Meet Punam Patel, a Gujarati farmer's daughter who defied all odds to become a doctor

When Babubhai Patel had the second of his three daughters, fellow villagers sympathised with him. The poor cattle farmer would have to sell off his cows to marry off his daughters they said aloud. For no one in Kangvi, a village of 200-odd inhabitants in Gujarat, had even been to college. And like many of their brothers in India’s rural heartland, they also looked upon the girl child as a financial burden.It’s ironic therefore that it took a woman to show them the road to higher education, and to make the entire village proud! This alone makes the story of Punam Patel worthy of a film.

Today, Babubhai smiles from ear to ear when asked about his girls, his chest brimming with pride. His eldest daughter, is a government officer and the youngest is preparing for her higher secondary exams. But it’s his middle daughter Punam who is creating waves. Having attended school for 10 years after working the mornings in the farm, Punam left home to pursue higher education and is a Bachelor in Homeopathic Medicine and Surgery (BHMS) from Anand.

Punam with her father Babubhai. Pic courtesy/ Vishlesh Deshmukh

Fighting against odds
The story of the cattle farmer’s daughter, who is a certified homoeopath working in a leading hospital in Anand today, has already reached the ears of those in power in Indic Inc with a leading multi national company coming out with an outdoor advertising campaign featuring the
father-daughter duo.

So what’s Punam’s story?
Twenty-four-year-old Punam is the first medical practitioner from her village and also by far the most educated person in the area. Today, as her fellow villagers readily admit, she has become an inspiration for all the boys and girls in her village. “It’s all thanks to my hard work, dedication and most importantly, the support I got from my family,” she says as we catch up with her in the MiD DAY office. This incidentally is her first visit to a ‘big city’ and the village belle is overawed by the sheer grandeur of it all. 

Punam Patel's home in Kangvi. Pic courtesy/ Vishlesh Deshmukh

“Back in Kangvi, a remote village in Dharampur tehsil of Valsad district in Gujarat, most of us rely on milk farming as the main source of income. No one has come to the city before,” she smiles. 

Vikram Sinha, the filmmamker whose ad film brought Punam to the limelight, says, "When we started our research to make a film on “life of a dairy farmer”, we met a person called Laljibhai who introduced us to one of the most prosperous farmers of that area Baap bhai (Babubhai). On meeting himi I realised that more than him, the story on her daughter Poonam would be more powerful. I proposed to change the protagonist from Babubhai to Poonam Ben, who at that time was studying in a medical college in Anand.. The client and the creative team instantly approved the idea."

The film has since then won a number of interbational awards.

“Mumbai is a huge city,” are her first words when she greets us. So how does it feel to be a face in hoardings across the city? “It feels good to get recognition. It has been a tough journey to achieve my goal, I had to overcome poverty, lack of proper meals and of course social barriers that prevent most poor girls in our country from getting proper education,” she says.

Punam says her childhood years were spent mostly helping her father in the farm. “My day began at the crack of dawn, milking cows, cutting fodder, grazing the cattle before I went to school. I returned home and got back to the farm chores. It was only at night that I got time to do my homework,” she recalls. Yet, Punam always stood first in her class.

Thankfully, Babubhai quickly realised the importance of education and ensured that all his three daughters received proper education. Punam’s elder sister completed her graduation and works with the forest department and her younger sibling will appear for her higher secondary exams next year.

Of course it was a challenge for the farmer to overcome the taunts of villagers for sending his girls to school. “My father toiled for years in the farm to raise money for our education, which made us all even more determined to do well,” adds Punam. Babubhai finally opens up and adds, “Punam is a bright kid and always stood first. She had set her sights on becoming a doctor from a very early age.” Indeed, as Punam says, “Since class three, I wanted to become a doctor and I told my class teacher about my ambition.” Babubhai laughs when he remembers how the little girl had scribbled, ‘I will become a doctor’ on every wall of her house, to motivate herself.

Then came the moment of truth. In order to pursue higher education, Punam left her village after completing her primary education. The closest high school was 35 kilometres away and daily commute was not feasible. Hence, Punam stayed in a hostel and completed her schooling. Her academic excellence earned her a scholarship from the Gujarat government and helped her complete her medical studies.

Punam tells us she intends to pursue a higher degree in homeopathy, but for now wants to continue working in the hospital and gain experience. Her main objective, she says is “to help the people in my village who are still forced to travel far for proper medical assistance.” India needs more Punams. And India also needs more Babubhais!

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