When a rat can turn men into mice

‘Rats!’ I cried out to my husband urgently, using the plural for a more dramatic effect, and performed a perfect sitting high jump as something scurried lithely over my right foot. We were travelling on the Mangalore Express and had just settled into our seats. I looked down in alarm to see the end of a tail disappear from view and pulled up my feet in a quick reflex action. No rodent, however malicious its intent, was going to feast on any one of my toes.

Nonsense, he replied, my husband I mean, not the rat, and went back to his book. I sighed and swiftly adopting the lotus position, began to meditate on the rat.

‘Rats!’ the person occupying the seat across the aisle exclaimed in anger and annoyance. I looked up, delighted, though everyone else in the compartment ignored him. I felt vindicated and gave my husband a look that is proverbially called “pregnant with meaning.” Wasted, of course, for his nose continued to stay buried in a book. I pulled the book away and told him the man had said ‘rats’, so there must be rats in the train. Why don’t you do something before they gnaw us to our bones while we are asleep? I asked morbidly.

‘I’m sure he wasn’t being literal. He only used the expression “Rats!” said my husband, snatching the book back. I was sceptical. How many people use the expression “Rats!”, a slang expression suggesting disappointment? ‘Rats!’ I said to myself, frustrated. Everyone prepared to have supper and some people in our compartment, obviously going to attend some conference, pulled a big cardboard box from underneath a seat and took out their food parcels.

‘Rats!’ There was a chorus of angry voices. Rats had got at their food. One voice was heard to speak over the others, ‘I told you there are rats here. I saw one!’ The discussion turned decisively to rats and my husband finally joined in the conversation. He muttered something about railway cats. ‘Rats are regular ticket-less travellers on the trains,’ said one person. ‘What do you mean, travellers?’ commented another, bursting with murine knowledge. ‘Good we aren't in an AC compartment. Do you know that rats have made permanent homes there?’ Hurray for non-AC bogies with their floating population of rats!

A few packets had to be thrown away and the men who had not shared their food with the rats didn’t look too pleased at the idea of sharing their food with their fellows. They grudgingly did, though, and after more observations about the rats, and rare curses, all settled down for the night.

I remember watching a film with my friend at a theatre and a rat ran down the wall, made a lightning dash over my feet and disappeared. I saw the rest of the movie seated cross-legged. Quite a comfortable position to adopt, I discovered, but couldn’t really enjoy the film what with my eyes furiously alternating between examining the wall and squinting in the dark to scan the floor minutely for the presence of rats.

After the film was over my friend said we should lodge a complaint at the theatre’s office. There I told a lady with a vacuous expression that I saw a rat in the theatre. Are you sure it was a rat? She asked. Of course, I responded indignantly, ‘it was a rat, the whole rat and nothing but the rat.’ A man entered. My friend took over from me and said we found a rat. Sure, he said, his tone hinting, ‘what did you expect, a hippopotamus?’

We realised there was no point in making a complaint and throwing a dark hint we would do something about it, suggesting we could belong to the police, the media, rat catchers, the Health Department or the SPCA, slipped away.

Considering how ubiquitous rats seem to be, it’s a wonder they are not an election issue. Every building, every house has its share of rats with strong teeth and a huge appetite for wood, paper and of course, food. Rats in the University examination section love to tuck into the ingenious answers written by enterprising students. The garbage problem has helped the rat population multiply alarmingly and they freely roam along the gutters and the roads. Why is this problem not given the seriousness it deserves? Remember the 1994 Surat plague epidemic? Looks like only a Pied Piper can help us out, one whose strong pipe notes will lure rats out even from their AC comforts.