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Three months after the two men had pushed a needle into his thigh, Sheru learned something new about being sad. It happened just after the last of the strange dreams.

They were not the kind of dreams that you’d expect a dog to have. The dreams he’d had before the men came had been doggy dreams. The dreams he had after they grabbed him, though, these dreams were entirely new. He had never seen anything like them.

The men had got him when he was sleeping, head on his paws, under an old deodar tree on the roadside in Kishanpur. A small white van pulled up, and two men jumped out of the side door and caught his legs before he could get up. He tried to bite them, but then the needle went in, and everything went black. He woke up with a terrible throbbing pain between his ears. For the next few days he just lay there and they gave him lots and lots of the best food he had ever had. After a week, the pain died down to a gentle prickling. His legs sometimes felt a little odd, and sometimes they took him places of their own accord, but he was able to move again. His captors didn’t try to stop him when he got up and ran out of the room where they’d kept him. Of course he did not know about the aerial looped around his skull, or the chips hooked up to the sensory and motor centres in his cerebral cortex. Even if he had, it’s not like he would have understood them, or the mass of software running in the data centres in Delhi, New York, and Berlin that they connected to.

Since they kept feeding him, he kept going back. All he had to do to get fed was to go to Kuldeep’s room. He had even found a nice corner in that room, between a warm humming machine on one side and the wall on the other. It was just the right size for a brown street mutt like Sheru to curl up. After Kuldeep had seen him do it a few times, he’d put a mat down for Sheru there. That was the last ingredient necessary to make it a perfect sleeping spot. Compared to his life on the streets, this felt nice. Pretty much everything felt nice. Except for the dreams.

Today, the dream had started as soon as he’d curled up for a morning nap.

In the dream, he was sitting under a peepal tree, next to a path that wound down a steep slope towards a stream. Someone had once paved the path with concrete, and then the rains had cut away at it every year, until now it was just a broken mess of cement and rocks. On the far side there was a group of houses, small brick sheds that straggled down the hillside.

Sheru liked sitting there, under his tree, and he had been coming there a long time. Every day many people came and went on the path, short, dark men and women in small groups. The men carried tools over their shoulders, the women carried small bags or nothing, and the kids wore their school uniforms. When they came back some of the men smelled of paint. Once in a while a bigger man would walk down, and these men often smelled, to Sheru, of soap. Most people ignored him, like people ignored all street dogs in Dehradun, but now and then someone gave him a biscuit. Once, many days ago, one of the small girls had run over in her blue school frock, carrying a bowl of bread soaked in milk. He remembered the taste of the cream on the bread, its chewiness, the way it felt in his mouth. She was the one who had started calling him Sheru.

There was only one house on Sheru’s side of the path, about ten meters down from his tree. It was a little irregular box, made of unpainted bricks with a dull tin roof. In the dream one of the soap-smelling men was standing outside it. A small man stood in front of him, wrapped in a torn brown shawl, his face and shawl mottled with dirt.

The big man said, “It’s my land and I didn’t buy it so useless bastards like you can stay here forever! You said you’d get out by October! Do you think this is your father’s land, motherfucker?”

The small man bent his head, hands folded, and said, “Please, saab, just another week, my daughter is sick, I promise … saab, I did your plastering work and I didn’t ask for money for that eith—”

The big man swung his hand so fast it became a blur, and the crack when it hit the other’s face echoed in Sheru’s ears. The smaller man’s hand flew to his ear, covering it while his head shuddered.

Face twisted, eyes wide and red, the big man said, “Now you’re asking for money too? Get out today or I’ll break your bones myself!”

The other’s head bent further, and Sheru could no longer see his face, only hear a small voice saying “Saab saab saab saab saab saab …” behind the hand clutching his ear. Someone started wailing inside the house. It sounded like a child.

The big man turned and strode up the cement path. He didn’t look at Sheru. For a moment the small man stood there, rubbing his cheek and ear with his hand, eyes screwed shut. His cheeks were wet and his legs were shaking. Without lifting his head he turned and went into the house.

That was the end of the dream. A moment later the door opened and Sheru woke with a start. Kuldeep walked in, dressed in his usual dark green sweater and fraying jeans, which smelled more of damp than of either soap or paint. He picked up a dish of water and tried to slide it next to Sheru, but he was looking sideways at the big metal box on his desk while he pushed, and he bumped Sheru’s nose instead. Sheru didn’t mind. He drank the water and put his head on his paws again, watching as Kuldeep sat on the black chair at his desk and pressed something on the metal box.

