Saturday, December 17, 2016

Nandani Gallage’s shelter of pity

In this rational, globalised world of ours, pity has become a commodity, to be marketed and in other ways exhibited for everyone to see. Sure, we have our share of social campaigners and activists, but more often than not that accursed reality known as “hype” sets in to inflate such people beyond reasonable proportions. The media is to blame, both for what it does promote and for what it does not. This, I must add, includes not just activists but also those who lend a helping hand to our less privileged friends, among them dogs.

There is a woman I know who looks after some dogs. I am no fan of orphanages, and for me personally this woman doesn’t exactly run something that could be classed under that tag. The last time I checked (a long, long time ago), she was handling about 10 dogs. The last time I called her (not too long ago), that number had risen to 17. Hardly something someone her age could handle, given her story and the various pitfalls life has greeted her with, but as I think back and reflect, I can’t help but smile. She hasn’t exactly had reason to be chummy with optimism, but despite all that, and despite a manifest lack of finance, she’s still scraping through.

Nandani Gallage doesn’t remember a time when she wasn’t carrying, bathing, or fondling a dog. She lives in Wewala, a quiet if not inconsequential suburb near Piliyandala, where the nearest vet lives 20 minutes away and where street dogs are the norm and not the exception. Her story begins many, many years ago, when she came across four such dogs near her house. “It all started with them, to be honest,” she tells me, “Soon enough word got around that an old woman was looking after abandoned pups. I guess people thought I could take care of their pets more than they could, so not long after that I began getting more of them.” The numbers, she remembers, kept on rising.

Like all such women who don’t look out for funds, Nandani wasn’t a practical person. Initially, she had thought of borrowing funds from her neighbours, who weren’t unwilling to part with their savings for her. “I remember getting as much as 4,000 rupees from them at one point. But eventually you feel bad asking for more. I am sure they would have kept on funding me without asking me to pay back, but I was rather disheartened at having to live on charity. So I decided not to ask anymore.” Today she has a daughter who’s rather well off and sends her money often, but even that is inadequate for what she’s doing now.

For she doesn’t just look after dogs in her decrepit house. She goes around the suburbs and feeds others like them. Think of the cost involved: not just the working capital she needs to maintain those she has sheltered in her own home, but the extra money spent on food for those she hasn’t! Fortunately for her, a local trishaw driver, who realised the gravity of her plight, drives her everywhere at no cost. “People aren’t the demons we think they are,” she tells me, “Others have been as kind. But their kindness isn’t enough. I am in a position where I need more.”

She arrived at that position after months and years of hardship. Nandani comes from a fairly well off background: she was educated at Piliyandala Central College and later went to Buddhist Ladies College in Colombo. She married a comfortably wealthy if not generous man, who died about three years ago. “He was quite kind. He understood and would have understood my plight, no matter where I would have been. Unfortunately, people made use of him. They tricked him.” And by way of explaining this, she tells me that while he was alive, a young and seemingly decent chap from his office had managed to borrow two million rupees (not a trivial amount) to go to Naples, Italy.

After her husband’s death, Nandani had naturally badgered the chap to return the money owed to her, but he had refused. Eventually, he had agreed to pay about 7,000 rupees a month. “He hasn’t paid a cent even now,” she sighs. Not having being in such a precarious situation I wouldn’t know the pain she’s going through, but I can guess and I will comment: we tend to forget the kindness of others. Nandani, thankfully, has not let it peel away her faith in humanity. “I have not been forgotten, but at a time when I need to maintain so many dogs, I honestly need more help.”

Charity, however, is not what she is looking for. Not being a fan of that term and its non-applicability to situations such as this, I agree with her wholeheartedly. That doesn’t marginalise her dilemma, though: either she needs a self-sustaining model through which she can finance her work or she needs to part with her pooches so that they can be given to a more wholesome, kindlier shelter. She vehemently (as I predict) rejects the second option: “I have grown so close to these fellows that I simply can’t let them go.” The tears in her eyes, I must admit, jolts the sentimentalist in me, and not for no reason: any rational minded person would realise the futility of her situation, but for Nandani, it is emotion, not reason, that should be privileged.

For that reason, I think we should reach out. It’s not a question of charity. It never was. I am not a big fan of domesticating animals and even if I were, I wouldn’t consider Nandani’s shelter as anything but that: a shelter. In any case, I believe she has opened our eyes to a persistent problem. One of the commonest reasons for the stray dog problem in this country is that people are thoughtless in their habit of throwing away unneeded puppies.

People like Nandani are not hard to come by, and what they do is more than enough to make up for the inhumanity of others, but all too often they attract the attention of dog-dumpers so much that they end up perpetuating an already bad problem. That is why, even though she deplores it and I detest it, she will have to live on charity, and at least now refrain from sheltering more of those dumped on the streets.

I saw Nandani Gallage a few months back. She has aged. She has grown more tired. She should be. She is shouldering a burden others half her age wouldn’t dare shoulder, and despite the best efforts of her daughter, her family, and those who know her intimately (including, it must be said, my mother), she is desperate for more. At a time when we lavish attention on pedigree pets and cast aside others to the streets, she rekindles our faith in humanity. And for that, we must be grateful. We must give back.

Nandani Gallage can be contacted at 0725235416

Photo by Dushani Pushpika

Written for: The Island LIFESTYLE, December 11 2016