The Dog Lady of Malad

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

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.

The Coolest Place on Earth!

2). DISTRICT CENTRE, JANAKPURI.

My oldest memory of the District Centre, a.k.a Janak Place, was the lines of workers I’d see, while rushing to catch my school bus every morning. Whether it was the chilling winds of winter or the dreaded summer heat, the workers moved like clock-work, carrying water bottles under their arms, determined to perform their morning bowel duties anywhere they found a spot in the vast white complex that stood abandoned, down the road from our house. It was no wonder then that the complex was referred to as ‘Potty Centre’, which had a few offices at the back, but lay invisible to our peripheral vision for a long time.

IMG_6283
District Centre.

And then came McDonald’s! Before this, pizzas and burgers were still things we only dreamed of, unless an aunt or uncle visited from abroad and these dreams actually came alive. To have a McDonald’s open right next door became the second greatest thing to being alive. The Delhi Development Authority took over and cleaned up the ‘poopy’ mess, the buildings re-painted, the giant, yellow and red ‘M’ logo beckoning every passerby and suddenly, everyone flocked to fancy Janak Place, named after King Janak from the Ramayan, as if all roads led only there. ‘Opposite District Centre’ became THE landmark to my house and I beamed with pride when the kids at school recognised ‘the cool, new place’ in Janakpuri! The Vanilla McSwirl was the greatest attraction, not for its taste, but because it cost 5 bucks and parents didn’t mind buying a scoop to stop their whiny kids from ruining their evenings out. Young school boys and girls sat at McDonald’s for hours and hours over a single burger, blushing and batting their eyelids at each other, too nervous to speak. It was a known thing then, that if a boy ever asked you meet him at McDonald’s, it was absolutely, one hundred percent, a date.

IMG_6360
The death and re-birth of McDonald’s.

The people of Janakpuri, and beyond, took to Janak Place like ants take to food or Apple fans take to the latest I-phone. It didn’t take very long for a Barista to open, followed by Music Land and Wordsworth. Pocket money, Birthday money. Diwali money, Christmas money, ANY money was locked away till you had enough to purchase the latest CD’s or the newest Harry Potter, factors that determined your existence on Earth and friendships at school. You could beg, borrow or steal, but at the end of the day, if someone had read a book before you, rest assured, you’d have to kill yourself to protect yourself from spoilers. There was a new restaurant every corner you turned and the food options blew our little minds! Toy-sellers Gopal Prasad Gupta and Rakesh Suri set up shop on opposite sides of McDonalds, spots they hold even today, 15 years later.

A Crafts Bazaar opened up in the centre of the complex, a local version of Dilli Haat and cheaper and while women shopped for hours, the kids were promptly given 100 rupees to play 10 games of their choice at the gaming arcade, with its colourful, electric mini cars and air-hockey tables. Janak Place soon got its first movie hall in 2004 and metro stations on either end and the world was never the same again.

I remember being floored by Bunty aur Babli, Bollywood’s very own ‘Bonny and Clyde’ and the first movie I watched at Satyam, planning to use similar tactics to take over the world with my brother. Things were moving fast and property rates in Janakpuri sky-rocketed over-night. This was a good time in the history of the locality.

The fantasy that was Janak Place quickly became a horror when it came into the spotlight due to a number of successful suicides, quickly earning the name ‘Suicide Towers’. Rakesh Suri saw four people die in front of him, young boys and girls who climbed to the 6th or 7th floor and jumped off. He remembers trying to save a girl who had jumped off the second floor, with not an injury on her, but died anyway. District Centre was in the news for all the wrong reasons, with people considering it haunted because of the several deaths that took place in a short time. Grills were installed on every floor with immediate effect, but the impact lasted for a couple of years, until the suicides were altogether forgotten. By this time, Janak Place was teeming with street children and their families, who were addicted to sniffing glue and begged for a toke of Korex correction glue over money. If things weren’t looking good, they became worse when Pacific Mall opened in Subhash Nagar, drawing all the crowds and leaving Janak Place an abandoned mess.

