by Ajay Vishwanathan
He was rare, desired, and blessed; he was white. Scores of revering eyes peered at him as he sat on Bhima’s left shoulder; his own small beady eyes fixed on his paws as he gnawed at them furiously, his long grubby tail twitching and snapping around Bhima’s neck. He was no ordinary rat but the auspicious one whose occasional sighting evoked celebrity attention, who wasn’t overtly concerned by ogling humans moving in excited circles around him.
It was a relatively quiet day at the rat temple in North India, where hundreds of freely roaming sacred rats, in jumbled shades of gray and brown, scampered across marble squares, spied through tiny holes in the walls designed specifically to let them crisscross the temple grounds, and nibbled at sweets and grains placed in metal saucers.
Reposed against a wall in a shady corner of the temple, his run-down green cloth bag parked next to him, Bhima seemed oblivious to the activity around him as eager devotees tried to engage the white vermin on his shoulder, leaning forward to feed him and touch him. The uninterested animal chucked a quick memento of attention at them, took at few hasty nips at Bhima’s long beard and scurried away behind one of the clay pillars.
Bhima opened his eyes nonchalantly and watched the small crowd drift away; the half a dozen gray rats frisking on his lap didn’t appeal to them. A bright red turbaned man appeared from behind the group and smiled at Bhima.
“I see you still attract the white kabas,” he said and sat cross-legged next to Bhima. Middle-aged and influential, Bulaki was the head of one of the many families that took care of the temple. He had resisted frequent attempts by other families to evict Bhima from the temple premises by pointing out Bhima’s special power of enticing the white ones.
The others thought he was useless and claimed that his constant unkempt presence during the day was drawing negative attention. They also suspected that Bulaki’s real sympathy for him stemmed from his feelings for Bhima’s daughter, shreds of an age-old romance that was throttled when she fell one day from a moving cart and died.
Bhima, who had just lost his wife, wasted in mourning, and slowly gambled away all his assets. Bulaki had provided him with a windowless ramshackle cabin a mile away from the temple for Bhima to spend his nights. In the past year, he had started spending many hours during the day sprawled lazily among the scuttling rats, feeding on leftover proffering, much to the displeasure of some of the town elders.
“They want you out, Bhima,” said Bulaki, spraying red saliva from his betel-leaf chewing mouth, “and you know how feisty they can get.”
Bhima sat silently, head lowered and knees close to the chest. He looked immensely old, older than he actually was, tiny tufts of hair growing out of dry moles on his withered face, patches of color on his skin eaten away by years of turmoil. An untidily tied saffron bandana, jaded and crinkled, around a flat head accentuated his nonexistent eyebrows and the heavy white rings around the iris.
“You are a good man, Bhima, I know. Life hasn’t been the same since Leena... I just wanted to tell you that my resistance is slowly wearing down and might not last too long.”
Bhima looked at Bulaki and nodded. “I know.”
* * *
It was a Sunday morning. Encircled by playful rats and curious spectators, two white ones lounging at his feet, Bhima’s torpor belied the intense scene of dash and bustle that unfolded around him: bare feet hustled in and out the door as little creatures frantically weaved around them in droves, sometimes running a wrong route on the black and white floor and tripping on someone’s feet, generating a ripple of excitement in the gathering; a modest group of three sat in a corner singing to the drone of a three-stringed instrument, their voices barely audible above the cacophony of constant chatter and prayers; an older lady filled a massive pan of milk to its brim, her smile widening as she watched a jostling ring of rats lapping up the liquid; a young foreigner, his pale skin accentuated by the brown kurta that he wore, walked around with his camera, enthralled by the incongruous symphony between man and beast.
A hint of a smile escaped Bhima’s lips as he wondered who was more excited: the youngster who had just sighted a white rat among a crowd of dusky companions or the locals who had sighted a white man among a sea of tanned skin.
