WHEN I MEET Sindhutai Sapkal at her orphanage in Pune, it is a Saturday and she has finished her weekly travel of more than 1,500 km. The routine is unfailing and, for a 67-year-old, punishing— wake up in the morning, get on the vehicle, go to wherever she has to give a speech and, if possible, return by night. Even when it is in a neighbouring state like Gujarat, it is by road. In 2015, Sheeba Nair, who runs a Baroda-based character development NGO called Oasis, had invited Sindhutai to give a talk to teenage girls. When the NGO suggested that they would provide the plane ticket, Sindhutai had demurred—she was afraid of flights. And so, from Pune she first came to an event in Mumbai and then drove down 400 km to Baroda.
Nair organised for Sindhutai to give a talk in Surat on the way back. Here the audience would comprise of more wealthy people. The auditorium was full, including families of elite business houses, heads of schools and institutions, diamantaires, teachers and housewives. Sindhutai spoke for an hour and when the programme was about to get over, requested a few minutes. She told those gathered, “My main job is to get food and basic necessities for my kids. I am here for that. So I travel anywhere I am invited, untiringly. Bhaashan nahin toh raashan nahin (If no speech, then no rations). I am a beggar and beg you to fill my jholi.” Walking to the front of the stage, she sat down and splayed out the ends of her sari’s pallu. Hands began to dip into pockets, purses and wallets. “One person gave away the entire amount he was carrying for an impending surgery of his wife,” says Nair.
A few lakh would perhaps have been collected that Sunday morning, but it is never enough. There are over 250 children being brought up in the three orphanages that she runs. This elevated and unabashed form of begging is the only source of funds that they have. She was also not being dramatic when she said she was a beggar. Sindhutai had really been one.
The place where I meet her is on the outskirts of Pune, a village that is now almost swallowed by the city’s expansion. The building of the Sanmati Bal Niketan is a multi-storey nondescript one in a small lane. On the ground floor is the reception, abutting which is a wide hall whose walls are saturated with her many awards. There are photos of her with three presidents of India. On the floor above is where the children—only boys reside here—stay, their books and satchels arrayed with bunker beds. On the floor above is the residence of Sindhutai, where she sits in an armchair, donned in a nine-yard pink sari and the pallu, as always, draped around her head. She is 67 years old and there is a weariness about her—the travel is telling.
Her life as an itinerant has its beginning in 1973 with the birth of her third child. Daughter of a cowherd, Sindhutai was married off at 10 to a man almost thrice her age. She bore three sons by her twenties and then in Navargaon, the village where they lived in Wardha district, she led an agitation by its women demanding to be paid for the cow dung they collected and turned over to the forest department.
“All the husbands would run cattle and we would all collect the cow dung. But that cow dung we wouldn’t get. The forest department would take it and sell it. And we would not get labour charges either. This was going on for years. I started to think—those who worked on roads, etcetera, got paid for their labour, why not us? So I started to ask for it. I didn’t say, ‘Give us the cow dung’, just the labour charges. I got it. But there were repercussions,” she says.
A landlord became insecure at what she had managed to achieve. “His land had originally belonged to my father. He thought I would come to take the land too. If I could go against the government, then why not against him? I was pregnant and he told my husband that it was his baby and not my husband’s. Which man would tolerate it? My husband kicked me on my stomach and beat me up. I became unconscious and they dragged me to the stable where the cattle were kept,” she says.
When she regained consciousness in the night, the baby had been delivered. “I broke the umbilical cord myself by hitting it with a stone. Sixteen times, I hit it before it broke. I understood that day that it is easy to cut it off, but to break it is not very easy,” she says.
Some of the little ones come up and tell me their names, and their surnames are often ‘Sindhutai Sapkal’. Those whose family is not known, Sindhutai gives her own name as their surname
The whole village turned against her because of the alleged infidelity and she was driven away. Her father had passed away and her mother refused to accept her back in her maternal home. “What was I to do with a 10-day-old daughter? I just had a sari that I was wearing. I had no place to stay,” she says. Sindhutai thus became a beggar on trains, singing bhajans to raise money for herself and her daughter. “I would go without ticket. The TCs would catch me daily. They would tell me to get down. Uthro tho uthro, doosri gaadi apni baapki,” she says.
