Here is a translation of Munshi Prem Chand's less known short story 'Mooth' (मूठ).
His son was grown up but the idea of sending him for education was still a question mark. Why should he waste thousands of rupees on his son’s education when he himself had not been able to amass any wealth after studying so many books? His wife, Ahalya, was a woman of much perseverance but Doctor Sahib had so over-burdened her that her back was bent. His mother was also alive, but helpless and unhappy. Her intense desire for a bathe in the Ganges had remained unfulfilled, not to mention that of visiting other holy places. This vice-like stinginess had altogether destroyed the peace and happiness of the family. But there was one exception ⎼ the old maid-servant, Jaggya. As a child Doctor Sahib had played in her lap and she had become so attached to this household that she stuck to the place in spite of every hardship.
Doctor Sahib made up for the shortfall in his income from medical practice from the dividend earned on shares in sugar and cloth mills. Today he received by post seven hundred rupees sent by a mill in Bombay on account of the yearly dividend. Doctor Sahib opened the insured envelope, counted the currency notes and thanked the postman. The postman was carrying a large amount of cash in coins, and to ease his load he requested Doctor Sahib to exchange the coins for notes. Doctor Sahib, wanting to keep the postman in good humour, used to give him medicines free of cost. Now, since he had in any case to hire a tanga to the bank to deposit the money, he readily agreed to do this good turn. He exchanged the currency notes for the coins, counted them and put them in a small bag. He was about to leave for the bank when a patient sent for him. Such occasions were rare, and although the doctor did not trust the box, he put the bag in the box and went out to see the patient. When he returned it was already three o’clock and the bank had closed. So the money could not be deposited. He sat in his dispensary as usual, and when at eight o’clock he rose to go into the house he took out the bag from the box. He felt the bag to be somewhat lighter. He put the bag on the spring balance he used for weighing medicinal powders. On checking he was stunned to find two hundred fifty rupees short. He couldn’t believe. He opened the bag and counted. Yes, two hundred fifty rupees were indeed missing. He desperately ransacked other sections of the box but to no purpose. Disheartened, he sat down on the chair, shut his eyes and began to recollect. Had he kept the money somewhere else? Had the postman given him two hundred fifty less? Had he made a mistake in counting? No, he hadn’t. He had stacked the money in packs of twenty-five each. There were thirty packs. He remembered. He was sure he had counted carefully and placed each pack in the box. His memory couldn’t deceive him. He had even locked the box. But oh, he had left the key on the table; in haste he had forgotten to put it in his pocket. And it was still lying on the table. But who could take the money? The doors were shut. And no one at home touches the money lying here about. Such a thing had never happened before. Surely it must be the work of an outsider. May be a door was left open and someone came for medicine, found the key on the table, opened the box and took away the money.
For this very reason he never took money in coins. It must be the postman’s mischief, who must have seen him keeping the money in the box. Had the money been deposited he would exactly have one thousand rupees in the post office. It would have been easy to calculate interest. Should he go to the police? That would invite more complications. The entrance would be mobbed by people from the mohalla. A few would be showered with abuses but nothing would come out. Should he sit quiet? But why? It wasn’t donation money. Had it been ill-gotten he could have rested content: As you gain, so shall you lose. But each and every penny was hard-earned. Should he, who was so thrifty, living a life of hardship, a famed miser, who retrenched even essential household expenses, provide an opportunity to some rogue for entertainment? He didn’t hate silks, nor was he uninterested in dried fruits, nor did he suffer from indigestion, nor was he so dim-sighted that he couldn’t enjoy going to the theatre or watching a film. He suppressed all such desires so that he could save some money for hard times, buy some property or construct a new house. And this was the reward for his thriftiness! To lose his hard-earned money! Wasn’t it unjust that he should be robbed in broad daylight and the robber should go scot-free? It must be Diwali-like celebration in his house, everyone there enjoying themselves.
