Sindhutai Sapkal – The Mother Of Over 1000 Abandoned Children
Today is World Elders’ Day or The International Day of Older Persons and what would be a better way to highlight this than to share the story of Sindhutai Sapkal, the ‘bhajanwali bai’ who went on to be a mother to over 1000 abandoned children.
Imagine a little girl in a frayed skirt with nylon ribbons woven through her pigtails. Barefoot because her parents can’t afford a pair of slippers, she skips through the dusty village roads, herding buffaloes, but all the time trying to come up with a plan to get an education at the local paathshaala (school). She attends a few lessons here and there between her numerous chores and tries to practice her alphabet on the tree trunks near her mud hut and on cow dung-smeared floors. “A child without a childhood,” she sums up in her own words.
The little girl is now an eminent social worker and “Yashoda to abandoned children” with four homes for orphans across Maharashtra and a cow shelter for abandoned cows. Sindhutai Sapkal not only had a difficult childhood but also a very hard life with struggles that go beyond our imagination. Here is her incredible story.
A life paved with hardships
Marriage at the age of 10 to a 30-year-old man put an end to the meagre scraps of childhood that she managed to put together and began a decade of domestic violence. “I was just 20 years old and pregnant when my husband bashed me up and threw me out of the house. He dragged me to the cowshed and left me there to die,” she recalls. This was where she delivered her baby girl in the middle of the night. Still in a state of delirium, she was nudged awake by a cow standing over her, protecting the newborn baby and her. “The cow taught me to be a mother and showed me love when no one did.”
She cut the umbilical cord with a sharp-edged stone and remembers striking it 18 times before it severed. “This was when I realized how strong the connection between a mother and child is,” says Sindhutai, who then stumbled out into the night towards her mother’s village. Turned away by her parents and with no place to go, she drifted from village to village, living in cemeteries and subsisting on bhaakaris (chapattis) made on the embers of funeral pyres.
“My hunger taught me to sing,” says this feisty 62-year-old, who then started singing bhajans (songs in the praise of God) in bus and railway stations, with her newborn daughter tied to her stomach with a piece of cloth. Known as the ‘bhajan wali bai,’ she would sing in trains and buses, and on platforms, often getting paid in rotis.
The beginning of a dream
On one such night, when she’d received a lot of rotis for her singing, she decided to eat a hearty meal and then end this life that she was growing weary of. As she sat down to eat, she heard an old beggar moaning in pain and mumbling about dying. She decided to share her simple meal with him and hand fed him. “I thought if we have to die, we’d at least have our bellies full,” she says, smiling at the irony of her own statement. But helping the beggar gave her a sense of satisfaction and purpose that wiped off all thoughts of suicide from her mind. It was then that she decided to help the many abandoned children that she’d seen begging at the railway stations, and started singing with fervour to put together money and food for the many kids that she started looking after.
“But after a while I realised that if I have to bring up other children, I must put my own daughter in an orphanage, so that I wouldn’t be partial to those I looked after,” says Sindhutai, adding that she has been able to help 1,042 children for the past 42 years because of the sacrifice that her daughter Mamata made.
Slowly, as word spread about Sindhutai’s work, more and more people entrusted her with abandoned and orphaned children. She even went on to live with and work for the rights of the tribals in Chikaldhara, and looked after the abandoned children in their community.
“I always had a plethora of siblings, and the numbers kept growing quickly, much to the amazement of those who’d ask me about my family and the number of brothers and sisters I had,” smiles Mamata Sindhutai Sapkal, her 42-year-old biological daughter, who is also a trained social worker and a mother to a 12-year-old girl.
When asked if she ever felt any remorse for having grown up in an orphanage while her mother was helping other children, she says that she always embraced and accepted this fact. “The only time I wondered about what I’d missed out on and what my mother had sacrificed was when I gave birth to my own daughter,” shares Mamata, who now helps her mother run the four homes.
Today, ‘Mai,’ as Sindhutai is addressed by the children and guests, sits in a cane swing in her room on the top most floor of Sanmati Bal Niketan, the place where she resides along with the 41 boys who are growing up here, and tells us that she has 282 son-in-laws, 59 daughters-in-laws and over 1000 grandchildren, many of whom have gone on to become lawyers, engineers and professionals. “But I never started with a goal or a plan. I just wanted to mother as many abandoned children that I could and took on those who came my way,” says this charismatic lady. “And there was always someone who gave us a meal and a place to stay wherever we went.”
As the number of children grew, they lived in huts and houses that they rented, with Sindhutai working around the clock to keep the funds trickling in. “We get our ration when I give bhashan (talks),” she quips. Even today, she goes out to different parts of Maharashtra to talk about this work and appeals to people to see the homes, meet the kids and find a way to help them.
After moving from place to place, she was able to build the first home in 1991 in Saswad, Pune, when Deepak Sapkal, one of the first boys she had adopted, got a family inheritance and poured that amount in setting up a place. Over the next several years, she put together funds bit by bit to buy land and build more homes in Manjiri, Wardha and Chikaldhara. “None of our homes are built on land donated by the Government and neither are we supported by any grants,” she informs us. Apart from the talks that she gives across the State, it’s help from well wishers in terms of cash and kind as well as support from her grown-up children that helps run the place and look after the daily needs of the children who live here.
Today, there are almost 500 kids living in these four homes, and for all of them, Sindhutai is the ‘Mai’ they never had. In each of these homes, 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. “Mai is often on the road, traveling for her bhashans and the children pray that she returns safely each time,” explains Kirti Ingole, a staff member at the Sanmati Bal Niketan, who gives us a tour of the kitchen, dormitories, infirmary and office that are part of this home. Apart from looking after abandoned children, Sindhutai also takes on homeless women, most of who help in the kitchen and look after the children.
Recognition for her work
“Sindhutai has won over 750 awards for her work and has recently been conferred a Phd by a college in Pune,” explains Ingole, pointing towards the glass cases choc-a-bloc with plaques, scrolls and framed accolades. There’s also a Marathi film on her life and struggles called ‘Mee Sindhutai Sapkal’ as well as a documentary film called ‘Anathani Yashoda (Yashoda to orphans).’
“One of my children is doing a Phd on my life story,” smiles Sindhutai with a mixture of pride and amusement.
Her story and her work have touched so many lives that children and grown-ups from across the country throng to meet her when she is in Pune. Just as we are wrapping up our conversation, a long queue of school children shuffle into the room, to meet her and seek her blessings. Sindhutai will continue to inspire others to reach out to those in need, to show kindness in a world that’s often harsh, to stay courageous even when the days are long or life is hard.
To contact Sindhutai or help her in her work, you can call her daughter Mamata Sapkal, who helps run the homes on 07757057657
Photography: Smokey Bandit