‘You dirty, yellow-bellied rat…’ James Cagney in Taxi
Let me state, straight out of the box, that I am not terribly fond of rats. That goes for mice, bandicoots, hamsters and other representatives of the rodent species. I could add lizards to this list but they are not rodents. It is rats that I am focussed on for now. It is a prejudice I share with millions of people all over the world. Never mind if these critters are black, brown or white, rats are rats, even if cuddly, and I do not fancy spending a relaxed evening with one of their number. The comic book cliché of a woman screaming, ‘Eek, a rat,’ is well documented. This is no reflection on the female of the species. I don’t mind admitting that I will do the same on sighting a dormouse, except that my expletive, as opposed to ‘Eek,’ might not be printable. One appreciates, somewhat reluctantly, that scientists and medical researchers, in the line of duty, are compelled to spend most of their waking hours communing with members of the rodent family. Lab rats, they are called (not the scientists, the rats) and usually they are white in colour (the rats that is, not the scientists), if Hollywood is anything to go by. I have not analysed this leaning in favour of white mice against black or brown, but I am satisfied that there is no racial bias involved. Injecting these furry creatures with all manner of germs and viruses is part of the research ritual, and good luck to them. They seem quite happy doing it and observing the results, even if the rodents are not. Mark Twain once said, ‘Nothing is made in vain, but the fly came near it.’ He could have added the rat to his quote.
Now let me come to the nub of my piece and the provocation behind this rather unsavoury obsession with rodents. Earlier this week my daily brought the cheerful news that a gentleman, if one can so describe him, from the state of Uttar Pradesh, where bandits and bandicoots abound in profusion, was arrested, address unknown but residing somewhere in that vast state, on the charge of killing a rat. To protect his identity let us just call him Ratso. Those of you who are going, ‘What a horribly contrived pun of a name,’ I would urge you to hold your horses. Remember Dustin Hoffman in that classic film noir, Midnight Cowboy all those years ago? His name was ‘Ratso’ Rizzo. If it was good enough for Dustin Hoffman, it should be good enough for our anonymous rat killer.
I can detect many of you reading this piece clicking your tongues restlessly (if tongues can be clicked restlessly) and exclaiming, ‘Why don’t you come to the point and what is the big deal about some guy snuffing out a rat? We are doing it all the time. Government agencies are employed to put to death rats on an industrial scale. Why the fuss?’ Good point, and your irritation is understandable. You see, this Ratso was no ordinary rat killer. Not for him the spraying of an insecticide or leaving a bit of chemically treated poisoned cheese in a caged rat trap. Even employing the services of a predatory cat was not in his complex scheme of things. To cut to the chase, here is how our Ratso went about killing his rodent victim.
Apparently, the Indian version of Ratso the rat killer’s modus operandi was simple in the extreme. Or was it? We dig deeper into the criminal’s method. Curiously, Ratso’s weapons of choice were a brick and a piece of string. Once thus armed, he apparently goes about looking for a stray rat. Now here’s the damndest thing. When rats are the last things you have on your mind and all you are seeking is a bit of mindless television, watching some pervert being arrested on charges of vivisecting and refrigerating some poor, innocent teenager, rats will appear out of nowhere, completely destroying your sleep-inducing, idiot box goggling. You get up with a start, look for broomsticks or other lethal domestic implements and by the time you wrap your hands round the rusty can of Flit, the gas having evaporated eons ago, your agile Stuart Little has scurried away. Yet, when an avowed rat-seeker like Ratso is searching high and low for a rat, never mind black, brown or white, he draws a blank. Where is the local Pied Piper of Hamelin when you desperately need him? It’s a cruel world. However, Ratso is a determined, young man. He will have his rat.
Clearly this obsession with wanting to bring a rat to book is some sort of mental disorder. And since rats were brought to this earth only to be killed in their millions, no one took a blind bit of notice of Ratso’s strange way of spending his nocturnal hours. Nocturnal, because that is when the rats come out to play. And since cats do the same to catch the rats, the problem for Ratso increases manifold. No sooner does he tell himself, ‘I smell a rat,’ Grumpy Cat gets ahead of the game and the chase is on. Now my interest in Ratso’s rat-hunt expedition is not so much to do with why he does it as how he does it. As stated earlier and duly recorded by the police, a brick and a piece of string play a vital role in the plot. As to being interrogated with the philosophical question, ‘How long is a piece of string?’ Ratso was equivocal.
‘It does not matter, one way or the other,’ he replied, ‘so long as the rat cannot slip out of the loop and make good its escape.’
‘And what part does the brick play in your murderous scheme of things?’ continued the insistent police officer, trying to make sense of this complexity.
