August 05, 2021
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For this barefoot god of the streets, Kargil wasn't the first front

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For this barefoot god of the streets, Kargil wasn't the first front

IT was a gesture expected from one affectionately referred to as "Bhiwandi Bhushan". Rangrao Vithoba Pawar, who slowly but surely, has moved from poverty to pelf, is known to have a generous hand. Even so, his gesture of donating over Rs 5 lakh— meant for his daughter’s wedding— towards the Army’s Disabled Soldiers’ Fund, still wrung a few hearts. His daughter, 22-year-old Yogita , having imbibed his generous spirit over the years, handed over her engagement ring towards the cause. Her fiance, Rajendra Patil, did the same. They later went in for an austere wedding ceremony. Pawar’s eldest son-in-law, Dyaneshwar Patil, also donated Rs 51,000. Pawar, who refers to himself as "Mr Ghati" (Bambaiya for a country bumpkin), seems to have set off a train of donations.

The flow of bodybags— some containing mutilated bodies— and the sacrifices of Indian soldiers, cast, for Pawar, a shadow over the wedding preparations. "There is only sloganeering—‘ Jai Kisan, Jai Jawan’, but it seems nobody truly appreciates their contribution towards the nation. I can’t read the papers, or listen to the news as I have trouble hearing, but I do watch the news on TV. I was struck by the incongruity of enjoying my daughter’s wedding, while widows and children wept over soldiers who died in Kargil. I couldn’t bear that. Which is why I decided to give the money away." That’s the explanation given by this man who has been a regular but silent donor to several causes.

Among these is a school up to class 10 for children from poor families, several temples in the suburbs of Bhiwandi— where he is based— and Gujarat, regular prasad and food distributions at temple melas, two ambulances to transport patients  who can’t afford the long trip between Bhiwandi and hospitals in Mumbai, and an institution that provides vocational guidance to the youth. "I was orphaned when nine. I was out on the streets, was beaten up...I cannot bring myself to forget all that even for a moment," says Pawar who stubbornly refuses to wear shoes because, "if I forget the thorns that pricked me during my days of poverty then I would be displaying ingratitude towards all those souls who were kind to a lonely, hungry child." And he continues to risk infection with his unshod condition, despite medical concern over his diabetic vulnerability to wounds.

He recalls those dark days, orphaned and destitute till a good soul— Haribhau Mane (in Umerkhet, Maharashtra)— sheltere d him. A school dropout, Pawar has laboured at several jobs— stone-cutting, cement-unloading, farm hand, mill-worker, cup-cleaning at tea stalls. So severe was the gnawing hunger that he decided to blanket his pain with death. "Lying jaundice-stricken at an Ujjain temple, I survived by eating the prasad. One day, a policeman thrashed me, calling me a chor. I wrapped my khaki pant— a school uniform I never got to use— around my stomach and filled it with heavy stones, planning to throw myself into the river nearby. But suddenly, that Nargis song—‘once you are born , you have no choice but to live’— came into my mind.

He stepped back from the precipice, but remembers its hungry void. When distributing prasad he sits with the people he was once a part of. An old habit— checking employment columns— persists, though his several business, including Sainath Road-ways Pvt Ltd, are booming. But he doesn’t stock up his earnings, he’s regularly giving it away, says admiring office hand, Ratanlal Sharma .

His wife Saraswati and six children are used to his "open hand" by now. Not too long ago, he’d sponsored a trip to the Shirdi temple, joining the pilgrims on the eight-day trek. He built a guest house for the Narpoli police station, the Latur earthquake sent him scurrying to disaster-hit spots with a team of doctors, ambulances, medicines, food and clothing. He’s planning a heart - care hospital for the poor— having undergone a cardiac operation, he appreciates the cost involved, "I’ve already acquired 80,000 sq ft for Rs 1 crore." The total expenditure will set him back by Rs 13 crore. "It’ll be my last attempt at saying thanks to all those who helped me in need," says Pawar, who has, till date, never taken any donations for his many charities. Nevertheless, his telephone number is: (Bhiwandi) 33633.

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