MIRA DEVI SHETH
I have always marvelled at some people’s ability to devote themselves whole-heartedly to the caring of animals, especially those who take strays under their wing. Naturally, when I heard 85-year-old Mira Devi’s story, I immediately wanted to write about her, document her work so that her efforts are recognised. I began filming her and realised that if there is one firebrand in Malad who is willing to take on anyone who challenges her, it’s definitely Mira Devi Sheth.
The first time I saw Mira Devi was during my exploration of Malad when I had just moved here. She was nestled comfortably in an auto-rickshaw, surrounded by buckets of food, supervising the feeding of Evershine Nagar’s stray dogs. The dogs, needless to say, excitedly flocked around her awaiting their evening meal. In her words, she has been doing ‘dog seva’ for 50 years.
Born in 1935, Mira Devi lived with her parents and two sisters at Grant Road. She was an extremely accomplished young girl with a business acumen, trained at the Nashik Bhonsle Military School in swimming, horse riding, shooting and lathi daav (stick fighting). While in college, she enrolled in stitching, typing and telephone operator classes to widen her horizons and secure her future in case of any problems. And, problems she faced.
She was hurriedly married off at the age of 22 through a family arrangement and sent to Orissa. Within 15 days of being wed, her mother-in-law began harassing her for a larger dowry which persisted for two full years. In 1957, when Mira gave birth to a son, the harassment got so bad that she left her husband, took her son and returned to Bombay for good. But, things didn’t get any easier. As a single-mother, she knew she had to work really hard and bring up her son in the best way possible.
Between the years 1963-64, she worked discreetly for two rival cloth mills in Mumbai, without either of them ever finding out. Always on the move, she used her travel time on the local trains to study various subjects, including journalism and business. Apart from taking care of her son and paying for his schooling, MiraDevi spent a lot of her free time taking care of the strays around Grant Road, but with limited medical knowledge and contacts. She also started her own stationary supply and printing business on the side, saving enough money to buy herself a small apartment in Malad.
She moved to Malad in 1977 to escape everyone constantly nagging her about her failed marriage and the fact that she was raising her son single-handedly. She and a friend started a private primary school for poor children in her living room which ran for 12 years till her son got married and they had to accommodate his family. It was only when her son gifted her a book about caring for dogs that she began her ritual with the strays of Malad full-swing. Now, 50 years later, if her son disagrees with her activities, she is quick to remind him that it’s all his fault. Her association with the National Association for the Blind for 20 years and the primary school are proof enough of Sheth’s spirit of kindness and love.
What began with 5 stray dogs has now grown into a family of 500. Mira Devi has developed an intricate network within the sprawling suburb and is always on call, especially when it comes to abandoned and homeless dogs. She is associated with SPCA Mumbai as well as the neighbouring veterinary hospitals and has admitted a number of sick and injured dogs using her own finances. Over the years, as her commitment to the animals became more serious, she sold all her gold jewellery her mother and sister gifted her to pay for the increasing amounts of food she had to buy.
There has, however, been opposition on all fronts. Be it the local dada of Malad who (according to MiraDevi) went around murdering dogs in order to rob houses minus the ruckus they create with their barking or the BMC who, in 2008, put a fine of Rs.500 on the feeding of stray dogs and birds in public places. But, Mira Devi found a way around all these challenges, continuing to feed the animals to this day. She is afraid of no one and is still, despite her age, willing to fight anyone who tells her she’s wrong. In her case, at the end of the day, the heart wants what the heart wants.
There is a certain spirituality connected with Mira Devi’s dedication to her animals. An ardent follower of Sathya Sai Baba, she bestows a great deal of faith in the love she receives from these animals – an emotion most humans find difficult to express. What others see as a hindrance, she sees as God’s work and this is exactly what motivates her to step out every evening and feed every single stray in the locality.
And, she is not alone. She is accompanied by Raj, her current auto-rickshaw driver who owns 40 cats in the neighbouring slum and whose mother cooks the meat that Mira Devi buys specially for the dogs. Due to religious constrictions, Mira only prepares the vegetarian portions and outsources the meat preparations. Suresh, Raj’s younger brother is a kung-fu trainee and animal lover who joins him in the evenings to help the old lady. There are several little boys and girls from Raj’s slum who join her whenever they can, their fondness for the dogs blatantly apparent. But, as beautiful as this simple act of kindness is, one is acutely aware of the money that goes into this elaborate plan. “It totals up to 60 thousand rupees a month, with the food and auto expenses and the boy’s salaries.” Mira, however, doesn’t believe in hiding away her savings, donating it all to the cause.
MiraDevi has faced every obstacle with the obstinacy of a determined child. Her only fear at this stage in her life is the fate of her dogs when she passes and this gives her sleepless nights. She is extremely aware of her mortality and doesn’t shy away from it, which is probably why her heart soars when she sees some of the society folk follow in her footsteps. “In my life, I regret nothing,”she says, mirroring a fact I’m absolutely certain of from all the time I’ve spent with her.