Friday, January 04, 2013

An old woman and her dogs

Just to spread the word about one of the most amazing people I know: an old woman who lives in a small makeshift shanty next to the PVR Anupam complex in Saket (near the entrance leading to the main parking lot). Pratima Devi – called “Amma” by most of her acquaintances – has been looking after street dogs for years now, on her meagre earnings from collecting and selling reusable garbage. She feeds them, gets them sterilised through Friendicoes or other local organisations; dozens of them sleep huddled together in and around her little home – it’s a truly wondrous sight for anyone who knows how territorial street dogs are, and how aggressively they keep newcomers from encroaching on their spaces.





I’ve only actually known Pratima Devi for the past six months, though we have both been in Saket – living five minutes apart – since 1987. I was vaguely aware of her existence over the years: when passing her side of the PVR complex on winter nights, I would see a couple of charpoys with dogs on them, a bonfire burning nearby. Once or twice I saw her looking very dishevelled, yelling at someone in what seemed an ill-tempered way, and I may have formed the impression that she was a belligerent nutcase who communicated only with animals and didn’t like people.

There was a story with a very interior, contemplative tone that I read as a child in one of our Hindi textbooks – I forget the title, but the premise has stayed with me all these years, long after much of what I learnt in school has been forgotten. It was told in the voice of a privileged man who sees a poor person and wants to go across and talk – to try and understand something of this person’s life and circumstances – but finds an invisible force holding him back; some combination of self-consciousness, social conditioning and perhaps an internal prejudice that makes him believe meaningful communication with someone from such a different background is impossible.


Whatever the case, though I was intrigued by the “kutton waali amma” who was often spoken of in our colony, I didn’t make an effort to come close or get to know her. That changed last June, after Foxie went. Driven by an urge that overrode all our hesitations and procrastinations, we went across and said namaste to Pratima Devi, and were relieved to find that she was extremely warm and friendly, and most happy to talk – not just about the dogs but about her life, and ours.

As we spoke to her over the next few days, many little details emerged. She left her village in West Bengal’s Nandigram in the early 1980s, she told us, mainly to get away from her husband, a lout and wastrel. She once worked as an ayah for the family of the actor-model Rahul Dev (and is still in occasional touch with them). A tea-stall she ran in the spot where she currently lives was shut down by the MCD; later she set up a little temple against the wall near her shack – it has, in a way, legitimised her presence, made it more acceptable to the people around (including the many youngsters who park their bikes nearby and are unnerved by the dogs). One of her sons lives in Sangam Vihar, working as a mistri – she has the option of staying with him (I’ve met him, he seems a kindly, concerned chap), but she can’t leave her dogs, and besides one senses that self-sufficiency is important to her. She was awarded a Godfrey Phillips prize for “social courage” a few years ago and proudly shows photos from the ceremony to anyone who visits her. She has applied for an Aadhaar card but is puzzled by the complications of the procedure; a card was once despatched but never made it to her because she has no fixed address. (I’ve seen the application form – it simply says “Near Saket Shauchalay, PVR Complex”.) Many of the dogs have film-star names - Raj Kumar, Dharmendra - which they live up to with their strutting and preening.


Every week or so I go across and check on Pratima Devi, take some food, but hardly ever has she given the impression of being in need. When I show up and ask if I can get some bread and milk for the dogs from the nearby Mother Dairy, she nods with an indulgent little smile, as if she is doing me a favour (and of course, in a post-Foxie world, she is). Or if the evening’s ration has already arrived, she asks me to come after a day or two, or to call her beforehand to check. On one occasion my mother, cradling one of the new pups, remarked aloud that she felt like adopting this one. You’d think that Pratima Devi, given her hand-to-mouth situation, would be only too glad for people to take dogs off her hand, but she practically jumped up and said “Nahin nahin! Abhi yeh bahut chhoti hai – isse mere paas kuch din aur rehna do.” (“No, she’s too little now – let me look after her for a few more days.”)

But it isn’t my intention to paint a rosy picture of her life. One often hears clichés about the “warm smiles” of the poor – clichés built on the sentimentalising of poverty, on the self-serving myopia of the well-off person who chances to see poor people in their moments of relative comfort and tells himself “They have nothing, but look how happy they are.” I have felt strongly about such hypocrisy for a long time, so it came as a jolt to me one day when I realised I may have been adopting a similar attitude to Pratima Devi; taking for granted her apparently infinite capacity for cheerfulness and optimism.

