Dubai: Her mother nicknamed her ‘chindi’. It means a piece of rag.
It was an acknowledgement of the girl’s status in the family.
Born to a cattle-grazing couple in the town of Wardha in the state of Maharahstra, India, the little girl’s father however discovered a few vestiges of love in his heart for his hapless daughter, and under the pretext of sending her out to graze the goats, enrolled her in a school at the age of five.
But that privilege was not to last long.
When she turned 10, she was married off to a man 20 years older to her. Fate had strapped her, with iron clamps on her hands and feet, on to the rollercoaster of life that would teach her to use every single survival skill she possessed to withstand its wild loops.
“My mother and many women of her times believed that it was a woman’s fate to work in the fields, bear children and cook for the household,” says Sindhutai Sapkal, 71, a humanitarian worker. Soft spoken and yet ebullient, with a warm disposition that mirrors maternal love, Sapkal carries the weight of her life story lightly.
She was in Dubai last week, with the support of one of her supporters Vishanti Kuatankar, to deliver a motivational talk at the Ajman Cultural Centre and raise funds for a home for malnourished children from the tribal belt of Maharashtra. Also known as Mai (mother), Sapkal has been looking after 1,500 orphans in Maharashtra since 1973 and subsequently running a few orphanages that she set up with the funds she raised from the string of awards that she was later conferred. Nicknamed ‘Mai’ (Mother), today she is a foster mother to an extended family that includes over 270 sons-in-law, over 40 daughters-in-law, and more than a 1,000 grandchildren. Many of the children she has adopted have gone on to become lawyers and doctors, and some, including her biological daughter, Mamta, are running their own independent orphanages. One of her adopted children, an academic today, even completed a PhD on Sapkal’s life. She is also a sought-after motivational speaker and gives TED talks. However, her journey to reach this land of recognition winds its way through some of the most treacherous terrain of human cruelty and humiliations.
The innocent child bride
A bride at the age of 10, Sapkal bore three sons by the age of 19, and when she was pregnant with her fourth child, she was assaulted by her husband who after having beaten her black and blue, threw her into the cowshed outside their home and let the cattle loose on her. Nearly trampled to death, fate intervened for Sapkal and her unborn when a bovine stood between her and the panicked cattle, offering her a respite that stemmed the life ebbing out of her.
That single moment taught her just how fragile yet unbreakable life can be. “It could hang by a thread and yet survive against all odds,” Sapkal says. “Here I was beaten black and blue and thrown into the cow shed, passed out, and when I came to, I saw that I had delivered my baby. I saw this cow standing protectively over me and my newborn, sheltering us, driving the other cows away. I cannot forget that moment.”
Now that she and her baby were still alive, the umbilical cord had to be severed. “I had no one to help me. So I grabbed a stone and hit the cord 16 times to sever it and finally succeeded. I soon heard the lusty cries of my baby. It was a life-changing moment.”
Once again, the sheer tenacity of the life force stunned Sapkal as she lay exhausted and yet deeply grateful for the protection she had received.
“I realised that my baby had to be nurtured at all costs. My in-laws had come to the shed and were throwing stones at me to drive me away from the premises, so protecting the baby with my sari, I somehow made my way to the railway station,” she says.
The easy way out
She reached the railway station with thoughts of suicide clouding her mind but the sight of the destitute - beggars and orphans - on the railway platform made her realise that her grief was, in comparison, smaller. “I began begging on trains with my baby daughter to earn some money. And I realised that an incredible urge to feed and comfort orphans and beggars was taking root in me,” says Sapkal.
Soon, these unwanted people became her family and protected her. “I would beg through the day and return to the platform to provide for the children.”