The box lit up with a gentle glow, and there were white shapes on it, shapes that looked like this:

JOINT DEEP LEARNING RESEARCH INITIATIVE

EMPATHY AND EXPERIENCE MODELING NETWORK — CANINE SENSOR PLATFORM IND1 (VERSION 6.3)

MOST RECENTLY LOGGED INCIDENT: 673 (Tue Nov 22 07:53:21 IST 2022)

Kuldeep tapped something on his table. New shapes came up:

INCIDENT REPORT 673 (ITERATION 1, AUTO DETECTED LANGUAGES: HINDI, INDIVIDUALS PRESENT: 2)

This morning two men were standing on the pathway near a small unpainted house in Doon Vihar. One man smelled of soap. He was very angry. The other man smelled of dust. He was very scared and very sad. The big man hit him very hard and said to get out of his land. He said he would break the sad dusty man’s bones. The dusty man was very sad. Then the big man went away. The dusty man looked very sad and he was crying. A sad child inside the house was also crying. They must also be very sad.

INCIDENT VIDEO AVAILABLE ON BACKUP SERVER, SEGMENT CODE 2334582

Kuldeep picked up a small black box from his table and pressed something on it, then held it up to his ear. After a second he put it down and pressed it again. The room filled with a crackling noise, and then a woman’s voice said, “Hello?”

Kuldeep said, “Shruti, you’ve got to see this.”

“See what? I’ve got to be in class in three minutes, I’m presenting—”

“Just take a look at report 673, will you?”

“Hold on, I’ll have to see it on my phone. Bluetooth headset, bluetooth headset, where the hell did I …”

There was a pause. Kuldeep drummed his fingers on the edge of the table.

Then the small box said, “Wow. Just wow. This is wonderful. It has a story, it has a clear beginning and end, it makes sense, man, perfect sense!”

Kuldeep grinned and said, “I know, I never thought it’d happen so fast. I thought we were going to have to wait till the 1500s at least before we got anything coherent. At least another three months. Now we’ve only reached 673 and it’s already captured a full, actual emotional experience.”

They stopped talking, and for a minute Sheru could hear only breathing from both Kuldeep and the small box. Then Kuldeep said, “Uh … look, before we show this to the others, shouldn’t we do a little tweaking?”

“Why? How much better can it get than this?”

“Isn’t it, um, too soppy?”

“Too soppy?” said the small box. “We’re trying to capture emotions, Kuldeep.”

“Yeaaahhh,” Kuldeep said hesitantly, “but that doesn’t mean it should go on and on like this, does it? When I was on the conference call last week, the project leaders said we’re aiming for a tone like a news article, you know, general comprehension and the ability to pick the main emotions in an event. But this …” He paused, and then added, “This is like a kid or something. Saying again and again that the man is sad. I mean, yes, I’m sure he was sad, poor guy, but still.”

The small box grunted, and said, “Okay, let me take a look again.” There was a short silence, and then the box said, “What material did they use for the last round of training?”

“The Germans did that part. They said they used movies from here, both documentaries and fiction.”

“Probably should have used news reports. Let me see what I can do, hold on.”

There was another pause.

Then the box said, “I’ve adjusted the level 3 empathy and level 2 facticity parameters a bit. How many iterations has this gone through?”

“It says it reviewed the incident through a single thousand loop iteration this morning, at, hold on, 8:32 am. Just before I came in, in fact. About ten minutes ago.”

“Right, tell it to do a refinement run now with the new parameters.”

“Okay, I’ll do that and call you back.”

“I’m already late, Kuldeep. Talk later, I’ll be out by lunchtime.”

“Message me when you’re done, bye.” He tapped something and there was a beep from the black box, after which it went quiet. Kuldeep dragged something across his desk a few times, and then the dream was back in Sheru’s head, but this time something was odd about the colours, and it went much faster.

Then Kuldeep turned and said, “Dammit, I forgot to feed you again. Wish you could talk.” He paused, then with a half-smile said, “Actually I guess you can, but not, well …” He went out the door, and came back a minute later with a plate full of warm rice and chicken. Sheru was ravenous and dug in. Afterwards he slept. This time the dreams did not come back.


It was getting colder when he woke, dark clouds filling the square of sky outside the small window. Sheru huddled a little closer to the humming machine next to him. Soon after, Kuldeep came back. His hair was wet and he smelled sweet now. He sat down on his chair and pulled himself close to the table, pressing something at the same time. The metal box came back to life, and now it showed:

INCIDENT REPORT 673 (ITERATION 2, AUTO DETECTED LANGUAGES: HINDI, INDIVIDUALS PRESENT: 2)

This morning two men were standing on the pathway near a small house in Doon Vihar. One man smelled of soap. He was angry. He shouted. The other man smelled of dust. He looked scared. The first man hit him and said to get out of his land. The dusty man looked very sad. A child inside the house was crying. They were also sad.