The doctor was burning for revenge: ‘I have never allowed any beggar or sadhu to stand at my door; never invited my friends; have always avoided my relatives. All for this! To give the scoundrel another opportunity to show his meanness! If only I could catch the fellow, Ie would kill him by injecting poison into his body.’
But there seemed no way out. A weaver can wreak vengeance only on his beard. The CID too was useless. All their efforts were spent on taking down political speeches and writing false reports. He should go to a person who knows hypnotism, for he would be able to find the culprit. It is said that in Europe and America many theft cases were solved using this art. But where to find such an expert here; and then the information provided by hypnotism was not always reliable. Like astrologers, the hypnotists too kept diving into the deepest oceans of guesswork and conjecture. Some of them were able to name the culprits, but he had never believed in such stories; though there must be some truth in them; otherwise they would have no standing in this age of nature-worship. Today’s scholars, doctors and hakims also had faith in spiritual power, but even if someone was able to name the culprit, it would still not help him take his revenge. Spiritual knowledge won’t stand as evidence. All this would only give him some satisfaction, which was of no use.
But oh yes, he remembered. The ojha, who sat on the roadside as you walked towards the river, was renowned for many success stories: He could unearth lost wealth, cure many illnesses in no time, solve cases of theft, and was an adept in the use of the mooth, the missile spell. He had heard many stories of his skill in this art. As soon as he launches his spell, the thief begins to bleed from his mouth and he does not stop bleeding until he returns the stolen money. If this spell worked, his wish would be fulfilled. He would get back his money and the thief would get his punishment. The ojha was always surrounded by people. That could not be unless he had some special gift! His face too radiated a certain quality. Today’s educated didn’t have faith in such things, but the foolish and lowly talked a lot about it. Why shouldn’t he go to this ojha? Even if he didn’t gain anything he would lose nothing. Where he had lost two hundred fifty it would be another few hundred. This was the best time. There won’t be any crowd.
Having made up his mind, Doctor Sahib headed for the ojha’s residence. It was a winter evening, about nine o’clock. The pathway was almost deserted. Here and there in a few homes he could hear the Ramayana being recited. After he had gone some distance, stillness reigned all around. There were green fields on both sides. He could hear the howling of jackals. They must be around here close by. Until now, Doctor Sahib had had the good fortune to listen to their musical voices only from a distance. Hearing them from so close frightened him. Many a time he banged his stick on the ground or stamped his feet. Jackals being cowards don’t come near humans, he thought. But then he became sceptical. Suppose there was a mad one among them and came and bit him. A person bitten by a jackal won’t survive. The moment he thought of this the images of viruses, bacteria, and the Pasture Institute at Kasauli began to revolve in his mind. He was walking with quick steps, and then another thought came into his mind. Suppose the money had been stolen by someone from his own family? He stopped short, but the next moment he took a quick decision. What was wrong? If it was someone from the family, he or she deserved a harsher punishment. So harsh, that they would not dare to repeat such an act.
At last he reached the ojha’s residence. There was no crowd now. He heaved a sigh of relief. But he slowed down his pace. He was wondering: If the ojha turned out to be a fraud, he would be shamefaced. People would laugh at him. Even the ojha would think him dim-witted. But since he had come here there was no harm in experimenting. If nothing else, it would be a test case. The ojha’s name was Buddhu, but people addressed him as Chowdhry. He was a chamar by caste. A small house and dirty. The thatched roof was so low that one could hit the roof even after bending one’s head. There was a neem tree at the door and a platform under it. A flag waved from the top of the neem tree. Hundreds of miniature mud elephants covered with vermillion were lying on the platform. Many sharp edged tridents had also been planted on the platform, which seemed meant for goading on the slow-moving elephants. It was ten o’clock. Buddhu Chowdhry, a dark, pot-bellied yet impressive looking man, was sitting on a tattered mat and drinking. A tumbler and a bottle lay before him.