Dara, a broad-shouldered man, whose chest was covered in brown beads that hung from his neck, interrupted Bhima’s reverie. His beads heaved conspicuously and clunked together as Dara smiled at his friend and sat next to him.
“Do you smell ghee?” he said, as he drew in a deliberately long breath. “Makes me hungry.” Dara, who had grown up with Bhima in the same village, was the only friend who had endured the gossip and ranting about Bhima and stuck with him. He admired Bhima as a person and empathized with his plight.
Bhima nodded yes.
They watched the excited foreigner, his camera flashing incessantly at the rats, pots, people, saucers, the holes in the walls, the colorful henna tattoos on the feet of ladies, the tobacco-stained smiles; one of the men seemed a little annoyed at his new bride being captured unabashedly by a stranger’s lens.
“Dara, have you felt,” said Bhima, puckering his depleted brows, “that the number of white ones has decreased?”
“Uh... no,” replied Dara. “Why?”
“I have a feeling that the black ones don’t like the whites.”
“Why? Have you seen something that I haven’t?
“I think the white ones are being harassed.” Bhima pointed out to the little white kabas sitting next to his cloth bag. “Look at the mark on his forehead. That is an attack, not a birthmark.”
Dara peered at the animal and shook his head. “Bhima... you are imagining things.”
“I’m not, believe me. Am I not the guy who attracts the white ones? I’ve seen similar scars, up close, my friend, on many other whites,” Dara contended, “Not just this one. I’ve seen them being chased around by larger black rats.”
“So, you think they are dying?”
“I don’t know... maybe.”
“You are getting old,” said Dara as he rose; his exotic beads bounced noisily, startling the dozing rats. “The heat is getting to you. Go home and get some rest.”
* * *
Bulaki looked pensive, his head deflated without his colorful turban, as he stroked his curled moustache with his finger. It had been a joyless day for him; his brother had notified him in the morning that the elders had finally decided to ban Bhima from idling on the temple grounds, and now, Dara had interrupted his dinner to inform him that Bhima had not been seen for three days.
“I am too frightened to knock on his door by myself,” said Dara, standing solemnly, his eyes unable to meet Bulaki’s. “I thought you might want to.”
“I’ll go with you.”
The night was staid, dark; heavy clouds eclipsed the stars. The fluorescent street lamp flickered randomly as Bulaki drove his car right up to Bhima’s shack. Their shadows cast on the wooden door seemed ominous as they stood in front of the house, waiting for Bhima to answer their knocks; he didn’t.
Dara pushed nervously at the door, which creaked open. The light from the street lamp beamed into the pitch-dark room, onto an unassuming string bed, where Bhima was lying with his back towards them. As they tiptoed into the small space, they heard muffled sounds of shuffling feet along the walls.
Bulaki couldn’t see anything beyond the column of dim light as he sat at the head of the bed and felt Bhima’s forehead; it was deathly cold. He shook Bhima’s shoulder timidly but the man didn’t move. An inexplicable feeling of grief surged through Bulaki as he sat there motionless, next to the body of a man he could not disconnect from his life.
He had not interacted much with Bhima but there was something about him that he felt strongly about. Maybe because he was the father of the woman he once loved. Maybe because Bhima never objected to a courtship that society frowned upon or cast blame on Bulaki when he was unable to reach out and save Leena as she lost her balance and fell off the cart.
As Dara walked in towards the bed, the wind nudged the door that swung further inward, bedimming an already dark room. His foot caught on the strap of Bhima’s green cloth bag that was lying on the floor. The bag changed position and something jumped out of it, setting off a series of agitated, scraping noises around the bed.
Dara pulled out a match from his pocket and struck it. In the light of the flickering flame, they saw eyes, an army of them, all nervously staring at the men, some on top of an iron trunk, some on a heap of crumpled clothes, some near Bhima’s legs, but most lined impatiently along the gray walls.
Dara and Bulaki stared dumbfounded at over a hundred fidgety rats.
Copyright © 2009 by Ajay Vishwanathan