“A dog is the only thing on earth that loves you more than he loves himself.”
She left her ancestral home in West Bengal’s Nandigram district, three decades back to rid herself of a jobless husband, who ill-treated her. She landed up in Delhi and began working as a housemaid. She presently looks after 70 to 80 stray dogs with contributions from animal lovers. She works as a garbage collector, whereby she makes an irregular income of around Rs 150 a day to make ends meet. She lives fearlessly under a tarpaulin-covered wood and tin shed in the vicinity of Saket’s Anupam Shopping Complex, New Delhi. “People often ask me if I don’t feel scared living virtually on the road all alone. But I have nothing to worry, as these dogs never let any bad characters come near my shanty,” she said.
“From cooking and cleaning, I did several jobs, but was neither paid well nor treated properly by my employers. I then decided to leave them and set up a small tea stall. Soon, a couple of dogs starting parking themselves around my shop and I would feed them,” she informed. But one day, the civic authorities pulled down her shop and she was suddenly left with nothing. Her first concern was how to feed the dogs dependent on her. “Initially, I begged for their sake. But since the number of dogs by then had risen to over 20, I began collecting plastic and other resalable items out of garbage bins to eke out a living,” she said.
It is my privilege to present before you Pratima Devi, who has become a savior for stray dogs. She is lovingly called “Amma” by most of her acquaintances. How does she manage to feed so many of them? She responds, “At my age what do I need the money for? The dogs are like my children and I like to spend my time feeding and looking after them. “From whatever amount I earn daily, I provide them milk and bread in the morning and cook rice, lentils and meat in two huge vessels in the night.” Her day begins with her dogs barking for food, as she warms 10-12 kilograms of milk with chapati (tortillas) and the dogs stand near by wagging their tails waiting to be fed. She feeds large portion of her meal to the dogs and the left over is eaten by her.
With contributions from animal lovers, she ensures none of the dogs go hungry. With mats and mattresses lying all around her hutment, she says, “My pets have a habit of sleeping on these and I dust and clean them daily. Besides, in winter, I gather wood and dried leaves to light fire at two to three places to keep the dogs warm.”
“They never bite and all have been sterilized and vaccinated by the Municipal Corporation of Delhi,” she claims. Since dogs tend to carve out territories for themselves and normally do not allow other animals to share their space, it’s a rare sight to see numerous dogs and puppies huddled together at one place around Pratima. On one occasion a passerby wanted to adopt one of the cute pups. 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.”)
A shopkeeper near the complex remarked, “Love and affection of the old woman has made even the dogs forget their rivalries. The pets add to her workload when they sometime fight among themselves and get injured. I have seen her looking after the injured dogs by providing them first aid.” The ailing ones are not left to anyone’s mercy either. Pratima arranges to send them to a veterinary clinic after calling up the civic authorities, who are now well aware of her concern for the dogs. Many of the dogs have been named after film-stars like Raj Kumar, Dharmendra, or characters from Hindi cinema like Basanti, Viru, Sita, Gita, Ram and Shyam.
She reveals, “Many people from neighboring residential colonies come in their swanky vehicles and leave their old and infirm dogs near my hutment. It is unfortunate that such people have large homes but small hearts”. Her devotion has left many people humbled. In recognition of her selfless love, in 2009, Godfrey Phillips honored Pratima with a gold award, and a cash prize for showing ‘social courage’. Aid is provided for the welfare of the dogs by foundations like Dhyan Foundation, Sonadi Charitable Trust and Friendicoes that provides shelter and medical facilities to animals. Many well off people and animal lovers also regularly send her money and food that makes her life less difficult.
The woman, who is quite with the times, put the money to good use. She learnt to operate a bank account and bought a mobile phone. “I have kept some savings in the bank. There are days when I am not well, but it is my duty to see that the dogs are properly fed,” she says. A thought troubles her, what would happen to her dogs after her death? It’s a thought that worries everyone who knows her; though these are street dogs, they are more pampered and loved than many pets. When she’s away, even for an hour or two, they get restless and start chasing after passing auto rickshaws, to see if she has returned.
“She refuses to stay with her own children and rather calls these innocent animals her own kids. Pratima Devi has not even seen her village for over seven years now as she continues to feed, protect and take care of her adopted strays. With her dedication and relentless efforts to serve the voiceless, Pratima Devi has proven that it isn’t that difficult to be what we are by birth – humans. Her devotion has left many people humbled and has gathered immense respect for her selfless service.