“I was told there are only two processions in a woman’s life; once when she gets married and the other when she dies. Imagine my state of mind when they took me in a procession to my husband’s home in Navargaon forest in Wardha,” Sindhutai Sapkal.
It was ninth month of her pregnancy when her abusive husband, two decades older than her, kicked her out of the house and into a cow-shed in Navargaon village of Wardha District in Maharashtra. He expected her to be kicked by the cows, just like he had himself done. The 20-year-old battered and shattered woman, a mother of three, fell unconscious on the ground and when she regained consciousness, she realized she had given birth to a baby girl. The petrified woman picked up a sharp-edged stone and hit the umbilical cord several times to snap it from her body. She then mustered courage and walked a few kilometers to her mother’s house in that condition. But her mother unapologetically rejected to shelter her, after all, Sindhu was named ‘chindi’ (a torn piece of cloth) from the time she was born.
Born on 14 November 1948 at Pimpri Meghe village in Maharashtra, she was keen on completing her education. Her father was supportive of her education, but her mother opposed this hence she was unable to complete her education beyond Class 4th. At a tender age of 10 years, she was married off to a man thrice her age.
Left distraught by evils of child marriage and left banished by her husband and mother, young Sindhu never lost hope. She started singing and begging in trains and on the streets to make ends meet.
One night, while taking shelter at a crematory, unable to bear her daughter’s hunger-pangs, she collected the flour offered to the corpse and baked a roti (chapatti) from it over the fire of a burning corpse. Life was being relentlessly cruel to Sindhu who went on to become Sindhutai or maai.
“When I was out myself on the streets begging for food and fighting for survival each day, I realized that there are so many orphans who have nobody to go to. I decided to take care of them and raise them as my own,” Sindhutai says. Over a period of time, with her love and compassion, she has emerged as the “Mother of Orphans”.
Sindhutai also fought for the rehabilitation of the 84 tribal villages who were being evacuated due to a tiger preservation project. In the course of her agitation, she met the then Minister of Forests who acknowledged her efforts and agreed that the villagers should not be displaced before the government had made appropriate arrangements at alternative sites.
“By God’s grace, I had good communication skills. I could go and talk to people and influence them. Hunger made me speak and this became my source of income. I give many speeches at various places and this gets me some money which I use to take care of my children,” says the 70-year-old brilliant orator.
Till date, she has adopted and nurtured over 1200 orphans and woman who were blatantly ignored by the society. They fondly call her ‘Maai’. She helps them get education, gets them married and supports them to settle down in life. Many of her adopted children are now lawyers and doctors. Today, her biological daughter and some of her adopted children are running orphanages of their own. She uses all the money she receives through charity in buying land, constructing homes and providing education for children
At the age of 80, her husband came back to her apologetically. She accepted him as her child stating she is only a mother now! If you visit her ashram, she very affectionately introduces him as her oldest child! In person, she comes across as a powerhouse of energy and inspiration, with absolutely no negative emotions or ill will for anybody.
Sindhutai continues to relentlessly work to shape the future of these orphans as she believes that a deprived child means a deprived nation. She travels from village to village to give lectures and earn money. “Bhashan dilyawar rashan milta,” (Bhashan hai to ration hai) says Sindhutai. “I share my experiences with people and tell them that I have learnt to live despite all odds, they must learn to live too”.
Sindhutai has deservedly received over 750 awards including one from various national and international organizations. She has founded numerous organizations across Maharashtra which provide education and shelter to thousands of orphans. A Marathi film “Mee Sindhutai Sapkal”, a biopic inspired by the true story of Sindhutai, was released in 2010. The film was nominated for its world premiere at the 54th London Film Festival
Sindhutai Sapkal deserves a grand salute for her perseverance and dedication to serve the humanity! The unusual life of Sindhutai is an inspiration for all of us. Even after facing so many hardships, she stood tall and made her way into everyone’s heart. She proved that if you are dedicated, nothing can stop you from changing the lives of thousands of people around you. We salute this brave lady and hope that the country gives birth to many such strong daughters and mothers.