Being an NRK, or Night Rat Killer, in Bombay may not intially seem to be a desirable job. The city is overrun with so many millions of grey-black bandicoots, the largest and hungriest species of rat in the world, that its people seem resigned to sharing their homes and streets with them. And to make matters worse, the municipal corporation is so broke that often it cannot afford batteries for the rat-catchers' torches.
But when the city announced openings for 70 new rat-catchers, more than 40,000 people applied, half of them university graduates. 'We never thought the response would be so tremendous,' said Mr P R Shastri, the deputy insecticide officer. 'And we didn't even advertise in the newspapers.'
The first Mr Shastri knew about it was when a queue formed outside his office on the fourth floor above the Shivaji fish market. 'One doesn't need a PhD to kill a rat,' Mr Shastri says. In fact, all that's needed is good hearing to detect its whistly squeak - a sound as common in Bombay as chirping birds - and the ability to swing a stick.
When news of the swarm of would-be rat-catchers leaked out, it was received in apocalyptic terms. Something was wrong with Indian society, the pundits proclaimed: graduates were supposed to be getting jobs in banks and computer firms, not scrambling after rats. And George Fernandes, a leftist politician, said it proved that the India of Mahatma Gandhi was not ready for Coca-Cola or a Michael Jackson concert.
The country has the highest number of university-leavers in the world: more than 1 million graduate annually from its 250 higher-learning institutions. 'A college education is seen as a way of changing class and caste status. You try to get a cleaner job,' says Ashish Nandy, a sociologist. 'But this rat race for rat-catchers' jobs makes a mockery of that.'
Bombay, a city of 10 million, in which one-third live in fetid slums, continues to attract Indians trying to escape rural poverty or caste persecution. No one knows the unemployment rate, because everyone seems to be busy, whether scavenging plastic rubbish bags for re-sale or cycling a rickshaw.
On the positive side, however, to become a rat-catcher is the first step to a job for life. After a mere 10 years, an NRK will have worked his way up to a permanent position as a day rat-trapper and poisoner. 'It's difficult to get kicked out of a government job,' Mr Shastri explains. And the rat-killing can be shared among the family: as long as the nightly bounty of 25 rodents is met, the city does not care whether the NRK or a cousin does the work.
The city employs only 122 rat-killers, so total extermination of the rodents is merely a dream. At best, only a few thousand will be killed and dissected each day, in an attempt to avoid a rat-borne plague, like the one that killed thousands in 1929.
After midnight, Bombay belongs to the rats. They scurry everywhere, fighting, devouring the refuse dumped in the streets, and frequently biting the children of the homeless families who sleep in tens of thousands on pavements and in doorways. Even the stray dogs and cats seem to have given up the battle.
In Hindu mythology, the rat is a revered creature; in the temples of Rajasthan and Calcutta, the rats climb up your legs and fall on your head. 'In India, rats and humans aren't enemies the way they are in Europe,' Mr Nandy explains. Many of Bombay's grain merchants are Jains, whose religion forbids them from harming any living creature, and are therefore resigned to letting the rats dine unmolested in their stores.
But for Sharat Babu Yadav, 26, the rat is certainly a foe. Armed with his torch and long bamboo staff, he is an NRK in the meat market near Bombay's old fort. Mr Yadav works barefoot: that way, the rats do not hear him sneaking through the puddles and across the wet floor of the market; and with his toes he can pick up his victims by their tails (he doesn't like touching them with his hands).
Although it is 1am, the meat market is not deserted. Many butchers are sleeping on their work tables or carts. They do not wake when Mr Yadav stalks down the aisles. He traces the rats by their screechy chatter, and he and his staff thwack them off the buffalo carcasses hanging from hooks.
Mr Yadav cursed when his torch flickered and died: the city gives him new batteries only every 20 days. 'It's a skill,' he says. 'The rats freeze for a split second in the beam, and you aim for their eyes. You only get one chance.'
Two out of three times, he kills his rat and, like a golfer chipping on to the green, flicks it with his club 20 yards or so in front of him. After just two hours, Mr Yadav has a pile of 25 rats, and his work is finished for the evening. Then from the local police station he retrieves his plastic bag, containing his snack and a blanket. After eating, he spreads the blanket on the pavement and goes to sleep . . . and within minutes the rats are on patrol again.
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