“Never get scared of the dark night. Wait for that bright day to come soon, it will surely be yours.” – Sindhutai Sapkal.
Sindhutai Sapkal, fondly known as Mai (mother in Marathi language), was a mother to almost 1050 orphaned children who then gave her a family of 207 sons and 36 daughter-in-laws. She fought like a lioness to beat the poverty that she was thrown into by her family. She struggled to earn a living not only for herself and her daughter, but also for her many adopted orphans. She took care of them till they became independent and capable to manage their life. With her struggle she soon found her mission of life for which she was called as Mai who would caress the orphans and take care of them like any mother would do.
Sindhutai Sapkal was born to Abhiman Sathye, a cow herder on 14th November, 1948 in Pimpri Meghe village, Wardha district, Maharashtra, India. Being an unwanted child, she was referred as Chindhi (torn piece of cloth in Marathi). Her father strongly believed that girls should be empowered with education. To support this will, he accepted the opposition of his wife too. But young Sindhutai’s mother belonged to the old school thought that girls should be married early, should manage the household chores and not waste their time in going to school. Her desperation to get rid of her daughter drove her to get the little Sindhutai married to Shrihari Sapkal, who was 20 years elder to her daughter. Sindhutai was just 12 years old and her husband, 32, when she got married. She was a bright student in the school but due to her early marriage, she got to study only till the fourth grade. By 20 years of age, Sindhutai was a mother of 3 children.
Sindhutai’s yearning for studying made her read poetries and newspapers escaping the angry looks of her husband. Shrihari would discover this and would mock and torment his wife. Still, young Sindhutai never gave up. Her father was her inspiration and hope to survive an abusive marriage. But he too died leaving her all alone to fight the miseries that any woman faces in an abusive marriage. In Navargaon, her husband’s village, the cow dung collected by the poor villagers would fetch them an amount when sold. But the forest officials would exploit the villagers by snatching their cow dung without any returns. Sindhutai led this agitation which brought the district collector to visit the village to resolve the dispute. After investigation he disapproved the mismanagement and stood with the villagers. This annoyed the strongman of the village who was against the agitation. This wealthy strongman could not accept his defeated ego to the hands of a poor woman, Sindhutai. He decided to avenge this insult by instigating Shrihari to abandon her. Sindhutai was nine months pregnant with her third child when Shrihari threw her out of his house. She was left to stay in a cowshed without anyone to take care of her in the most delicate phase of her life. Sindhutai, helpless and heavily pregnant could not stand this oppression. She delivered a girl in the cowshed all by herself. Thus, began the rough journey of Sindhutai and her daughter Mamta.
The lonely Sindhutai with her daughter went to her mother for shelter. Her mother too closed the doors on her face saying that she was abandoned by her husband and had no place for a daughter like her. There was no hope of survival. Hunger was making her weak and the miseries of being homeless left her with nothing but disappointment. Entire day she would roam with the baby in her arms. At night, she would take refuge in a crematorium to protect herself and her child. Hunger and being homeless were making Sindhutai very weak. She noticed the rice dumplings offered as an offering to the departed soul when the funeral pyre was lit. Hunger drove her to roasting Bhakri (flat-bread made out of millets) made from the rice dumplings on the burning pyre. With the half-roasted Bhakri she would fill her stomach. Her undaunted spirit to breathe for her daughter and herself made her believe that misery is not permanent, there is always a ray of light at the end of the dark tunnel.
Sindhutai would beg on the railway station during the day with her daughter. She would sing hymns and people would give her money for her sweet voice. While begging Sindhutai noticed like her daughter there were many children who were orphans and were hungry for food, homeless and abandoned by their families. She begged vigorously for these children to feed them. She decided to take care of these children as her own and thus the journey of “Mai (mother in Marathi)” began. After a few years, Sindhutai decided to donate her biological daughter, Mamta, to the trust Shrimant Dagdu Sheth Halwai in Pune to eliminate the feeling of partiality between her biological child and her adopted children.
In her continued tussle to take care of her orphaned children, Sindhutai found herself amidst an agitation for the rights of the tribal villagers. The agitation was of the forest ministry v/s the tribal, who were asked to evacuate their village for a tiger conservation project. Their cows were impounded by the authorities that led the poor tribal with no means to survive. The minister of forestry acknowledged the efforts of the agitation led by Sindhutai and they were compensated for their loss.
Sindhutai had now evolved as a social reformer and the rightful mother to her orphaned children. During this time, she adopted a young boy and named him Deepak who was abandoned by his family. Deepak escorted her and would support his Mai to keep up the good work. Sindhutai would get aid from people that helped her feed her children. This went on for many years and thus, Sindhutai who was once disowned by her family found herself as a mother of many children and a strong supportive hand too many people who were struggling for their rights.
Sindhutai in her journey from a cowshed, to a crematorium, to a railway platform earned many helping hands and with the aids received she built an orphanage for her children. Today her children are lawyers, MBA’s, doctors and engineers in their careers. Sindhutai’s husband when turned 80, came to live with her. She accepted him as a son and not as a husband. She said she is no more a wife to him but a mother to everyone. Sindhutai’s daughter Mamta, acquired good education and today monitors the orphanages that Sindhutai started. Deepak, too, is proud to carry this mantle which his Mai had started. Today, there are 4 ashrams, 1 in Pune and 3 in Wardha started by Sindhutai. She has been honored with more than 700 awards for her work. She used the award money to buy land to make a home for the orphaned children.
Sindhutai was awarded the Padma Shri award in 2021 and Nari Shakti Puraskar in 2017 by the President of India. In 2016, she was conferred a Doctorate in Literature by the DY.Patil institute of technology and research.
On 4th January 2022, Sindhutai, age 73, suffered a heart attack and bid us all a good bye. Sindhutai’s life story is a testimony where she challenged her destiny, fought oddities and evolved as a true fighter.
“You have two hands, one to help yourself and the other to help others.” – Sindhutai Sapkal