INCIDENT VIDEO AVAILABLE ON BACKUP SERVER, SEGMENT CODE 2334582

Kuldeep smiled and pulled the small black box out of his pocket. He tapped it a few times and swung back to his table, and a second later the woman’s voice said, “Did it work?”

“Take a look.”

“Give me a minute, I’m walking.” Then, after a break, “Okay, let’s see … definitely better, much better. Actually I think this is perfect for what we need. We’re so far ahead of the others already. You know I showed the prof the first version, and he got so excited that he said we should get all three country teams on the next conference call and do a presentation for everyone. He was practically jumping up and down.”

“The next call? Isn’t that like next week?”

“Well, how long do you want to sit on the first deep learning neural network that used biological perception and applied automatic emotional comprehension to produce a proper narrative? The first one ever, after decades of work in the best labs in the—”

“Okay, okay. Next week it is, then.”

“You’ll have to start working on it tonight.”

“Me? Why not you?”

“Because you have the dog, idiot. You know what they’ll say if we start analysing the neural network without mapping the implant first.”

“Okay, in that case, you do the theory bits and I’ll get started on the implants. But not tonight. Tomorrow. Tonight I’m planning a long session of drunken debauchery.”

“What, on your own? Have fun. Or are you going to get the dog to keep you company?”

“I do actually have friends—oh, never mind, just shut up. Bye.”

“Bye,” the box said, and laughed until the beep came again. Kuldeep leaned back in his chair and stretched his arms above his head, saying, “Yes, yes, yes, yes,” under his breath. He started tapping his desk again, and the clicking sounds came back. Sheru kept watching, but no one said anything.


Soon afterwards, Sheru started to get that funny feeling in his legs again. He jumped up and trotted out the door. The sky was now overcast, covered with a dark grey, lumpy sheet of cloud that slowly shifted and moved with the cold wind. The air smelled of damp earth and imminent rain. He crossed the road and then his legs took him down one street, round a corner, then down another, and soon he was back on the cement path.

The house on his side of the path was gone. In its place was a pile of grey rubble, shattered shards of cement and brick, with a bent tin sheet and a black tarpaulin on top. The dusty man was sitting on a broken cement block next to the path, watching a small skinny girl sitting on the ground. Near them a plastic chair lay upturned. An even smaller child, barely taller than the chair’s leg, was trying to pull something out from underneath it. Just as Sheru came up, she succeeded. She squealed, “Rosie!” and Sheru could see she was holding a small pink doll with one leg sheared off. Unsteadily, the small girl walked over to the other two, pulled on the older girl’s torn grey frock and tugged at her elbow, saying, “Aarti, Aarti, I found Rosie, Aarti, Aartiiiiii!” She pushed the doll in front of the older girl’s face, and then tried to stand it on the ground in front of her, but its leg was gone and it kept falling over. The little girl whined and pulled the other child’s frock again, but the other girl just looked at her and didn’t move, not until the little girl’s voice dissolved into a cough. That cough was followed by another, and another, and then more, harsh, wheezy barks that came in waves. The girl dropped the doll and sat down hard on the path. The other child got up and tried to pat her back. The dusty man watched them, but it was as if he was made of stone. Nothing in his face seemed to move. After a long minute the coughing slowed, and the little girl at last drew a deep, shuddering breath. She leaned forward and picked up her doll.

Then a gust of wind blew and the rain started to fall, big, freezing drops that made Sheru feel very cold. The dusty man pulled both girls next to him, reached out, caught a corner of the tarpaulin and dragged it over them all. Sheru could no longer see them after that. The wind howled and the rain turned into a downpour, sheets of water slicing out of the sky. For a long time, Sheru sat under the tree and watched the three lumps huddled under the tarpaulin, watched them shift under the sheet, watched the rain spatter off the sheet and stream down its sides.


