I was lucky to meet a great philanthropist, and my article about that encounter, ‘Meeting Azim Premji: A Class Apart in Cattle-Class,’ was well received.
Just when I was wondering when, if ever, I’d get to meet another outstanding personality, in she walked into my airplane and my heart, when I was the Pilot-in-Command of a Delhi-Pune flight.
We, my co-pilot and I together, had finished the pre-flight preparations and checklists well in time. Passenger boarding too was complete, and all that remained was signing the papers that the ground staff would get us.
Yes, we pilots too have to handle paperwork.
A wise old aviator once said, “Only when the weight of the paperwork equals the weight of the aircraft, can the aircraft fly!”
That’s when the Senior Cabin Crew (SCC) walked in for her briefing. After we informed her about the weather and other conditions expected in the flight, I asked her if she had anything to add.
With a sparkle in her eyes she said, “Captain, we have a special person on board.”
“Who?” I asked, not because of any genuine curiosity, but out of politeness for her enthusiasm. From experience I know that the people these young cabin crew call as ‘special’, differ from those I – a sceptical old soldier – consider as heroes. And I never meet any passengers before the flight, when there’s little time and a lot to do.
In any case, the details of the passengers is really not my business, as my job is only to take my passengers, ‘two hundred trusting souls’ as I call them, to their destinations – safely, efficiently and, as far as possible, punctually.
And for me, every passenger is special!
But when the SCC mentioned that passenger’s name, I got up and did something I’ve never done before, even when we had actors or IPL cricket teams on board. I stepped out of the cockpit and walked all the way to the middle of the cabin, to the 16th row where she sat.
The other passengers, not used to seeing the Captain stride down the aisle, were watching me in surprise.
I greeted her with a ‘Namaste’ and welcomed her on board.
She smiled, folded her hands, and nodded.
The passengers sitting nearby were staring at me with a mixture of curiosity and disbelief. Their glances, alternating between that lady and me, revealed their unspoken questions.
“Just who is this lady?”
“Why is the Captain treating her like a VIP?”
“Is she his relative?”
No, she is not my relative, and I had never met her before, but I have heard and read about her exceptional work.
She’s not a politician, nor a film star, or any celebrity. Without being a social media influencer, she has touched, influenced and bettered thousands of lives. She wears no makeup, and may not appear glamourous, but her smile is sweeter than any you’ve seen.
She is Sindhutai Sapkal, affectionately called Mai, which means a mother in Marathi, who has adopted – lovingly, if not legally – thousands of orphans.
Born into a poor family, and as an unwanted child, she was called Chindhi, which in Marathi means a useless piece of torn cloth.
She has, over the past four decades, given what we all have and need, but rarely offer, even to our dear ones. She received little of it, yet she gave it freely.
What am I talking about? Love!
She is an epitome of pure, selfless and unconditional love.
People, and her own family, mistreated her, but she didn’t reciprocate. Despite witnessing the lowest depths of human behaviour, she didn’t stoop to those levels. She has suffered a lot, but has emerged scarred yet smiling.
She began her public life as a beggar. And I don’t mean metaphorically. She was a real railway station beggar who also tried temples and cremation grounds for scraps of food.
Yes, she spent her nights in cemeteries, as she was less afraid of ghosts than she was of humans.
Just one percent of her suffering might have provoked suicide or murder, but she committed neither. She survived, overcame and thrived. She not only lived herself, but gave life to thousands of others.
Circumstances did not allow her to attend school beyond the 4th standard, but she has created doctors and lawyers, and respectable, law-abiding citizens from the homeless street urchins who otherwise could have turned to crime for survival.
She was homeless, but gave shelter to over 1500 children and became the life-giver for those abandoned by their birth-givers. Once, she had no relatives, as everyone – including her mother – abandoned her. Now she has hundreds of sons-in-law and daughters-in-law, and over a thousand grandkids, besides her own children, from her marriage to a 32-year-old when she was only 12.
That, her birthday coincidentally is celebrated as Children’s Day, only proves that some birthdays too are decided in heaven!
Her husband beat her till she was almost unconscious and threw her out of the house when she was 9 months pregnant with her fourth baby. She delivered her daughter in a cowshed, all by herself. Decades later, that man came back to her. She welcomed him into her orphanage, not as her husband, but as yet another destitute, homeless child.
How can anyone be so forgiving? It is beyond comprehension and beyond human capabilities. It is godly, and only an enlightened soul can do that.
Earning more than you need is tough enough. Giving away a part of your hard-earned wealth is even more difficult. But giving when you don’t even have enough to survive? That’s divine.
There’s a Marathi movie based on her life titled, ‘Mee Sindhutai Sapkal.’ Ironically, that movie begins with her meeting a pilot on board an airliner for her first ever flight. But that ‘pilot’ was luckier than I am, for he was actually the director of that movie, and got a chance to spend a lot of time with her.
Starting from being an orphan mother with a baby in her arms, she has now become the Queen Mother to thousands of orphans. This inspiring journey proves the point, “Where you began is immaterial, where you’re going does matter, and where you end up is most important.”
After a high degree of meditation, or dedication, or concentration, or achievement, some humans transcend the boundaries of ordinary existence and become extraordinary. Then, a smile is their only defence, and complete surrender is the only weapon; when bouquets and brickbats matter not, and the daily struggles seem like a song. She has reached that stage through suffering.
When we settled in cruise at 36,000 feet and did all the flight related tasks, I picked up the microphone for the usual announcements. But this was not a normal flight, not with her on board, so I made an unusual announcement, speaking in Hindi.
I said, “Ladies and gentlemen, this is your Captain speaking from the flight deck. Like every day, I will not tell you my name or the names of my crew, because I have a bigger name to tell you. We’re honoured by the presence of Padma Shri awardee, Srimati Sindhutai Sapkal on board with us today.” I then gave them an overview of her work and concluded with, “Please let’s show her our gratitude by clapping for her.”
The SCC then informed me that all the passengers clapped spontaneously on hearing her name and once again when I requested them to.
After we landed in Pune, for the second time in that flight, I did what I’ve never done before. I pulled my rank on the co-pilot as well as the ground staff and grabbed the privilege of helping her walk down the aisle to the wheelchair.
Her mere touch got me recharged, energised and electrified. Now I can understand how the homeless inmates of her orphanages – aged from just a few days to 80 years – feel when she welcomes them in her home.
Mr Premji and Mai, one a billionaire entrepreneur and the other a moneyless mother to many, yet both extraordinary in their own ways, both giving more than anyone else, both staying away from publicity and glamour, both so different at one level and yet so similar at a higher, superhuman level.
Why did God grant me the good fortune of meeting two great people in two weeks? I see these as signs from the universe. Maybe God is trying to teach me more humility. Maybe because these wonderful people are too focused on their good work to care, and their stories, though well documented in the media from a clinically journalistic point of view, still need to be narrated by an ordinary man with an outsider’s perspective, and a personal touch.
Thank you, God. Thank you, Mai. You’re no different from God.
As Rudyard Kipling has said: God could not be everywhere, and therefore he made mothers.
When we paused on the aero bridge for a photograph, she held my hand like my mother would.
The only way I could show my respect was to touch her feet.
ह्या लेखाचा मराठी अनुवाद: https://avinashchikte.com/2022/01/05/sindhutai-sapkal-supermom/
Photo courtesy Wikimedia
This article was first published on indiatimes.com