This Indian man has been father of the bride - 472 times

Mr Savani with a group of brides during the pre-wedding henna function.
Mr Savani with a group of brides during the pre-wedding henna function.PHOTO: GAYATRI STUDIO

'Mahesh Papa' helps fatherless young women arrange marriages and even foots the bill

Mr Mahesh Savani, who has two sons, would have adopted a daughter had he not been stopped by relatives who called the move "unwise".

So, naturally, Mr Savani never imagined he would ever play a major role in a young woman's wedding.

Then, in 2008, a distant relative died, leaving his 20-year-old daughter, who was getting married in a week, in the lurch. Mr Savani stepped into the breach to help his deceased relative fulfil a father's duty. He not only completed the wedding arrangements but also paid for them. The wedding went off splendidly and the bride expressed her deep gratitude to him.

Said Mr Savani: "That's when I began to wonder about other girls, particularly those from a poor background, who had lost their father before they got married. I could imagine the fear and anxiety of the mother and daughter, wondering if they would ever find a bridegroom and pay for the wedding."

So Mr Savani, a 47-year-old property dealer based in Surat, Gujarat, decided his mission would be to pay for the wedding of any fatherless girl who came to him for help.

FAIRY-TALE WEDDING

My mother managed to get my two elder sisters married, but there was no money left for me... Then we heard of Mahesh Papa... it was a fairy tale. I've never possessed any gold or worn any outfit that wasn't a hand-me-down. And yet I had the most beautiful wedding

MS ASHA ROY, whose father died when she was three, on Mr Savani.

In the past eight years, he has helped a total of 472 fatherless young women - spending 400,000 rupees (about S$8,000) each time. The sum covers the cost of the venue, catering, gold jewellery and outfits for the bride, and also household items.

To ascertain the authenticity of a woman's claim, all that Mr Savani asks for is the death certificate.

"Once that is done, I treat them like my daughters. I make no distinction of caste or religion. Hindu, Muslim or Christian, high caste or low caste - anyone," said Mr Savani, who is a Hindu.

The first 47 weddings were held individually. But when the arrangements and organisation became too much for Mr Savani, who runs a real estate business and the P. P. Savani International School, he switched to holding mass weddings every December in the school grounds.

Last year's event saw 80,000 people, including the couples, their family members, relatives and friends.

"I ask all the earlier brides and their husbands to help out with the arrangements for the wedding, otherwise there is too much for me to do. So the earlier brides help shop for jewellery and clothes, and so on," said Mr Savani.

Ms Asha Roy, 27, has already started shopping for the next mass wedding, to be held on Dec 25 for 216 brides. She is one of Mr Savani's 472 "daughters" who got married in Surat in 2013, together with her younger sister.

Her father died of a brain haemorrhage when she was only three years old, according to Ms Roy.

"My mother managed to get my two elder sisters married but there was no money left for me or my younger sister," she said.

"Then we heard of Mahesh Papa and he helped us. For us, it was a fairy tale. I've never possessed any gold or worn any outfit that wasn't a hand-me-down. And yet I had the most beautiful wedding."

In India, not marrying is an option only for the very rich. For ordinary women like Ms Roy, marriage is their ineluctable destiny. Those unable to find a husband are deemed to have bad luck and looked upon as profoundly unfortunate. This is why widows and divorcees have no social status.

Even if a young fatherless woman has relatives willing to help arrange her marriage, they will struggle to find a suitable boy unless they have a hefty dowry. Having invested their hard-earned money on their sons' education, most Indian parents are loath to let their sons marry a woman without a dowry because it "negates" their investment.

Which is why what Mr Savani has been doing is a godsend for his "daughters". And he makes sure he does not disappear from their lives after they are married. He turns up at special occasions, festivals or births, bearing sweets and gifts.

"Mahesh Papa always keeps in touch by text and by phone. When my elder sister - whose marriage he also arranged - had some problems with her pregnancy, he was at the hospital in case she needed anything," said Ms Puja Prashant, 27, who got married in 2011.

She was 19 when her father died of a heart attack, just four days before her elder sister's wedding.

This was in 2008 when Mr Savani had just started on his mission. After hearing through relatives that Ms Prashant's mother had three daughters to marry off, he went to their home to reassure her that he would take care of the weddings.

"I saw the relief on my mother's face. It was like a huge burden being lifted from her and thrown away. She was so relieved she cried," recalled Ms Prashant. "Since then he has been like a big tree, sheltering my entire family and protecting us."

Mr Savani makes sure he finds time away from his business and school to keep in touch with his "daughters" and prepare for the Christmas Day mass wedding.

His wife, Bhavna, and two sons, now in their early 20s, support what he is doing.

"My relatives and I sometimes have a good laugh.

"Long ago, they advised me not to adopt a daughter and now I have 472 of them," said Mr Savani with a chuckle.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on July 03, 2016, with the headline 'Father of the bride - 472 times'. Print Edition | Subscribe