Reflections on a Poem

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By: Minna Kabir

Dear BJP Government, into that Heaven of Freedom, let my country awake

          with true Sabka Saath Sabka Vikas Sabka Vishwas

Where  the mind is without fear and the head is held high,
Where knowledge is free.
Where the world has not been broken up into fragments by narrow domestic walls.
Where words come out from the depths of truth,
Where tireless striving stretches its arms towards perfection.
Where the clear stream of reason has not lost its way,
Into the dreary desert sand of dead habit.
Where the mind is led forward by Thee into ever widening thought and action.
Into that heaven of freedom my Father, let my country awake.

                                                                 RABINDRANATH TAGORE
                                                                  Gitanjali

Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high:

Dear Government can you not feel the fear, the pain, and the sense of rejection, from the people who brought you to power with a huge majority, and who you are supposed to serve and look after so that my country may awake to “sabka saath sabka vikas sabka vishwas?” The mind cannot be without fear and our heads cannot be held high when I open the pages of the newspapers, and watch on TV screens, words spoken by our elected representatives, words like, “those raising anti-government slogans will be buried alive.”, “They will be attacked by sticks, shot at, and put in prison. They will be shot at like dogs.” Is this what my India will have to endure for the next five years of your term in office?

Where knowledge is free:

How can knowledge be free when the people you are supposed to serve, are not heard when they express their dissent? When their cries for sympathy and understanding are met with a ‘lathi-charge’ and even bullets? When their cries for equality of all people are met by putting them behind bars, and then by not providing them access to due justice and the rule of law? When their cries for a hearing are met with stony silence or words of hate? And when the democratic institutions of our dear country, which are meant to protect us and guard our Constitutions and laws, turn a deaf ear to the pleas for protection and justice? Is this Sabka Saath Sabka Vikas Sabka Vishwas?

Where the world has not been broken up into fragments by narrow domestic walls:

Every morning my country, instead of awakening into that heaven of freedom that Rabindranath Tagore spoke of, awakens to the feeling of fragmentation after the CAA has been pushed through Parliament in a hurry. My country fears being broken up into “tukde tukde” with the impending NPR and NRC, because it has broken up our society into the “pro” and the “anti” sloganeering that is generating hate and negativity all over the country. Is this not enough for a government to rethink the legislation?

Where words come out from the depths of truth:

We no longer know what to believe from the mouths of our government. We hear one thing one day, and then something else the next day. We hear different things from different people who are our elected representatives. Words of hope one day, and then words that bring fear and dread another day. Is it not our Constitution that is supposed to provide the boundaries of truth for all? Are we not all taught from childhood to respect above all else our Constitution and the rule of law? Our students, our young people, the women of our country, and our people are looking up to you to look them in the eye and speak in Rabindranath Tagore words “words from the depths of truth.”

Where tireless striving stretches its arms towards perfection:

Yes we have to stretch our arms towards perfection, but as frail human beings we have to realize that we are not always perfect in our decisions and actions. Our egos however do not allow us to admit that maybe we are wrong. We do not climb down from our positions, even though all around people seem to be saying you are making a mistake in using a law on the basis of religion, a law that will serve to divide our country, a law that can be misused in the years to come, and a law that is against the basic tenets of our constitution. Do not build walls on the basis of religion, the common people have suffered enough during the partition, when families were partitioned along with our country, because our rulers then wanted to divide and rule. Yes you are the duly elected government, but it is a sign of strength and not of weakness if you allow the opposition to express itself. It is a sign of a healthy democracy if there is a free press, and if there is room for debate in Parliament and in the larger society. And if you say that we were not allowed to do it when we were in the opposition, is that a reason for not doing it now and setting a good precedent?

Where the clear stream of reason has not lost its way:

Let discourse, open discussion, difference of opinion, dissent, all be allowed to flourish in this great democracy of ours which has stood out in the world because of its famed spirit of tolerance, love and brotherhood. We have been praised all over this world because of the “unity in diversity” we have shown through the ages. A person who travels all over the country from north to south and from east to west, encounters so many different types of cultures, so many languages, so many habits, so many ways of dressing, so many ways of doing things, some contradicting each other, some clashing with each other. But we have endured all the differences through the ages, because we have, in our diversity, had “the clear stream of reason” and unity guiding us through the centuries. Our differences have made us unique through history, so let us make our differences our strength, and be a beacon of hope to this world which is getting so divided.

Into the dreary desert sand of dead habit:

If our country is to travel into that “heaven of freedom”, let us not look back into the mistakes made in our history. Human societies from time eternal have achieved greatness, but have also made mistakes and have been responsible for wrong actions. If we stay in the desert sand of dead habit and try to extort revenge for some deeds of history, how will our country reach that “heaven of freedom”? Let us look forward, let us learn from mistakes made at different times in our history, and let us not try to extract revenge from the common people of our country who just want to live in peace and freedom. Let us strive towards a society where every Indian, regardless of what religion or community he belongs to, can have a roof over his head, food to eat, water to drink, medical help when necessary, a good education for his children, a means to earn a living with dignity, an efficient and honest system of governance, and a future for all coming generations. Let us not waste time and resources, looking back in time and history, at which Raja did something wrong, or which Sultan made a mistake, or which other country is going wrong somewhere, and where we should have revenge, and there will be plenty of space for everyone in that “heaven of freedom to which our great India will awake.”

