By Rukmini Shekhar
Compassion for the lowliest is the highest form of service to god. Kuttawala baba looks after needy stray pups and dogs from the alms he gets
The wonder and beauty of human goodness always finds a way to triumph over violence, brutality, corruption and injustice. It proves that the individual human has the power to put institutional apathy and oppression to shame. The following episode illustrates this.I was walking along a rather busy road towards a barrage over the river Ganga, on a rainy, and sultry evening. It was the first day of a five-day retreat at an ashram near Rishikesh. There was still some light from the setting sun, and I was alone with my thoughts.
Suddenly I spotted what I thought was a brown rag smack in the middle of the road. You could call it an old instinct and my antennae went abuzz. I walked over to examine it. The brown lump turned out to be two tiny pups, shivering in the damp, entwined in each other like yin and yang. A car was speeding towards me. I stopped it with a pleading signal from my hands and picked up the two pups. With a shock that made me go weak in the knees, I realised that had I not picked them up at that very instant, they would have been smashed to pulp in front of my eyes, there and then.
It was clear from the way that their heads were lolling with weakness that they had not eaten for God knows how long. They were wet and covered with mud with nary a mother dog in sight. I was a stranger to these parts and I had two nearly dead or about-to-die pups in my hands. What should I do? I started asking people if they would keep the pups for a few days, feed them and make sure they did not crawl over to the road. I assured them that once they were a little smarter, they would rightfully claim their proud life as stray dogs on an Indian street. A lady told me that I was wasting my time since not only would people not be interested in my requests, but some actually felt that such dogs deserved to die since their numbers were increasing, and they were infesting the streets. It was better that they died when they were still pups. I began to sense a wave of desperation as a few drops of rain hit my face like needles. Nothing on earth would make me just abandon those pups on the side of the road and walk off. How could I just go home and sleep knowing that speeding tyres would crush them within the hour?
I continued to scour the streets for help. There was a chaiwallah just outside the ashram gates. Could he please spare one glass of milk, which I would pay for, of course? Two little leaf bowls appeared and I began pouring the milk into them. The pups (who couldn’t believe that there was a possibility of milk other than what came out of mother, who was anyway, a dim memory by now), drank like kings, and a little life seemed to come into them. They snuggled a little tighter into my arms. Having fed them, what next? Ah yes, the ashram, font of all compassion would take them, but dogs were not their scene. There were too many foreigners, and Indian street dogs were risky. Besides, they felt that the sound of barking dogs would disturb the quiet of the ashram. That was final, said the security man crossing his arms, and I should not even try to plead with them. It was dark now, and the rain was acquiring a newfound determination to come down. I stood there like Casabianca on the raining deck shielding my two pups with my arms. One of the ashram security guards shone his torch at me and then at the little bundle in my arms. Before he could switch the torch off, I blurted, “Guard saab, you must help me. I must give these pups to someone to take care of.” I gave him the lowdown on what had happened.
