Beset by scam and scandal, an India trying hard to better itself is always in search of inspiration. In Maharashtra, a state particularly plagued by widespread corruption and a crumbling administration, the latest inspiration comes in the song-filled speeches of a portly, Class 4-pass woman dressed in a traditional nine-yard saree.
"Bhashan dila shivai ration millat nahin (Without bhashan (speech), no ration)," says Sindhutai Sapkal, 62, before beginning another speech in the distant Mumbai suburb of Ambernath. If you invite her she will come, and once she's enthralled you with her gut-wrenching story, she will ask you to contribute to her mission: providing a home to at least some of India's uncounted homeless children. She's fully booked for January and February with as many as three speaking appointments on some days.
Sapkal is popularly known as Mai or mother, which is what she's been for more than 30 years to more than 1,000 orphans or unwanted children whom she has raised in five centres across Maharashtra. All these years, she went about her work quietly, begging, pleading and struggling to find money and resources; when there wasn't enough, she has had to thin down the children's milk or ration vegetables.
Sapkal attributes her sudden popularity to a movie, Mee Sindhutai Sapkal (I am Sindhutai Sakpal), which after 50 days is still running quietly in a handful of Mumbai theatres. You won't find the movie in any English-language newspaper listings (including this one). But since last November, it's attracted fair attention at global film festivals from New York to London. As you read this, the movie is being unveiled at Palm Springs, Florida.
Sapkal's story - an example of the indignities millions of Indian women endure even today - begins in the lush but poor village of Navargaon in eastern Maharashtra.
Born into a family of cattle herders, she herded buffaloes as a child, abandoning them during the day to dash to school. As was custom, she was married at nine to a 30-year-old cattle herder, who often beat her because he caught her reading newspaper wrappings (at times she even swallowed the paper). "He thought I was trying to prove I was smarter than him," she says. "I just wanted to read."
Abandoned by her husband after she bore him three sons - he says she left home on her own - Sapkal gave birth to a daughter, Mamata, in a cowshed where she cut the umbilical cord with a stone. After her mother drove her out, the stunned young mother roamed towns, begging and singing for her living on streets, platforms and trains. Twice she contemplated suicide, once stepping away from a train and the second time at the edge of a cliff, drawing back at hearing her daughter crying. "I then decided I should live and not just for my daughter but for so many children I saw abandoned," says Sapkal. That became her life's purpose and mission.
"My hair stood on end when I met her in December 2009 and heard her story," says Ananth Mahadevan, the director of Mee Sindhutai Sapkal. "Her facts were stranger than fiction… she has lived a life that is on some level absurd, on some level horrific and on some level dramatic and inspiring."
A rare biography of a living person, the movie costs Rs 1.5 crore (including publicity) and it is Mahadevan's first Marathi film. He shot it in San Francisco, where Sapkal was once invited to address a Marathi literature conference, and in the south Maharashtra town of Gaganbawda, where he used village children as actors.
After the film's success, satellite and home-video distributors are lining up for rights, but Mahadevan says he's holding out because he's getting international feelers.
The journey from living on the streets to international attention has asked of Sapkal many sacrifices, none more difficult than her decision to leave her daughter in a hostel run by a Pune trust so she could focus her energies on her mission. Today, Mamata, 36, is the administrator (she has a master's degree in social work) for her mother's homes. She acknowledges her childhood wasn't easy.
"I had no such 24/7 relationship, so I didn't really miss it," says Mamata (email@example.com), when I ask how difficult it is to know you have a mother but not see her every day. "But when I saw children with their parents, something used to break inside."
Mamata and her mother finally live together at one of their centres in Pune. They have no professional management; Sapkal's 'children', about 30 of them, many in their 30s, do their bit in running the organisation.
Despite Sapkal's new celebrity status, there's never enough to provide for the children who keep flowing in, to build new infrastructure. "There are so many destitute children in this country," says Mamata, "There will never be enough organisations like us to look after them."
So Mother India's lecture tour will never end. Invite her. She will come.