Readings — From the January 2014 issue

The Rat’s Guide

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By Amitava Kumar, from A Matter of Rats, a “short biography” of his hometown of Patna, India, to be published by Duke University Press in April. Patna is the capital city of Bihar, the poorest state in India. Kumar is the author of A Foreigner Carrying in the Crook of His Arm a Tiny Bomb.

Rats have burrowed under the railway tracks in Patna. I imagine them as citizens of a literal underworld, inhabiting a spreading web of small safehouses and getaway streets. There are places where the railway platform has collapsed. In my mind’s eye, I watch a train approaching Patna Junction in the early morning, and I see the men sitting beside the tracks with their bottoms exposed, plastic bottles of water on the ground in front of them, often a mobile phone pressed to the ear. But at night the first inhabitants of Patna that the visitor passes are the invisible ones: warm, humble, highly sociable, clever, fiercely diligent.

I heard that rats had taken over a section of the stacks in the library at Patna University and that the library was closed. Also, there are rats — always, in these stories, rats as big as cats — in the Beur Jail. The jail was once home to the former chief minister of the state of Bihar, Lalu Prasad Yadav, who tended a vegetable garden there and issued orders to visiting politicians and bureaucrats. One current inmate is the former parliamentarian Pappu Yadav, on trial for the murder of a communist leader but awarded degrees in human rights and disaster management while behind bars.

For some reason, in the Patna Museum, along with Mauryan art and Buddhist relics, including, some say, the ashes of Lord Buddha, there are stuffed rats nailed to black wooden bases. About fifty feet away stands the magnificent, glistening, third-century-b.c. sculpture of the Didarganj Yakshi. A long and heavy necklace dangles in the gap between her globular stone breasts. In her right hand, she holds a flywhisk languidly over her shoulder. And running away from her are the stuffed rats, a small procession of them, rotting and seemingly blinded with age, under dusty glass.

In the middle of the night one winter, during a visit to Patna, I was sitting at the dining table with my jet-lagged two-year-old, watching a cartoon on my computer. I had switched on only a single, dim light, as I didn’t want my parents to be disturbed. We must have been sitting there quietly for about half an hour before my little boy asked, “Baba, what is that?” He was pointing beyond the screen. There were two enormous rats walking away from us. They looked like stout ladies on tiny heels, on their way to the market.

The next morning, when my son told my wife about the rats he had seen — he was at first confused and said they were rabbits — my wife was alarmed. But no one else was.

Despite how ubiquitous the rats were in Patna, or perhaps because they were ubiquitous, no one seemed to pay much attention to them. I would bring them up in conversation, and people would laugh and launch into stories. One person told me that the Patna police had claimed the rats were drinking from bottles of contraband liquor that had been seized by the authorities and stored in warehouses. I didn’t believe the story, so a link was duly sent to me. In the press report, a senior police officer named Kundan Krishnan was quoted as saying, “We are fed up with these drunken rats and cannot explain why they have suddenly turned to consumption of alcohol.”

I had hoped to get a professional pest-control agency to come and trap rats in the house in Patna. The problem was a pressing one — rats had carried away my mother’s dentures. But all I could find was a man who would come and put packets of rat poison in different rooms. People suggested that I buy traps and put food inside; the same people admitted that the rats were too smart to get caught in such traps. I detected a note of pride in these statements. My sister told me her hospital had bought an expensive piece of ultrasonic machinery that emitted a high-frequency sound that kept rats away. The sound was inaudible to human ears, and my sister said that things were okay for a while. Then they noticed that a rat had bitten through the device’s cord.

I didn’t find an exterminator in Patna. Instead I met with Vijoy Prakash, principal secretary in Bihar’s Department of Rural Development. He has caused controversy by suggesting that restaurants should offer rat meat on their menus. Questions about this proposal were raised in the Bihar Legislature, and the papers reported on it with some relish. I met Prakash in his office in the Old Secretariat. He was a kind-looking man, quiet and dark-skinned, his eyebrows flecked with gray. In the spacious, air-conditioned office, Prakash was working on a report at his desk. I looked around while I waited. A varnished board to my right displayed the names of the administrators who had served in that office, each carefully painted in white on the wood. Number twenty-two on that list, the final name, was Prakash’s. I noted with pleasure and surprise that number seven was my father, who retired from service long ago. When I was still a student, he must have occupied the chair in which Prakash was now sitting. Did I ever visit my father in this room, bringing him lunch during a trip home? I couldn’t remember.