IMG_6285
Wordsworth, with it’s shutters down.

In my head, Janak Place is a fighter. When you google it, you’re faced with a ton of bad reviews about the place and I don’t blame the people. The place is a wasteland. Wordsworth, the book shop, was the first to go because, sadly, people don’t read enough and especially not today, when you have access to information and the latest e-books on your phone or computer. This was followed by Music Land, when the owners realised that the latest cassettes and CD’s weren’t flying off shelves anymore. The restaurants are mostly empty owing to food ordering apps. Gopal and Rakesh have resorted to setting up their mats, laden with toys, only in the evening and earn about 150-200 rupees a day. Ambika Pillai took her salon and ran, what seems like, a million years ago. McDonalds was in the midst of a massive lawsuit and had shut its doors on everyone for a while. But, with all of this backlash, the place still sees enough families on a Sunday afternoon, their little kids crowding the chocolate fountain stall or the tinier one’s in their remote operated mini-cars, banging into people on purpose. The most recent addition to the food stalls was the Kolkata puchka guy whose puchka game is on point, but dangerous if you’re brave enough to exceed two plates.

The goods at the Craft Bazaar are still beautiful and cheap, defeating the branded stores that are still holding on, lining the higher floors. The complex still houses a lot of smaller gadget repair shops, Xerox and printing places and trinket shops, tucked away at the back, hidden in plain sight. And you will still find the scores of couples, crouched beside one another on rusting benches, planning their futures. To everyone who lives or has ever lived in Janakpuri, though, District Centre a.k.a Janak Place, its tall, white towers covered in grime, will always be the “coolest place on Earth”.

AMMA

It wasn’t until her death in 2011 that we realised Amma was mortal. She was just as human as the rest of us, waiting for her turn to show up at the gates of heaven and demand to see her loved ones.

She was hired the week I was born, when my grandfather finally gave into my mother’s persistent pleas that she needed a little help running the house, with a new baby in tow. And so, Amma came to work the very next day, taking charge of the household and becoming a part of our lives for 23 years.

Born Ram Devi, Amma was always called Amma. She seemed like the kind of person who had been old all her life, her face weathered with time and the name just stuck. It wasn’t just us, though. Every house down the street, where she worked, knew her as Amma.  This was the time when house-maids were part of a hierarchical system and since Amma was the oldest and had come to B-Block Janakpuri first, she got to pick the houses she wanted and everyone else had to fight for the left-overs. So, the time she began working for us, she was also working ten other houses in the neighbourhood, hopping from one to the next till she took the bus home in the evening.

Amma had lost her husband very early in life, leaving her with three sons and not a penny in hand. She barely had time to grieve and got to work immediately, scouring housing colonies in Uttam Nagar near Kali Basti where she lived, marketing her skills door to door, even begging for work. She had a good reputation as far as her work was concerned, which earned her more houses in the area and soon, one of her sons was graduating from school. This was one of the happiest moments of her life, but it was short-lived. The boy died in a road accident, which should have knocked her down emotionally, like when children die before parents, but not her. Amma was back at work the next day, striving to do better with her remaining kids. So, she left Uttam Nagar and decided to hit Janakpuri, an upcoming locality in the 80s and took over 3/4th’s of our block.

Amma (2010)

Amma’s voice fluctuated between a shrill croak and a low, gurgling rumble that could both scare the living day-lights out of us. Because of her small, skinny frame, we’d miss her comings and goings and sometimes, she’d creep up behind us, when we were engrossed in a book or mugging a lesson, her evening tea in hand and begin humming a tune, something that always made us jump and fall off our chair in shock. This was often amusing to her and she’d laugh out loud, clapping her hands, her toothless mouth in its fullest glory. I can still hear the ring of her laughter at the back of my mind somewhere.

