At the age of 14, Manya Singh ran away from home in Uttar Pradesh's small town Hata and came to Mumbai to realise her "big dreams". Today, at 20, Singh, the Miss India 2020 runner-up, believes she hasn't just won a crown but earned herself a halo.
"I was scared to even dream of Miss India," Singh, who was crowned VLCC Femina Miss India 2020 runner-up last week, told PTI. "I would often get goosebumps and feel how can someone like me carry this big a dream. But today when it has come true, there's this sense of peace that I made it, that I've made my parents proud."
Life has not been easy for her, she said, referring to the struggles her father, an an autorickshaw driver, and mother, a beautician, faced in making ends meet.
"I saw girls around me enjoying their life, wearing good clothes, attending school. I was aware my life isn't like theirs because I didn't have the same privilege," she said.
From Class IV till Class X, her parents were only able to afford exam fees at Lohia Inter College, Sahwa, and at one point, her mother was forced to sell her anklet to get her admission. "Miss India wasn't my childhood dream. But I was sure I didn't want to be a doctor or an engineer. That would have made my parents happy but I didn't want a simple life. I wanted some 'masala'," she said.
Feeling caged at her home in Uttar Pradesh, Singh ran away after completing high school. "I took a train from Gorakhpur to Mumbai and arrived at Kurla station. I was born in Kandivali so I immediately came to the area," she said.
Recalling speaking to her father two days after arriving in the big city, she said, "When a girl runs away, people start talking about you. This isn't only limited to Uttar Pradesh but across the country. Naturally, my parents were worried. When I called my father, he started crying. In a broken voice, he asked me what was I doing there all alone. But I had to run away."
Her family followed their daughter to Mumbai soon. Her struggles in the city, meanwhile, had already started. As she didn't have enough money, Singh got a job at a pizza outlet, which helped her complete junior college.
"I would mop the floor, do dishes, and also sleep in the storeroom. On the job, I observed how people carried themselves, how they'd dress up, talk to each other. It was a massive learning for me for the entire year that I worked there," she said. She later joined a call centre and worked in several companies throughout her graduation to support herself financially.
"There, I polished my language, worked on my diction and voice. I started work to support my education. That shaped up my personality and prepared me for Miss India."
The pageant became a goal only a year after her arrival in Mumbai. She said she realised that a platform like Miss India would support her larger-than-life dreams, but her parents didn't understand. "My parents felt I had gone crazy. 'People like us don't even dream, and you're thinking of Miss India crown?' they said. My father would always tell me, there are more heels in my bag than books! Somewhere they were scared because I didn't even have a Plan B." Singh said she always followed her heart but never at the cost of dismissing her parents' concern. It's also why, she said, she always kept them informed about her goals and made them a part of her big decisions.
"I heard their insecurities, respected their fears but didn't lose hope. When they saw me work hard, then the way they supported me, it became my strength."
Her journey to Miss India not only became about where she wanted to see herself but also about how many women she could help find their way, Singh said, adding that it had something to do with the discrimination that she and her mother faced because of their gender.
"I wanted to be the voice of those women who are told they don't have the right to speak, who are confined, especially in villages," she said. "I wanted a change in my life and I began that with my mother, who was a housewife. I pushed her to get a job... I asked her to train as a beautician. She learned to do eyebrows in our village. When we shifted to Mumbai, she worked in beauty parlours for free and learnt. When my mother's dreams were fulfilled, she realised the value of mine. She started supporting me and once she was on board, naturally my father followed."
Singh had to face failed attempts at the Miss India pageant but now she was not alone. Not only she found unconditional support from her family but also from mentors.
"I've spent many afternoons walking for miles on end. My blood, sweat, and tears have amalgamated into courage to pursue my dreams," she said.