Sample of Christine’s Ark
It’s morning in Jaipur. A weak sun slowly lifts the lingering chill from the bitter desert night. Christine Townend is in her chilly little office at the Help in Suffering compound, wrapped in a parka, a scarf and woollen gloves. Her breath condenses in the air; there is a glass of chai at hand as she contemplates the day’s work ahead. Glancing out the window she sees a thin man with the swarthy, high-cheekboned, dark-eyed, moustached face of a typical Rajasthani. He’s wearing a white turban, white kurta and dhoti. A threadbare woollen shawl is wrapped around his shoulders; the bones show through his skin.
The man is leading a large camel. The beast pads majestically down the driveway, its powerful thigh muscles like pistons, long legs balancing on feet like bags of jelly. Christine admires the camel for a moment before noticing that its lower jaw is twisted and hanging limply. As she rises to her feet, two of the shelter’s veterinarians, Dr Devi and Dr Sunil, go to greet the man. He falls at their feet, touching their toes with his forehead, and implores them to help. Although she has witnessed scenes like this countless times, Christine’s heart goes out to both man and animal. Respectfully, observing the proper forms of greeting, she approaches and listens while he recounts his story.
His name is Roduram. He comes from a village called Choru, about 50 kilometres from Jaipur. A landless labourer, until recently he had worked other people’s fields with the goal of one day earning enough money to buy his own camel. He tells Christine that his wife is always ill. He doesn’t know the exact ages of his children. One is a boy, about twelve, and there are four girls aged about eight, six, four and two. The last three monsoons have failed so, despite his hard labour, the crops of bajra (millet) have not yielded well. Roduram had already been in debt, he says. So desperate was he to feed his family that he decided to borrow the money for a camel. The money-lender demanded an interest rate of 48 per cent.
With his stake Roduram went to the annual Luniawas fair not far from his village, where animals are traded. Although he had never owned a camel himself, he knew a great deal about them, because many people in his village had camels, and he had grown up in their presence. Walking among the rows of tethered animals, bargaining and negotiating, he eventually purchased the fine, strong beast called Moti, together with a traditional cart with wooden platform and pneumatic tyres, for 27,000 rupees (about 800 Australian dollars). At the fair he also noticed the Help in Suffering mobile clinic where the vets were giving treatment, and he learned about this free service run by an unusual white woman back in Jaipur.
After the purchase, Roduram drove the camel to his village. The camel cart rolled smoothly, and the camel pulled obediently. When they arrived home, the family performed a puja (prayer service) in which they made offerings to the protecting god, Bhairuji.
Proudly, Roduram began work at the brick kilns. They were situated in another village, Dabach, about forty kilometres from Choru, so his whole family relocated to live in one of the small mud huts on site. It was hot, uncomfortable and crowded; his wife kept the earth floor neatly swept, despite the dust outside, and did her best to make it a home. At night they unrolled their bedding, which was stored on a bench, and slept outside on the ground with the stars above.
Now Roduram was his own boss. No longer did he need to labour from dawn to dusk, sweating under the sun on another person’s land, waiting anxiously for the monsoon which did not come for season after season. With his great, powerful beast and the smoothly rolling cart he could load the raw mud bricks and move them across the fields to the kiln, where he would unload them for firing.
Then, only three days after starting his new life, while Moti was lying down resting, another camel crossed closely in front of him. Moti felt affronted. He rose to his feet and fixed his teeth in the back of the passing camel’s neck, who quickly twisted, and in the process Moti’s jaw was broken. It hung limply. Unable to eat, he would certainly die. Faced with utter ruin, Roduram had driven his suffering camel for fifty kilometres to the shelter. Now he stood before Christine, Sunil and Devi, and wept.
Christine noticed that the camel had an oily black substance oozing from behind his ears, indicating that he was in rut. The Help in Suffering veterinarians saw many broken jaws during this season when the male camels fought one another in competition for females. Dr Devi, who was in charge of the camel project, gave Moti an anaesthetic and wired his jaw together. It would take a month convalescing at the shelter, eating soft food such as gur (raw sugar cane) and lucerne, before the camel could go back to work.
It was a simple tale of hope rising from despair, like so many Christine has seen. But the story did not end there. She offered to drive Roduram back to his village. After travelling through semi-desert country for about an hour they turned off the main thoroughfare and bumped along increasingly pot-holed roads, to a devastated, empty landscape bereft of trees, with just a few thorny weeds poking up through the parched earth. Here in the middle of nowhere was a village of about ten mud and dung houses, each one proudly painted with coloured designs around the doorway. There was no water, no electricity, no vegetable patch, no animals . . . nothing at all to make life bearable. The people were thin, the children all had colds and running noses. Roduram’s father showed Christine a worn bit of rag which passed as a blanket. The family had nothing with which to keep themselves warm at night.
Even though Christine had lived in India for fifteen years she was shocked. She arranged to give Roduram 100 rupees a day while his camel was recuperating. The next day HIS (Help in Suffering) staff returned with two blankets for each family and a supply of milk, green vegetables and fruit. Christine promised to find a way to get a bore sunk so that the women would not have to walk for kilometres to fetch water.
Christine is often asked why she goes to the trouble of looking after animals in India when there are so many people in need. The simple tale of this one man and his camel answers the question. The fact is, millions of families depend entirely on an animal for their livelihood. That scrawny little pony carting vegetables to the market may support a family of ten. If the pony is injured and cannot work or, worse still, dies, they will starve – it is as straightforward and as pitiless as that.
This story is about one woman’s extraordinary devotion to the world’s suffering creatures. Furthermore, it is also about self-belief, determination, spiritual search, hope, optimism and love. One could argue that such an epic tale deserves a grand beginning – there is much to say, for instance, about the magnificent working elephants which she also cares for – but perhaps it would be better to start with more insignificant creatures, in a place and a culture far removed from India.
The extraordinary story of Christine Townend and an Indian animal shelter
Christine Townend is an extraordinary person, who has dedicated her life to helping the most vulnerable creatures in our society the animals that we rely on for food, labour or just companionship.
In the 1970s she founded Animal Liberation in an attempt to prevent cruel farming practices. It made her a highly controversial figure yet Christine never turned away from her mission to lessen animal suffering.
While Animal Liberation did enormous good, Christine’s real lifework was still ahead of her. A visit to India in 1990 offered her the opportunity to take over a decrepit animal shelter just outside the city of Jaipur, called Help in Suffering. When she first arrived it contained little more than a few stray dogs and the odd goat. Yet from that small beginning Christine has had an immense impact across the length and breadth of the country, transforming the lives of thousands of animals and the people who rely on them for their livelihood.
During this remarkable journey she has had to constantly balance her determination to make a difference with her loyalty to her husband and two sons.
Christine’s Ark is an inspiring and poignant story of India, its animals and its people, and of one woman’s unwavering struggle to change the world for the better.
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John Little spent 25 years working as a reporter and producer in television current affairs, before becoming a full-time author. His previous non-fiction books are INSIDE 60 MINUTES, THE HOSPITAL BY THE RIVER (with Dr Catherine Hamlin), THE MAN WHO SAW TOO MUCH, DOWN TO THE SEA and JEM, A FATHER’S STORY. He has also written a political thriller, LETTERS FROM THE PRESIDENT.Find out more