It happened on a day I went to see her after more than a week. She was with a couple of her associates – a parking attendant and another garbage-collector – and looking more depressed and agitated than I had ever seen her. The previous few days had been particularly hard: she had been laid up with a bad fever and cold, had been unable to work or to go to INA market to buy meat for the dogs, and it happened to be one of those phases when hardly anyone had come across to see her or offer help - her son wasn’t in town either.

Moaning through a backache, describing how one of her pups (a tiny Dalmatian, abandoned by some heartless sub-human) had a festering wound and was being treated by a local doctor for an exorbitant Rs 100 a day, gentle Pratima Devi muttered and fumed, half to herself, half to us: she used maa-behen gaalis as she spoke of a man who had promised to help her secure an electricity connection through the MCD, but who had then made off with more than a thousand rupees. “Gareebon ka sab phaaydaa uthaate hain,” she wailed, her face showing no trace of its characteristic warmth and openness. She wondered aloud what would happen to her dogs after she passed on. (It’s a thought that worries everyone who knows her; though these are street dogs, they are more pampered and loved than many house pets. When she’s away even for an hour or two, they get restless and start chasing after passing autorickshaws to see if she has returned.)

This encounter was a bucket of cold water in my face. I have seen her many times since that day, and she has mostly been back to her upbeat self – but that one day, when the mask slipped, is not something to forget.

I didn’t intend this post as a call for aid, but Pratima Devi has had more bad days than good ones recently (being old and living on the street as the Delhi winter gets worse will do that), and she could always do with some help, even if she doesn’t ask for it. So do go across and see her if you are in Saket sometime, and if you like dogs. (I wouldn’t normally put in that second proviso – Pratima Devi is well worth meeting even if you aren’t an animal-lover – but one must be practical and spell out these things; if you get within 10 feet of her you’ll have to contend with a few dogs first growling softly and then, when they know you mean no harm, sniffing or nuzzling you.) Or if you’re interested in meeting her but would prefer a sort of “introduction”, send me an email and I’ll take you across.

P.S. must say this, though I wish I didn’t have to. It infuriates me that people sometimes come by in their cars and leave their animals with this poor old woman, treating her like a fully funded animal shelter – which she emphatically is not. (Not that registered animal shelters have it easy either.) Her heart is big enough for all these dogs (her son tells me she holds the compassionate but highly impractical view that she should get bitches spayed only after they have had one litter of pups), but it increases her burden enormously, as well as adding to her worries about the future. So please, DO NOT use her as a dumping ground for unwanted pets.


P.P.S. Here's a photo of Pratima Devi with two of her friends at an event held to mark Anti-Rabies Day; Abhilasha went with her.

29 comments:

  1. Hello - lovely to read about her. I stay in kolkata - when i go to delhi i will make it a point to go and meet her. Is there anyway I can help? I would love to send across a parcel for her and her dogs

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  2. Thanks very much for the offer, Anastasia. Money and provisions is not too much of a problem just now - the bigger issue is that she is living in a makeshift little hut with no walls or ceiling, in this weather. We are trying to work out what, if anything, can be done about that. But yes, do go across and see her when you're in Delhi. And email me if you need to (jaiarjun@gmail.com).

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  3. Reminds me of the bird lady from Home Alone 2

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  4. Beautiful. I will remember her the next time I'm trying to talk myself out of stepping out of my comfort zone to help those in need.

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  5. Jai: I used to stay in Saket too. J-Block actually and I am sad to say I never had the good fortune to meet her or you even once during my stay there. I would love sending her a monthly amount every month if that would help her. I realize it isn't a problem now, but it could help her now or later. Mail me if that would help her.

    And thanks again for writing about the things that still make me feel human and living and not just a corporate bot.

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  6. this is such a touching story .. i would love to meet her.. she's truly an inspiration.. a genuine doglover knows true meaning of unconditional love

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  7. this is such an inspirational story.. as a dog lover it is my dream to create a safe haven fr dogs someday.. i would really like to meet her...

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  8. Loved reading it and knowing about her ..

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  9. I visited your blog after such a long time (I have been a consumer mostly of your scientifically-minded posts) and I wasn't disappointed. Pratima Devi's story inspired me to write something myself. And I have always believed that anything that can inspire one to create must be something beautiful.

