At the age of 20, when she started a menial job at a Mumbai branch of the State Bank of India (SBI) following her husband’s death, little did Pratiksha Tondwalkar imagine that she would become one of the lender’s top officials 37 years later.
Tondwalkar started her career as a sweeper, not even having finished school. Determined to seek a better life for herself and her son, she studied and worked hard and now has been elevated to the post of assistant general manager at the country’s largest lender.
Tondwalkar’s story is of significance in India’s male-dominated banking sector. Women, often socially repressed, have had to traverse those extra miles to build their careers by going against societal norms while simultaneously having to take care of their families. Tondwalkar’s story was no different, as Moneycontrol found out after reaching out to her.
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Tondwalkar was born in Pune in 1964. Her parents were poor and married her off to Sadashiv Kadu at the age of 16, before she could complete her class 10 exams.
Kadu was based in Mumbai and worked as a book binder at SBI. After a year, when her first son Vinayak was born, the family decided to travel to the village with the new-born son to thank the Almighty. Little did she know that her life was about to change forever.
During the trip, Kadu met with an accident and died. Tondwalkar, widowed at the age of 20, was shattered. She would have to fend for herself and her son.
“At that time, I had to visit the SBI branch to collect the remaining dues of my husband,” Tondwalkar told Moneycontrol. “I knew I had to take up a job but I was not qualified. So, I asked the bank to help with a job so that I could survive.”
That was when Tondwalkar landed a part-time job as a sweeper at the bank. She worked for two hours in the morning sweeping the branch premises, cleaning the washrooms and dusting the furniture, earning Rs 60-65 a month. The rest of her time was devoted to other small menial jobs, sustaining life in Mumbai and taking care of her son.
Quite unusually, though, working in the bank as a sweeper only spurred her aspirations.
“I knew I was not meant for this. I saw people working at the office and I knew I wanted to be one of them,” she said.
Tondwalkar began asking around about how she could finish her class 10 exams. She approached a few bank officials who were more than willing to support her. They helped her fill the exam forms and even granted her a month’s leave to study.
Her biggest hurdle was to get books and study material. Fortunately, her relatives, friends and colleagues pitched in and got her the study material and helped her clear the class 10 exams with a score of 60 percent.
“I loved reading books and that came handy,” said Tondwalkar. “I made it a point to study every chapter and ask the most basic questions to everyone around. That paid off.”
No looking back
After clearing her exams, there was no looking back. Tondwalkar knew she had to clear the banking exams to lift herself out of her financial stress and secure a future for her son. Banking exams needed a minimum qualification of clearing class 12.
“My economic condition was in tatters. I hardly earned anything,” said Tondwalkar. “To secure my house and take care of my son was a task, but I had to come out of this. Whenever he (Vinayak) asked for a packet of biscuits, I would get off one stop early on the bus just so that I could save the money to be able to afford them.”
Tondwalkar decided to join a night college in Mumbai’s Vikhroli with the help of her savings. She studied with the help of colleagues, passed the class 12 exams and went on to graduate in psychology in 1995 by opting for a night college. That was when she was promoted as a clerk at the bank.
“It was difficult for me, as a single mother, to beat all the odds and take a stand for myself, especially to study,” said Tondwalkar. “Societal pressure is intimidating. I often had to choose between my son and my career, but I had to tell myself that I am doing it for him (Vinayak).”
In 1993, Tondwalkar decided to marry for the second time to Pramod Tondwalkar. Her husband, a bank messenger, was supportive and encouraged her to appear for the banking exams. They had two children, and her husband helped her raise them and took care of household chores. His parents were not supportive of her, so he parted ways with them to help his family.
“You are nothing without your family; luckily for me their support had been immense,” said Tondwalkar. “Even when Pramod had a paralysis attack, he made sure he served me tea while studying and never made a fuss when I had transfers.”
Her eldest son Vinayak also stepped up to support the family and encouraged his mother to study more and never give up.
In 2004, Tondwalkar was elevated to a trainee officer, then eventually she scaled the various officer grades before being promoted as an AGM in June.
More to go
Tondwalkar now has two years before she retires. Her perseverance, grit and determination during her 37-year stint with SBI paid off, but it’s not the end of the road for her.
Tondwalkar completed a naturopathy course in 2021 and after retirement, she wants to put that knowledge to use and serve the people.
“When I look back at my journey, it all seems impossible to me, but I am glad to have pulled it off,” Tondwalkar said, almost in tears. “If someone is in depression or is demotivated, my story should reach out and inspire them.”