Prakash, who trained as an astrophysicist, wants people to have more enlightened views about nature and society. His mission, I realized when we began talking, isn’t simply to change the popular perception of rats. It is to alter the views that most people have of a particular community near the bottom of the social ladder: the Musahars, known all over Bihar as the rat-eating caste. Prakash says that rats trapped in fields have long been a part of the Musahars’ diet and that there is no reason why others cannot also benefit from protein-rich rat meat. If rats became an accepted and popular food item and rat-farming were commercialized, the Musahars would see an automatic rise in their income. He rattled off statistics to support his theory. In 1961, the rate of literacy among Musahars was 2.5 percent; forty years later, the rate of literacy had risen to only 9 percent. In a country and state where a significant percentage of people go hungry, rats eat 30 to 40 percent of the crops. In each rat hole excavated in a field, you could find twenty-eight or thirty pounds of grain.

I wasn’t entirely convinced, but Prakash was unfazed by my skepticism. He said that even as recently as fifty years ago, chicken wasn’t allowed in many homes in Patna. It was just a matter of time before rats would be “domesticated” and eaten in homes.

“Have you eaten a rat?” I asked.

“Yes,” he said. In the Musahar toli in Naubatpur. He had gone there with his wife, a teacher, and they had been invited to have lunch with the family they were visiting. The rats had been fried and then cooked in a curry. The dish was served with rice and tasted delicious.

I had known Musahar families in my village in Champaran. Once, when I was a boy, I had just finished bathing at the hand pump a little distance from my grandmother’s house when a woman approached me. Behind her was a child wearing a ragged pair of shorts. He was younger than I was, maybe seven or eight years old. I remember very clearly that the woman was tall, she had curly hair, and her sari was mustard-colored. She asked me politely when I was going to return to Patna. My father had said we were to leave in an hour.

“Can’t you take him with you?”

I had seen the woman before in the village. I don’t think I had spoken to her. The boy was trying to hide behind his mother. The woman spoke again because I had said nothing.

“He will play with you. He will do all the work that needs to be done in the house. Take him with you. There is not enough here for him to eat.” I went back to the house and pointed out the woman to my mother or an aunt. I was told that she was a Musahar. She wanted her son to be a servant in our home in Patna. We were upper-caste, and I was told that my grandmother would not allow a Musahar to step inside the house.

The day after I met Vijoy Prakash I went with my father to our village. The journey used to take several hours, but I was told that it now took half the time because of a new bypass that had been built to promote tourism to nearby Buddhist sites such as the stupa near Kesaria. (In Bihar, no one tells you the distance between two places in kilometers; because everything depends on the condition of the roads, distance is always discussed in terms of time.) Of course, there were delays. A long line of trucks idled on the side of the road. The highway had been blocked by angry youth protesting the death of a man injured in a traffic accident. The victim had been taken to a nearby government hospital, but no doctor had shown up for work for several days, and the man had succumbed to his wounds. The protesters had made a truck driver park his vehicle sideways in the road, and, for good measure, had also blocked the path of approaching vehicles with a log and some broken furniture.

We had no option but to turn back, and even this was not allowed. At first I showed sympathy to the gathered youth, but then I took out my press pass and threatened them with severe consequences if we were not allowed on our way. They relented after a while, and we took narrow rural roads around the blockage, reemerging onto the highway after about half an hour.

I was returning to my ancestral home for the first time since my grandmother’s death, more than a decade ago. On the small platform with the tulsi plant my grandmother had watered each morning, someone had put fresh-cut hibiscus. But other than that small touch, a look of decay pervaded the house. I walked through the empty corridors and looked at the locked doors of the uninhabited rooms where I had spent all my holidays. Suddenly, alone in an empty hall, I began to weep. I missed my grandmother’s voice, or maybe only my childhood. In any case, I didn’t linger. I had come here on a small anthropological mission, not to surrender to nostalgia. I wanted a Musahar to show me how he caught a rat.

