Once dreaded by the managements of temples, mausoleums and other places of worship for storming their sanctum sanctorum to give equal rights of worship to women, Maharashtras aggressive gender activist Trupti Desai has now donned a new, gentle role.
This time, she's virtually playing 'Cupid' for lovelorn but poor girls, barred by financial constraints from getting married, especially during the havoc wreaked by Covid-19 pandemic and lockdown of the past 16 months.
"When my teams were moving around helping deprived families all over Maharashtra during the pandemic, we learnt of many poor families facing problems of getting their daughters married," Desai, 36, who is President of the Bhumata Foundation, Pune, told IANS in a freewheeling chat.
One case from Gadchiroli was particularly disturbing, a 26-year-old girl with a minor eye defect, unable to get wedded, her parents were simple tribals and farm labourers earning barely Rs 80 daily, with a debt of Rs 10,000 on the family, with no help from any quarters in the Maoist-infested region.
After identifying her problems and similar others, Desai approached a Pune realtor, Yuvraj Dhamale Corp's leading lights - Yuvraj S. Dhamale and his wife Vaishnavi Dhamale.
"The Dhamales readily agreed to team up with Bhumata Foundation in this genuine social cause - the company would sponsor the basic wedding costs of the couples weaned through our huge network of field activists," Desai smiled.
Since January, the Bhumata Foundation & Yuvraj Dhamale Corp carefully picked around 10 such girls from Nanded, Parbhani, Latur, Amravati, Satara, Kolhapur and Gadchiroli, and provided them Rs 15,000 to cover the basic costs for an unostentatious marriage.
"We aim to help the really needy enter into wedlock with a simple ceremony, with a few invitees as per the pandemic norms, yet make it a memorable affair for all," Dhamale added, as they prepare for another 10 weddings over the next two to three weeks.
Instead of going around shopping for the wedding necessities for the beneficiaries, Desai and the Dhamales simply deposit Rs 15,000 into the families' bank accounts and leave them undisturbed to make their own purchases, preparations and the nuptials.
"For the Gadchiroli girl, we went a step ahead. We provided her Rs 15,000 for the wedding and also another Rs 10,000 to clear the family's loans... Their joy knew no bounds and now they lead a happy life, free of the debt burden," Desai said.
Among the pairs married off so far include one handicapped girl, one with the defective eye, four Muslim couples, and one orphan, for whom the local Bhumata Foundation office-bearers happily performed the auspicious 'Kanya Daan'.
To a question on what she liked to do more - storming places of worship or arranging marriages for girls from the most deprived sections of society - the stormy petrel pauses before replying.
"The agitation in temples or mausoleums was for equal worship rights for women, which was denied to them for centuries. However, helping these economically weak girls to get married to boys of their choice is probably a higher kind of 'punya' (divine service)... But we shall continue to work on both fronts," she said softly.
Adored and blessed by the poor families who approach her for the marital bliss of their children now, the same Desai was considered a veritable vamp by managements of places of worship, priests, clerics and power-wielders in other fields.
A streetfighter since her teens, she catapulted to national fame with her successful crusades in the Shani Shingnapure Temple of Ahmednagar (2015), Trimbakeshwar Temple of Nashik and Mahalaxmi Temple in Kolhapur, besides the Haji Ali Dargah of Mumbai (2016), the Sabarimala Temple in Kerala (2017-2018), and targeting renowned preacher Indurikar Maharaj for his objectionable anti-women utterances (2020).
"At one stage in the past decade, the mere mention of a proposed agitation by 'Trupti Tai' spelt terror and smaller places of worship would scamper to pull up their shutters voluntarily, welcoming all women!" grinned her proud businessman husband, Prashant Desai.
Desai also led the huge agitation to help a majority of the small-medium depositors recover their dues from the scam-hit Ajit Cooperative Bank, Pune in 2007, campaigns to oppose female foeticide rampant in some parts of the state and country, and anti-corruption movements.
Though heckled, threatened with rape and bodily harm, assaulted several times and with bouts in the ICU, she relentlessly continues her movements, while assuring she is a "non-political and non-partisan" women's rights activist.