It was like the world had stopped. I held her tiny body in my arms and froze. I couldn’t stop staring at this beautiful child on my lap; it felt like my life had found its purpose!” exclaims Annapurna Dash.
Annapurna is a 63-year-old woman, who has dedicated her life, not to one, but 27 abandoned and orphaned children, and this moment was the beginning of it all.
Popularly known as the Mother of Orphans, she adopted all these children with a single objective—to give them a better life and future.
“It is not as though I always wanted to do this. I had just joined an NGO to gain work experience, and in the first week itself, the responsibility of an infant was given to me. She was only a day old. The way I felt with her in my arms, decided my future,” she shares with The Better India.
Growing up in a middle-class family in Jamshedpur, Annapurna always harboured a desire to work for the society. After completing her masters in Economics, she decided to join the SOS Children’s Village, a child care NGO, in Bhubaneswar.
“I wanted to study law because I thought it would equip me with the ability to fight for the rights of the voiceless. But, at that time Jamshedpur did not have many opportunities, so instead, I studied Economics, while nursing a deep desire to work in the field of social welfare. And right after I completed my Masters, the opportunity arrived through a newspaper ad which SOS had placed,” she added.
The advertisement by SOS was enquiring for a volunteer mother for orphaned children. Upon applying, Annapurna was nervous, especially because she had no prior experience caring for children.
However, her stellar academic scores and keen interest in working in the field, soon got her selected. She was then sent to a Mother’s Training Centre in Faridabad, and returned to Bhubaneshwar in 1990, to begin mothering orphan children.
Over a period of time, she realised that only love, attention and care were the only required criteria to truly become a mother.
However, the choice to lead an unconventional life faced resistance in the initial stages.
“Like most parents, mine too must have dreamt of seeing me married and playing with their grandchildren, but when I told them that I would want to become an SOS mother and help children, they understood and supported my decision. Now they have 27 grandchildren in total!” laughs Annapurna.
The 1999 Cyclone
Her journey to motherhood was a jagged path of difficulties and biggest one arrived with the 1999 Odisha Super Cyclone.
As the natural disaster continued to ravage everyday life, hundreds of children lost their parents and were given shelter at the SOS village.
“We were all hit. There was a severe lack of proper medical facilities or even basic necessity items to cater to the needs of the children. As a result, many fell seriously ill, and it was extremely challenging to help them all amid so much chaos. I remember how I use to run from one bed to the other, to make sure that they were doing fine. We didn’t have enough mothers to take care of so many kids, but fortunately compassion was never a scarcity here, and together we sailed through,” she recalled.
After working in the SOS village for a few years, Annapurna decided to retire from the job in 2015, but not motherhood. She did not marry or even return back to her biological family, and instead adopted 27 children who could no longer stay at the NGO for being past 18 years of age.
One of her daughters, Upasana Dash (25), shares how their relationship transformed their lives forever.
“ I was only a 3-month-old baby when I was brought to the SOS village and given to mother Annapurna for care. But I got to know that I was an orphan only in Class 5. I was shocked but also felt fortunate to have such a loving and caring mother. Even our grandparents would continue to visit hours with gifts and toys every year. This is my family, and no one can take that away from me,” she said.
In the last 26 years, all her children, have managed to find success and independence in their respective lives. While Upasana works as a media coordinator in an NGO, her sister Archana Kaul (23) is pursuing her MCA and sister Rakhi Dash (19) is studying BBA.
One of the youngest sons in the family, Abhishekh Dash (20), is studying audiology in Chennai and is preparing for MBBS.
“Seeing my children grow into such amazing human beings is the only reward I can hope for from God. It’s what I will cherish till the end of my days,” added Annapurna with pride.
Like Annapurna, her children also feel extremely lucky to have found her. “She is our best friend, our mother, our father, our god, our everything! The amount of unconditional love that she has showered on us is immeasurable. In all these years she taught us the most important lesson—‘love triumphs all,’” Upasana concludes.
(Edited by Gayatri Mishra)