Later, after the rain had slowed to a drizzle, Sheru came back to the room. He found Kuldeep staring at the metal box, his mouth curled in a tight frown. He didn’t notice Sheru even when the dog stopped and shook the water off his fur. The metal box was showing:

INCIDENT REPORT 674 (ITERATION 1, AUTO DETECTED LANGUAGES: HINDI, INDIVIDUALS PRESENT: 3)

On the pathway in Doon Vihar a dusty man sat on a cement block. His house was gone, broken into many pieces. Two girls who were probably his children were there too. The bigger one sat next to him and stared at the ground. She was very sad. Her father was also very sad. The little girl found a broken doll and for a moment she was happy. She tried to get her sister to play. But then she started coughing and her sister and her father were even more sad. Her father was so sad his face would not move. Then it started raining and they sat under a black tarpaulin. The father was very sad. His daughter was sick and her sister looked so sad.

INCIDENT VIDEO AVAILABLE ON BACKUP SERVER, SEGMENT CODE 2466270

Kuldeep shook his head hard, like he was trying to copy Sheru drying himself, and said, “What’s with you, man? Even the kid’s trying to cheer up, and you’re still going on and on like some TV serial.”

His fingers tapped on the tray, making loud clacking sounds. The rows of shapes vanished and were replaced by a new row:

EXECUTING THOUSAND LOOP ITERATION WITH REVISED PARAMETERS — ESTIMATED RUN TIME 78 SECONDS

Sheru’s head filled with the images again as Kuldeep sat back and yawned. He leaned forward a minute later, when the metal box showed:

INCIDENT REPORT 674 (ITERATION 2, AUTO DETECTED LANGUAGES: HINDI, INDIVIDUALS PRESENT: 4)

On the pathway in Doon Vihar a man sat. His house was broken. Two girls who were probably his children were with him. The younger one found a broken doll. Its leg was broken. A dog was watching. Then the smaller girl started coughing. Her sister watched her. She was sad. Her father’s face would not move. He was sad. Then it started raining and they sat under a black tarpaulin. There was a dog and the dog was very sad, very sad, very sad and angry.

INCIDENT VIDEO AVAILABLE ON BACKUP SERVER, SEGMENT CODE 2466270

Kuldeep stared at the box. “The dog was … what the hell?”

He turned to look at Sheru and said, “Are you sad? What is this machine talking about?”

Then Sheru felt something tremendous in his head, something huge, something like he’d never felt before, like all the strange dreams together, and he felt that he knew its name, a name that was just one word: sad. Sad. Sad. Sad.

He put his head down between his legs and whined, a soft noise that seemed to fill the quiet room. It was not like any whine that he had ever made before, and it just went on and on.

When at last his head felt less heavy, and the whining slowed and stopped, Sheru looked up again. Kuldeep was still staring at him. He looked worried.

“Oh, shit,” he said.

He picked up the black box from the table and tapped it again. This time the woman’s voice came out almost immediately. “Kuldeep, I thought you were supposed to be getting drunk.”

“Shruti, I think something’s gone wrong.”

The tone of the voice from the black box changed. “Really? It was perfect.”

“Now it’s talking about the dog as if … as if the dog is part of the narrative. Says the dog felt sad about the house being broken.”

“What? How the hell did that happen?”

“How should I know? The dog went back to that house and it had been broken down, and that worker was sitting there with two girls, I guess his daughters, and the system was going on and on again about being sad. I adjusted the parameters, and when I ran it again, it started telling me the dog was sad and— look, just read it yourself? Report 674.”

“Hold on,” said the box, and there was a pause again. Sheru still felt strange and … and sad, and he sat down.

Then the woman’s voice came back, speaking slowly, “The dog was very sad, very sad, very … what is this?”

Kuldeep shook his head. “The only thing I can think of is that it’s misattributing feelings. Like, the man is sad, and the system gets into some kind of feedback loop around that, and starts saying sad sad sad about everything.”

“It’s never put the dog in before,” said the box.

Kuldeep paused before saying, “And you know the funny thing was …” Then he stopped.

“Was?”

“Uh, well, the dog, you know, he was whining and strange, I’ve never seen him behaving like that before. Like he was really—”

The black box interrupted with a snort. “Sad? Sad because some random guy’s house got broken down? Oh, come on, Kuldeep. Are you absolutely sure you’re not drunk?”

Kuldeep laughed a little and said, “No, really …”

The box snorted again and said, “Okay, that’s great, but let’s save our asses first, okay? Maybe we should roll it back to the previous iteration and try again.”

Kuldeep leaned forward and started tapping on the tray again. “I’ll try, but you know that full rollback doesn’t always happen … and the last full backup snapshot was … um … over three hours ago …”

He carried on muttering something, and then the dream started up in Sheru’s head again, but this time he could only see the little girl showing her doll to her sister, and then coughing, coughing, and her sister patting her back.