The moment Buddhu saw Doctor Sahib he at once hid the bottle and came down the platform and salaamed him. An old woman from inside brought a stool for the doctor to sit on. The doctor narrated his story somewhat shame-facedly. Buddhu said, ‘Hazoor, this is not a difficult job. Only last Sunday darogaji had lost his watch. Investigations yielded nothing. He called me and in no time I found the watch. He gave me five rupees. And yesterday jamadar sahib lost his mare. He ran all around in search. I gave him such a lead that he found the mare grazing in a field. The officers value me for my knowledge.’
The doctor didn’t relish the references to the dargoa and jamadar. In the eyes of these bumpkins the daroga and jamadar were everything. He wanted not only to find out the thief but also punish him.
Buddhu shut his eyes for a moment, yawned, and clicked his fingers and said, ‘It is the work of a member of your household.’
The doctor said, ’Never mind, let it be anyone.’
The old woman said, ‘Hazoor, if something goes wrong, you would blame us.’
‘Don’t worry about this. I have thought about it carefully. In fact if it is an insider’s job I wish to be stricter with that person. If an outsider cheats us, it’s excusable but an insider can never be let off.’
Budhhu asked, ‘Hazoor, then, what do you want?’
‘Only this. I should get back my money, and the thief should suffer hard.’
Buddhu said, ‘Should I launch the missile spell?’
The old woman said, ‘Son, don’t launch the missile. We don’t know what it may do.’
The doctor said, ‘You cast the spell. I’m ready to pay you, whatever the amount.’
The old woman said, ‘Son, I say again, don’t get into this missile business. If there’s trouble this very person would be after you. You won’t be able to do anything. You know very well, how difficult it is to antodote the effect of a missile spell.’
Buddhu said, ‘Yes, babuji, think about it again. I shall launch the spell but I take no responsibility for antidoting its effects.’
Doctor said, ‘I have already told you. I won’t tell you to reverse its effect. Just cast the spell.’
Budhhu made a long list of things required for the spell. But Doctor Sahib thought it better to pay in cash. Buddhu agreed. As he walked away the doctor said, ‘Cast such a spell that the culprit is before me in the morning with the stolen money.’
Buddhu told him to rest assured.
It was eleven when Doctor Sahib left Buddhu’s place. Being a winter night, it was biting cold. His mother and wife were waiting for him, sitting with a small charcoal brazier between them, which warmed their thoughts more than their bodies. Charcoal was considered a luxury here. The old maid was lying close by with a ragged sheet over her. She would get up again and again and walk towards her small dark room, feel for something in the niche and return. She asked again and again how far the night was gone. And at the slightest noise she would start and look around herself with worried eyes. Why was Doctor Sahib so late in coming? They were wondering. Occasions when he had to go and see a patient so late at night were very few indeed. Even those who trusted his medical abilities dared not enter that street at night. The doctor had no interest in going to meetings or parties. He had very few friends. To go to the theatre was most unlikely. The mother said, ’Where has he gone? His food has gone cold.’
Ahalya said, ‘He should have told us where he was going. It’s nearly midnight.’
Mother said, ‘He must have been held up by something; otherwise he seldom goes out.’
Ahalya replied, ‘I’m going to bed. He can come when he likes. I can’t keep waiting the whole night.’
Just then Doctor Sahib entered. Ahalya sat up and Jaggya stood up staring at the doctor with apprehension. Mother asked why he had been away for so long.
The doctor retorted, ‘You’re all sitting comfortably. How does it matter to you if I’m late? Go and sleep peacefully. I can’t be deceived by these falsehoods. Slit a throat when you get a chance and then make a show of sympathy.’
Mother felt hurt and said, ‘Son, why do you talk like that? There’s none here who would do anything to harm you.’
The doctor said, ‘I don’t regard anyone here as my friend. All of you are my enemies and after my life. Otherwise how should two hundred fifty rupees vanish from my table in a moment’s absence. The doors were shut, no outsider came in and the money flew away in no time. Why should I regard as my own they who are ready to slit my throat? I have found out from an ojha. He has clearly told me that this is the work of an insider. All right. As you sow so shall you reap. I’ll also show that I have no sympathy for my enemies. Had it been an outsider I might have let him go. But if the very people for whom I grind the whole day deceive me, then they don’t deserve any reprieve. I have asked the ojha to cast the missile spell. The moment it is cast the thief would be struggling for life.’