Sinhasan, a middle-aged man I remembered from my youth, was working on the construction of a hospital near the house, which our family was funding. It would be named after my grandmother. My father had made the journey to check on its progress. Sinhasan didn’t want to put me to any trouble. He said I could sit in the shade; he would go into the fields, catch the rats, and bring them to me.

“No,” I said, “you don’t understand. I want to observe how you catch them.” He called out to two other men, also Musahars, and we started walking. One of the men was carrying a kudaal for digging. The monsoon rains had left the ground soft. My shoes sank in the mud. Sinhasan said that it was easier to catch rats before the rains, early in the summer, when the wheat had ripened and was still standing in the fields. “Rats make holes and save a lot of grain for their young. They are hopping around at that time, and we catch them and cook them right here.”

“How do they taste?” I asked.

“Good,” he said.

“Is it like chicken?”

Sinhasan paused for a second and then said, “Murgi se zyaada tayyar hai.” It is better than chicken.

At the edge of a field, where it was drier, the men stopped. They had seen a little mound of freshly dug earth. The man with the kudaal was named Phuldeo. He showed me a few scattered grains lying underfoot then began to dig. The day was so hot and humid that within a minute or two sweat was dripping off Phuldeo’s nose and chin. The shallow trench he was digging was about two feet wide, and by the time he was done it was four feet long. I saw that Sinhasan and the third man, whose name was Chaprasi, had positioned themselves on either side of the trench. Both men were around forty, with thin, sinewy limbs. They looked sturdy but had adopted such a relaxed stance that I got a bit worried. When I asked if the rat wouldn’t get away, Sinhasan smiled and brushed aside my question.

Phuldeo said he could see the rat hole. Two more heaves of the kudaal, and he bent down. The rat’s snout was visible to him. A quick flick of his hand and he had caught it. Phuldeo held it up, and I saw its lower incisors, which were long and curved. They were a dirty yellow, the color of old toenails. Sinhasan said, “If it doesn’t cut with those teeth night and day, those teeth will go right through its head. It can eat through brick. Even when it’s sleeping, its mouth keeps moving.” I said that I wanted to take a picture. In that moment, while Phuldeo tried to give me a better view of the rat’s head, it bit him on the finger. Blood spurted out. I took pictures of the tiny ears, the luxuriant hairs around its nose, and, above those dirty yellow teeth, the glinting black eyes.

We let the rat return to the field. My Musahar informants told me that in the right season they ate rat about three or four times a week. Four or five rats were enough for a meal. How did they cook the meat? Over a small fire, the hair was first burned off the body; a small incision was then made in the belly to remove the entrails; following this, spices were rubbed into the meat, and it was fried.

I had one last question to put to Sinhasan. A senior bureaucrat in Patna had said to me that people were judged by what they ate. The reason Musahars were looked down upon in Bihar was that they ate rats. The official believed that if we all began to think about rats in a more positive way, we would no longer think of Musahars as a lower caste. Did this make sense to them? Did they share the official’s optimism? Sinhasan didn’t have to consider this question too long. He said, “Only if everyone else is already of the same view as the official. Then, yes, people’s sense of caste will change. Otherwise, no.” Sinhasan was being polite. He was taking care not to throw the question back in my face.

High-minded abstractions weren’t among his pressing concerns. In another five minutes he was going to return to work, mixing mortar to build the front brick wall of the hospital. For the day’s labor he was going to be paid 150 rupees (three dollars). A generation ago there would have been work only on the landlord’s fields, and now there were other kinds, mostly in small industries, and payment in cash. But the conditions of work, and even the chances of finding it, were dismal. For those on the bottom of the social ladder, there was only harsh physical labor. The two other men, balanced on bamboo beams behind Sinhasan, flinging water on the bricks and then cementing them, were also Dalits — literally, “the oppressed,” the name adopted by what used to be the untouchables in the Hindu caste system. In the distance, on the patio of my old ancestral home, upper-caste men were sitting on cots. They were poor, too, eking out a living as farmers, but none of them was ever likely to do work like Sinhasan’s. One of them, wearing a lungi, his bare feet cracked, had followed me out where I was talking to Sinhasan. This man told me that he had eaten roasted rats when he was a boy playing in the fields. Age had brought him an awareness of his social status and he had stopped going near them. He knew the consequences of breaking taboos. “Shikaayat ho jaayi.” People would complain.

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