At nine she was married off to a man 20 years older who would beat her up if he ever caught her with a book or a newspaper. To escape his wrath, she took to swallowing pages of poetry and news.
Then she raised her voice for the women who collected cowdung in the forests of Vidharbha. And invited the ire of the local landlords. Provoked by rumours that she was involved in an illicit affair, her husband threw her out when she was nine months pregnant. She delivered her daughter, Mamta, in a cowshed. “Even today, he refuses to accept her as his own,” sighs Sindhutai Sapkal.
She was stopped from flinging herself off a cliff by the wails of her infant daughter. Leaving Mamta in the care of the Dagduseth Halwai Trust in Pune, Sindhutai moved to Chikaldhara where she begged for a living and opened an ashram for destitute street kids. Today, she has four ashrams, one in Pune and three in Wardha. And at 58, she is ‘mai’ (mother) to 10,000 children, has 175 sons-in-law and 36 daughters-in-law and has won 172 awards in social work.
Ananth Mahadevan’s Mee Sindhutai Sapkal, the opening film of the Panorama section at IFFI, Goa, 2010, chronicles the journey of Sindhutai who believes that after seeing it, a man will think twice about abusing and abandoning his wife. And a destitute woman will think twice about committing suicide. Sindhutai, whose book, Mi Vanvasi, is taught in the 10th standard in Karnataka schools, admits to having made peace with her husband. “He continues to live in the jungle but he visits me sometimes. He’s like one of my children now, "Maine usse maaf kar diya hai (I’ve forgiven him)” she smiles.
How has he reacted to the film that has been winning accolades on the international festival circuit? “He hasn’t seen it yet. It honestly reflects my life. I was laughing while watching it but Mamta was weeping,” says the woman who plans to provide a home for another 500 orphans this year.
That apart, she’s not too worried about what bouquets or brickbats the bio-pic brings: “Kal ki baat Khuda ke haath (The future is in God’s hands).”