Kalpana Saroj receiving the Padma Shree from President Pranab Mukherjee. Image Credit: Kalpana Saroj

New Delhi: Born into a Dalit (low caste) family, she was bullied at school, forced into marriage at the age of 12, tortured physically and mentally at her in-laws’ house and tried to take her own life. But when Kalpana Saroj survived, she decided to make the best of it.

“I had got a second chance at life and lived to tell the tale,” she joked. “Today, people consider me an inspiration. But I would attribute my success to a lot of decisions taken at the right time, the determination to abide by certain principles and strokes of luck,” she added.

Born in Vidarbha, a small village in Maharashtra, Kalpana, 55, moved to Mumbai after marriage. When she first came to the city, she had no idea what the city held for her, but today, she is a multi-millionaire at the helm of Kamani Industries and two city roads are named after her company.

The representation and awards achieved by her include: World Peace Committee (NGO), New York; International Peace Representative (Recognized by the United Nations); Honour given by the Mayor of the London Municipal Corporation, and the Padma Shree by the Government of India in 2013.

She shares her life’s journey with Gulf News.

Gulf News: Having undergone life’s upheavals, what childhood memories come to your mind?

Kalpana Saroj: As a child, when I would go out to play with friends they made fun of me. When I visited their homes, parents admonished their children to stay away from me. In school, the teacher would make me sit away from other students and prevented me from participating in sports or cultural activities. Just as I was beginning to understand the crudity behind the treatment meted out to me for being a Dalit, at the age of 12, when I was a Grade 7 pupil, I was married to a 22-year-old boy. The first shock came when I found myself living in a slum. On top of that, I was forced to cook for a family comprising more than a dozen members. I would be ordered to clean the house, with no one to help and often hit, kicked and punched on the slightest pretext, as someone or the other [in the family] would find fault in the food I cooked. Apart from physical and mental abuse, they would starve me and my husband never supported me.

Didn’t your parents come to your rescue?

Six months after marriage, my father visited me and was horrified to see my state. He said I looked like a walking corpse! Instantly, he took me back home. But that did not end my trauma. I now had to endure the taunts of my own relatives and villagers. The only reprieve I had got was from the violent relationship, but leaving a husband was widely frowned upon in our community. Girls were considered a burden, only to be cast off at marriage. People would whisper within my hearing that I should kill myself rather than bring shame to the village. For more than a year, I ignored the nasty comments and learnt tailoring to earn a living. Even though I had gained financial independence, it was very painful to see my father fighting the social pressures and being ridiculed for the step he had taken for my sake. Distressed, one day, I consumed a bottle of insecticide to end my life. Rushed to a local hospital in critical state, I survived.

So, you decided to live and prove your worth?

No, it wasn’t that easy! But yes, I resolved to live life on my own terms. At 16, I convinced my parents and moved to Mumbai to stay with an uncle and started working as a tailor. Unlike in the village, I found that in Mumbai, caste did not matter to anyone. I worked hard and stitched clothes and soon had regular clients. As a result, my income rose. But my father, who worked as a police constable, lost his job. Being the eldest of six children, I considered it my duty to take care of the family. I had been saving money for over two years and decided to rent a small room at Rs40 (Dh2.1) a month so that my parents and siblings could join me in Mumbai. Even though we survived on a tight budget, what mattered most was that we were together.

In a way, Mumbai gave you a second chance?

That’s right. But I did not rest on the tailoring business alone and got into furniture trade in Ulhasnagar, about 50km from Mumbai. Exploring various government schemes, I applied for a loan amounting to Rs50,000 and ventured into furniture production. I hired a couple of carpenters and we would make imitations of high-end furniture and sell at cheap prices. This gained us huge clientele. I became an entrepreneur and learnt the ropes of the business and made good money.

You are known to have created awareness about government schemes?

Having seen a troubled life, I did not want other children to go through traumas and started a small NGO where we aggregated and distributed knowledge about various government schemes and loans available to people. We would let children know they could do wonderful things with their life if only they cared to find out how. This guidance led many to start their own small enterprises and we assisted them in getting loans.

Other than hard work, do you believe in fate?

Oh yes, because opportunity knocked on my door many times. I received an offer to buy a land for a pittance, only because the owner was locked in litigation and was in dire need of hard cash. I borrowed money from several sources and acquired the land. But for the next two-and-a-half years I was in and out of the courts to get all litigations cleared up. By then, property prices had shot up and I ventured into partnership with a real estate developer and constructed a commercial-cum-residential building. I guess, fate had even bigger plans for me. The owner of Kamani Industries, Ramjibhai Kamani, had died in the late 1980s, without preparing a will for his properties. When dispute broke out among his three sons, the Workers Union went to the court demanding that ownership be transferred to the workers, since it was felt the owners were acting against the interests of the company. Kamani became the first firm in India where the Supreme Court passed the ownership rights from the legal heirs to the Workers Union. Just when people thought a new revolution had taken place in the country, the new arrangement brought new issues. The company had 3,000 owners!

So, that led to you becoming an entrepreneur?

Yes, even though banks disbursed loans and the government provided Kamani with funds and benefits, without the expertise to utilise the money, ego clashes broke out among workers. Once again the matter reached the court. By then, the firm had incurred huge losses. And since I had built a good reputation and business acumen, workers of Kamani requested me to take over the company and save their only means of livelihood. Though having no knowledge of running such a huge enterprise, the thought of numerous starving families compelled me to give in. After several setbacks, we managed to turn things around.

But how come the name Kamani was retained?

The name had a good standing despite the downs, and I had immense respect for the owner. So, it never occurred to me to alter the name. Ramjibhai had commenced operations of Kamani Industries with nation’s growth as prime concern. I share his vision.