Endearingly named the ‘Mother of Orphans’ for parenting more than 1,400 children, 71-year-old Sindhutai Sapkal now has a grand extended family of 207 sons-in-law, 36 daughters-in-law, and thousands of grandchildren.
Sindhutai is Mai (mother in Marathi) to the whole world, for in her bosom she carries the unconditional love of divine mother, and has forgiven all, including her husband, in-laws, and village elders, who literally battered her when she was a young woman. Her husband in a fit of rage, chased her out of the house when she was nine-months pregnant and battered her with stones, but he now lives in her ashram, like one of her numerous children.
Laughing in good humour in the special Karmvir episode of the quiz show, Kaun Banega Crorepati (KBC) hosted by Amitabh Bachchan on August 23, 2019, she said that she had forgiven her husband and accepted him back into her life, but on the condition that they would no longer be husband and wife. He lives in the ashram as her child, like the rest, she laughed. Her husband returned to her a few years ago, when he turned 80. When people visit her ashram, she affectionately introduces him as her oldest child.
On the KBC show, when Amitabh asked her why she always wore pink saris, the audience was in splits when she replied, “Zindagi mein itna kala dekha hai, ab todisi gulabi honay do (I have seen so much darkness in life, now let there be some pink).”
On the show, she recited a poem about how she is there for anyone who has no one in this world. She said, “Tumhare aansu me tumhari zindagi dekho beta, rote rote hasna seekho beta, kyunki maa hu aur tumhare saath hu. (See your life through your tears, smile after crying because I am a mother and I am with you).”
Born on 14 November 1948 in a cattle grazing family in Maharashtra’s Wardha district, she was married off at 10 years to a man more than double her age. Being a girl-child she was treated as an unwanted child and derogatorily called Chindi, torn piece of cloth in Marathi. She was taunted and beaten by her husband, despite bearing three sons.
As her husband chased her out of the home during her pregnancy, her daughter was born in a cow shelter; and with no midwife around, she cut the umbilical cord with a stone. She then trudged to her parents’ home a few kilometres away, but her mother refused to give her shelter.
She then roamed the streets in a daze and used a crematorium for shelter. Food offered to the corpses became her meals. She eventually took shelter at a railway platform, begging for food to feed her daughter. She didn’t lose heart and courageously kept up her fight for survival.
Soon Sindhutai realised that she was not alone, as there were many others―orphans who had no home or parents to look after them. She decided to be both mother and father to these orphans. To feed them, she had to beg more vigorously. She decided to become a mother to anyone and everyone who came to her as an orphan.
Many of the children whom Sindhutai had adopted are now well-educated lawyers and doctors, including her biological daughter. One of her children is doing a PhD on her life. She has been honoured with over 273 awards for her dedication and work. She has used the award money to buy land to make homes for her children.
Among the awards are the Nari Shakti Award 2017 from the President of India, the highest civilian award dedicated for women, Social Worker of the Year award from Wockhardt Foundation 2016, Mother Teresa Awards for Social Justice 2013, The National Award for Iconic Mother 2013 (first recipient), Real Heroes Awards 2012, given by CNN-IBN and Reliance Foundation, and the prestigious 25th Neerja Bhanot Award.
A Marathi-language film Mee Sindhutai Sapkal (I am Sindhutai Sapkal by Anant Mahadevan based on her life was released in 2010. The film was selected for its world premier at the 54th London Film Festival.
Although, she has only passed the fourth grade, she was conferred a Doctorate in Literature by the DY Patil Institute of Technology and Research in 2016. After she started her first ashram with some financial help, several people came forward to donate money to her. But to make the payment fully legitimate, she needed to issue a receipt of donation. Thus arose the need to start an NGO. Her first NGO was the Savitribai Phule Girls’ Hostel. Later the Sanmati Bal Niketan, Mamata Bal Sadan and others were set up.
Her work has won Mai Sindhutai many accolades. Celebrities, including Bollywood superstars look upon her with adulation. On the KBC show, Amitabh reverentially touched her feet. But success and fame has not gone to her head. For her primary role continues as Mother of Orphans.
(Featured Image Megastar Amitabh Bachchan with Sindhutai Sapkal )