19-year-old Manya Singh (left) was crowned VLCC Femina Miss India 2020 runner-up in a ceremony last week Credit: Twitter/ @feminamissindia

Mumbai: At 14, she ran away from her UP home to Mumbai, the city of dreams, to make something of her life and at 20, Manya Singh, Miss India 2020 runner-up, believes she hasn’t just won a crown but earned herself a halo.

While the challenge for her parents — an autorickshaw driver and a housewife-turned beautician mother — was to keep the family of four afloat, Singh said she always had big dreams.

Born in Mumbai and raised in the small town of Hata Kushinagar district in Uttar Pradesh, the 19-year-old was crowned VLCC Femina Miss India 2020 runner-up in a ceremony last week.

“I was scared to even dream of Miss India. 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. I feel there’s a halo,” Singh told PTI in an interview.

Life has not been easy for her but Singh said she has been harder on her life.

“At 14, 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.”

Singh, who speaks fluently in English but switches to Hindi if she has to elaborate something, said she keeps revisiting moments when her family couldn’t afford even the most basic necessities like education.

From 4th standard till 10th, 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, which felt too distant from her dreams, Singh ran away from her village after she completed 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.

An emotional Singh recalls speaking to her father two days later.

“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 in Mumbai soon but the battle in the big city now awaited the small-town girl.

As she didn’t have enough money, Singh got a job at a Pizza outlet, which helped her complete her 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 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 but even 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 recognise her rebellious voice and support her larger-than-life dreams, but her parents found it incomprehensible.

“My parents were gobsmacked and 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.”

Singh also pushed her mother towards finding her independence.

“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 learned. The more people she met, she started broadening her horizon.”

Her mother’s newfound independence provided the base on which she finally flourished.

“When her 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 in her family, but she also got lucky with guiding mentors.

Singh was also reminded of the incident when her parents were told they would have had an easier life if they had an elder son.

“I decided to let my parents feel that their daughter is more capable than anyone else. I was quite determined to rise above,” she said.

Singh even spoke about her tough road to success during the competition. In an Instagram post, she described how she spent “numerous nights without food and sleep” to achieve her dream.

“I’ve spent many afternoons walking for miles on end. My blood, sweat, and tears have amalgamated into courage to pursue my dreams. Being a rickshaw driver’s daughter, I never had the opportunity to attend school as I had to start working in my teens. All the clothes I had were hand-me-downs.”

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