Kuldeep stopped, and the dream stopped, and now the metal box showed new shapes:

INCIDENT REPORT 674 (ITERATION 2 (BRANCH KULDEEP-ROLLBACK), AUTO DETECTED LANGUAGES: HINDI, INDIVIDUALS PRESENT: 4)

On the pathway in Doon Vihar a man sat. His house was broken. A dog was watching and felt sad and angry. There were two girls with the man. The younger one found a doll. The doll was broken under a stone and she tried to make it stand but it would not stand. The dog felt sad. Then the smaller girl started coughing and dropped her broken doll. The other girl watched her and the dog heard the coughing and saw the man’s face not moving and they were all very sad. The doll was broken and they were even more sad. She kept coughing and the other girl patted her and she didn’t stop coughing and then it started raining. They sat under a black tarpaulin with the broken doll.

INCIDENT VIDEO AVAILABLE ON BACKUP SERVER, SEGMENT CODE 2466270

Kuldeep stared at the screen for a moment and then groaned, saying, “Oh, for god’s sake, now the doll …”

He leaned forward to pick up the black box again, but Sheru didn’t hear the noises the box made, because he got the strange feeling in his legs more strongly than he ever had before. He jumped up like he’d been given an electric shock and ran out the door, hearing Kuldeep turn and say behind him, “What happened to—”

Outside the rain had stopped and it was late evening, the sky a darkening blue streaked with pink, and shadows gathering under the trees. But Sheru was a dog, and he could see where he was going, so he raced down the street, round the corner, and down another, and then to the pathway, where the rain had left puddles in the cement and heavy drops were dripping off the peepal tree’s leaves.

Where the house had been, a big torn piece of the tarpaulin was lying on the ground. The man was kneeling on one side of the rubble pile, tugging out dusty pots from under the rubble and handing them to the older girl, who was standing next to him and putting them in what looked a kind of sack made from the remainder of the tarpaulin. The little girl was sitting next to them on the ground, holding her doll and saying something to it.

Sheru slowed to a walk but kept going, all the way to the upturned plastic chair. Next to it was a big block of shattered cement. Sheru put his nose to the ground and then started to dig with his paws. He dug and dug, pushing into the broken shards of cement and gravel. After he had pushed aside a few inches of rubble, something pink showed at the bottom of the hole. Sheru pushed his jaws into the hole, grasped the pink thing—not too hard—and pulled. Out came a long pink plastic leg.

Still following the strange feeling in his legs, Sheru looked up and found that the man had stopped pulling out pots. He was staring at Sheru. Gripping the leg in his jaws, Sheru walked around the chair and towards the little girl. The man took a step forward and then stopped. The elder girl bent to pick up something to throw at Sheru, and she would have done it too, but the man said something and the girl also stopped. They both watched him.

The little girl had stood her doll on the ground and was trying to make it lean on the rock. When Sheru came close, she saw him and jumped up, taking the doll and moving back. Sheru put his nose close to the ground and gently dropped the leg next to the block she had been sitting on. Then he stepped back and lay down, head on his paws, and watched her.

The little girl coughed, a harsh sound in the twilight, but this time it was only one cough and a second later she ran forward, grabbing the leg off the ground. She tried to stick it on to the doll’s hip but it wouldn’t fit. The other girl put her sack down and walked over. She fixed the leg on to the doll, and the little girl started shouting, “Rosie! Rosie! See, you got your leg back! See! Your leg!” Then she put the doll back on the ground, and this time it stood.

The older girl was staring at Sheru, and he could see the wet marks in the dust on her cheek, the lines where tears had flowed. Then the man said “Aarti, Geeta, come,” and the two girls turned to walk over to him, the little one clutching her doll to her chest. Sheru got up and turned. The man was holding the black tarpaulin sack and still watching Sheru. He gestured to the girls as they came up to him, and the three of them walked off the pile of rubble and on to the path.

Sheru watched them go.

Above them the clouds had turned grey-black in the twilight and the stars were peeking out from between them. His body said he would be hungry soon. There would be food in Kuldeep’s room, and a mat, and it would be warmer.

But then the strange feeling in his legs and the strange feeling in his head joined together like a great tide and filled every part of his body, and he knew he did not want to go back. He wanted to follow them.

So he did, staying about ten feet behind them. After a few minutes the older girl turned and saw him. She paused until he came up. When he reached her, she put a hand on his head and stroked it gently. Then they walked up the path together.



Shankar Gopalakrishnan is an organiser and activist with Chetna Andolan, a people's organisation in Uttarakhand, India, and also with the Campaign for Survival and Dignity. He also writes on political economy, development, social movements, and contemporary Indian politics.
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