Jaggya spoke out of fright, ‘Bhaiya, the missile spell can kill.’
‘That’s the punishment for the thief.’
‘Who’s the ojha ?’
‘Oh God, there’s no antidote for his spell.’
The doctor went away to his room. Mother said, ‘A miser’s money can be stolen only by Satan. Two hundred fifty rupees is not a small sum. I could have visited all the seven holy places with this money.’
Ahalya said, ‘I have been cringing for a bracelet for years. It’s good, my curse has worked.’
Mother said, ‘Who would steal his money lying at home?’
Ahalya replied, ‘The doors must have been open. Some stranger must have come in and taken away the money.’
Mother said, ‘How did he become so sure that some insider has taken the money?’
‘Greed for money makes a man suspicious.’
It was one o’clock at night. Doctor Jaipal was dreaming horrible dreams. His wife Ahalya came and woke him up. ‘Come and see. Something’s wrong with Jaggya. Her tongue’s stuck and she’s unable to speak. Her eyes have become stony.’
Doctor got up with a start. For a moment he believed he was dreaming. Then he asked, ‘What’s wrong with Jaggya?’
Ahalya once again described Jaggya’s condition. Doctor’s face was lit up with a smile. He said, ‘We have caught the thief. The missile spell has worked.’
Ahalya asked, ‘Had the money been stolen by one of us?’
‘You would have suffered the same fate and learnt your lesson for a life time.’
‘Would you kill someone for two hundred fifty rupees?’
‘Not for two hundred fifty rupees. If needed, I can spend even two thousand five hundred. This is punishment for cheating.’
‘You’re so cruel.’
‘If I loaded you with gold from head to foot you would call me a model of goodness. I’m sorry I don’t need this certificate from you.’
He walked into Jaggya’s room. Her condition was worse than what Ahalya had described. There was a shadow of death on her face, her hands and feet had become stiff, her pulse could not be felt. His mother was sprinkling water on her face trying to revive her. When the doctor saw this he was stunned. He should have been pleased at the success of his modus operandi. That Jaggya had stolen the money needed no further proof, but he had never even imagined that the missile would work so fast and with such deadly effect. He had wanted the thief to grind his heals and writhe with pain. The desire for revenge was obviously succeeding, but it looked as if the dish had become too salty to swallow. Instead of exultation he felt a pang of agony at the sight of the suffering woman. Often in pride we over-estimate our cruelty and harshness, yet the real situation is always far different. The thought of a battlefield is so romantic, and the poetry arousing war emotions generates so much heat. But who would not be moved to see crushed heads and broken limbs? Compassion comes naturally to human beings.
On top of it, he had never imagined that a weakling like Jaggya would become the victim of his anger. He had believed that the target of his attack would be someone stronger, like his son or wife. To kill the already dead, to crush the already crushed seemed to him against the idea of revenge. Jaggya deserved to be forgiven for her misconduct. There was nothing surprising if a person who struggled for two meals and bare minimum of clothes, whose mansion of expectations and desires had always remained shrouded in darkness, should be tempted. He immediately went to his dispensary and concocted a mixture out of all the medicines he had to bring a person back to consciousness, and made Jaggya drink it. This did not work at all. Then he brought an electrical equipment and tried to bring Jaggya back into consciousness. After sometime Jaggya opened her eyes and looked at the doctor with fearful eyes, just as a student looks at his teacher’s cane. She said in her tottering voice, ‘My heart’s on fire. Take your money. It’s kept in the pot in the niche. Don’t burn me in this fire. I had taken this money for going on a pilgrimage. Don’t you feel any pity? You’re burning me for a handful of rupees. I never thought you were so evil. Oh Rama!’