She roamed the stations of Maharashtra, begging into the night, sometimes going into villages and singing bhajans. As a young woman without a shelter, she came up with strategies to protect herself from men. One of them was to sleep in cemeteries because no one would molest her there. “I would stay in the station at night till 1. I would be frightened after 1. Where there is a station there would be a village and where there is a village there has to be a cemetery. I knew that no one came to cemeteries after night because of fear. If anyone saw me, they would think I was a ghost,” she says.
Once at a cemetery she had an experience that shaped her life. That day she had not received anything to eat and was terribly hungry. “People are not bad, hunger is. Someone had put some flour there as part of a corpse’s final rites. My hunger was telling me, ‘eat’. The flour was flying off in the wind. I was thinking I should do it fast or what was remaining would also go. I broke some leaves from a tree, and took the flour in it. There was a corpse burning. Hunger tells you what to do. There was some water in a broken pot. I took it, mixed it with the flour and in that pyre I cooked the bhakri roti. I was so hungry that I ate it with relish,” she says.
She cried that whole night thinking of the depths that she had sunk to and the loneliness of her life. She felt like killing herself. And then came a realisation that she was after all in a cemetery with the dead all around, and where she was weeping about her own loneliness, everyone there had died alone. Wouldn’t it be more worthwhile to live in service of those who were dying to find some meaning in life?
In those days, the idea of killing herself crossed her mind frequently and she always found solace in the greater sorrow of life itself all around. Once when she had had a good collection of rotis from begging, she ate her fill and then thought it would be a good moment to die because there was no hunger in her. Then she saw another beggar, fever ridden, and found joy when she gave the remaining food to him.
The first orphanage she started was among Tribals in Chikaldhara, Amravati district. A tiger reserve project had led to the forest department evicting villages from the forests there and Sindhutai, who reached the place on her begging journey, became part of the agitation. Shyam Randive, who was raised by Sindhutai from the age of 11 and has just submitted a doctorate thesis on her life and the orphanages, says that Sindhutai was instrumental in making Adivasis aware of their legal rights and also forced the government to own up to its responsibilities towards them. “The work on the orphanage started after that. It began with taking care of Adivasi girls,” he says.
“The Adivasis made a hut for me and I looked after children. That hut got damaged and then someone gave a small home,” says Sindhutai. Meanwhile, she decided to give her own daughter to an orphanage in Pune. “I thought if you have to live for others, don’t keep your daughter with you. I took my daughter to Pune’s Shreemant Dagdusheth Halwai Trust orphanage,” she says. Mamata, her daughter, finished a Master’s degree in Social Work and now manages the Pune orphanage. It was not a typical childhood that she had, with Sindhutai not able to visit her regularly. “Whenever she would come to Pune’s side, she would come to meet me. But like if I had to go somewhere on the weekends or during an exam or a festival, she wouldn’t be there,” says Mamata.
Says Sindhutai, “My daughter has made such a big sacrifice. I had to decide whether I wanted to be my daughter’s mother or the mother of other daughters. Otherwise I would not have been able to be fair to them.”
A second orphanage in Saswad, 30 km from Pune, followed after she came upon an abandoned boy and took him under her wing. The boy inherited a piece of land from his family and the orphanage was set up there. The boy is now a middle-aged grandfather and manages the place.
There are over 250 children being brought up in the three orphanages that Sindhutai Sapkal runs. Elevated and unabashed begging during speeches and events is the only source of funds they have
As her work became famous, Sindhutai began to be felicitated and her in-laws, who had driven her away, also held a function for her. She saw her husband there. “He was crying. I wasn’t liking it. I thought ‘If he had not left me, would I have been able to do what I did?’ So I told him ‘I forgive you’,” she says. She invited him to return with her. “But not as a husband, as my child. I want to be a mother, not your wife. I introduced him to the children also as ‘Yeh mera sabse badaa khatarnaak bachcha hai’ (he’s my most dangerous child),” she says. He now looks after a cow protection institution that she has set up.