Where the mind is led forward by Thee, into ever widening thought and action, into that heaven of freedom my Father, let my Country awake:

An atmosphere of negativity, revenge and threats towards neighbouring countries perceived wrongs, changing names of streets and buildings and statues because of a perceived sense of humiliation or grievance, a feeling of ‘us’ and ‘them’, will never lead us forward into ever widening thought and action. India has always been a shining beacon of tolerance, an example of assimilation of diversity, peaceful non-cooperation with unjust currents in history, and if you as our elected government diverted your attention to positivity regardless of what goes on around us, it would not be a sign of weakness, but a sign of the great strength and values that we Indians hold dear. We have our great institutions and we have our brave armed forces, but let us use them as deterrents and guardians, and not as threats, so that we can uphold the values of peace and tolerance in the world. Let us uphold the values of Swami Vivekananda, Mahatma Gandhi, Rabindranath Tagore and all the other great people of our country, and let us not have to tell any of our people “go back to where you belong, or go back to where you come from”, because that would be a very negation of all our great Indian cultural traditions and values.        


Minna Kabir has extensive experience working with child rights and human rights movements in Kolkata, Jharkhand and Delhi.

Image courtesy: https://designway4u.blogspot.com/

The Dog Lady of Malad

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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.

Mira Devi Sheth on her evening round.

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.

Mira Devi and her students at the primary school. 

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.

An old photograph. 

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.

Mira Devi with Raj, Suresh and the kids. 

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.

MA

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I still remember the day my professor asked the entire class to write a 5000-word essay on our mothers. The memory is etched in my brain, not because of the fantastic piece I wrote on Ma, but because of the massive blank I drew, not being able to put a single word down on paper. The only thing I did manage to do was type the word MOTHER on a word document and save it on my desktop under the same title. The document glared at me every time I was on my computer, but I was at a loss. This was the BIG assignment and after struggling for a week, I finally gave up.

The reason I couldn’t write was not because of some big fall out with my mother or because we were never close. No. Ma is my best friend, always has been. At the risk of sounding like a fool, I’m still one of those kids (adults) who goes crying to my mother when things are tough, even if it means being mocked by my little brother. I couldn’t write 5000 words on her because I didn’t know where to start. I still don’t. How can you write about someone’s personal life, even if you’ve been a part of it?

The first time I ever stopped talking to Ma was in the 9th grade. The rules were simple. Communicating with your parents was considered extremely uncool at school. Teenagers were supposed to rebel. If your mother and father tried to do anything for your own good, you had to roll your eyes and complain about how misunderstood you were. And if you had a crush on a boy, you had to hide it from your folks. If I were ever to go back and meet my younger self, I’d slap myself. I really would. When I read journal entries from that time, I have no clue who that person is.

Now, my parents, themselves belonged to the cool, rock & roll generation, who believed that parents were parents, but also had to be friends with their children. The house was an open field as far as communication was concerned and my brother and I knew we didn’t have to face any of life’s challenges alone. With dad posted in Kashmir most of the time, however, the task then fell on my mother to tackle all our problems single-handedly.

Therefore, when I chose to rebel and stopped talking to Ma, I was shocked to see her fight to make things normal again. She just wouldn’t accept her teenage daughter keeping things from her and frankly, that was the most miserable time of my life too. When I got over that phase, and thank God I did, she became my chief confidant, a post she holds even today.  

Ma is a fighter. She hasn’t had the easiest life and everyone who knows us, knows how tumultuous it’s been. The more shit she faced, the stronger her resolve to fight it. It irked me, her decision to put family first, even if it meant burying a part of herself and her own happiness. Papa had a massive temper, which my brother and I inherited and she was always at the receiving end of our wrath, whether or not she was the cause of it. But, no matter how big the fight, she still wakes us up with a cup of chai and a smile on her face. According to her, there is nothing a good chat (or screaming match) and tea can’t solve and honestly, even with our enormous egos, it’s difficult to hold a grudge against someone who refuses to take no for an answer.

I have, over the years, come to realise the nature of her sacrifices, mostly hidden in plain sight. There were the big ones, like when she put away her big college degree to bring us up because Papa said that one parent had to always be around. We obviously didn’t think it was a big deal then, but I now realise how difficult it can be, having to give up something you’ve earned. And there are the smaller sacrifices, like when she claimed to LOVE the bony pieces of chicken, just to save the chunky pieces for us. Ask her about all this and she says, what all mothers say, “You will only understand when you have your own kids”.

Being our friend meant being a friend to all our friends. I still don’t understand her ability to draw people to her, especially our friends who would rather confide in her than us. There is so much love and awe for her and it just shows what a wonderful person she is. She even brought in her birthday last night with our friends because my brother and I aren’t around!  

So, Happy Birthday Ma. Thank you for being you. Life doesn’t have the guts to knock you down and never will. I’m sorry this is still not 5000 words, but I’ll get there someday. Love.