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  10. I've been a lurker on this blog for the longest time and the title of your post gave me a jolt.
    There is an old lady with a cart and several dogs on a short cut route that i take home from work. Every day i used to see her feeding the dogs, cuddling them, sitting on the pavement with all their heads pushing for room on her lap or something. I always thought I'd stop, get a milk packet for the dogs but never did.
    A couple of days back she disappeared along with her cart and the dogs. I've been wondering what happened to her so when I saw the title I thought this was about her.
    It isn't of course.
    I live in Bangalore and cannot drop by but if there is any other way I can help, with money or blankets, I'd love to! Pls tell how!

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  11. Add me as another offer of help from far away if such help is ever needed. Perhaps when I am in Delhi in February (yay!) and she does not mind saying hello to non-Hindi-speakers, I can stop by.

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  12. Hello,

    Your blog being a popular one and with your taking the initiative of starting this thread, I would like to take the opportunity of bring a few points to be pondered, discussed and be brought down to a solution possible. They goes as follows :

    >>> Street Dogs are found everywhere in India, moreover there has been a rampant increase in their no. in every city no matter a metro (like yours) or a non-metro(like mine).

    >>> Not every street dog is lucky enough to find a compassionate person to love him/her and taken care off. e.g. A few days ago I saw a dog with half his skull crushed walking on the road with no one to take him for medication, he might have died ( I too didn't help, I confess).

    >>> There are many diseases, infections that they can carry. Also news of people and children getting bitten by some street dog gone crazy is frequent to our ears.

    >>> My heart aches thinking of the poor plight of dogs (female dogs) when in nights I hear them crying with pain that they have to face every night probably. (More so they become a carrier of infection with their bleeding bodies.)

    I have tried to find the website of the authorities concerned for these matters but the webpage didn't open.

    At the root of it I think one of the reason is that these street dogs are of no use to anyone thus remain wasted. Is there any way in which they can be used so that they may become dependent even partially and are like of worthy like Guarding Dogs?

    Can we do something about them ?

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  13. trip-per: well, there was quite a discussion about this and related subjects out here a few months ago - around the time I wrote this post. Also see Nilanjana's post, which came soon after that. No easy solutions, I suspect, especially in a milieu where even fancy "breed" dogs are frequently abandoned by their humans.

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  14. Thanks again, everyone. Beth: look forward to seeing you in Feb. And again, anyone who would like to go across and meet Pratima Devi, don't hesitate to email me at jaiarjun@gmail.com.

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  15. Wonderful article! Indeed there are many kind spirits in this world. Pratima is one.

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  16. Jai, this is beautiful. Thanks. Will definitely go and meet amma and her dogs. :)

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  17. Thank you for writing about Pratima Devi, Jai! I was a frequent lurker until I read this post. This story moved me and brought me a lot of joy. A some what similar story that I read today - http://www.nytimes.com/2013/01/10/garden/300-cats-and-counting.html

    Jai, I would like to help her monetarily, so please let me know if an opportunity like that arises. If I am ever in Delhi, I'd love to meet her.

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  18. I am really in awe of her... I often feel too helpless to do anyhting meaningful, and here is Pratima Devi living a truly worthwhile life. I can imagine her anxieties. It is extremely worrying to leave behind creatures as vulnerable as animals. There was a saint-mystic in Kanyakumari some decades back. Her name is Mai Maa. She too had dogs as her companions. Her dogs too used to growl at newcomers and then she would cajole them and they would be quiet.

    I wonder if using a sleeping bag would lessen the impact of cold. It is a piddly suggestion. Perhaps someone has already thought of it. I will pray for her.

    Thanks for writing this Jai.

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  19. Perhaps the Hindi story you refer to is Yaspal's Dukh Ka Adhikar... Yes, I too would like to meet her. But I am a trifle scared of her even as I don't know her. I know that you say that she is sweet and welcoming. But life is so tough on the streets. I am scared I might get rebuffed. Perhaps this has nothing to do with her... I am sure if ever I am able to meet her, I would like it very much.

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  20. thankyou... i have been crying for the last 2 mins reading foxie's post and this post..

    Everyday some selfless people like here never cease to amaze me which makes me wonder, is the human race as degradable as it seems ???

