Abhinavji Jedhe was a poor cowherd living in a remote village in Pimpri Vadgaon, Maharashtra. He lived in a ramshackle hut along with his wife, Radhabai. They had a hand to mouth existence, surviving on his meager daily wages which he made by grazing the village cows of well-to-do families in the surrounding rann.
Abhinavji was feeling excited, sitting under the tree outside his hut along with his close friend Bhikuji, who was a cowherd too. As the lone beedi passed between their fingers, Bhikuji asked, “Arre, Abhinavji, why are your fingers shaking? Cool down my friend, it’s your wife who is giving birth inside. Why is a mard like you shaking? Take a long pull on this beedi and relax!”
“Yaar, Bhikuji, I am sure Radha will give birth to a boy. After all, we had met swamiji and he had placed his holy book on her head. And you know what everyone says? Whenever the book is placed on a married woman’s head, she has become a mother of a boy.” Abhinavji’s nervous demeanor gave away his skepticism.
“Why do you insist on a boy? What will he become after growing up?”, and without waiting for an answer from his friend, Bhikuji exclaimed, “A cowherd, of course! But for you, my friend, I am hoping it will be a boy. But what if, God forbid, you become a father to a daughter? Looking at your fascination for a son, I am really afraid”
“To tell you the truth, Bhikuji, the thought did cross my mind. Bhikuji, if it is a girl, I will accept. Don’t worry about that. But I am not so sure about Radha. That woman is obsessed with a male offspring. For her sake, I wish it’s a boy!”
Suddenly, they could hear Radhabai’s painful cries and loud moans. Then a brief period of silence was pierced by a newborn’s cries. Elated, Abhinavji embraced Bhikuji in delight and then rushed towards the hut.
It took only a few seconds for the midwife to appear at the door, but it felt like an eternity to the impatient Abhinavji. Finally, the midwife announced in hushed tones, her eyes downcast.
“It’s a girl.”
It took a while for the message to register on Abhinavji’s Mind. But as he turned back towards Bhikuji, he shouted with a big smile, “Bring pedhas. Let’s celebrate!”
Ganga! What a beautiful name Abhinavji had chosen for the apple of his eye. Right from the time he had set his eyes on her, the child had charmed her father. Her almond shaped large eyes were so innocent and her baby talk made Abhinavji rush home every day in the evening, to play with his darling daughter.
But Radhabai was something else. She hated her daughter; her prayers to different holy men had come to naught. She hated her even more, to see the father so engrossed in his daughter.
“Why are you wasting your time at home? You come home so early. Have you forgotten? Your wages depend upon the time you graze the cows. How can you be so irresponsible, you emotional fool?”
As always, Abhinavji took refuge in silence.
“Where are you going alone? Yesterday I told you to take Chindhi with you. You don’t ever pay attention”, as usual, Radhabai was nagging her poor husband.
“If she learns to herd the cows now, at least she will be of some use and earn some money. Otherwise, she just wastes her time here. God knows, from where she gets those books and what she sees in them. Useless girl!”
Saying this, she rushed back inside the hut.
Ganga was very happy to go with her father into the rann with the cows. Father and daughter proceeded to the rann.
“My princess will ride on a stallion!” Abhinavji said as he lifted his daughter and placed her on the back of a, particularly docile cow.
As they went along at a leisurely pace, Ganga asked, “Appa, why does Aai call me Chindhi? She also calls the cloth rags at our house as chindhi. My name is Ganga, no?”
Poor Abhinavji! What was he to say? Could he tell her that her mother considers her to be worse than a cloth rag? That she never wanted this child in her presence?
He changed the subject. “What are those books, my child? Who gave them to you? Really nice pictures of cats and dogs and of course, the cows!”
With a twinkle in her eyes, Ganga answered enthusiastically, “Appa, a didi comes every day to the village school from the nearby town and distributes these books among the children. You know my friend, Gunaji! He goes to that school and he gave the books to me when I had gone to his house along with Aai, where she had some errands to run.”