‘It provides the weight to take the rat down to the bottom of a well, pond or drain. If there is no brick, the rat can swim back up to safety. Simple physics.’ Ratso was a failed science graduate, which is a contradiction in terms, but let us not nit-pick. Suffice it to say that he knew a thing or two about Archimedes’ displacement of water principle and that sort of stuff.
The local cop had barely scraped through high school, so he was a bit fogged. ‘Why could you not just bonk it on the head with a hockey stick or something?’
‘Good question, officer. Firstly, I am not in possession of a hockey stick and before you ask, no cricket bat either. And even if I had either of those, the rats run very fast and hide. Impossible to bonk them on the head and run the risk of waking up the household at one in the morning. It would have been simpler to bonk Grumpy the Cat.’ Ratso was persuasive, but the cop was not convinced.
‘In that case, how did you catch this rat alive and tie it with a string to a solid brick? Surely, the creature would have struggled and even attempted to bite you. You might even have contracted rabies.’
‘Another good question. You are in fine nick, officer. I do not want to reveal trade secrets. I do this for other households in the neighbourhood for a fee and I have no wish to have some copycat rat killer imitating my methods. Competition can kill my business. Incidentally, rats do not carry rabies. I have checked it out.’
By now, the cop was getting exasperated. ‘Look, you are aware that there is a government rule prohibiting the killing of rats with bricks and strings and so on. It constitutes cruelty to animals. Rats can only be exterminated by authorised government agencies, if the problem is brought to their notice.’
Ratso was also beginning to get peeved. Refraining from inquiring about cruelty to humans, he protested, ‘Look officer, in the middle of the night, if I am bothered by rats, I can’t be calling the government rat catchers. They will all be asleep. Are you not worried about the plague?’
‘The plague? The plague was gone hundreds of years ago. History. I have read Camus’ The Plague, the local translation, naturally. So please, don’t get too cute with me. Now look, you will be in the lock-up for a day or two till the local magistrate arrives and decides on the final punishment. For the last time, just to satisfy my curiosity, how exactly did you secure a live rat with a brick and a length of string?’
‘Right, ask me nicely and I will tell you, provided you put in a good word for me with the magistrate and help me get off lightly. Deal? Good. Now here is what you do. Get hold of a strong piece of string, preferably a twine and tie it tightly to a brick, which must be lying around somewhere in your shack. Having done that, you now sit with your kerosene lamp and wait for the rat to appear.’
The policeman was not impressed. ‘Suppose the rat does not oblige and sees through your ruse. What then?’
‘You just go back to sleep and try again the following night. It is a chance you take – a game of patience.’
‘All right, into the lock-up you go. And here is a piece of string and a brick. Also, a large bucket of water for the drowning act. There is a huge bandicoot resident here and we can’t seem to get rid of it. I will leave it in your capable hands. It’s against the law but I’ll look the other way. Good night.’
‘Pssst,’ Ratso was not done. ‘I’ll let you into a little secret. I actually kill the rat with the brick, tie it with the string and chuck it down a well, but don’t tell a soul. Bad for my image.’
The cop was aghast. ‘Then what is the point of it all? Why confess to cruelty when you are not guilty? Bashing a rat to death is not a crime. Drowning it alive is.’
Ratso’s lips were sealed. He just smiled enigmatically. He was released immediately.
Postscript: Well, what do you know? As I am putting this reflection on rats to bed, news comes through that the Mayor of New York City has appointed one Kathleen Corradi as the city’s first director of rodent mitigation. In plain speak, rat catcher, or as Mayor Eric Adams grandiloquently put it, NYC’s first ever ‘Rat Czar.’ Her task? To send the rats packing and create a cleaner New York. In the Mayor’s compelling words, ‘The rats are going to hate Kathy, but we’re excited to have her leading this important effort.’ All together now, three ‘eeks’ for Kathy! Rats will no longer be nibbling at the Big Apple.
Oh, and one other thing. If I am invited out for dinner and find ratatouille on the menu, I shall give it a wide berth.
Have you seen Miriam Chandy Menacherry’s documentary Rat Race on Mumbai rat catchers?
Will check it out, thanks.
Sometime in the last century, a psychologist of repute had, if I recall right, done some pioneering work on motivation by using rats who would perform a task and then earn a reward of sorts. I suspect quite a few HR honchos these days may be blissfully unaware of the sterling role played by this species in the development of grandiose motivational theories propounded in management text books.
Suresh – how about a rat of the other kind – insider, whisperer, turncoat, traitor, double-gamer and more? I’ve met a few and they are the most despicable ☹️variety. Worth a few pages in a blog surely.
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