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  21. Lovely post. There's no end to the sadness that is the life of our stray animals. Yet, what can we do?

    I'd first adopted two street dogs, and then a cat (whom I've lost), and yet, the treatment I get from neighbours, brokers, landlords, and at times even from my own family is as if I've done something wrong.

    Suffice to say that in three years I've been asked to leave thrice by my landlords - and mostly because of neighbour's complaints.

    The complaints were regarding barking of the dogs and one irritating habit of my cat... that had me doing the cleaning job after he was done with the deed. Are my dogs aggressive? The answer is "no" and I have an SPCA certificate to prove it.

    I can admit this - Animals may nit very pleasant always, but I fear this kind of society where one person gets evicted, mocked at, and persecuted simply for standing up for a little act of kindness that should, in fact, come naturally to all.

    In fact, the only kindness, something as simple as buying a packet of Parle G for the local stray, is something I've seen in the poorly paid guards and maids of my locality. Apparently, the relatively well-off middle class is too busy building a life that is increasingly shutting itself out from normal human feelings.

    I have a full time MNC job. I have enough money and that's the reason I could take the animals off the street - I don't envisage spending another's money for that.

    However, I do know for a fact that there are people better paid than me, who would not help out an animal simply because they don't care.

    It's this attitude we need to address as a nation and society, more than the need for funds, I think.

    However, if you can send me Pratima Devi's account number, I can send some money her way every month. I'm in Pune and that's all I can do as for now.

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  22. Sampurna: thanks for the comment, and yes, I can relate to what you say here - had addressed similar issues of human apathy in this post a few months ago.

    I'll ask Pratima Devi about her account details - hope she still has one running, because the last I heard she had some paperwork problems (mostly related to not having a proper address). But will let you know soon. Could you send me your email ID - you can mail me at jaiarjun@gmail.com. Thanks.

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  23. Hello Jai, thanks a lot for your post - just stumbled across it by a lucky chance.
    First of all, how wonderfully brave Pratima is! I used to have a foster home for unwanted dogs, with 14 dogs over 3 years, and I must say it was sometimes tough, despite all the help given by the Polish ASPCA (Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals), family and neighbours. So I have to say a big chapeau bas to Pratima, especially that what she does, she does against all odds.
    And of course, I'd love to have a chance of saying hello to her while I'm in Delhi, which is very soon, in March.
    And then, but please do not get me wrong, but it transpired from some of the comments here, as well as was frankly expressed by Jai - the story also shows one more thing to me: how hard it has become for you, educated and broad-minded Indians, to approach someone underprivileged and much below your class. Is it just so surprising to a limited western mind and simply, shows unbridgeable cultural differences?
    Is it human apathy to the fate of dogs or people? Or is it just the stigma of social stratification?
    Anoushka

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  24. dear anoushka,
    with regard only to the last point you make and question you raise, i have to say apathy to man or animal is hardly, hardly peculiar to the non-western world. there is endless history to be cited to demonstrate the full culpability of the 'west' in attitudes like these. but one example from the realm of animal welfare itself would be the fact that it is the policy of SPCAs in several WESTERN nations to kill off pounded dogs on a timebound basis. In India that is against the law.
    My point is not to get into an east versus west debate here but to argue against an implication to that effect in your comment. Apathy and cruelty are a human thing, i would say, even as sensitivity and compassion are too. And if the former must be correlated to any social formation, it would be affluent materialism that, as one blogger also suggested, takes us further and further away from our natural emotional responses.
    Finally, I think the point that some of the commentators were trying to make about their reluctance/hesitation to approach the poor was not about apathy at all -- or they wouldn't be here raising the point in the first place -- but the psychological challenge and self-consciousness of getting out of their comfort zones. That they are becoming self-aware and articulating their contradictions is a huge step forward in eventually, hopefully overcoming their limitations and taking to active kindness.

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  25. Pratima is a passionate lover of dogs and, therefore, her life revolves around their upkeep and safety. She is a good mother to them and her simplistic life is her way and nothing pleases her more than to see her family grow. Yes, people should voluntarily help her to be able to give a better life to her loved creatures.

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  26. Hi! I know this blog is a year old, but could you help her setup a bank account solely for dog funds and circulate the account number.

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    1. Kannya: thanks - she does have a bank account at a nearby bank in the PVR complex. If you want details of that, do email me at jaiarjun@gmail.com.

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