‘Nothing has been achieved by the person who says “it can’t be done.”’ — Eleanor Roosevelt
Several years ago, on my first day in a new apartment in Bombay, I slipped on the marble floor and broke my teeth. The emergency room followed, thanks to my boss calling an ambulance and taking me over. I was still rather shaken when I phoned my mother in Dhaka later and told her what happened.
The next day I got a call from my cousin Rubaiya in Dhaka. She had spoken to my mother and was phoning to make sure I was fine. This was a few days after her incident – though I don’t want to put what happened to us in the same category.
This is what happened to her: she was riding on a rickshaw with a friend. Several young men in cars crowded around them, forcing them to stop. The men grabbed bags, purses and jewellery from Rubaiya and her friend, who handed over everything.
Then one of the men put his hand down Rubaiya’s shirt. She might give up material possessions without a fight, but she’s not one to passively take assault. She grabbed his arm, twisted it and didn’t let go.
People from a nearby hotel, seeing the commotion, started running towards them. One of the young men took out a knife and attacked Rubaiya so she would release his accomplice before the hotel people reached the scene.
He stabbed her skull, fracturing it in several places. The doctors had to shave one side of her head for the surgery, which took several hours. She required 11 stitches (and didn’t regain sensation for many months after).
Yes, and she was calling me in Bombay to make sure I was fine after falling and breaking my teeth.
This will give you an idea of how brave, big-hearted and compassionate Rubaiya is.
Some years younger than I am and my first cousin – our fathers were brothers – we have known each other pretty much our whole lives. We were not often in the same country, and we didn’t really socialise together until I worked with her sister Saba for six months about seven years ago.
This brought me close to both of them in a way I’ve generally found difficult to do in a family as large as ours. (I did once count all my first cousins from both my mother’s and father’s sides and I have 56 of them. No, that’s not a typo.)
Rubaiya had recently returned from studying and working in the US. In Dhaka, she joined UNDP as a Policy Associate for e-governance. I knew she was an extraordinary singer. And I knew she kept a dog, which was unusual among our relatives.
Then, one day, four years ago, the local authorities culled her dog. Her sterilised, vaccinated, trained dog, who had not been harming or bothering anyone.
I think many of us settle into a disgruntled sort of cynicism. We get comfortable with negativity. Because it’s so much easier. It’s easier for people to say clever but mean things so that they feel superior. It’s easier to hold on to past slights/insults/pain than it is to process them and move on. It’s easier to whinge and complain instead of figuring out how to make things better.
This negative setting keeps us cowering in a tiny cage, which feels kind of safe and familiar because nothing changes.
So, when her innocent dog was killed by the Dhaka City Corporation, I wouldn’t have blamed Rubaiya if she’d sat in her apartment and fumed and moped and cried and grieved.
But she’s far too brave, big-hearted and compassionate to do only that.
Instead, she researched and learnt that the Bangladeshi government’s policy with street dogs was to cull them (i.e. kill them). Her dog, wearing a collar, was evidently not a street dog, but because pet dogs are more trusting, they were easier to catch by the authorities who got paid for each dog they brought in; they removed his collar and piled him on top of other dead dogs, which is where Rubaiya found him.
Even at this point, she didn’t just take the information and rant against the system, shout from the rooftops or even take it to the newspapers.
No, she quit her well-paying job, founded the first – and, so far, only – animal welfare organisation in the country, naming it Obhoyaronno (which means ‘sanctuary’). Her first task: she advocated the Bangladeshi government to ban dog-culling in Dhaka.
And she succeeded!
Instead of the authorities culling stray dogs, Obhoyaronno now handles their vaccination against rabies and their sterilisation to prevent over-population. As the no-cull zone extends to the rest of the country, they have roped in international organisations for financial and technical assistance.
Obhoyaronno’s next big target is a similar spay/neuter programme for cats. And Rubaiya continues to find foster parents for homeless kittens and puppies in Dhaka city.
She has a growing team of incredibly smart and talented young men and women volunteers devoted to the cause. Obhoyaronno won the Animal Advocate of the Year award by Humane Society International last year. And they won the Ritchi Memorial Grant in 2013.
I was so proud of her when she spoke at the fifth TEDxDhaka event this past Sunday. There were 13 talks, every one of them truly inspirational, their actions genuinely game-changing.
Rubaiya talked about how we cannot be selectively compassionate. She talked about how a society that mistreats animals is one that also mistreats people, while dispelling the notion that a country as poor as ours cannot ‘afford’ to worry about stray dogs. She talked about the system and what she did to change it. She talked about it in a big-picture way and she talked about it in a nuts-and-bolts way. She was compelling and passionate. (Her TEDxDhaka talk can be viewed here.)
Through all of this, Rubaiya doesn’t believe what she’s doing is remarkable or special. She insists that if someone had figured this out before her, she wouldn’t have done any of it herself. While I don’t believe this, I do know that nobody had done anything about it, whereas she did.
Because she wouldn’t stand around feeling helpless.
Because she refused to give in to our general malaise about The Way Things Are, even when we hate it.
Because she is an incredibly brave, big-hearted and compassionate person.
‘It is not because things are difficult that we do not dare, it is because we do not dare that things are difficult.’ — Seneca