IN 2008, THE filmmaker Ananth Mahadevan came across a newspaper article about Sindhutai and thought it would make for a good biopic. Initially, he found her reluctant to accept the idea. “Because she has been exploited all her life, she looks at everyone who approaches her as a potential exploiter. But when I told her the kind of film I would be making, finally she agreed,” he says.
He started having more meetings with Sindhutai and getting her life together in a screenplay. She started opening up and Mahadevan realised what a doughty fighter she was. “She started with abandoned girl children and raised them until they would be married off. She never gave anyone up for adoption. Where did this spirit, this oratory skill, the entire marketing of herself and the salesmanship for herself and the children come from? All these things came to my mind,” he says.
In Bollywood, biopics are usually sensationalised, but Mahadevan was clear about remaining true to his subject and it wasn’t very difficult. “Her life was so dramatic. I had to actually tone it down otherwise people would think I was making a melodrama out of her life,” he says.
Mahadevan was uncertain how Sindhutai would react to the movie when she saw it. “I was hoping she would understand a cinematic interpretation of a particular scene. She many not have come down four steps, she may have come down 10 steps, but for a particular scene you may have to shoot it that way. When she saw the film, she came and hugged me. She said she relived her life all over again, as though someone had shot with the head in camera,” he says.
The film, released in 2010, went on to win four National Awards and gave her recognition across the country. Sindhutai says that when she saw the movie at a screening along with her children, she had felt like crying. “Then I saw idhar udhar everyone was crying, maine rona cancel kiya,” she says.
After the interview, Sindhutai asks us to go to Saswad and see the orphanage there. Unlike the Pune one, which is akin to a hostel of sorts, the Saswad one has an ashram feel to it, sprawled out with little patches of land where vegetables are grown. Only the girls are housed here. Some go for higher studies, while others opt for marriage when they come of age.
Some of the little ones come up and tell me their names, and their surnames are often ‘Sindhutai Sapkal’. All of them have been named by Sindhutai herself. Those whose family is not known, she gives her own name as the surname.
One of them, I am told, had been only a few days old when given to Sindhutai after she had delivered a speech at a place. That was how the children would come here in earlier times. “Someone would get them or after one of Ma’s speeches someone would leave a child. A local official, like the police person, would write on a piece of paper and give it to her along with the child to make it legitimate. But since the last many years, they only come though the Child Welfare Committee (set up by the government for this purpose),” says Mamata.
When Sindhutai started out, she had no idea of the legalese of raising other children. It was only later that the orphanages became formalised as per government regulations. The Saswad orphanage got registered in the mid-90s. When the Pune building came up in 2011, they decided to shift all the boys here and then got caught in a strange situation. They had assumed that the Pune orphanage would be counted as a branch of the Saswad one because it was already registered, but the government rules said otherwise. On applying in 2011, they were told the government had stopped giving new registrations since 2009 because of frauds happening in orphanages.
Mamata says, “The government said they won’t give new registration as an orphanage. But Ma’s work was from much before. We didn’t apply earlier only because there was no building. We asked for it continually after that. We said ours is not a new institution. Government officials would visit, the remarks would be good, but the registration wouldn’t come through.”
They were in a black hole of regulation. It finally took a public campaign for the Chief Minister’s Office to tweet last month that he had asked officials to immediately grant them registration. A day before I met them, Mamata had got the registration papers in her hand—they had permission to host 100 children.
A question before the orphanages in future is their survival being entirely dependent on Sindhutai personally. She is the engine that runs it all. “I move around (to collect funding). I don’t have a grant (by the government) even now. I am non-granted. Logon ko bolti, ‘Maine tum ko bhashan diya, tum raashan do na.’ Milta raashan,” she says.
In 2014, she fell severely ill and was bedridden for three months with multiple ailments. For everyone around her, it was a frightening experience. And yet, she cannot stop either. She needs to continue giving speeches for purses to unlock. During our conversation, at one point, I ask her whether she does not get tired at this age. “Kiske baap ko bolu? (Whose father can I complain to?)”