At the age of 12, Kalpana Saroj found herself married to a man 10 years older; a common practice in the ’70s. Though her father always wanted Kalpana to complete Class X, he didn’t have much say against the pressures of a society that strongly believed that an educated woman could not amount to anything. Leaving behind her studies, she then prepared to enter the next phase in life, and that’s when the real angst began.
“I was good in academics and willing to study further, but that didn’t mean anything; the only areas women were considered capable in were cooking and giving birth. Moreover, I belong to the Dalit caste, which means my options of having a bright future were very limited,” says 54-year-old Kalpana, who was born in the Repatkheda village, Maharashtra.
“After marriage, I moved into my husband’s house in Mumbai and I was surprised to find myself living in the slums. I was beaten up and put through immense torture. After six months, my father visited me, and could barely recognise me. He was furious and took me back home even though the society objected (as the only time a married woman leaves her home is when she dies). I am convinced that if my father hadn’t taken me home, I would have been burned alive,” says Kalpana.
Even though Kalpana was readmitted to school, she could barely focus. “I wanted to study but my classmates used to bully me; I was always blamed for my misfortune — so I dropped out of school again,” says Kalpana, who then tried to get a job with the police (her father was a havaldar), but couldn’t due to her incomplete education. She applied to be a nurse, and join the military, but she faced nothing but rejection.
“At that point of time, I decided to commit suicide. Despite, trying my best, nothing was working in my favour, and I gave up,” says Kalpana.
“There would be a lot of khatmal (bedbugs), so I bought two bottles of poison and drank them. I was found unconscious by my aunt, who rescued me. Well-wishers visited me, drove some sense into me, ‘What would have happened to your father who believed in you? If you had died, his reputation would have been shattered’,” recalls Kalpana, who never thought of suicide as an option again, instead she decided to move to Mumbai. She started with a tailoring job. “I was staying with my relatives in Mumbai and soon, my sister came to live with us. But, unfortunately, she fell ill and passed away. That’s one of the regrets I’ll have. I didn’t have enough money for her treatment and, couldn’t save her,” says Kalpana.
Later, Kalpana took a government loan of Rs 50,000 to start her furniture business. She slowly developed the reputation of a “go-to person”, one who would always help no matter how difficult the situation. And because of that, she was asked to take on the running of Kamani Tubes, a metal tubing factory. “The company was declared a sick unit, but after years of hard work, we were able to get out of debt. I am very proud of this feat,” says Kalpana, the present chairman of the company, which is now worth $100 million.
“Nobody was ready to take over the company, but I wanted to help the workers. I knew how it was to be poor, and that’s why I took over the company even though people thought I was mad,” says Kalpana, who later, remarried and now has two children. She was also awarded the Padma Shri for Trade and Industry in 2013. “In my family, we have never owned a shop, leave alone a business. My grandfather was a farmer and my father was a havaldar. When I started in Mumbai, I used to walk hours as I didn’t have 50 paisa for a bus or local train. Now, I have a Mercedes. I never thought I would have such a lifestyle. I am humbled and grateful,” says Kalpana. “My father, who believed and supported me could never see what I was able to achieve. He died when he was 58. My relatives, on the other hand, are proud of me,” she adds. “Whatever I have achieved is beyond my imagination. In future, I want to focus on my company, serve people and help uplift women from different sectors of the society. Women can achieve a lot, they are capable, but they just need the right push,” she says.