Sindhutai Sapkal: A Life of Immense Courage and Determination
Well-known social reformer and Mai (mother) to over 1,500 orphans, Sindhutai Sapkal passed away due to cardiac arrest on Tuesday night at a Pune hospital. She was 73. Sindhutai, fondly called Mai, has left behind a massive legacy of noble service to society, including orphans and marginalised communities. Conferred Padma Shri in 2021, she had scripted her own story with incredible grit, courage, dedication and service. 
 
In his condolence message, prime minister Narendra Modi says, “Dr Sindhutai Sapkal will be remembered for her noble service to society. Due to her efforts, many children could lead a better quality of life. She also did a lot of work among marginalised communities. Pained by her demise. Condolences to her family and admirers. Om Shanti.”
 
 
Ananth Mahadeven, who directed a a biopic on Sindhutai’s life, calls her “the Florence Nightingale who touched many lives and changed them” in his condolence message. The film, Mee Sindhutai Sapkal, was selected for world premiere at the 54th London Film Festival.
 
 
She has been accorded a State funeral, but her work was not without its ups and downs. For instance, in June 2016, Maharashtra’s department of women and child development (WCD), pressured Sindhutai to oust orphans residing in her Sanmati Bal Niketan and hand them over to the department to rehabilitate them to government orphanages. Because Sanmati Bal Niketan is not registered with WCD.
 
Following an online petition initiated by Sucheta Dalal, Founder-Trustee of Moneylife Foundation and subsequent articles published by Moneylife seeking justice for the mother of orphans, Devendra Fadnavis, the then chief minister of Maharashtra granted special permission to Mai’s orphanage. 
 
Specifically, responding to Moneylife's appeal, the CM's office had said, "CM Devendra Fadnavis has strictly instructed the concerned officials to grant permission to Sindhutai Sapkal's (Mai's) organisation, taking into consideration her noble work since decades. He also instructed that the process for the same be expedited. (Read: Moneylife Impact: CM assures Sindhutai Sapkal of special permission for her orphanage
 
Coming back to Sindhutai, whose story is one of incredible grit and determination to fight adversity. At the age of 20, when she was nine months-pregnant, she was kicked, beaten and left to die in a cowshed. Her daughter was born in that semi-conscious stage and she cut the umbilical cord herself and went away with her daughter to try and survive. The beauty of Sindhutai Sapkal’s life story is that she went on to build multiple orphanages, nurtured over 1,000 children and gave shelter to innumerable women who were destitute and abandoned. 
 
According to Mai, “A mother can never be defeated. A woman can never be defeated. But she needs to keep her heart strong and learn to forgive.”
 
A gifted orator, Sindhutai, used to share her story in a unique style with song and laughter and lessons of life, without trivialising the tragic and humiliating experiences she faced. She quoted from Marathi saint-poets Tukaram, Namdeo, Bahina bai, Gadgebaba and Tukdoji Maharaj, as also Suresh Bhat and Urdu poets, switching easily between Hindi and Marathi. 
 
She often used to quote Suresh Bhat’s Ghazals, like the one below:
 
 
When asked about giving up her own daughter to an orphanage, Sindhutai used to say that she did it so that she could remain fair to all the other orphans adopted over the years. What sparkled through her talk was her indomitable spirit, extraordinary courage and high intelligence, combined with an intuitive street smartness.
 
“I have experienced what it feels like to have no one with you, no place to go, no shelter and no food to eat for days. My small work makes me feel like someone is helping me heal my own wounds. All wounds heal with time, but you must live, stay alive for others,” she told a packed house at Pune during the International Women’s Day celebrations organised by Moneylife Foundation in 2016.
 
Talking about healed wounds, Sindhutai had said, “A few years back, at the age of around 80, my husband came back to me, with profuse apologies. I told him I could accept him only as my child and not as a husband. Because, a woman is a wife for just a while, but is a mother all the time. Now, I tell my other children that they should thank this oldest child for having me as their Mai.”
 
On many occasions, she had said, “Several times I tried to commit suicide. But every time an unknown power saved me. And on every such occasion I decided to live for others who are dying.” 
 
 
“I am still a beggar,” Sindhutai used to say. “Hunger is bigger than humans or humanity. Humans are not bad; it is hunger that turns people into baddies. Even today, I have so many children, who need to be fed every day. Therefore, I continue to beg, seek help from people like you. I became their mother; now you come and be their relatives.”
 
“I have no regrets. When I started these orphanages, I often requested my mother to come and stay with me, since there was no one to look after her. She, however, continuously refused, saying, ‘When you needed my shelter, I threw you out, and now how can I seek shelter from you?’ Today, I think, this journey would not have been possible, if my mother had not thrown me out. But this has left an emptiness in my heart. I am just trying to fill in the space by nurturing so many children,” Sindhutai told the audience. 
 
Sindhutai’s work is totally backed and funded by private donations and other help from various walks of life. In her younger days, Sindhutai begged (at railway stations) or sang bhajans for a living. Later, she used her amazing power of oration to reach out to people. She peppered her speech with anecdotes of her life, making light of the travails and indignities she suffered and yet evoked tears, laughter and frequent applause. She usually ended her speeches with an appeal for funds and the donations poured in. They included land and houses, including one such contribution by a retired high court judge.
 
The children, whom Mai (Sindhutai) had nurtured, are proud to carry her name as their middle and last name. So, all boys use Sapkal while girls use Sathe (Sindhutai’s maiden surname) as their surnames. 
 
Her grand family comprises more than 380 sons-in-law, nearly 50 daughters-in-law and over 1,000 grandchildren. Many of them are well-educated lawyers and doctors and some, including her biological daughter, run their independent orphanages.
 
Watch Sindhutai speaking with well-known anchor and presenter Sudhir Gadgil in 2016 at the International Women’s Day celebrations organised by Moneylife Foundation... 
 
 
Comments
rangarao.ds
4 months ago
The best tribute to her is both the govt and the civil society should strive to eradicate destitution and vagrancy by sheltering and caring all those affected by it.
jvyakhmi
4 months ago
There is no disability bigger than poverty and deprivation. Sindhutai got over this and showed to all of us how she could, without any personal resources could lift hundreds of young orphaned boys and girls out of poverty, homelessness and brought the light of education in their lives. Sindhutai lived to shape the lives of helpless young children. Without her care and attention many among those children would have landed as criminals. My salute to this resolute MAI!
milindnadkarni
4 months ago
Just have admiration for the work carried out by Mai, Best tribute to her will be her initiatives and projects continuing and growing stronger improving lives of many orphans and destitute.
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