A Moment of Happiness and Death by Rajendra Kumar Mishra
Translated from Hindi by the author


Sukhdeo’s fear of dogs had increased after he read in the papers that a number of people in the town had been bitten by stray dogs during the last few weeks and that the local hospitals were critically short of the anti-rabies vaccine. He avoided going out of doors after sunset. Even in the daytime, an encounter with a stray dog filled him with trepidation. His colony was particularly vulnerable to the menace because of the vast slum nearby that abounded in pariah-dogs. He and his friends deplored the misplaced love for these animals on the part of the slum-dwellers. The residents of the colony never gave a crumb to a pariah-dog, and criticised the municipal authorities for not regularly eliminating the nuisance by poisoning them.


People like Sukhdeo, who lived in this housing society and worked in the town, were obliged to travel twice a day, five to seven days a week along the road which divided the slum. Sometimes, when Sukhdeo was forced to return home from work after sundown, he tried never to cycle or walk alone. He waited at a crossing for a neighbour or even a slum-dweller for company. He had practically given up using the bicycle because not only did it not offer better protection from dogs but also, most of the people available for company walked. He rarely accepted lifts from his neighbours who travelled by car or motorcycle because he didn’t want to become notorious as a lift-seeker. Thanking the gentlemen for their ‘kind offer’ he told them that he walked for exercise. Walking also enabled him to carry an umbrella which could be quickly used as a weapon against a hostile dog. Open, it could be used as a shield. Although, a couple of times when he had threatened a dog with it, it had turned out that the dog had had no hostile intention and that he had unnecessarily provoked it. Yet the usefulness of the umbrella could not be denied and he always carried it with him.


It was amazing to him how some people looked at barking stray dogs indifferently and walked past them as if they were cows! Some even had the temerity to throw stones and chase them away for fun. He particularly admired one neighbour, who was a drunkard but was happy to walk together through the colony if Sukhdeo passed the wine shop after sunset. One day when the drunkard was high and humming a film tune, Sukhdeo, who had just at that moment nervously espied a couple of stray dogs looking at him from a few feet away with what seemed to him dubious intentions, asked the drunkard whether he never felt afraid of stray dogs. The drunkard had replied that dogs instinctively fear those who are not afraid but try to frighten those who are, for the hell of it. To demonstrate the truth of this conviction the drunkard had silently approached quite a big dog that was peacefully crossing the road, and had given it a powerful kick in the ass accompanied by an oath. The dog ran away crying piteously and looking back for mercy. But this example had not cured Sukhdeo of his fear. When walking with the drunkard, Sukhdeo always offered him cigarettes, which were accepted with thanks.


There were also people who were so absorbed in their thoughts as to be totally oblivious of the presence of these animals. This fact he had leant from a man who had once accompanied him. In answer to Sukhdeo’s question, he had said, ‘What with so many problems and the prices of milk, rice, vegetables and medicines soaring, who has the time to think of dogs! It’s also a fact that if you don’t mind them, they don’t mind you!’


Impressed with this means of getting rid of his fear, when he was forced to walk alone he had more than once tried to think of his own problems, but had invariably failed because the immediate problem facing him was that a dog might take advantage of his apparent absent-mindedness and bite him from behind.


Sukhdeo’s wife and son had gone away to her parents. The next day was Sunday; he had just gotten snugly into bed and was reading a thriller before putting out the light when he heard a knock on the door. He looked at the wall clock. It was eleven-thirty. He wondered who it could be. Getting out of bed he opened the door.


It was Mrs Manorama Sharma, wife of the daredevil drunkard. She was a teacher of Mathematics at a private college. She gave lessons to her neighbours’ children, including Sukhdeo’s son, but refused to accept any payment from the parents, despite the well-known worthlessness of her husband. He was notorious for having lost one job after another for dereliction of duty and drunkenness and had been unemployed for more than a year. The neighbours assumed he never contributed much to the household budget, and furthermore, spent his savings on drink and perhaps even extorted money from his wife. He also ill-treated her and had, more than once, been rebuked by his angry neighbours for waking them in the middle of the night with his loud shouting and, to a lesser extent, for abusing such a noble wife.


She stood there with tears in her eyes. ‘Sharma sahib is running very high fever.’


