By Devraj Singh Kalsi
Waking up in the ambrosial wee hours of the morning to find my silk scarf dragged to the bathroom door sent shivers down my spine. I suspected the sneaky presence of a stranger in the house, most likely a petty thief who fancied this extravagant piece of clothing around his neck to rev up his vagrant style. Rattled by this intrusion, I turned around, with one eye stationed on the wall. I tried to track shadows lurking behind me to hammer my moderately creative head. Nothing appeared in sight or peripheral vision, so I looked up for open ventilators or any broken windowpane to unravel the mystery of the great escape of an agile thief who decamped with more valuable stuff than what had come to my notice so far.
Picking up the scarf and dumping it in the woven basket, I retraced my steps to enter the bedroom and checked the cash box in the wardrobe. I was about to step in when something scurried very fast along the base of the wall in front of me, squeaking behind the refrigerator in search of a haven, probably feeling scared and jittery of a predatory attack and sending distress signals to its fraternity to stay holed up underground.
The supposed culprit – a squeaking rat – had made a fleeting appearance. I confess I do not possess the olfactory vigour to smell its presence like many others do. But there was no denying the fact that there was a family of rats residing at my address without my knowledge and permission. The tell-tale signs were their droppings splattered on the marble slab in the kitchen and the dining space. One rat would surely not have such a bulky output even if it enjoyed a wholesome feast every night. Besides, dragging my silk scarf was a specimen of well-orchestrated teamwork.
As the storytelling instinct does not let go of an opportunity to find a crack for a new narrative, the presence of a ghost could well be another strong possibility. Possibly the rat was not the culprit but the saviour to chase away the spirit in search of salvation or relief from the wintry chill as it rested on the mango tree in the backyard. Spirits enter and exit through closed doors and windows with ease, so this was another fascinating interpretation that engaged me for a while when I traced no sign of pilferage in my wardrobe.
Since I had witnessed the presence of a shy rat lacking the courage to own up its mischief, I was inclined to go with this credible version. With another rat collaborating to displace my favourite scarf. It was quite a distinct possibility though I was yet to attach a motive to it. Were they just trying to foment trouble in the household? Were they having good fun with my scarf to end their boredom? I had checked the scarf for possible tears but it bore no sign of violence.
I must praise their good behaviour and upbringing. Though they could have wreaked havoc on my belongings lying in the open, they exercised remarkable restraint. Or perhaps, they had damaged things I had not examined yet. Maybe, the cloth bags, the plastic containers on the kitchen shelf, the woollen carpet, or the backside of the leather sofa were what they preferred to bite into. On the upside, there was still no clinching evidence of their destructive avatar in the household. Playing the devil’s advocate, I thought the rats tried to take my scarf to the washroom and plunge it into the water drum to serve me a reminder. Washing it was a pending task for quite some time. The stubborn stains of tomato sauce on the scarf were unlikely to go away if there were any further delays.
Instead of thanking them for the timely assistance, I chose to be thankless, like humans tend to do all the time. I preferred to place a rat trap with irresistible bait: jam cookies for dinner. With those tantalising pieces dangling from the iron hook inside the wooden box, a fool-proof trap was laid, like those gorgeous dresses displayed to entice shoppers into a store. The rat trap was not big enough for the pair to walk into comfortably without jostling for space. However, in the cover of darkness, I was sure at least one would go inside to fetch the gourmet food while the partner waited outside, just as a biker ducks into a takeaway snack counter and his pillion-riding girlfriend guards the bike.
My concern regarding the safety of bestselling books was paramount though I was okay if they chewed the books written by me, to cut their teeth and gain experience of what they were best at. I was impressed with their perfect coordination, fighting like a healthy couple, making a big noise on piffling issues but staying united to stave off external attacks.
Getting the rats out of their hiding place was a problem that plagued me. I hoped the bait would work as a talisman for me. But deep within, I thanked them for doing good work instead of damaging the items. This was a radical change that deserved praise instead of this brazen attempt to evict them. Human beings find innovative ways to eliminate rivals of all species. My eviction drive was a moderate and tolerant act though I had the freedom to snuff out their precious lives with a mild dose of poison sprayed on bread crumbs or try a glue mat that immobilise them once they have stepped on it accidentally and keep screeching for relief till their last breath.
I thought the next morning I would push the wooden box out of the house, lift the cage door and set it free to roam the big, bad world instead of remaining cloistered here. But the rats were intelligent and clever to guess my moves. Staying close to books led to some transfer of knowledge. I saw the trap door still open and the jam cookies lying untouched. It proved to be quite a greed-resistant pair, unlike human beings. Let me not read too much into it. Maybe they were fasting that night, maybe the cookies were placed a bit too far beyond their reach, or maybe, they were having something yummier than what I had served them.
The next day, I placed the same delicacy in a different spot. Closer to the cavity behind the door to shorten its travel distance and switched on a mellow yellow night bulb for ease of movement without stumbling in the dark. It would be quite a romantic setting for the couple to waltz for a while before getting inside the cosy cabin to feast on jam cookies.
I was growing impatient to get them inside the rat trap. By hook or by crook. Surprisingly, this time it worked. Early in the morning, I spotted a long tail swishing. Curious eyes looked at me with horror and betrayal. There was a tacit appeal to reciprocate goodness just as they had been good to my belongings even though they had the power to ruin everything. I dragged the box out of the house, wore the gloves of a gardener, and put on a mask as if I were about to perform a surgical experiment. I pushed the wooden box down the stairs and it was a tumble, a freefall, a deep dive like a car plunging into the deep gorge from a mountain road.
The world of the rat also turned as topsy-turvy as mine. When he finally crashed and landed on the cement floor with a thud, the shocked rat recovered from the initial rude jolt and looked through the grille at the vast blue sky before establishing eye contact with me. I pushed the entrance door open to set him free. He came out quickly and vamoosed, taking a diagonal route to enter a pesky neighbour’s compound. This was my unintended gift to his house but I hoped the rat would make it hell for him, and settle scores on my behalf, for dumping all his dry waste in front of my house to keep his façade look super clean.
I abandoned the gloves after the successful operation and washed my hands with anti-septic liquid before going for a breakfast of oats. A day of peace later, I found disturbing noises again. Deprived of its companion, the surviving partner in the household was making fervent screeching pleas to be reunited. I was afraid she would seek revenge this time so I should get it out at the earliest.
I was mistaken in thinking trapping her would be a challenge. The rat was more than willing to be trapped as it knew this was the vehicle that carried its partner away. Placing a bit of walnut cake slice inside the rat trap allured the survivor though I knew she would have stepped in even without the bait. I found her lying inside listlessly the next morning, without any visible effort to move an inch. She was eager to be ferried out of the house. So, I did what was necessary.
When I finally set her free, she went in the same diagonal direction the earlier one had gone even though I did not provide any clues or hint of direction to proceed. She was rather quick and entered the compound of the same pesky neighbour who would now have two unwanted guests in his elegant villa.
I know they would recollect memories of happy days spent in my humble abode and glorify my benevolence. I set them free, but they were destined to be united again. Even if the neighbour poisons the two after detecting their presence, they would still be happy to die together instead of living sad lives in separation.
Devraj Singh Kalsi works as a senior copywriter in Kolkata. His short stories and essays have been published in Deccan Herald, Tehelka, Kitaab, Earthen Lamp Journal, Assam Tribune, and The Statesman. Pal Motors is his first novel.
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