The Pain Healer
to read our story
We shall overcome all hurdles in the days to come and shall reach the goal of our struggle for a just and egalitarian society.M.A. Wohab
The Great Flood
In September 1978 West Bengal was hit by weeks of torrential rain. Kolkata and Howrah suffered one of their worst floods of the century. Hundreds of lives were lost and thousands of homes destroyed, leaving 2 million people homeless.
In the midst
of this tragedy a young man, Mohammed Abdul Wohab, was helping those stricken by the flood. It was then that he first saw the saintly figure of Brother Gaston tending to the victims.
Born Grandjean Gaston from Switzerland, he had found his calling in India, serving the poorest of the poor. There he became Brother “Dayanand” (pleasant compassion) Gaston. He had trained as a nurse and travelled to India to work for the World Health Organisation.
It was his belief that to understand the poor he had to live as they did. So he moved into a small shack in the slums of Pilkhana and became one of them. His life and work was immortalised by Dominique Lapierre in the book “City of Joy”, an international bestseller.
When Wohab met Brother Gaston he was deeply unsettled. The wretched poverty all around was tearing at his conscience and fuelling his indignation. His ambition was to be a lawyer and to give free legal service to the poor. However he had a large family to support so he took a job as secretary to a village-level governing body.
The salary was small and he struggled as the sole bread-winner. He became involved in politics and believed that armed revolution was the only course of action to bring about social equality. But Gaston later persuaded him to abandon this path and instead to dedicate his life to helping the poor.
During this time Sabitri Pal was Wohab’s good friend and adviser. They were students at the same college and would dedicate their spare time to social service.
She was the eldest of eight siblings. After her father died she had to look after them. She looked for a job in education but was rejected because she wasn’t a member of the ruling political party. Sabitri had to make ends meet with private tuition.
If you want to help people, go to your home and start from there.Br. Gaston
Wohab first met Gaston in the aftermath of the flood. They would meet again a few months later. On this occasion they talked at length. Gaston persuaded Wohab to abandon the path of radical politics and instigated instead a personal revolution. “If you want to help the people” he told him, “go back to your home and start there”.
This was the the epiphany that Wohab was searching for. He got a transfer to his ancestral home of Bhangar. There he and Sabitri vowed to start a social service for the downtrodden of their neighbourhood.
They had nowhere
to start this new endeavour until a tea stall owner, Atiar Rahaman, offered them a room in his shop. It was a simple thatched hut with an earthen floor.
So on the 30th of October 1980 Sabitri and Wohab began their mission to care for the poor from that small room. Little did they know how far it would take them.
Wohab recalls, “I was there alongside rickshaw pullers and farm labourers. They wanted to know the cause for their constant cough. Why blood sometimes came with the saliva”. This was the scourge of tuberculosis which was rampant in India. They decided to make this the focus of their service.
Brother Gaston sent his right-hand man, Buddhadev Mishra, to help them. He was invaluable in assisting and guiding their mission.
Wohab remembers his lasting influence, “Buddha Dada used to advise against joining politics. Politics makes one inhuman. You should be busy with the service of man only. If he were alive he would be happy to see we have stayed true to his words”.
My wealth is
stored in houses
of all of you
Funds were a serious problem at the beginning. Sabitri would quote the Indian poet Rabrindanath Tagore, “My wealth is stored in houses of all of you”. So they had to resort to begging.
They accepted what little the rickshaw pullers and bidi (cigarette) rollers could offer. Soon they began receiving larger donations from local wealthy men as well as medical supplies from other charities.
It was later that Brother Gaston proposed the name “Southern Health Improvement Samity”, or SHIS for short. Southern referring to the area of West Bengal that they serviced at the time, and Samity, meaning association.
Soon they were joined by M.S. Alam, who later became the first full-time doctor at SHIS. Patient numbers swelled until the tea stall was no longer suitable.
While the organisation had very little money they received donations of bricks from some of the large brick factories in the area. SHIS moved its headquarters to its current location. Over the next few years SHIS continued to expand its activities, stretching its limited funds to breaking point.
During this time the French writer, Dominique Lapierre, was documenting the life of Brother Gaston in Kolkata. This formed the inspiration for the novel “City of Joy”. It told the story of a Polish priest who lived in the notorious slum of Pilkhana, Kolkata. The book was hugely successful and Lapierre immediately began to consider how to use the profits to help the poor, so vividly described in his book.
He asked Brother Gaston where he should donate this money. Without hesitation Gaston suggested SHIS and from then on he became their great benefactor, as well as a close personal friend of Sabitri and Wohab.
SHIS has gone from strength to strength with the support of many donors, staff and volunteers. It is now an integral service for West Bengal, providing health care, education and community support. And for M.A. Wohab and Sabitri Pal it is an ongoing mission, as vital and fragile now as it was thirty-four years ago.