He scratched his wet head and said, “Hmm – nothing much we can do – but wait, I have an idea – let’s go look for the dog baba.” If disbelief was the word that I was looking for to describe my current state of mind, then that is what I felt. Then there was relief that there exists a baba and a dog one at that.“Yes, let us, and right now if you please.” As we walked, the guard filled me up, “You see, there is a baba who lives about a kilometre from here, who is as poor as a mouse and lives under two plastic sheets he calls home. He is a baba with a mission. He looks after about 15 or 16 stray dogs. He feeds them out of whatever alms he earns and they all live with him. He is known as the ‘Kuttawala Baba.’ ”“Jai ho, Kuttawala Baba,” I thought to myself as I spotted his little dog-squad-plastic shelter. As we neared it, the guard said, “Ah, but madam, there is no lamp burning. He is out.” Clutching my little pups, I asked him with some trepidation; maybe after dinner we could come again? I must be either a very persuasive person or he must have seen my eyes about to brim over. “Yes, of course,” said he of the pup-saving disposition. After dinner, accompanied by a resident monk of the ashram, Swami Atma, who gave me a cardboard box to carry the pups, splish-sploshing in our rubber slippers, we trudged through the slush and muck towards the fluttering plastic sheets. The baba was indeed in, sitting next to a sputtering lamp, a stray dog in every crack and crevice. From some stuck out ears, from others snouts and from some more, tails. There were (I later learnt), Reshma and Rani, delicate and mincing, Kalu and Chotu, teenage louts, Raju, the wrestler, Kali, the matriarch, Janu, the vamp, and many more. There was a cart on which slept Chameli and a torn mattress which the baba shared with Moti. There was a steel plate and a bowl and as far as I could see, that was all. This was the sum total of the baba’s possessions. Emaciated though he was, he had a booming voice and a strong tenderness in his hands as he took the pups from me. He had nothing on except a black dhoti. Occasionally, he scratched himself, I was sure, to pick out yet another dog flea from his body. I think he did mention to me that he never bathed. “Don’t worry,” he said. “Your pups will join my family. Most of these have come to me as pups. I will take care of them.” It was official – my pups had a home now. I came to see him two days later. He told me that the bigger of the two pups was taken away by some village boys, ostensibly to adopt it. He pointed to the smaller one, wrapped up in a coat, trembling and whining. Apparently, a car hit it when it strayed upon the road. There was a nasty cut from which oozed blood and pus. The baba was not sure that it would survive, but he was doing all that he could to save it. If it survived the night, he was sure that it would grow into a proud little street fella, one of the local best. He showed me his first-aid kit in which there were antiseptic ointments and cakes of anti-flea soap. It was his little pet care clinic in the dog-squad-plastic shelter near the storm water drain.
I took some pictures and did a little interview. I left a little money with him. A day before I left the ashram, I visited him again with a friend who brought bread, buns and biscuits for the baba and his canine guardians. I was eager to find out how my little pup was. There it was, walking and sniffing on its slightly unsteady legs, but completely on the way to recovery. I almost wept with joy. She (for it was a she) would discover many happy days gamboling with her senior uncles and aunts and a rare human being who is the embodiment of compassion. I left, humbled, and with a few dog fleas in my hair. Living spirituality was here, unknown and quiet, animal and man sharing one heartbeat, joined in a seamless love between the species.
Rukmini Shekhar is the director of an NGO called The Viveka Foundation, which uses publishing and outreach for social change. She lives with her loving mystical cat Chaki in Delhi.
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Inside the Kkuttawala baba’s world
Tell me a little about yourself.
My name is Surkarnath Ogad. I am a footpath dweller. When I was a child, we were so poor that my mother used to beg for the rotis that my rich neighbours used to carry for their dogs. After she died, I was free and wanted to take up renunciation. I found a guru who inducted me into the Gorakhnath tradition of austerity. I have been living on the streets since then. I have never been married. These dogs are my children.
Is this your permanent place?
No, I have no such thing as a permanent place. I was living in a little jhuggi at Triveni ghat near Rishikesh, but the authorities broke it down and threw me out. I found a little patch of grass here near some fresh water and me and the children have settled down here for the moment. Of course, if I am shunted out again, the dogs will all come with me.
Do you miss the joys of being a comfortable householder?
Never, this is my family. I am a contented man for I am free. Looking after these dogs gives me unbounded joy, and a spiritual high. We share all the food – we eat absolutely the same food.
How do you feel when the pups and dogs die?
Sad, of course, especially for those that I have fed and bathed with my own hands since they were tiny. I must have buried about 60 dogs by now. When a dog comes to me, I cannot do anything if it gets sick and dies. If it survives, it is with me for life. I have developed a form of detachment, which I must cultivate if this is my mission.
You say that little pups die under cars all the time. Do you know that you can actually prevent the birth of stray dogs by having them sterilised?
There is a government policy for this. Yes, I know that they can be operated. However, no one bothers about strays in these parts. All the money that is supposed to go into this project goes into various pockets. I am a poor sanyasi, who will listen to me? Rather than fight with the authorities, I carry on quietly, doing my own little bit for these creatures that have no one in this wide world. This is my contribution. The Dog Baba, popularly known as ‘Kuttawala Baba’ lives on Virbhadra Road near Seema Dental College, on the bypass road between Haridwar and Rishikesh.