Sindhutai Sapkal has adopted over 1200 orphaned and abandoned children over the last 42 years. She still travels from place to place sharing her life’s tragic story. At the end of her speeches, she spreads the loose end of her sari and asks for alms to feed and educate her children. A recipient of over 750 awards, she has still not received any government grant, says Vidyottama Sharma
She was nine months pregnant when her abusive husband, 20 years older than her, kicked her out of the house and into a cow shed in Navargaon village of Wardha District. He expected her to be kicked by the cows, just like he himself had done a few minutes ago. The 20-year-old battered woman, already a mother of three, fell unconscious on the ground. When she regained consciousness, she realized she had already given birth to her baby girl. She also saw a cow standing over her and her newborn baby, sheltering and protecting them. The scared woman picked up a sharp-edged stone and hit the umbilical cord 16 times to finally snap it from her body. Then, she mustered courage and walked a few kilometers to her mother’s home, her just-born infant in her arms. But her mother showed her the door. She was, after all, ‘chindi’ (a torn piece of cloth) to her mother right since her birth.
Sindhu, who was to later become the Sindhutai or maai or the mother of the orphans to the world, took shelter in a crematorium that night where a dead body was being burnt. Unable to control her and her daughter’s hunger pangs, she picked up the flour offered to the corpse (pin-daan) after its relatives had left, kneaded it and baked a bhakri (chapatti) over the fire of the burning corpse and ate. Life was happening to her in ways she had not imagined.
She traveled a lot in trains, singing and begging, and shared the food she received with those who had nothing to eat. “I used to be scared of men when I would alight from the trains late at night. I was only 20. I often contemplated committing suicide,” says Sindhutai. “But one night, extremely tired, I got down from the train and sat in a corner, a very big roti in my hand. I heard a beggar cry and say that he was sick, dying and had no one. He wanted someone to put two drops of water in his mouth. I walked up to him and said, ‘Baba, why die with just water? I have a roti, you eat it, drink water and then die’.” She fed him and gave him water. The beggar survived. “He did not die! And that set me thinking: ‘If a little help from me could save his life, why do I want to die? I can help people survive’. That day changed my life”.
Scared of being picked up by men in the dark of the night, Sindhutai would often spend the night at cemeteries. “People were afraid to come there at night and sometimes, people who saw me would scream ‘bhoot bhoot’ and run away . Their fear would keep me safe. Zindabad shmashan”, she says.
One day, she found a 16-year-old orphaned boy, Deepak, on a railway track. “I felt my daughter too could have met such a fate, and took him under my care. He became my first son,” she says. Before she knew, Sindhutai had become the mother of 16 adopted children. Her brood was growing. So, after three years, she gave away her own daughter, Mamta to Shrimant Dagaduseth Halwai Trust of Pune. “I feared my children would feel that I loved my own daughter more than them,” she says.
A winner of over 750 awards including one from the President, Shri Pranab Mukherjee, Sindhutai continues to travel from village to village to give lectures and earn money. “Bhashan hai to ration hai,” says the 69-year-old brilliant orator. “I share my experiences with people and tell them that I have learnt to live despite all odds, they must learn to live too. After the speech, I spread the pallu of my sari and beg for alms to feed and educate my children. Till date, the government has not given me any grant. Even when I was felicitated by the present government, they took from me in writing that I would not ask for a grant if I was to be felicitated”.
After 15 years of homelessness, her children got the first roof on their head when a few tribals Sindhutai had helped, gave her a part of their land to live on.When people began asking her for receipts for the money they gave her, Sindhutai realized she had to register an NGO, something she was unaware of. So she formed and registered her first NGO, Savitribai Phule Girls’ Hostel under the Foundation, Vanvasi Gopalkrushna Shikshan Evam Kreeda Prasarak Mandal in Chikaldhara in Amravati. Today, her children run four NGOs and Deepak, her first adopted son who refused to leave her on growing up, has named the second one, Mamta Bal Bhawan, after her daughter, Mamta. Sindhutai has also formed a cow shelter, Gopika Gai Rakshan Kendra to save old cows that are being sent to the slaughter houses. She brings them to the shelter and cares for them.
“Even today, the food, education and medical expenses of the children – all depend on maai’s speeches. The day she stops speaking, money will stop coming in,” says Law graduate Vinay Sindhutai Sapkal.“We have never seen God but for us maai is God. I was a one-and-a-half year old child when maai saw me lying on the dead body of my mother at a railway station. She adopted me and performed the final rites of my mother, a stranger to her. She paid for my studies and got me married to a software engineer last year,” he adds. Unlike in other orphanages, Sindhutai’s children stay with her till they get a job and get married. A few handle her work too.
Filmmaker Ananth Mahadevan’s film on her life, Mee Sindhutai Sapkal, received four national awards. “Her life seemed so unreal,” says Mahadevan. “A cow standing over her newborn to shelter her in the cow shed, and then she going to a graveyard and eating the offering made to the corpse by cooking it over funeral pyre shocked the wits out of me. Even for cinema, her life was so full of melodrama that I decided to tone it down. It was difficult to decide what to keep in the film and what not to,” he adds.
Says Sindhutai, “Today, I have 282 sons-in-law and 49 daughters-in-law. In these 42 years, I have raised 1200 children”. When you ask Sindhutai where did she get her courage from, she says in a matter-of-fact tone: “From life beta. And from hunger. Hunger gave me courage”.
Maan, tujhe salaam
Two years ago, Sindhutai’s in-laws and her maternal family felicitated her. “I was happy that day. My husband wept throughout the ceremony. I told him: I became big because you left me. Since you are an orphan today, you can come to my ashram – but not as a husband. That is my children’s home and you will come there as my child”. Sindhutai now introduces him to people as her oldest son.
She changed my life: Ananth Mahadevan
“She has changed my life. Today she is maai to me and I am her bala. It is ironical that after making ten Hindi films, that one Marathi film you make gets you four national awards. Somewhere our lives were destined to meet”.