and not by comparison with proximate others – else she would have met the same fate as other vegetable sellers.
14. Adversity is the mother of inspired vision.
15. It’s my premise that goals that serve others (people we don’t know today) are more inspirational, likely to stay with us longer, and more likely to succeed.
You can find out more about the book and the author on Facebook