Draped in her pink or purple floral saree, she’d trudge to work every day without fail. Her younger sons were married and she entrusted the care of the house to their wives. She had never wanted her daughters-in-law to work, not unless they were faced with challenging circumstances and she made sure of it. All she needed was a hot cup of tea every morning before she set off to work and a meal when she returned.

Every time Amma saw good days, they were inadvertently followed by bad days. By the time I was on my way out of school, she had developed a cataract in her eye, the milky glaze keeping her from performing the simplest tasks. That year, families that had employed her for years and years, gave up on her and she lost a lot of jobs all at once. Her family, as a result, gave her trouble because suddenly she wasn’t earning as much money and was, therefore, “useless”. Those days, Amma came to work either angry or sad. She’d sometimes break down while discussing her problems with my mother or reprimand her imaginary sons in our kitchen while washing the utensils. She was afraid she’d lose all her work and be forced to sit at home and deal with them all day. But, we weren’t done with Amma yet. Yes, she wasn’t as good with work anymore, unable to see food stains on plates, her swabbing in patches across the floor and she couldn’t hear properly either. Her hilarious exchanges with my deaf grandfather would result in them screaming at each other but in vain, with the rest of us screaming louder to get through to both of them. But, in any case, we weren’t ready to let go of her.

Picture 037

I saw her less and less when I went to college, but when I did, she’d greet me with so much love and excitement. She was older now, reduced to a shadow of her former self, a shadow that sat in odd corners and talked to herself in broken, incomprehensible grunts and murmurs. You could watch her endlessly without her realising it because she had lost about 80% of her vision by then. The only thing she made clear was that she was prepared to die and that was that. Despite the eye operations, the cataract kept coming back until she was done trying to fix it. It was only when she was hit by a car crossing the road that she finally realised she had to stop. My father asked her to stay put at home and promised to pay her whatever we could afford (then) as a monthly stipend. She was supposed to come back the following month to collect her salary, but she never made it. Amma died in 2011, shortly after my grandfather and one part of the house, which they usually occupied, each of them lost in their own heads, fell incredibly silent. You can still sometimes hear their screechy banter, if you sit still and listen.

Amma will always hold a special place in our hearts, where reside all the loved one’s we’ve lost over the years. Our Amma.

HAMPI, HAMPERED.

WARNING: This is not a travel post. This is an informative post, so you aren’t bullied like I was.

Hampi is a geological wonder. It is visually stunning and the ancient temple structures situated around the Tungabadra river are simply astounding. The place had been on my travel list for a really long time and I finally made it there two weeks ago. (Yay.)

This piece, however, is NOT about Hampi or the temple structures – which if you google, you will find tons of information about OR you could just go there and see for yourself this amazing wonder of nature. No, seriously – how those rocks manage to stay stacked up on each other is, plain and simple, awesome.

I am going to focus on the boat rides that ferry tourists across the Tungabadra, which separates Virupapura Gadde (or Hippie island) from the more religious (party phobic) Temple side (Hampi). I have to say that no matter how beautiful the tourist spot, if the transportation systems are bad, your whole experience can go to the dogs.

At the entrance to Virupapura Gadde stands a barely visible board that lists the rates for ferry boat rides and coracle rides, respectively.

Hampi1
Rates for Ferry and Coracle rides.

Even Hampi’s Wikipedia page states: ‘The ferry boat is available at the river side near Virupaksha Temple. Ferry trip costs Rs. 10 one-way and usually stops by 6 PM, depending on the crowd waiting to cross over. Coracle rides are available at INR 50 per head throughout the day and are available until 9-10 PM. If you don’t like getting your feet wet in a coracle, ensure you don’t miss the ferry.’ (http://wikitravel.org/en/Hampi)

Didn’t mind the wet feet, but the prices were steep! The boatmen are bullies who have a massive monopoly on the operations of the ferry boats and coracles, leaving the tourists helpless and without choice. The ferry boats charge between Rs. 50-100 per head, depending also on the number of people in the boat. If the total head count is less than 10, the boatmen can choose to postpone (or cancel) your trip across the river. I say boatmen, because they all gang up against you and travel, in the boat, with you to make sure you don’t run off without paying the quoted amount. I kid you not.