Saying this she became unconscious again. Her pulse seemed to have stopped, her lips became blue and her body started stiffening. The doctor looked at Ahalya and said, ‘I have used all my medicines to bring her back to consciousness. I can do nothing more. How did I know that this missile spell would prove so deadly? If she dies I’ll have to repent for a life time. My conscience would always curse me. I just don’t know what to do.’
Ahalya said, ‘Call the civil surgeon. We must not push someone into fire knowingly.’
‘The civil surgeon won’t be able to do anything. Whatever could be done I have done. Her condition is worsening every moment. God knows what sort of a spell has the murderer cast. His mother kept on warning me, yet I didn’t listen to her.’
His mother said, ‘All right, son, then call him. If she dies, her murder would be on our head and her spirit would haunt the family for ever.’
It was two o’clock. Cold wind was piercing through his bones as the doctor was walking with long steps towards Buddhu’s house. He was turning his eyes all around in the hope of finding a tanga. Buddhu’s house seemed too far now. Once or twice he suspected he had lost the way. He had come this way many a time but had never seen this garden, or this letter box; and this bridge had never been there. He must have lost the way. Whom should he ask? He became irritated at his own memory and ran in one direction for some distance. God knows if the fellow would be willing to see him. Must be lying drunk! And the poor woman might already be dead. He tried to change direction but finally he took the right path and at last recognized Buddhu’s house. Doctor Jaipal heaved a sigh of relief. He went to Buddhu’s door and struck the latch on the door with force. From inside a dog answered in impolite language, but he heard no human voice. He struck the door again and the dog barked still more furiously. The old woman woke up. ‘Who’s pounding the door at this hour?’
‘It is me who had come to you sometime back,’ shouted the doctor.
The old woman recognized his voice. She knew that someone in his house must be in trouble; otherwise he wouldn’t have come at this time of the night. But Buddhu hadn’t yet launched the missile spell. How could its effect be felt? She had tried to dissuade him but he had not listened. Now he was caught. She got up and lighted the lamp and came out. The doctor asked her to wake up Buddhu Chowdhry.
The old woman said, ‘Babu sahib, I won’t wake him up at this time. He would eat me alive. He doesn’t wake up even if the laat sahib should call.’
The doctor narrated the whole story briefly and asked her politely to wake Buddhu up. In the meantime Buddhu himself came out rubbing his eyes and said, ‘What’s the matter, babu sahib?’
The old woman was irritated. ‘How did you wake up by yourself. Had I gone to wake you up you would have thrashed me.’
The doctor said, ‘I have told the whole story to her, she would tell you all.’
The old woman said, ‘Nothing much. You had cast the spell. The money was stolen by his maidservant. Now she is in trouble.’
The doctor said, ‘The poor woman is dying. Do something to save her life.’
Buddhu said, ‘This is bad news. It is not easy to reverse the missile spell.’
The old woman said, ‘Son, you know it well. It is life threatening. Don’t you know? Trying to reverse the spell can be dangerous for the person casting the spell.’
The doctor pleaded, ‘Now her life can be saved only by you. Do this good deed.’
The old woman said, ‘Who would risk his own life to save another’s?’
The doctor said, ‘You practise this magic all the time. You know all the tricks. You can kill as well as save. I had no faith in such things, but am amazed to see your power. You save many lives, now do a favour to this poor woman.’
Buddhu relented a bit but his mother was far cleverer than him in such matters. Fearing that he might spoil the game by softening up, she didn’t give Buddhu any chance to speak. She said, ‘You’re right. Yet we too have a family. The antidote may or may not work. It may hurt us. You would go away after grinding your axe. Reversing the effect of a missile spell is no joke.’
Buddhu said, ‘Yes babuji, it’s risky business.’
‘The job is risky but I'm not asking you to do it for free.’
The old woman said, ‘You may give us fifty or hundred rupees. How long would that last? Reversing the missile effect is like thrusting your hand into a snake hole, like jumping into fire. Only God’s blessings can save one’s life.’