In the next instant, tears formed in her eyes and she asked, “Appa, why do I not go to school? How do the other children go to school? Why does mother stop me?”
Abhinavji could not control his own tears. He picked up his daughter and consoled her, “You really want to go to school, don’t you? From tomorrow, you will always accompany me to the rann…but that’s for your mother’s satisfaction”
Seeing the puzzled look from his daughter he said, “Wait till tomorrow”
The next day father and daughter left for the rann and Radhabai got busy in her daily routine. She never knew that the way to the rann today would include a detour to the village school.
“Tai, this is my daughter, Ganga. She is very enthusiastic about coming to your school. Can she be your student?”, Abhinavji asked with folded hands.
The school teacher was very sympathetic and helpful. “Yes, why not? She can certainly come here, from today itself, if she is ready. But, please be very clear, the fees have to be paid on time every month. The monthly fees are Rs. 15 a month. But recently the government has announced a scheme wherein the children of the poor families are to be given 50% rebate. Thus, you have to pay Rs. 7.50 per month. Let me know if you can”
Abhinavji was crestfallen. However, he did not give up so easily. “Do you own a cow?”, he asked. He knew that most people in the village owned at least one cow.
“Yes”, said the teacher. That was it. Abhinavji grabbed the opportunity and offered to graze her cow for which he charged her Rs. 5 per month.
So started the education of Ganga. But the struggle had just started. One day, she came in a downcast mood to her father. “What’s wrong my child?”
Abhinavji said as he patted her head.
After a long silence, she spoke up, “Tai has told all children to bring a slate tomorrow. But my friend was telling me, the cost of the slate is Rs. 4. How can we do it? I will not go to school from tomorrow”
“Don’t you worry, Ganga. Your father will find a way”, assured Abhinavji, patting her on the back.
The whole night he couldn’t sleep. Where was he going to get the money from?
In the morning he took Ganga to her school like always. While going there, he stopped near a tree to pick some leaves. The leaves were quite hardy; they did not wither away so easily and did not tear accidentally.
And lo! Ganga had a unique slate in the school, the leaves of the Bharadi tree!
And so her education continued and very soon she had successfully completed her fourth standard.
Abhinavji was a worried man. He had singlehandedly educated his darling daughter but the increased school fees from the 5th standard onwards was a little too much for a man of limited means.
“What have you thought about marriage? Chindhi has crossed her 10th year and she is growing fast. And your income is not growing. We can hardly survive but Chindhi has to be married off as soon as possible. Start looking for a match for her”, nagged Radhabai as she lay beside her husband.
“But she is such a small child. She cannot look after a family”, Abhinavji protested feebly.
“Small child, my foot. She eats as much as you eat. And you are not able to feed three people. Do as I say otherwise it will be very late”, Radhabai declared with finality and turned away from Abhinavji.
Gangabai looked radiant in a red saree. She looked so petite in front of her 30-year-old husband, Harbaji Naik, who was also a cowherd like her own father.
All of 10 years, but now that she was getting married, everyone started referring to her as Gangabai. While leaving her parent’s house, father and daughter broke down, tears streaming down their eyes. Ganga was going to miss her long daily walks with her loving father. Abhinavji was going to miss her innocent questions and radiant laughter as she laughed at his most inane jokes.
At the age of twenty years, Gangabai was pregnant again. Already a proud mother of three boys, she was expecting again. Sitting in the corner of their hut along with two other ladies of the village, they were making papads to be dried under the afternoon sun.
“Patil had sent two of his cronies to my house. They took away all the cow dung in our shed”, Savitribai was complaining to the others.
“Why? Why is Patil interested in cow dung? Is he going to eat it”, Gangabai exclaimed laughingly.
As the rounds of laughter died down, Savitribai said, “Arre, no…no! I hear he sells dried cow dung in the town bazaar and makes good money.”
“But who actually pays for cow dung, when it is available everywhere. Why pay for it”, Gangabai was curious.
