I BELONG to a small hamlet in Akola district of Vidarbha in Maharashtra. My father was a police constable; I had two brothers and two younger sisters. At that time, a young woman living with her parents was “zeher ki pudiya (a packet of poison)”. As expected, I gave up on my education and got married at the age of 12 to a man 10 years older. When we moved to Mumbai, I was physically abused by my husband’s family, who would regularly starve me and beat me.
When my father came to the city six months later, I was so emaciated that he almost failed to recognise me. He took me back home, but people around us would not stop pointing fingers; “Sasural se vapas aa gayi, zaroor iski galti hogi (She has come back from her in-laws. Surely she is to blame),” they would say.
I felt I had nothing left to live for, I couldn’t study, though that was my dream, and I couldn’t even make my marriage work, so I tried to kill myself. But, I was saved. When I survived, everyone felt that I must be guilty of something and that was why I tried to commit suicide. I was a victim, but I was being judged for it. I could not let that happen.
I went back to school and studied till Class IX, and then started looking for a job. I decided I would go to Mumbai and find a job in the mills. My father, who had never let his daughters go anywhere alone, thought it inconceivable. But I told my parents, it’s either that or I take my life again.
I started working at a tailoring unit for Rs 2 a day. After a couple of years, my father lost his job and our family moved to Mumbai. My younger sister fell ill and we lost her, because we could not afford proper treatment. That is when I realised that merely earning a living would not help. So I took a loan under the Mahatma Phule Backward Class Development Corporation, and started a furniture business. I began to support the Dalit community that sought my help to set up their own small businesses through bank loans and schemes for backward classes. Along with a few others, I set up a scheme for the educated unemployed youth from the backward classes called the Rashtriya Ekta Yuva Manch.
With time, I began to be seen as a problem solver. I bought a contentious plot of land, which was taken over by tenants who refused to clear it. I faced the goondas who threatened to kill me, by getting myself a gun licence. I now carry the gun for my protection, as I feel I’m responsible for my safety and I will fight for myself.
In 2000 (by which time I had set up a successful construction business and invested in sugar mills), the workers’ union of Kamani Tubes (a copper tubes company) asked me to take over the ailing company. The company was running losses and facing lawsuits, but the livelihoods of the workers were important to me. I raised money through the people I had worked with over the years in the development and construction business, and we gradually started paying off the liabilities. The company is now posting small profits, which will grow in the years to come.
I think I have found as many detractors who claim that a woman is not capable of achieving anything, as I have found supporters who have stood by me. I started off wanting nothing but two square meals for my family. Everything else that has come is because of the sheer hard work I have put in.
My daughter has been given the education I was denied; she’s studying hotel management abroad. I work 15 hours straight and skip meals. While growing up, there was lack of food. Now, there is plenty of it but little time.