The doctor said, ‘Mother, I am not going against your will. You can tell me the price. I have to save that poor woman’s life. Here we’re wasting time, and God knows what state she is in.’
The old woman said, ‘It’s you who’s wasting time. You settle the amount and he would go with you. It’s because of you I am risking his life. I would have refused anyone else. I am ready to drink poison just to oblige you.’
For the doctor each moment looked like one year. He wanted to take Buddhu along at once. What use it would be if she died before he reached home. At this moment money had no value for him. He only wanted to save Jaggya’s life. The money for which he could sacrifice his family’s hopes and necessities became of no account in the face of his compassion. All right, you tell me at once how much you want.’
‘All right, five hundred rupees, nothing less,’ said the old woman.
Buddhu looked at his mother in surprise. The doctor became almost unconscious. Disappointed the doctor pleaded, ‘Mother, don’t be so heartless. After all it is human beings who help each other.’
Buddhu said, ‘Babuji, I’m willing to help you. She said five hundred, you pay a little less, but don’t forget the risk involved.’
The old woman retorted, ‘Go and sleep. He loves his money. Don’t you love your life? If you begin to spit blood tomorrow, what will you do? Who would look after your children? Do you have anything to depend on?’
Doctor Sahib offered to pay two hundred fifty rupees, somewhat shamefacedly. Buddhu agreed and the matter was settled. The doctor took Buddhu along and walked towards his home. He had never felt so happy. Even a person who has won a lost court case would not have been so pleased. He was walking fast, and repeatedly telling Buddhu to hurry up. When he reached home he found Jaggya nearly dead. It looked she was at her last gasp. His wife and mother were sitting there with tears in their eyes. Both looked at Buddhu with beseeching eyes. The doctor too could not control his tears. As he bent to look at Jaggya his tears fell on her death pale face. The situation made Buddhu alert. He put his hand on the old woman’s body and said, ‘Babuji I can do nothing now. She’s dying.’
The doctor begged, ‘No, Chowdhry. Use your spell in the name of God. If her life is saved I shall become your life-long slave.’
Buddhu said, ‘You’re forcing me to swallow poison. I didn’t know the missile god was so angry at this time. He is telling me he’ll swallow me up if I snatched his prey.’
‘Propitiate the god somehow.’
‘It is difficult to please him. Give me five hundred rupees if you want to save her life. I’ll have to do many big things to please the god.’
‘If I pay you five hundred, would you be able to save her life?
‘Most certainly,’ said Buddhu.
The doctor walked to his room at the speed of lightning and brought back a bag full of five hundred rupees and handed it over to Buddhu. Buddhu looked at the bag triumphantly and then took Jaggya’s head in his lap and began to move his hands over it. He was mumbling something followed by the sound ‘chchu-chchu’. The next moment his face became fearful as if it was emitting flames. He was flailing his arms again and again. Then he began to sing a tuneless song, still keeping his hands on Jaggya’s head. Finally, after half an hour, Jaggya opened her eyes, as if light had returned to an extinguished lamp. Her condition began to improve gradually. Then they heard the cawing of a crow. Jaggya stretched her arms and sat up.
It was seven o’clock. Jaggya was sleeping peacefully. Her face looked free from illness. Buddhu had just walked out carrying the bag filled with five hundred rupees. Doctor’s mother said, ‘The fellow has talked you out of five hundred rupees.’
The doctor replied, ‘Why don’t you say he brought back to life a dead person. Is her life not worth even this much?’
Mother said, ‘Go and see if the five hundred rupees are there in the niche.’
‘No,’ said the doctor, ‘Don’t touch that money. Let it be there. She had taken it for her pilgrimage. Let her use it for that.’
Mother said, ‘All this money was destined to be hers.’
‘She was destined to have only five hundred. The rest belonged to me. In return I have learnt a great lesson which I would never forget. Now you won’t find me closing my fist for anything you need.’