Sindhutai was alone yet she gave new life to more than 2,500 orphans

The 75-year-old Padma Shri awardee died of cardiac arrest on January 4.

Sindhutai Sapkal’s demise means a lot for the nation but more so for the thousands of homeless children she took under her wing and shaped into doctors, lawyers and bureaucrats.

An 18-year-old girl would be full of life and aspirations of a bright future ahead. But Sindhu, mother of three already and carrying one in her belly, was more worried about the future of women labourers in her village in Pune.

While she herself was helpless, Sindhutai, or ‘mai’ (mother) as she was fondly called some years later, stood up to the village zamindar in the year 1965 and ensured that women got their due wages and respect.

The bold woman’s 75-year-old struggle with the society, system and her love for orphans ended on January 4, 2022, when she died of a heart attack at a hospital in Pune.

Padma Shree Sindhutai Sapkal’s demise means a lot for the nation but more so for the thousands of homeless children whom she took under her wing and shaped into doctors, lawyers and bureaucrats, among others.

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I was fortunate to meet her in person some years back at Bal Niketan, an orphanage, started by her in Pune. I was curious to know what keeps Sindhutai going despite all the hardships she had suffered in life, starting from early marriage, four teenage pregnancies, social boycott, fight against harassment of women and the constant challenge of finding orphans and tending to their needs.

“Paristithee aali kee shikto manus jagayla (when the going gets tough, the tough get going),” said an ever-smiling Sindhutai, who as an 18-year-old delivered her fourth child in a cowshed and was forced to crush her umbilical chord with a stone because the whole village had abandoned her.

When Sindhutai was nine years old, her orthodox parents hastily married her off to a man 20 years older than her. In the consequent years, the little girl was harassed by her in-laws. By the time she turned 18, she was already a mother of three.

A pregnant Sindhutai, expecting for the fourth time, was forced to beg on the streets for several days and even sleep in crematoriums. At times she cooked her food on the burning pyre. “Because I spoke for women’s rights, the zamindar spread rumours about my character. So my in-laws abandoned me and my mother too refused to stand by me,” she said with moist eyes. “The sound of crushing my umbilical chord and the cry of my newborn child echo in my ears even after so many years,” said mai.

One day the young Sindhu found an orphan boy begging for alms and took him to the police station, but nobody even took cognisance of her complaint. That very day, Sindhu, who was still expecting, decided to take care of the boy and thus began her long, arduous journey towards giving the homeless their right to dignity and self-respect.

Sindhutai first started Bal Sadan in Pune for the care of orphans. This way she was able to bring more children under her wing. She had special love for girls because as a child herself, Sindhutai had faced her parents’ wrath for being a girl. They had named her ‘chindi’ (a nobody) because they wanted a boy.

At her anathalaya, she would take care of the children, give them food, clothes and an education and even make sure they were married off well. Her work soon earned her the sobriquet “anathanchee aai” (mother of the orphans).

When asked what she feels about the title, Sindhutai said, “They are not orphans. I am their mother.” She ensured educating them enough to lead a respectable life. “Aaj maze pora doctor zalet, vakil zaleet ani sahib sudha zalet (today my children have become doctors, lawyers and even big officers),” she had said with a great sense of pride.

Later, with government help, Sindhutai set up four more orphanages in various parts of Maharashtra. Till date she has given support to more than 2,500 urchins and her work would continue with her biological daughter, Mamata, taking a vow to take her mother’s legacy forward.

Sindhutai won a total of 273 national and international awards in her lifetime. Last year, she was awarded the Padma Shri by the President of India.

In 2010, Anant Mahadevan made a film on her life “Mee Sindhutai Sapkal”, which got premiered at the London Film Festival.

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