“Gangabai, you don’t understand. These town folks don’t keep any cows nowadays. But they require dried cow dung as fuel. Previously I myself used to go to the town to sell it. But the Patil said, if we give it to him, he will pay double of what we used to get in the town. And we fell for his promises”
“Then what happened now?”
“In the beginning, Patil used to sweet talk and pay well, but then he stopped paying. And now we cannot refuse, otherwise he threatens us”, said a crestfallen Savitribai.
“But this is dadagiri. How can we accept this? We should unite and protest.
Let’s stop giving the cow dung to his men till he pays for it”, Gangabai declared.
The disturbances in the village grabbed the attention of the district collector, who decided to pay a visit. Once he came to the village, he was convinced about the point of view of the villagers and ordered the Patil to clear all the pending dues of the villagers.
“Gangabai ki Jai! Gangabai zindabad!”, a huge cry went around the village as the villagers acknowledged Gangabai everywhere.
A fuming Patil plotted his revenge.
“Harbaji, you have two choices. Either you abandon your wife or the village will abandon you. No one will give you their cattle to graze. You will lose your livelihood. Your family will die of hunger. Think of your three boys. They will not even get cow dung to eat”, the Patil was very calm as he threatened Harbaji.
Poor Harbaji. What was he to do? That night he hardly ate anything and went to sleep on a hungry stomach. Gangabai was worried about her husband. He had never been like this before.
She was in the 9th month of her pregnancy but Harbaji was adamant. He had woken up early morning the next day. He woke up Gangabai.
“Leave my house! I don’t want to see you in the house, once I am back from grazing. But the boys stay with me. Don’t you dare take them anywhere!”
Harbaji was gone before Gangabai could react.
In this condition, where could she go? Why should she go? What had she done to deserve this treatment from her husband?
She went to her neighbor, Savitribai. She blurted the unexpected morning events to her, tears streaming down her face. Savitribai was sympathetic, but what could she do? After all, she too was poor and would not be able to offer shelter to her. She had her own family to look after.
A crestfallen Gangabai returned to her hut. She collected her belongings of but two sarees and a few other knick-knacks and decided to move to the cowshed in the village. For the last time, she smothered her three boys with kisses, tearfully.
Shell-shocked with the sudden turn of events, she rested in the cow shelter, without having anything to eat. Suddenly the birth pangs stabbed her stomach. Sweating profusely, gritting her teeth, she tried to bear the pain. However, the pains were too much. The cow shelter reverberated with the cries of a woman giving birth. As the pain subsided, she picked up the wet baby in her arms and held it close to her bosom. Not having anything else, she bit into the umbilical cord to break it. All was calm once again. A tired Gangabai slept through the night, the child beside her.
“Why are you here? You bring bad karma wherever you go. How am I to feed three people, I can’t even feed myself now. Your father passed away conveniently, two years back, leaving me all alone to fend for myself. Go away! I cannot support you”, Gangabai’s Mother shrieked at her as soon as she opened the door to see a tired Gangabai at the door, with the child.
Gangabai had walked all the way from her husband’s village to her mother’s village, as soon as dawn broke. She had hoped that after the death of her dear father, her mother would have mellowed in her twilight years.
How wrong was she! Turned away by her husband, turned away by her mother, she felt only God could now come to her rescue.
“Perhaps God does not want me to stay on earth. That’s why he is putting me through this hell. If he doesn’t want me to stay here, why am I being adamant? Let me climb on this hill and jump off. Peace! No worries! No sadness! Let me come back to you, oh God!”, so many thoughts crossed her mind.
She started making her way up the hill. But when she reached halfway, she suddenly started feeling the weight of her child in her arms.
“What has my beautiful child done to leave this world without even opening the eyes. Does she not deserve to see this beautiful sky. The songs of the birds. Beautiful butterflies fluttering in the cool breeze. No! I must live for her sake. So what if my own mother abandoned me? If I commit suicide, how am I better than my mother”, wondered Gangabai. She willed her tired bones towards the railway station in the nearby town. Boarding the next train, she slept near the doorway of a general compartment.