He immediately guessed why she had come. She wanted him to go and fetch a doctor. The nearest doctor lived more than a mile away and the nearest hospital with an ambulance was thrice that distance. If he went for the doctor, he would have to take that dangerous road and run into dozens of pariah-dogs, who would be roaming freely at this hour. Any one of them might be rabid. And it was not only rabid dogs which attacked men. ‘At this hour and for a worthless drunkard! She shouldn’t have bothered,’ he thought to himself. ’She would be better off without such a husband.’


With admirable presence of mind, he said, ‘It’s a seasonal fever and there’s no need to worry! Several persons I know are down with it. Give him two aspirins dissolved in water. Just wait, I think I have got them.’


‘No! His temperature is 106 and he’s delirious. Anything can happen to him!’


He must have drunk liquor in fever, Sukhdeo thought. He had heard of many incorrigible drunkards dying because they could not abstain from drinking even when they were ill.


He remembered that their three neighbours had telephones and cars. As if divining his thoughts, she said, ‘I wanted to ring up the hospital for an ambulance, because in his condition he can be moved only in an ambulance or a car. But Chaudhary sahib’s telephone is out of order, Chib sahib is out of station and Saxena sahib’s house is locked.’


It meant that he was not the first but fourth person she had come to. Poor woman! Looking at her tears, he couldn’t help admiring her for her concern for her husband despite his being a burden on her. Yes, something had to be done to help her. But what could he do short of going to the doctor, and if the doctor were not available, continuing on to the hospital for an ambulance? He had often thought of buying a motorcycle or scooter, but didn’t have the money. He was already having difficulty paying off the high-interest loan he had taken to buy a house in this unauthorised colony, which was not yet completely safe from demolition despite assurances from various quarters. He also remembered that at least two, perhaps three, people in the colony had a scooter or a motorcycle, and they could fetch help much more quickly, but since she had come to him, it would have sounded like a shameful excuse to remind her of this fact. Perhaps, she didn’t feel confident of approaching them.


All of a sudden, he said ‘Chaudhary sahib’s phone may be out of order, but he also has a car. He can take Sharma sahib to hospital. There’s no need to call an ambulance or a doctor.’


‘Chaudhary sahib can’t drive at night,’ she replied. He didn’t believe it. He knew better. He had seen Chaudhary driving his car after sunset filled with his friends, or his wife and daughters many times. Chaudhary was hardly fifty and quite fit. But he kept quiet. He didn’t want to appear to be making excuses to such a benevolent lady in distress.


He couldn’t help noticing her surprise at his reluctance and his embarrassment increased. He was generally regarded as a good neighbour and a helpful person. Moreover, she had been helping his son with his lessons for more than a year entirely free. Once he had even told her that he wondered how he could ever repay her extraordinary kindness and that he prayed to God to give him an opportunity to do something for her!


All of a sudden, he was startled by the boisterously raucous cries of a number of dogs, which could be heard running around, barking at each other, hilariously enjoying themselves and warning any intruder on two legs.


He looked at her. She didn’t seem to have paid any attention to the noise. He wondered if she had guessed his fear and reluctance. Even if she had, would she still not be surprised and disappointed by his hesitation when her husband could be said to be in danger of dying? She was not the type to exaggerate her troubles in order to arouse sympathy. He must be seriously ill. Many people were afraid of dogs, but it didn’t prevent them from disregarding their fear and doing what had to be done in an emergency. Wouldn’t he have gone to the doctor or to the hospital if his own wife or son were seriously ill?


She said, ‘Unfortunately, the night watchman hasn’t come today. I’d have given him some rupees and he would have gone to the hospital. If you’ll stay with my husband, whom I’m afraid of leaving alone in his present condition, I’ll go to Dr Prashant. His house is no more than a mile away!’


He felt ashamed. She had obviously concluded that he was not prepared to take the trouble of going to fetch the doctor at this hour. He said, ‘You going is out of the question! I’ll go myself. Apart from the fact that I owe you so much, it’s my duty as a neighbour. And you a lady!’ He instantly regretted the words that he owed her so much. She hadn’t come to him for that reason; she had confidence in him.