These guys also assign specific boats to each side – for example: Boat 1 will go from point A to B and Boat 2 will go from B to A, but never the twain shall meet. Confused? Basically, the boat that brings tourists from Hippie island to Temple town will go back to Hippie island empty because that’s against their rules. Wasting petrol, however, is a hobby.

WhatsApp Image 2017-09-20 at 18.26.51
The Ferry Boat that refused to move.

My friend and I faced hell when we got stuck on the wrong side of the river after a long day’s walk. No matter how much we begged the boat guy to ferry us across, he just sat there, smoking his cigarette, waiting for the boat to fill up. It eventually did not fill up and we had no choice but to pay a hefty sum, dying of hunger and ready to pass out.

And then there are the coracle boats. Don’t even get me started on the coracles. Yes, I sat in one. Yes, it was fun. But paying 200-250 bucks for a 45 second boat ride was the biggest expense on an otherwise, fairly budget trip.

WhatsApp Image 2017-09-20 at 18.27.44
Bad picture of a coracle.

The people in the area say that due to some illegal land dealings, as far as Hippie island is concerned, this issue has remained largely ignored by the government, who’d rather let these boatmen operate how they want than get their hands dirty.

Hampi is a truly lovely place. I swear. Besides this one (major) issue, the trip was perfect. There is plenty to gush about, but nobody talks about the smaller problems that can really bust everything good about a place you’re visiting. Hence, this post.

Let’s hope this is looked into very, ‘ferry’ soon!

Experienced enough?

A person is only as experienced as the number of chances people are willing to take on them.

As a part of the entertainment industry from 2011, I have seen an active increase in the number of people (especially the youth), who switched from jobs with a better shelf-life to jobs that were more ‘fun’. I will not quote statistics because I am basing this information merely on my observations while working as an Assistant Director on advertisements, independent feature films and other visual content in India.

Coming back to the point of this piece: Experience. Fun job or not, one of the biggest roadblocks I have experienced while working in this field is my (lack of) experience, as future (or maybe not) employers are quick to point out at every interview. “You know…”, they say with a thoughtful pause, “… we’re looking for someone really experienced. Someone like *insert famous name 1* and *insert famous name you’ve never actually heard of*, you know?” And you shake your head, surprisingly calm, wondering why they even called you for an interview in the first place, confirming the fact that despite asking for your resume, they never actually opened it and really have no idea who you are and what work you’ve done. (What also confirms the aforementioned fact is when they tilt their head sideways and say, ‘Tell me about yourself’ in the same tone as they would ask a 3-year-old about their favourite poem – but more on that, later.)

Which leads me to the question: How on Earth can someone be “experienced” if they don’t actually get work in their field?

Another aspect that plays an important role in defining the kind of “experience” employers are looking for (in the entertainment industry), is the kind of movies you’ve worked on. ‘Good experience’ is directly proportional to the number of commercial (Such glam! Much wow!) films on your resume. “Koi badi pikchar nahi kari naa! (But, you haven’t done any BIG films!)” they say, turning you away. The independent (or small) films listed on your resume do not matter. “Kaunsi film kari? Acha? Nahi suna yaar. Sorry. (Which film was this? Really? No man, haven’t heard of it. Sorry.)”

Yes, I know this sounds like a bitter rant – but it’s really not. What it is, is an ardent plea to employers (in the film industry and otherwise) to take a chance on the ‘inexperienced’ lot, just like someone took a chance on the ‘experienced’ lot and watch as the heavens open their gates and shower your with money and fame and …

Okay, no. Not all that. Take a chance on us and watch the work get done in a timely, efficient manner, because the number of films on a resume has absolutely nothing to do with the amount of hard work a person is willing to put in. True story.