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A hero without a cape

 

“Chhote chhote sankatse mat daro, bus chalte raho, sankatse dosti karna seekh lo.”

This thought of Sindhutai Sapkal made a great impact on me.  I have always wanted to meet this amazing personality from the time I read about her decades ago. I am not quite sure how many people know about this person, as she is a person who does not publicize her achievements.

We in India celebrate 14th November as Children’s Day, and what better way to celebrate this than spend some time in the company of this lady – ‘Maai’ as she is fondly called by children and everyone who knows her.  She has just been conferred the prestigious Padma Shri award for her humanitarian work. It was a wonderful coincidence that 14th November also happens to be her birthday, so we were happy to have chosen the day to visit her orphanage and meet her.

Sindhutai’s life has been portrayed in a film; books have been written on her but they do no justice to the person in reality. She is just the same, simple lady with a nauvaari saree wrapped around her, no pride, frills, a plain-speaking woman who though uneducated can recite Shayari at the drop of a hat, can keep you entranced with her simplicity, her oratory. She has a pithy reply ready for every question asked.

When I had read articles on the hardships that she faced as a young girl, it seemed unreal. Today when I met her and she recounted the story, I was in tears at the struggle, the hardships that she faced, the positivity she still keeps, in spite of all the bad experiences she has had in her life.

Her life began as a young girl who wanted to study but was married off at the age of 10 to a 30-year old man, who abused her and abandoned her when she was pregnant.  She was a poor, young, hungry, helpless, 20-year old standing in the rain on the outskirts of the village wondering how to survive. She gave birth to her daughter Mamata in a cow shelter.  She begged on railway stations to feed herself and spent her nights at a crematorium, at times roasting bhakris on burning pyres.  She saw many children on the railway platforms begging like her.  In the dire situation that she was, which individual would ever think of doing something for other human beings?  But that is what she decided. She adopted her first child and raised the orphan boy as her own. She decided to work for the upliftment of the orphans, and in order to devote her undivided attention and energy to the adopted children, she decided to keep her own daughter away in Pune with the Dagdusheth Halwai Trust school (the trust graciously accepted her request and decided to bear the expenses).  She adopted many abandoned orphans, educated them, and helped them survive, stand on their feet. She now has a large family comprising of 1500 children and grandchildren. The children who have been brought up by her have kept her spirit and tradition alive by lending a helping hand in adopting more children and managing new orphanages.

The orphanage in Manjari near Hadapsar – ‘Sanmati Bal Niketan’ is about 25 km from Baner. It has about 45 children at present. The orphanage has basic facilities for the boys, there are bunk beds, some cupboards, and bathrooms. There is a kitchen and canteen. I was deeply touched by the simplicity of the place and wondered at our greed for more and more. The boys who showed us around were very polite and courteous.

There are seven more orphanages under Sindhutai’s wings including Mamata Bal Sadan at Saswad which was her first one, and the others at Shirur, Wardha, and Chikhaldara in Amravati district. A cow shelter to protect cows from slaughterhouses is also being taken care of by one of her adopted sons. Her daughter Mamata is carrying the torch for Sindhutai’s work. We asked Mamata about how she had felt at being away from her own mother. Mamata replied simply that Mai was the mother of everyone, so it did not matter.

Today a number of dignitaries walked in to wish ‘Mai’ on her birthday and congratulated her on receiving the Padma Shri.  Mai was equally polite, sweet to all no matter who.  She has a habit of touching your face just like your mother, no wonder she is called “Mai’ by one and all.  I wondered about how they manage the finances.  Mai thanks God for giving her the gift of oratory and uses her skill to earn money to feed these children. Neither the government nor the corporators or politicians lift a finger to help.  People who genuinely care and love her for the work that she does, help out by donating food, clothes, money. Sindhutai believes that you have two hands – one to help yourself and the other to help others.

As we sat there and watched her interact with people, I felt inspired.  For the past six months, due to some physical ailments, I was feeling distressed.  Life was feeling worthless.  But meeting ‘Mai’ helped me to look at things in a different way.  What Mai had suffered and overcome was a revelation.  In spite of her own hardships, she became a beacon of hope for many.  Today I felt truly blessed to meet this wonderful woman in person.

“All the world is full of suffering.  It is also full of overcoming.”  – Helen Keller.

Sindhutai Sapkal is a living example of Helen Keller’s famous saying.

(Address of Sanmati Bal Niketan : A.M.College Road, Belhekar Vasti, Manjari Budruk, near Vasantdada Sugar Institute, Pune – 412307.  (M) 9326535224,  9371074256.)

 

-Jyotee Deshpande

 

 

 

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