Actually, there was no use going to Dr Prashant at this hour. Sukhdeo had heard a lot about this doctor, though he had never seen him. Most of the reports were adverse. According to them, he was an expensive doctor and his visiting fee was high. Nobody except his relatives and close friends went to him even in an emergency after ten in the evening, when he was ‘relaxing’, as he called it. Although, he never refused to see a patient or at least telephone the hospital for an ambulance to be sent to his house at any hour if he was sober, he was, so they said, hopelessly drunk by ten-thirty or eleven. It was approaching midnight now. It would be more sensible to go to the hospital. But how could one go there at this hour without a vehicle, especially as, he couldn’t help recalling, there was another large slum teeming with pariahs between it and the doctor’s colony? Sukhdeo did not doubt that she would also be aware these facts. However, as she seemed determined to go if he didn’t, there was no escape for him.


He said, ‘I’ll go to Dr Prashant.’ Then, as if to shake off his fear, he impulsively added, ‘And if he’s not available, I’ll go to the hospital which has an ambulance. Don’t worry!’ She said, ‘You’re so kind!’ With tears flowing she added, ‘You know I’ve nobody in the world except him!’


‘So despite being ill-treated, she loved him! What a wife! What a woman!’ he thought.


Like many residents of the society, Sukhdeo considered his neighbour, Chaudhary, a fake and a fraud. Chaudhary had been the head of the society’s managing committee for two years and called its meeting every three months mainly to discuss the problem of how to get the society regularised, reporting who he had met for the purpose since the last meeting, who else he was going to approach and what assurances he had got from whom. The meeting usually ended with everyone more dissatisfied than before, more doubtful than before as to whether the people he said he had talked to could help or if he had really talked to them. On the way back some people tentatively suggested Chaudhary’s removal. But the suggestion was always turned down by the majority, who said that even if he was a fake, there was nobody who could replace him, and that he might do something after all because he too had a house in the society. ‘We should also consider the fact that he’s a lawyer, though not a particularly successful one. But success or failure is largely a matter of luck. He should know the tricks,’ said his reluctant defenders. Those in favour of retaining him were also influenced by his exuberant optimism. Genuine or bogus, it temporarily lifted their spirits. He confidently assured them that there was no question of the houses being demolished merely because their construction was unauthorised and that, ultimately, like a large number of unauthorised societies in the past, this one would also be regularised. It was only a matter of time. Another reason for his continuing to be president was that he was supposed to have contacts with influential people. Which influential people, nobody knew for sure, but it was generally believed that at least some of the people he knew, or claimed he knew, were influential. People had no option but to believe him because nobody else knew any people who could be called influential. He had reportedly been seen entering or coming out of a house in a posh colony inhabited by such people. Though it was no more than hearsay, the residents were forced to believe it for want of anything to the contrary known to anybody.


Incidentally, this posh society, like the Sain Baba Bhakts’ Housing Society, had also been built not only illegally but two years after it. However, soon after the construction had been completed it had been regularised, obviously through the payment of bribes to the appropriate politicians and government officials. According to a weekly, which published the misdeeds of the affluent, allegedly revealed confidentially to its reporter by certain disgruntled members of their own class, most of its house-owners, who included judges and ministers or their relatives, already had bungalows and houses in other colonies and had wrongfully acquired this land and built houses on it with the connivance of the concerned officials for the investment of their black money. The price of the land and the houses built on it had since increased many times over, while the price of the houses in Sukhdeo’s colony had come down thanks, among other things, to the widely advertised scepticism of many of its residents.


Sukhdeo decided to go to Chaudhary and ask him to take out his car and come to the doctor with him. He could drive slowly. There was no traffic at this hour and he was not blind. Although he had little hope that Chaudhary would oblige, he determined to go just the same. If he didn’t help he would expose him on the morrow, and if sufficient people agreed, request an emergency meeting of the general body to expel him as the president. There were some among the society’s residents who were in favour of removing him provided there were others of the same mind, because instead of relying on his delusive assurances it was far better to depend on God. Even if he eventually survived the attempt to remove him, he would have received a salutary warning.


All of a sudden, the dogs began to bark again, which increased his determination to try to force Chaudhary to go with him to Dr Prashant or to the hospital in his car.