But her survival skills had their weak spots. Suicidal thoughts continued to trouble her. And one day, when these thoughts were particularly strident, a beggar walked up to her. He was thirsty, racked with fever, on the edge of delirium and grasping for life. “He was crying out for someone to give him a few drops of water so that he could die in peace. It was the night I had decided that I was going to end my life and I was having a meal by myself, telling myself that it would be my last meal. When I heard him crying, I decided to not just give him water but also a few chapattis (Indian flat breads) I had with me. To my surprise, the beggar revived. Once again, I realised just how powerful life was and I decided that it was not worth trying to end my life,” says Sapkal.
Hunger is a teacher
But living meant experiencing hunger. “The pain of hunger was so intense that it taught me to find food at all costs. I used to spend a lot of time in Hindu burial grounds as it was the safest place for a young woman. No one dared come there because for fear of ghosts. One night, desperately hungry, I was roaming the place with my small daughter looking to find any scrap of food. I found some flour in an earthen pot that was a ritual offering to the deceased. I quickly added some water to the flour to make dough for two chapattis and cooked these over the dying embers of a funeral fire. Once again I realised just how extreme the power of survival is. Someone had died but they had left behind a warmth that helped me live on.”
The relentless onslaught of bitter experiences made Sapkal stronger but her resilience, she realised, was not an insurance cover for her daughter’s future. Her strength would keep them going but only just. So she decided to give her daughter, Mamta, up for adoption to a wealthy, childless couple who educated her while Sapkal returned to being the mother to thousands of orphans. “I realised that until I had my daughter with me, I would always be the stepmother to other children. I did not want them to feel any different.”
Mamta was able to enjoy a stable life with her adoptive parents and earned her Masters degree and soon, collaborated with her mother to start yet another orphanage.
As Sapkal’s fame spread through the villages and hamlets, the tribal populations of Maharashtra approached her. She fought for their rights and daily subsistence and got the government to rehabilitate 84 villages and protect the cattle of the poor people. “These people had given me shelter and food in my most difficult time. How could I have not helped them?” she says. The memory of the cow that gave her back her life has never left her mind as she works to improve the condition for stray cows in her hometown.
And the clouds parted….
In a bitter-sweet irony, Sapkal’s growing name and the respect for her humanitarian efforts soon came to the notice of her in-laws. The girl they had once scorned and pelted stones at was now a figure of admiration. “My own mother and my in-laws actually felicitated me with garlands. That was another turning point for me.”
But more irony was to come.
“One day, I encountered my husband in tattered clothes and in neglect. I was seeing him after many years and he had fallen on difficult days. He had tears in his eyes. I told him that my home was big and he could stay there along with my other children but not as a husband; only as another ward of mine.”
Life had come a full circle. Her husband agreed to move into her orphanage and lived to the ripe, and well-cared for, age of 90. “He passed away last year,” says Sapkal.
Captured for posterity
Sapkal’s journey of struggle and survival, is the kind of story that cinema remains hungry for and sure enough, a full-length, award-winning feature film in Marathi language, her mother tongue, was made on her life. In addition, she has also earned over 273 awards for her extraordinary efforts.
All the money she receives in recognition goes into making more homes for her adopted children. She has set up homes in Pune and Chikaldhara and has travelled to the US and the UK to raise funds.
Miles to go before I sleep….
At 71, Sapkal is brimming with energy and has more plans to help others. “To this day, I cannot eat much and always ensure my children have eaten before I do. I am not afraid of dying or wondering what will happen to my ‘children’. I know that the others who were able to emerge from the darkness will take over my work and ensure that no other child they encounter is left behind in that darkness.
“It is my last wish to build a home and hospital for malnourished children. People acknowledge orphans and there are grants for ophanages. But precious little is done for malnourishment which is the cause of high rate of infant mortality in tribal belts of Maharashtra. Many women in tribal belts are abandoned by their husbands and starve even while pregnant. Malnourishment of the unborn child begins in the womb. I want to give shelter to such women in my hospital and later in my home for another three months after delivery so that both mother and child are able to survive. This is my dream project now. This will be the legacy I leave behind.”