At a time when people are unwilling to extend a helping hand to strangers due to fear of Covid-19, Suman Mishra, a resident of old Gurugram has been taking care of stray dogs like they were her own children
“Animals have come to mean so much in our lives. We live in a fragmented and disconnected culture. Politics are ugly, religion is struggling, technology is stressful, and the economy is unfortunate. What’s one thing that we have in our lives that we can depend on? A dog or a cat loving us unconditionally, every day, very faithfully.” These lines by American author Jon Katz define the present scenario of our nation in the most peculiar way. At a time when people hesitate to help each other, leaving humanity at stake, this story of a lady living in Rajiv Nagar, a neighbourhood in Old Gurugram, is reviving faith in humanity by helping the voiceless.
A few would have heard about Suman Mishra but many better know her as ‘Kutton wali Bua’ (Dog Aunt). Mrs Mishra has been feeding innocent creatures for the past three decades. The people making their assumptions and stereotypes often overlook her noble cause.
Suman Mishra, 48, has been fond of animals since childhood. Born to farmers in a village near Kanpur, she had twelve goats and two dogs at her home. On asking about how her relationship with dogs grew, she says “I used to spend most of my time working in the fields with my parents and hanging around with my dogs. I never had my meals before feeding them. From that time itself, I developed an affection for dogs which is consistent till date.”
Born in a small village named Araura in Kanpur, Suman had never thought of coming to the city. In 1989, one day after her elder brother took away her dinner, a seventeen-year-old Suman ran away from home. Traumatized, she reached Gurgaon in search of freedom and a better life. After a brief stint as a factory worker in Udyog Vihar, she got a job as a receptionist at IGI Airport in New Delhi. Meanwhile, she learnt English. After settling well in Gurgaon, she called up her family to live with her. In 2000, she was diagnosed with cancer, which resulted in her being unable to bear children. Behind her back, her brother along with his family tried to seize her property. This broke her down and so she decided to marry someone who would strike fear in her family. Luckily, she fell in love with a businessman turned gangster and married him in 2003. Her husband Satish, who is also a dog lover, accepted her despite knowing that she could never be a mother. Since then, Suman has adopted the street dogs living nearby. She cares for the dogs and looks after them as if they were her children.
Suman searches for Kalu (a missing dog) along with Tyson (dog on right) inside a vacant plot. Leaving home at eleven in the morning, she looks for dogs by making noise with her stick. This move is used to call up nearby dogs for their first meal. One by one, dogs come out, listening to the call. For identification, she has named every dog she feeds and has even photographed them for records. When dogs go missing, she first searches for them on her own. If she does not find them in a day or two, she reports to the police or animal welfare board to investigate. A lot of dogs suffer bullying and abuse by locals every day, which often results in fatal injuries and even death sometimes.
Suman washes a feeding bowl every day she cleans up the bowls left behind the previous day to keep a check for hygiene. She is well aware of dogs being prone to germs, leading to infections and allergies. Especially during festivals like Holi, Suman asks people nearby to be cautious.
Suman keeps a bowl filled up with bread pieces and biscuits on the pavement for the dogs to eat later. A few times when they go to some other area and can’t reach their spot for the meal, Suman leaves extra bowls for them to eat later.
Suman prepares a glucose drink in her kitchen after serving the first meal during the afternoon. She has undergone six different operations for various diseases during her life span. “I am not physically well most of the time. But the emotions and worries about my children out there, sleeping with an empty stomach helps me overcome all my physical limitations.” With her husband facing trials, Suman currently lives alone, doing everyday chores all by herself.
Suman on the way to feed dogs for their second meal during the evening. She carries a load of 15 to 20 kgs on her head comprising feeding bowls, milk packets, biscuits and medicines. Before the pandemic, she would buy the items from the nearby shops in different locations. She had two helpers but the pandemic led to the migration of her helpers. This left her with no option but to maintain stock and carry the edibles by herself every day.
Dogs are seen waiting for Suman during the evening hours in a street.
Dogs wait patiently for their turn as Suman prepares to serve the food following the second meal of the day during the evening. She tells that when a new dog comes to the street, the older ones usually abstain him from the leisures. Interestingly, Suman has her way of dealing with the notorious ones. When she observes that a dog is getting spoiled, she punishes it by skipping their milk for a day or two.
Left – Suman tries to stop a fight between dogs while people in the back watch patiently on a street during the evening hours at Rajiv Nagar.
Street dogs often get into fights with each other, which leads to them biting passerbys. Because of this, most people living in the neighbourhood curse Suman for her work. Last year, a few families got six dogs picked up from a street. When Suman got to know about this, she filed an FIR for the same. Later, she was threatened by the families to take the case back and stop her work. In February this year, her case reached the animal rights activist, Maneka Gandhi. It resulted in the authorisation of Suman as a Colony Animal Caretaker recognised by the Animal Welfare Board of India. “I am still threatened by people for my work. But I really don’t care. Because they are ignorant as they hardly know about animal rights. For now, they fear me as I am an authorised worker now.” says Suman on asking if there has been any change after receiving authorisation.
(L-R) Pooja, Kamlesh, and their daughters pose for a photograph with Suman at a settlement in Rajiv Nagar. Leaving apart the threats from locals. Suman is much respected by the migrant workers living in temporary settlements nearby. While most of them work as domestic help and labourers, their hearts are always open for the lady inviting her for a cup of tea or sharing lunch with them. “We have little to make a change by ourselves. But by supporting Bua’s cause, we feel we can be of some help to her and satisfy our souls in some way,” says Kamlesh.
Suman walks on a deserted road, heading back home after serving the second meal to the dogs an hour before midnight. Two years from now, she used to cover an area of one and a half kilometres from her home to CRPF Chowk feeding around 80 dogs a day. The coverage area and the number of dogs have reduced to five hundred metres and forty dogs simultaneously over time due to the deteriorating health of Suman and lockdown since last year. Usually, it takes four hours from seven in the evening to eleven in the night to serve the second meal to all the dogs.
Suman shares a light moment with Pallu (dog in the frame). “I don’t know what is going to be in the future. But until I die, I won’t let my children die of hunger. I am trying to manage with whatever I can to make this world a better place for them. Many people ask me why I didn’t adopt a human kid to raise as a successor. I tell them, “We all raise our children expecting a return in our old age. But, there are a lot of children like mine who can’t look after themselves, who can’t speak for themselves, who can’t give you anything in return except loyalty and love, which is unconditional. It is our duty as humans to raise these children like we raise our own.” Suman plans to start an NGO which would look after her work.
(Ashish Kumar Kataria is a freelance documentary photographer based in Gurugram, currently pursuing a Postgraduate Diploma in Still Photography & Visual Communication at AJK Mass Communication Research Centre, Jamia Millia Islamia)