When she was heavily pregnant, her husband kicked her and shoved her into a cattle shed, and she spent nights at a cemetery with her newborn infant, and begged in the streets. Today she has adopted thousands of street children. That in a nutshell is the story of this year’s Padmashri winner, Sinduthai Sapkal affectionally called the Mother of Orphans.
When she was nine months pregnant, her husband pushed her into a cattle shed, thinking the cattle will stampede her to death. And it would save him prison time. What was her crime? She gathered a few women in her village and opposed the corruption by rich landlords and forest officials. Sreehari Sapkal was following the orders of the angry feudal landlords. He did not even allow her to see their three sons for the last time and cruelly shoved her into the shed. Sinduthai was only 20 years old.
5 decades later, Sinduthai is now the mother of over 1500 street children. Not only were they adopted but was also provided higher education. Some of them are doctors, engineers, and lawyers today. At Sanmati Balakendra, the 72-year-old Sinduthai is narrating her story.
Born in a cattle-grazing family in Maharashtra’s Wardha district, she was an unwanted child. But surprisingly it was her father who was keen on educating her and would send her to school under the pretext of cattle grazing. The little girl would use a leaf as a slate, but poverty and early marriage forced her to quit school, though she passed 4th grade. She was forcefully married at the age of 12, to a man twenty years her senior. This is her story, about a woman who was cruelly discarded by her own family and still found the courage to make a life out of the ruins and in turn provide life to thousands of children.
From a cattle shed
When she was thrown into the cattle shed, her pregnancy was already due. But a frightened thai recalls lying on the ground and crying incessantly for days, without food and water. And in that semi-conscious state, she gave birth to a daughter, with cows providing shelter. With superhuman strength, she took a stone lying next to her and pounded on the umbilical cord, and at the sixteenth attempt, it was severed. It was like plunging a knife into your heart. All the while, Thai would close her eyes tightly and pray for the pain to subside.
And when she finally found the strength to get up, she warmly hugged the cows who had shown her immense kindness and had been a mute spectator to her trauma. She walked into Pimpri-Mogha carrying her newborn child, but the villagers looked the other way, while some even tried to shoo her away with a stick. When her own mother shut the door on her, Thai had no option than to walk back. Hungry and bone-tired she reached a cemetery and waited till a section of people who were there to conduct some rites left. She spent that night at the cemetery, which also provided her shelter from the predators.
For food, Thai picked up the wheat and rice grains left on the ground, pummeled them with a stone, and made rotis, with the still-hot coals left from the pyre. During the day, saddling the baby in her arms, she would beg for food and at night, sleep at the cemetery. She was too exhausted to worry about the lurking ghosts in the vicinity.
Soon she started singing songs and beg in front of the temples. She would enter trains without tickets and beg for alms. She learned new bhajans and would visit places of worship and sing fervently begging for alms. Time passed swiftly and in between Thai tried committing suicide twice—once, at the Malkapur Railway station, she was planning to lie down on the tracks with her daughter. There was only one man in sight, and he was also there with a similar plan. When he asked her for food, she handed him her Rotis and water bottle. But strangely the man discarded his suicide plans after the food. And Thai too walked back from the station. Nothing was greater than hunger.
The Next attempt was at a tribal village called Chikkaldhara, near Amravati, Maharashtra. While she was trying to jump from the cliff, out of nowhere a tribal woman approached her carrying food. They had a long conversation. Yet again a tummy sated Thai had discarded her suicide plans. As she wandered on the streets for food, she would come across hundreds of hungry children and Thai made it a point to share her frugal meals with them.
Without knowing it herself, Thai had already built a network of compassion for these hungry street children. She soon became Thai (Sister) and Mai (Mother) to them. With each passing day, she felt strongly about doing something for these children. She donated her 5-year-old daughter to the trust Shrimant Dagdu Sheth Halwai, Pune, and took to the streets with a single-minded mission to provide life to thousands of homeless children. All she had was nerves of steel and a determination to match.
During that time, she found a boy near the railway tracks. She guessed his age to be around six and christened him as Deepak. He was her first adopted son. Together they returned to the same Amaravati hill where she had attempted to take her life. 15 years she lived there, working with the tribals. And all the while her adopted children were rapidly growing in numbers.
Soon Deepak found out that his grandfather had left some land for him in Pune. When the married Deepak was encouraged to shift there, he insisted that his Mai accompany them. Along with her 16 adopted children, they shifted to Pune, which also resulted in their first Bal ashram—Mamata Balasadan.
Now they have 6 of them. And over 1500 adopted children. One Bala Mandir incidentally is at Chikkaldhara valley, the same place which gave her life a new direction. Not just that she also started a Cow shelter at the same place where she was left to die, in memory of the cows who gave her protection.
No stopping her
Sinduthai Sapkal has been conferred over 750 awards. Padmashri is the latest. President Ramnath Kovind bestowed her with the Nari Shakthi award. Former Presidents APJ Abdul Kalam, Pratibha Patel, other ministers as well as foreign countries have showered her with various prestigious awards. Her main source of income comes from these award Prize money, the money she gets from the motivational speeches, and the amount her children offer her. One of her adopted children is doing a Ph.D. in Sindhu Thai’s life. Her biological daughter Mamta after finishing MSW is running the Bala Sadan at Pune.
Out of the adopted children, 230 girls and 40 boys got married. Deepak is now a grandfather. Sinduthai’s life was turned into a Marathi film and even found a place in the school textbooks. She became an icon of hope and empowerment for children.
In 2013, Maharashtra Government held a huge function to honour Sinduthai, at the very village where her husband had left her to die. The villagers crowded to catch a glimpse of her. Even after the crowd dispersed, only one man sat on the ground with his hands folded, hanging his head. That was her husband Sreehari Sapkal. When he wept and asked for forgiveness, thai asked him if he wanted to come with her. He nodded. But not as a husband, as her eldest son, she reminded him. Sinduthai took care of him like a mother for 5 years. In 2018, he breathed his last. The next day, her children asked her— “Did you not feel any hatred towards him?’
Sinduthai told them— “Isn’t it because he left me that you all got a mother? No tragedy is the end of the world." Now every Ashram and Bala Sadan entrance is adorned with Sreehari Sapkal’s photograph. She kept humanity alive with her good deeds. And continues to do so.