He quickly dressed and locked the house and in less than ten minutes was knocking at Chaudhary’s door. A servant, who was lying in the verandah on a folding cot, opened the door. Looking drowsily at him, he asked, ‘Kahiye sahib! What do you want? What can I do for you? The sahib has gone to sleep.’


‘I want to see the sahib!’


‘He has gone to sleep.’


Just then Sukhdeo heard a faint sound inside the house. He strained his ears. It was a popular film song. So the fellow had not gone to sleep and was listening to music! The servant had been told to lie to any unwanted visitor. The servant, who could also hear the music, smiled ironically at him. Sukhdeo was enraged but controlled himself.


‘I want to see the sahib!’ he repeated.


‘But he has gone to sleep!’


‘Our neighbour Sharma sahib is seriously ill. His temperature is 107. He must be taken to hospital without delay or he’s sure to die!’


‘I know. His wife came here also. Sahib was full of sympathy for her and would have liked to help her, but unfortunately there was nothing he could do. His phone is out of order and he can’t drive at night. It was he who suggested to her to go to you!’


‘He must have said that because he was nervous of driving at night. I’ll go with him and it’ll be all right.’


‘I’m, sorry sir.’


‘But I want him to be wakened. He’s the president of the society and has certain obligations which he can’t avoid.’


‘I don’t know about that. I have my orders. I can’t disturb him.’


‘You tell him that I forced you to wake him.’


‘It’s not possible. I am sorry, sir!


‘He hasn’t gone to sleep. He’s listening to music and you know it!’


‘I have my orders.’


‘You tell him tomorrow that I told you that he’s a bloody liar!’


‘You tell him that yourself!’


Gnashing his teeth, Sukhdeo thought, ‘And he has the cheek to exhort the young men not to be self-centred and to contribute their might to the solution of the problems facing the country!’


He had gone only a little distance when it occurred to him that he had better arm himself with his umbrella. He went back to his house to get it. Before leaving, he looked at the bed in which he had been comfortably lying and reading only a few minutes ago! Just then cries of dogs were heard again from a long way off. They had an ominous ring, as if warning trespassers against entering their territory.


He had barely gone a hundred yards when he saw a hefty dog coming towards him. Tightening his grip on the umbrella, he coughed loudly, but the dog looked at him in a surprisingly friendly way as if asking him, ‘How do you do?’ He sighed with relief. Obviously it was a regular visitor to his colony and recognised him. ‘You unnecessarily feel afraid,’ he said to himself. But he knew he couldn’t help it.


He walked on. Presently he realised that he had forgotten about the dogs, any of which might start barking at him for the fun of it, inviting other dogs for a chorus. Just then he espied a dog, which was just behind him and walking on, seemingly not minding him. Instinctively, he slowed down and then stopped, allowing the dog to pass him before resuming his walk. He had gone a furlong, when he heard a dubious sound.


Turning around swiftly with the umbrella at the ready, he found nothing! His heart began to pound and he felt more angry than afraid. Times had changed for the worse, he reflected. This Chaudhary was no exception. Many of the so-called educated people were more egoistic than the poor and the illiterates. They discussed the world’s problems but were not interested in what was happening in their neighbourhood. It was not so in the days of his father and grandfather. Then, everybody knew what was happening in everybody else’s home in their locality and offered to help whenever help was needed. People invited and visited their neighbours on social occasions. Now when people happened to meet, they discussed what was happening in the State Assembly, Parliament, Pakistan or Afghanistan. Or discussed some political scandal or the latest Bollywood film.


Half a mile after the slum was situated the infamously legitimised posh society. Dr Prashant lived at the end of it. Suddenly, he felt afraid of entering it. Although, unlike the slum-dwellers, the owners of this society were supposed to chain their pets at night, there were cases of negligence. Besides, many houses had servants’ quarters and many servants also kept dogs but were not always careful to chain them. They neglected to do so because they knew that a servant’s dog instinctively recognised and assumed a humble demeanour at the sight of an aristocrat or a wealthy person, and only barked at or attacked plebeians regardless of their character. Sukhdeo had no doubt that he was more honest and worthy of respect than many a patrician but in this grand colony he could not help feeling like a plebeian.


