Sindhutai Sapkal (70) affectionately called the ‘Mother of Orphans’, or ‘Mai’ is a social worker and activist known particularly for her work in raising orphaned children in India.
Hers is an inspirational story of an illiterate woman, with indomitable spirit, extraordinary courage and high intelligence, combined with street smartness. Behind her strong personality, many hidden emotions lurk, but nevertheless her face is stoic and oozes unusual sense of confidence. Her life has traversed in unimaginable ways, but she never trivialises her tragic and humiliating experiences.
Based in Hadapsar, Pune, her six organisations are spread in different cities like Pune, Saswad, Amravati, Wardha etc. Sindhutai has a registered NGO, named Savitribai Phule Girls’ Hostel under the Foundation, Vanvasi Gopalkrushna Shikshan Evam Kreeda Prasarak Mandal in Chikaldhara in Amravati. Through poverty, abjection and homelessness Sindhutai came across multitudes of hapless orphans and women, blatantly ignored by the society. A deprived child to her meant a deprived nation. She recalls, “I know the pain of being alone, unwanted and being abandoned. So, I’m proud that I can be a mother to some needy child”.
Life and hunger taught her courage, she admits in a matter-of-fact tone. Many of the children adopted are today well-educated lawyers and doctors, and some, including her biological daughter, are running their own independent orphanages. The children here are not given up for adoption. Interestingly, all boys in her orphanage use Sapkal as their surnames while girls use Sathe (her maiden surname) as their surnames. Abandoned women and senior citizens are also included. A cow shelter, Gopika Gai Rakshan Kendra saves old cows being sent to slaughter houses.
Born on 14th November 1948 in Maharashtra’s Wardha district as an unwanted child, she was referred to as chindhi (Marathi for “torn piece of cloth”). However, her father Abhiman, sent her to school under the pretext of cattle grazing, where she would use the leaf of the bharadi tree as a slate, due to her family’s limited financial resources.
Abject poverty, family responsibilities and an early marriage forced her to quit formal education after the 4th standard. At age 10, married to an illiterate cowherd Shrihari Sapkal, 20 years her senior, she faced a difficult life. He would beat her up if he ever caught her with a book or a newspaper. By the age of 20, she had borne three sons and when nine-months pregnant, was beaten badly and left to die by her husband on suspicion of infidelity.
Tormented and tortured, Sindhutai with her world falling apart, and in great pain, gave birth to a baby girl Mamata, in a cowshed outside her house. Nudged awake by a cow standing over her, protecting them, she realised how strong the connection between a mother and child is. She recalls, she cut her umbilical cord with a sharp edged stone striking it 18 times before it got severed and then passed out.
With no hope left, she walked several kilometres to her mother’s place who refused to shelter her. Returning she saw a dead body burning in a crematorium. The last rites over, the relatives of the departed had gone but had left some flour as a part of the last rituals.
Sindhu took it, kneaded it and prepared a bhakri (roti) and baked it on the fire which was still consuming the dead body. Fearing being picked up by men at night she generally spent the night at cemeteries and people started calling her a ghost!
“My hunger taught me to sing bhajans”, she says and she begged to feed herself and her baby in trains and temples, laughing and clapping one moment and wiping tears of anguish at another.
Her faith in God shattered, she attempted suicide several times. One such night, she had received a lot of rotis for her singing, and decided to eat a hearty meal and then end a life she was growing weary of. She heard an old beggar moaning in pain and mumbling about dying. She had fed him her simple meal and it gave her a sense of satisfaction and purpose and wiped off all thoughts of suicide from her mind. She realised that there were so many Adivasi children abandoned by their parents. Initially a source of livelihood, it became the mission of her life to adopt many, to help them live life with dignity and gradually and became a movement.
She even entrusted her biological child to the Shrimant Dagdu Sheth Halwai Trust, Pune, to eliminate the feeling of partiality between her daughter and the adopted ones. Forty years of continuous social work later, she has nurtured over 1,050 orphaned children, and today, she has a grand family of 207 sons-in-law, 36 daughters-in-law, three sons and a daughter and over a thousand grandchildren!
Conferred a Doctorate in Literature by the D.Y Patil Institute of Technology and Research in 2016, she has received 273 awards from various national and international organisations. They include Nari Shakti Puraskar award 2017, Social Worker of the Year award from Wockhardt Foundation 2016, the Ahmadiyya Peace Prize 2014, first recipient of the prestigious national award for Iconic Mother Mother Teresa Award for Social Justice 2013, Real Heroes Awards, given by CNN-IBN and Reliance Foundation 2012, Ahilyabai Holkar Award, given by the Government of Maharashtra to social workers in the field of women and child welfare 2010, Women of the Year Award, given by daily Marathi newspaper Loksatta 2008, etc.
Her book, Mi Vanvasi, is incidentally being taught in the 10th standard classes in Karnataka schools.
A biopic in Marathi Mee Sindhutai Sapkal directed by actor-director-writer Anant Mahadevan inspired by her true story was selected for the 54th London Film Festival world premiere. The opening film of the Panorama section at IFFI, Goa, 2010; it also won 4 National Film Awards for special jury, best male playback and best screenplay.
Mahadevan recalls, “Her life seemed so unreal and shocked the wits out of me. Even for cinema, her life was so full of melodrama which I decided to tone down.” He adds, “She has changed my life. Today she is mai (mother) to me and I am her bala (child). 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”.
For the children in all her six orphanages in Maharashtra, Sindhutai is the ‘Mai’ they never had. In each there is a lamp that the children keep lit all through the day, believing that as long as the flame is flickering, their mother is well. She keeps her wards not only till they attain 18 years, but till they get married and settle in life.
Instead of taking financial help from anyone, she gives powerful and inspiring speeches, using her good communication skills and oratory and at the end of her speeches, loosens her sari pallu and asks for alms. She says, “Bhashan hai to ration hai.” Her work is still not officially recognised, nor are her orphanages provided any grants by the government. Totally backed and funded by private donations, she remains undeterred. She says, “I used to beg earlier to fulfil the needs of my children and I will continue to do so.”
Sindhutai never despised her husband, who caused her so much pain. Instead, she was grateful to him for his actions helped her become responsible in life. At the age of 80, when he apologised and came back to her, she made her peace, but accepted him only as her child and didn’t give him the status of a spouse, stating she was only a mother now and proudly introduced him as her oldest child.
When he passed away at 92, she stated “With the demise of Shrihari, I feel that my most dangerous child has left us. Sadly, till his death, he refused to accept his daughter as his own.”
“A mother can never be defeated. A woman can never be defeated. But she needs to keep her heart strong and learn to forgive,” she says.