Pune railway station. The people proceeding to their various destinations could see a beggar woman with a child tied to her back. Or did they? But Gangabai was not worried about what these people thought. There were many people who gave her some money or offered her some vada pav, which was enough to feed her and her girl, Girija.
Once, after a particularly grueling begging session in the hot afternoon sun, she was feeding her Girija some tea and biscuits. As she fed her child, she could see a pair of innocent eyes looking at the packet of biscuits with hope. Gangabai gestured the boy to come towards her. The boy approached her hesitantly. Caressing his cheek and patting his head, she asked him to sit. She offered him some biscuits which the boy was only too eager to accept. Within no time, he had spread his hand again, in front of her. Without words being exchanged, a bond was formed as Gangabai fed both the children together.
Soon, she realized that there are so many children who are abandoned by their parents, and this was only one station in the whole state. Her own experience of a mother who hated her very presence, coupled with her own motherly feelings, made her take most of such orphaned children under her wings. To feed so many mouths, she started begging even more vigorously for a longer time.
Soon the station authorities started giving her odd jobs which she did since that helped her feed more mouths.
In the sweltering heat of Pune, a mother and her child made their way into the heart of Pune city.
They entered a Wada on the main road and were ushered into an office where they were made to sit. Very soon a lady entered.
“Yes, what can we do for you?” asked the lady.
Gangabai was forthright and straightaway came to the point, “This girl here is my Girija, my only child. I have come here to leave her in your trust. I heard that you take care of abandoned children”
“But, why…do you want to leave her here? You seem capable of caring for her,” asked the lady, thoroughly surprised.
“I am not a mother to only this one. I have to take care of 51 other children”, said Gangabai.
“51! Are you serious?”, asked the lady incredulously.
“Yes, 51. And all are orphans…oh no, not at all, they have me, their mother. Girija is my biological child, and I don’t want to be partial towards her. I am for everyone!”
The lady was zapped. “And where do you take care of your 51 children?”
“You must have come to the railway station many times. I stay there”, said Gangabai.
“You mean, your ashram is somewhere near the station?”
“No…no, the station is the ashram. My 51 children stay there and I work there”
The lady was mighty impressed by this determined lady sitting in front of her. She decided to do something for her.
Today the orphanage run by Gangabai is located on the sprawling grounds of the biggest non-profit charitable trust in Pune. A lot of orphan children find shelter there and Mai, as Gangabai is now called, takes them in her fold, giving them all the love a mother can give. She is quite sprightly for her age, which is nearing 70.
One day an old man came to the orphanage. From appearance, he appeared not to have eaten anything for few days. Taking pity on him, the watchman gave him something to eat. The man ate everything but did not budge from the place.
Finally, the watchman called out to Mai to convince the old man to leave. As soon as Mai came to the entrance, the old man prostrated himself before her and broke down.
As he raised his head, Mai felt she had seen him before. Then, as she recognized him, her entire life flashed before her eyes, she felt her strength deserting her and collapsed to the ground.
When she regained consciousness, the old man was sitting on the floor. “Please forgive me, I am your biggest culprit. Please accept me back”, the old man couldn’t control his tears.
The large-hearted lady said, “What had to happen, has happened. One cannot rewind or rewrite destiny. I am only a Mother now. You can stay here; work here to earn your living. From today, you are my biggest child.”
Today she introduces the old man, her husband, as her oldest child. She has only love for the man who almost destroyed her life. She proved that a mother’s love transcends all other relationships and triumphs in the end.
Till today, Gangabai has nurtured more than a thousand orphans. Many of her ‘children’ have gone ahead to become great successes in various professions like Doctors, Engineers, Architects, Artists, et al. However, her biggest success is that few of her children have gone ahead and opened their own orphanages, Girija being one of them.