Presently his eye travelled to the gate of a bungalow on his left. A plate was hanging on it with the picture of a dog and the inscription ‘Beware! I live here!’ All of a sudden, a dog began to bark furiously from behind the gate. His heart missed a beat, but seeing that the gate was locked and feeling safe, he stopped angrily. The dog began to bark more furiously. He abused it and its owner before moving on. He became acutely conscious of his hatred – not of the dogs but of their masters who lived in this colony, which had been regularised by fraudulent means, while he lived in daily fear of being rendered homeless. ‘These impudent bastards with ill-gotten wealth can get away with anything!’ he thought. If the dogs of these people bit him or even tore him to pieces, what punishment would they or their masters get? When they had got away with so much corruption and exploitation, what serious inconvenience could such a trivial offence as their pet biting a passer-by cause them? If the matter was taken to Court by the victim, it would take years for it to come up for hearing. By then both the dog and its victim might be dead. The law was practically impotent in dealing with people who could afford expensive lawyers, who socialised with judges who, when they were lawyers, used to defend criminals with a clear conscience. His thoughts strayed to the poor living in slums. While many of them and their children were not assured of even two meals a day and died of trifling illnesses and slow starvation, these dogs lived on meat and rice, milk and bread and other equally sumptuous food provided by ill-gotten money. Let alone the people living in slums, how inferior was his own food compared to what these dogs ate. He remembered a peon of his office boasting that his sahib’s dog was given multi-vitamin tablets every day. While the poor and their children in this country lived like animals, the pets of the rich were coddled. The poor not only died of disease and slow starvation but also of humiliation.


Just then he saw a well-dressed man and a woman accompanied by a dog on a long chain coming in his direction. Perhaps they were taking a walk even though it was late, to induce sleep, or digest the heavy food they had eaten at a party. He grew tense to think that they were bound to notice how poorly dressed he was! He certainly didn’t look like a man who lived in this colony! They might be surprised to see him here and wonder who he was, where he was going with what purpose at this hour. And the man and woman did slow down a few feet away from him and seemed to look at him sceptically, as if asking him as to who he was and why he was here so late at night. He grew painfully self-conscious. As they came close to him, the dog, as if divining its owners’ thoughts, came up to him and began to sniff at him. Involuntarily and with his heart pounding, he stopped as if in obedience to the couple’s wish to allow the dog to satisfy itself about him on their behalf, it being beneath them to do so. At last, they passed on. He had never felt so humiliated and angry. He thought with fury, ‘If I had a revolver, I’d have shot them!’ All of a sudden, demented with rage, he shouted, ‘Vermin! Thieves! Dogs!’


He ceased to feel afraid.


Just then, he saw a pampered-looking dog coming towards him, perhaps attracted by his shouting. He hesitated, but only for an instant. Then, uttering a violent oath, he rushed towards it and hit it over the head with his umbrella. The dog ran away. He chased it. It disappeared behind a house. His agitation became unbearable and he began to struggle for breath. He thought he would die.


Dr Prashant’s bungalow came in sight. This fellow was also an exploiter! He squeezed poor humans and drank expensive wines. A poor man could not think of going to him. He had heard that he wrote costly prescriptions and prescribed unnecessary tests from the pathologist of his choice and received cuts in return. The gate of the doctor’s bungalow was locked on the inside.


Would he have to go back without the doctor? He recalled the grief-stricken face of Mrs Sharma. What would happen to her, if after waiting for two hours, she should see him returning without help of any kind? His exasperation became unbearable as he realised that there was little chance of the doctor coming with him. He found it intolerable that after the risk he had taken he should even be unable to see the doctor. He determined to see him, come what may, and at least make him telephone the hospital for ambulance. He would wake him from his sleep! After a moment’s hesitation, his heart beating violently, he climbed over the gate and jumped inside. He would have stormed into the verandah, but it was also locked on the inside. All of a sudden, two huge Alsatians began to bark furiously from behind the verandah’s iron grille. For a moment he was terrified, but realising that the verandah was locked, his fear abated and he began to abuse the dogs and their master. He was further enraged to notice the dogs’ well-fed appearance. ‘Each dog must be costing at least a hundred rupees per day!’ he said to himself. ‘Don’t you try to frighten me by barking, you scoundrels!’ he shouted. ‘Go and bark at your father and rouse him from his drunken stupor!’


