The Caravan Woman: Sunita Nerale

Silver Talkies meets Sunita Nerale, 60, the owner of camper van Caravan Sakhi, meant for long drives and lasting friendships.

Sunita Nerale is everything you expect and many things you don't. At 60, Nerale is the creator and owner of a camper van called Caravan Sakhi and probably one of the only women in India to be so. It's parked in her Pune home and she uses it for both personal trips and commercial activities. The senior entrepreneur has worked hard to make her spur-of-the-moment dream of owning a camper van come true. But it's the story behind that dream which makes her who she is.

When we meet her on a rainy day, she warmly greets us near the caravan,  proudly showing every corner, and telling us of her cherished travel plans, especially for groups of women. Many women still do not think of stepping out with their friends on their own, says Nerale. They worry about what their family would think, unfinished chores, and their safety. Nerale hopes her Caravan Sakhi will provide them with a day of fun and independence in a safe environment. After spending time with her, we aren't surprised that Nerale had this key thought guiding her while creating Caravan Sakhi. Despite facing many challenges in life, she has an infectious positivity and a never-say-no attitude. And she wishes there were more women like her, standing up for themselves and reclaiming their lives.

<b><i>Caravan Sakhi includes facilities like an oven, fridge, TV with OTT options, washroom, air conditioning, hot water, a mini kitchen, a separate water tank and much more. </i></b>
Caravan Sakhi includes facilities like an oven, fridge, TV with OTT options, washroom, air conditioning, hot water, a mini kitchen, a separate water tank and much more. 

Nerale grew up around strong, positive women. Her mother, a single woman, worked hard as a teacher, determined to give her daughter an education and a ground beneath her feet, which contributed much to her self-confidence. In 1985, Nerale finished a civil draftsmen course and began working as a civilian for the military in Pune. She was only 21 and worked hard, leaving her home at 5 a.m. to catch a train to her workplace. Hard work and putting herself forward were not alien to her. She took charge and made herself valuable, unlike other girls she observed. "I was a natural leader," she says, and looking at her, we have to agree. It's hard to imagine Nerale as anywhere but the forefront. There is an inborn leadership quality in her that makes her a woman to reckon with, even if that comes riddled with battling a society quick to point fingers at strong women.

Nerale circles back to her mother, now 84, when we mention this. "My mom had struggled as a single woman to raise me herself. She wanted me to stand on my own two feet and did not want to put any doubts and fears in me. It ensured I followed my path no matter what came."

The path has been a rocky one. Nerale's arranged marriage in her early 20s ended in divorce because her husband lied about his qualifications and work. She was criticized for working long hours and chatting with male colleagues. "My husband was weak, and his parents thought he would change after getting married. They wanted me to leave my secure job and fix their son!" Nerale tells us. "Women are not a factory for improving inefficient and incapable men, I told them!" 

After her divorce, Nerale focused on social work and her job. She enjoyed organizing activities and serving on employee welfare committees. "At work, I have always been a go-getter and a lone ranger," she says, in the context of being the only woman in several areas, at least in the early 90s.

Nerale never let setbacks in life hold her down; she remained lively and outgoing. "I had an interest in everything, whether it involved cooking, participating in competitions, dancing, organizing or facing court cases for pointing out corruption. I was game for it all."

Around this time, her life took a turn she didn't expect. She was abused and forced into a marriage with a violent man, from which she couldn't escape. It took 10 years for Nerale to get out of the relationship and put it behind her. She faced judgment from close relatives and friends who thought she lacked character. She remains stoic about it.

"I had no choice but to get married. We have all seen the fate of abused women in our society. Only women know what they go through. Only women know the decisions they make and why they make them. Unfortunately, it is also only the women who are judged. I lost over a decade of my life with these problems. It may have made me stronger, and given me the resources to cope with anything that comes up. But it also ensured I went from being a fun-loving, happy-go-lucky, outgoing girl to a woman hardened by fate. I don't much care what people think of me. I have to now live for myself."
- Sunita Nerale

As she restarted her life close to the 50s, Nerale left her job of 25 years. "I needed to do something that I enjoyed doing. I needed not to base my life on what people thought of me. I needed to start on a clean slate."

The idea of having a caravan came from a TV program and because Nerale wanted to "see the world". A campervan or caravan is a vehicle that you can both travel in and live in and is great for road trips. Nerale bought the vehicle and then used her drafting skills to design the campervan's interiors. Her vehicle is approved by the RTO and meets all the legal requirements.

<i><b>The caravan comes equipped with an entertainment system, mood lighting, comfortable sofa cum beds and lots of storage</b></i>
The caravan comes equipped with an entertainment system, mood lighting, comfortable sofa cum beds and lots of storage

Nerale's journey to Caravan Sakhi wasn't without challenges, but she is the kind of personality who chooses to look at the positives. "I knew I had to do this. So I didn't question it and steadily worked towards it. In fact, within the means I had, I have given this caravan the best quality design. When I have to do something for myself, why do it halfway?" she says, adding that she and her friends did a long-awaited personal trip to Hampi and Badami in Caravan Sakhi.

When we went to interview Nerale, we were expecting to meet a strong, active 60-year-old woman. We met that person and more. We encountered a woman who had endured hardships but still remained optimistic, helpful and ready to help others. She showed us around her caravan and explained every detail, her pride in the design evident.

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"This is a caravan meant for Indian families. We like doing things together. We like food when we travel. We like entertainment. There's space for everything." 

The back of the caravan holds a water tanker and even a foldable board for chopping vegetables. Ever thoughtful, Nerale has provided a separate space with an LCD player for the driver who may have long hours of waiting in the caravan during a picnic or long drive.

As we wrap up our interview with Nerale, she expresses her desire for more and more people to use the caravan - especially women who are finding friends as they grow older, women who are finding themselves, and women who are discovering independence. Nerale discovered it years ago but has found the time, space, and peace to act on it only now. We hope Caravan Sakhi takes her to many places.

Is there a dream you've discovered as you came close to your midlife like Nerale did? Let us know what it is in the comments below.

All images: Silver Talkies 

-- With inputs from Rushika Sharma

About the author

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Reshmi Chakraborty

Reshmi is the co-founder of Silver Talkies. She loves books, travel and photography.

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Malika Shaikh

10 Jan, 2024

King rules the kingdom, but it’s a queen who moves the board. Strong and courageous lady..

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02 Nov, 2023

admire the determination that got you to make a life from the ashes. God give you strength to work towards your other dreams. Love.

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30 Oct, 2023

How encouraging,hats off to her. Many of us need to learn from this about our happiness also ❣️

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Dr. Resham chavan

25 Oct, 2023

Good Initiative madam.

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Dr. Resham chavan

25 Oct, 2023

Good Initiative madam.

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Giriraj Nalawade

25 Oct, 2023

Nice to know about Sunita

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Sangeeta Bharadwaj

25 Oct, 2023

Truly proud of Sunita Nerale Madam!Keep shining like a star as you have been always...,,

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Digvijay kholamkar

24 Oct, 2023

Age is just a number but spark in our body remains on fire..... Here is an example of will power. Great going ma'am keep it up

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Dr Monali

24 Oct, 2023

She is really a wonderful lady. I have been knowing her since many years

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Sanjeev Yadav

24 Oct, 2023

Commendable job she has done, A brave lady and example for others.

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