By Jamuna Rangachari
Married at 10 and abandoned by all at 20, Sindhutai Sapkal converted her begging bowl into a cornucopia that brought food, love and shelter to hundreds of abandoned children, says Jamuna Rangachari
A hero remains a hero even in the most dire straits. The undying spirit shines through and spreads light even when crushed by challenges, just like flowers emit fragrance and fruits give juice when crushed. People like Sindhutai continue to give love and compassion even when faced with scorn and rejection. Sindhutai’s story is the stuff legends are made of.
“I have led a complete life and am a lawyer today all because of Sindutai,” said Vinay Sindhutai Sapkal.
“She picked me up when I was just one-and-a-half months-old and my mother had died at the railway station,” he adds, never considering himself an orphan since he was so well looked after by Sindhutai. He was always encouraged to study and pursue his passion by Sindhu, whose life is both an inspiration and beacon to him.
Sindhu’s nickname was “chindi” which means torn cloth in Marathi. She was an unwanted child whose father was an illiterate cowherdman in Pimpri. Though she did go to school she faced a lot of trouble due to extreme poverty. “There was no money to even buy a slate,” she recalls, and remembers practising writing on the thick, palm-sized leaves of the bharadi tree, using its thorns to write.
Her education stopped early as she got married at the age of 10 to Shrihari Sapkal, alias Harbaji, who was 30. She went with him and bore him three sons.
Even though young she was always conscious of injustice. The village women in Navargaon where she lived would collect cow dung but it would be auctioned to the landlords who would pocket the cash. She could see that the poor were being denied even the bare minimum they deserved. She asked the forest department to pay the village women for the cow dung they collected. Fortunately, they agreed seeing that the practise was indeed exploitative.
She won this initial battle but faced further troubles. The landlord who had lost his money, vengefully spread a rumour that the child she was carrying, her fourth pregnancy, was his. Her husband beat her up and threw her out of the home. She was not accepted even by her parents. In fact, her mother asked her to go and die on the railway line.
She gave birth in a cowshed cutting the umbilical cord with a sharp-edged cord lying nearby and started begging at railway platforms for food to look after her daughter, Mamata (motherly love – an apt name since Mamata was indeed Sindhu’s reason for living).
Sindhu started begging for herself and her daughter. One day, she was so exhausted that she almost decided to commit suicide with her two-year-old tied to her stomach. She was standing under a tree and suddenly its branch caught her attention. She noticed that it was badly axed but it was still giving her shade. She felt greatly inspired and motivated. She thought, “If this small branch can continue to give, even in its damaged state, why can’t I, a human being, rise to that level?”
She took a leaf from its life and decided to work towards taking care of people even worse off than her. At that time, a section of the Melghat jungles on the border of Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh had been earmarked for ‘Project Tiger.’ It meant people from 84 villages would have to be evacuated. A project officer had held 132 cows of the Koha tribals for three days and one of them even died. She decided to take up the cause of the adivasis and fought for the rehabilitation of the villagers. She met Chhedilal Gupta, then minister of forests. He agreed that the villagers ought not to be displaced before the government had made appropriate arrangements at alternative sites.
At that time, when Prime Minister Indira Gandhi arrived to inaugurate the project, Sindhutai showed her photographs of an adivasi who had lost his eyes to a wild bear. “I told her that the forest department paid compensation if a cow or a hen was killed by a wild animal, so why should a human being not be compensated for loss of limb or life? The Prime Minister immediately ordered compensation.”
Soon, she saw the plight of orphaned and abandoned adivasi children and made it her mission to give them a better life. She started begging not just for herself but for all orphaned children. People did indeed respond, slowly but surely. She soldiered on and opened many institutes for their welfare. To eliminate the feeling of partiality among children she gave away her biological daughter to Shrimant Dagdu Sheth Halwai, in Pune. Gradually, she decided to adopt every child who came across as an orphan and, over a period of time, she emerged as the ‘mother of orphans.’
Till date she has adopted and nurtured over 1,400 orphans, helped them get an education, got them married and supported them to settle down in life. She is fondly referred to as “mai” (mother). The children are not given up for adoption. She treats them as her own and some of them are now lawyers, doctors and engineers.
Till date she has been honoured with 272 awards. She has used all that money to buy land to make a home for the orphans whom she considers her children. Her children are well educated in various areas.
“I had no one with me, everyone abandoned me. I knew the pain of being alone and unwanted. I didn’t want anyone to go through the same thing,” she says feelingly. Like all mothers, she takes immense pride in their achievements.
The mother of all
Many years after being abandoned by her husband, he came back to her and apologised for his harsh deeds. She forgave him and accepted him as her eldest child. “I didn’t forgive him as a woman, but as a mother, because a mother is all that is left in me,” she says. Her daughter Mamata is now managing one of her centres and one of her sons is also involved in her work.
In 2010, Anant Mahadevan along with Sanjay Pawar made a Marathi feature film called Me Sindhutai Sapkal on her life story which received the National Award for the best screenplay and dialogues and a Special Jury award in these two categories as well.
She began her new life asking for help with a begging bowl. Today, that begging bowl overflows with love and care for the orphaned and loveless.
About the author : Jamuna Rangachari writes and manages the websites of Life Positive. She has authored three books for children, compiled and interpreted Teaching Stories-I and II for Life Positive. and published a book through Hay House
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