The dogs continued to bark. Burning with indignation, he thought, ’A man coming for help for a dying man is greeted not by the doctor but by his dogs!’ His eye fell on the doorbell. He pressed it once. He pressed it again for a longer time and began to shout, ‘Doctor! Doctor!!’ No one appeared and the dogs continued to bark more furiously. He fell into a towering rage and began to kick at the grill. Even in his rage it occurred to him that if the doctor appeared and let loose these animals, they would tear him to pieces. His fear of death returned.


At long last, the doctor appeared. ‘How did you enter the bungalow? By jumping over the gate?’ he asked, restraining the dogs with difficulty. ‘Who are you and where do you live? And why are you shouting and repeatedly ringing the bell?’


Quickly recovering because of the mildness of the doctor’s reaction, and still panting from excitement, Sukhdeo said, ‘I live in Sain Baba Bhakts’ Society. A neighbour of mine is ill. His temperature is 107. You’ll have to come with me immediately.’


The doctor replied, ‘It’s not possible. It’s too late. I…’


Sukhdeo grew angry again and in a loud voice interrupted him. ‘Why isn’t possible? You have got to come with me! I won’t go without you! You’ve got a car. Won’t you go to see a patient at this hour in your own colony, even if he were not seriously ill, or even miles away if he were rich? I knew before I started that you won’t come, yet hoped that a spark of humanity might have survived…’ He continued in this vein, unconscious of what he was saying.


The doctor watched him with amazement. At last, he said sternly,’ Stop it! Or I’ll telephone the police! You have jumped over the gate!’ He took his mobile out of his pocket.


Looking at the doctor’s angry face, Sukhdeo grew frightened and stopped.


The doctor said. ‘That’s not the way to behave to a doctor or to anybody. Tell me the ill man’s name and address. He needs hospitalisation. I’ll telephone the hospital to send the ambulance.’


The reports about the doctor were false! He’s a gentleman! Sukhdeo thought, feeling deeply mortified by his own behaviour. Before he could recover and reply he heard voices behind him. Looking back, he saw half a dozen people standing near the gate. They had been roused from their sleep and alarmed by his shouting and the barking of the dogs. One of them said, ‘Who is this man? The gate is locked. How did he get inside? By jumping over it? He’s a thief!’ Another man said, ‘It’s the middle of the night and he has disturbed dozens of people. Whoever he is, he should be handed over to the police.’ ‘How could the beggar dare to enter this colony!’ They asked the doctor to telephone the police. The doctor said, ‘Let him be. A neighbour of his is critically ill. He’s agitated and there’s nothing else the matter.’


Sukhdeo began to cry from shame and humiliation. The doctor said soothingly, ‘Don’t mind what they said. They were naturally angry because the dogs’ barking, the continuous ringing of the bell and your shouting had disturbed them. And there are all kinds of people. Tell me the name and address of the ill person. I’ll phone the hospital and the ambulance will reach him in a few minutes.’


Tears flowing, he told the name and address of Mrs Sharma. The doctor went into the house, came back with the keys and opened the gate for him.


He returned to his colony, crying. He had insulted a gentleman and himself been humiliated. He encountered the same pariah-dogs, but no longer felt afraid. He felt a stabbing pain in the chest but didn’t care. Entering his housing society, he looked at Mrs Sharma’s house. There were no lights in it. The ambulance had come and taken them away. He experienced a moment of happiness, fell on the bed without undressing and died.



The original story in Hindi is included in the collection Mrityunjaya Kee Punyatithi, Antara Prakashan, 1981 (distributors, Poorvodaya Prakashan) under the name Bhaya. It was first published in the literary journal Nai Kahaniyan in 1969, edited by Amrit Rai.


Rajendra Kumar Mishra is a published author whose writing in Hindi has appeared in noted literary journals as well as in his own collections that include Irshya Tatha Anya Kahaniyan, Bharatiya Gyanpeeth, New Delhi, 2003. In 2013, he self-published a novel in English based around the demolition of Babri Masjid.