Translated from the Bengali by Anujata Bhattacharya
Such fuss for a rat! At first, zinc phosphide , then adhesive, and lastly the iron nets. But the rat hardly cares. We too didn’t pay much heed at first. Rats, cockroaches, and ants have been around. Of late, pest control has been able to make the city people understand that it is not necessary for things to continue as before. But a rat is not a pest, nor even an insect, but a fully grown animal with arms, legs, and a tail. To top it all, there is a mouth full of fidgety axe-sharp teeth.
The only open space that remains is a patch of the balcony. As it is the first floor, it’s better to call it a balcony than a verandah. Even if there is a bit of open space in the middle, the wall is stacked with all kinds of scrap. A few oversized cartons—left in anticipation of a move, empty shoe boxes—who knows for what—a few small and big oil cans useful as long as they don’t leak, laundry baskets made of wire—indeed useful, four-five round lidless medium-sized paint cans turned planters holding a few crotons, Nayantara and the Madhabilata , the most aggressive of the lots, bouncing across the railing as if in an attempt to take over the entire verandah’s grille under its foliage. There are more—an old armchair, wired seaters, a table fan twisted at the neck, and a few big bamboo baskets which had once come from Rajshahi filled with mangoes and are now left with void post consumption of their contents.
This list is of no use. The thing which has upgraded the balcony’s status is the installation of the LG washing machine bought some two months back. Interestingly, the most expensive furniture has found its place on the balcony though Moeen’s wife Sahana wanted it to adorn the drawing room. It took quite some time to understand that the mouse would make the fine appliance its prime target.
It started with insignificant other stuff. No harm in testing the sharpness and showing off the agility of its teeth on those otherwise useless things, it must have thought. Then one morning, to the utter bewilderment of Sahana and the maid, the massacred shoe box and the carton show up. No doubt that it was the mouse’s (un)doing. Did it make the box its nest to give birth to? But where did it come from? There is no entry inside the house. It must have climbed up the wall. Or it could have climbed up the branch of the ghora-neem tree which was rising almost sky-high but don’t know by which inexplicable joviality bent its neck to touch its forehead to the first-floor parapet. Whatever be its path or source of entry, both the lady and maid unanimously concluded that the mouse came from outside and that too, in the night.
After the mayhem on the carton or shoe box, the plastic of the can and the leg of the oversized wooden chair soon showed signs of the rat’s artistry. But when a thorough search failed to reveal any significant signs of the mouse’s nest, both Sahana and Nargis were convinced that if such was the progress in such a short time, then the mouse is sure to cause some serious havoc. Though it could not be fathomed what serious damage the tiny creature could wreck, both of them felt that prompt action was needed. At this juncture when Moeen was dragged into the situation, along with the children—13-year-old Palash and 10-year-old Jui, then the battle for a possible disaster seemed to acquire an altogether different dimension. Initially, the poison of zinc phosphide. That which comes in a rather fascinating packet on which the picture of a jet-black rat looms and that which saves many from mistaking it for noodles or some ready-to-cook soup. Must be some MNC product, and possibly that is why the print on the packet read “bait” in English instead of the commonly used Bengali synonym of it Beesh. Yes, “bait” suits, I guess in order to kill such an obstinate creature like a rat who can only be tempted to bite on the bait.
It didn’t work. The effort of spreading zinc phosphide mixed with wheat for three-four consecutive nights and waiting anxiously for dawn turned futile. The wait was all there was. The rat didn’t fall for it as though it knew that to greed was to sin, and to sin was to… It must have been cautioned about not falling for the bait from the elders or its tribe. Nargis opined thus. She went on to add that a rat is no tiny creature, it holds far more intelligence than even humans. She further added that rats even go to the extent of making fun of man’s brains and the squeaking noise is actually the sound of mockery coupled with rejoicing at being able to outwit man. This near/quasi-philosophical theory held in view of the doings of just a single rat elicited a bemused smile from Moeen.
But the fact that the rat didn’t eat the poison-laced wheat and the proposed reason for the creature’s ability to fool man as held by Nargis made Palash all the more intent in devising ways to kill it. The bait having bit the dust, he bought an adhesive from an alley shop. This bright big tube’s adhesive was again imported—non-poisonous and rat-killing glue, made in Italy. And if this tube too did not have a rat’s picture on it, passing it on as a branded toothpaste adorning a brush would have been only natural. Having got his desired adhesive, he was overly excited. Out of sheer excitement, he began making rhymes, the way the street vendors do—rat, you’ll not be spared/if caught, you can’t be bailed.
Meanwhile, a big event happened. Be certain that it falls under the great apprehended damage.
After demolishing paper cartons, shoe boxes, and cans, the mouse forayed into some hole at the back of the washing machine, crawled and cut into the inside of the drum’s thick coating, drain hose, the wire and pipe of the control panel leaving Sahana’s much loved washing machine in complete shambles and on hearing which, leave alone Sahana, even Moeen flopped down in his office. After all, it had taken up all of Moeen’s Eid bonus to satiate Sahana’s long desire for the washing machine.
Palash, knowing fully well that no amount of consolation would pacify Sahana, decided to empathize with her, and in so doing, expressed his heart’s desire—wait, see what I do. After such huge damage has been made, even if the mouse was caught and s-l-o-w-l-y killed, there was no guarantee that the event would be pacifying enough; but it was definite that a feeling of having avenged would be evoked though it was difficult to tell the intensity unless the event of exacting revenge did occur. However, Palash’s thunder did sound like a series resolve.
No one is certain whether Sahana did hear Palash out. She was seen sitting with spread legs staring blankly at the cut and torn pieces of plastic and rubber.
On the one hand, Palash began consulting his friends about how the newly purchased adhesive made in Italy can be put to use. So, without pouring the material directly on the floor, Palash put the adhesive on a hand-long piece of a wooden platform and then laid the wooden plank on the balcony. And beside this, with the accompaniment of Nargis, he took a piece of dried loitta from a lid-tight kitchen jar and after cutting the fish with the help of scissors into 2 to 3 pieces, spread those a few meters from the wooden plank. And immediately after, he found paneer in the fridge which he again spread along with the dried fish pieces. He was convinced that the combined smell of paneer and shutki would definitely lure the mouse, and the mouse in trying to fulfill his cravings would have to cross over the wooden plank that was so deviously set for him.
Nargis’ words however turned out to be true—that mice outwit humans. With the onset of the next day, no morsel of food could be found, but strangely, the plank seemed untrod. But the food could not have been reached without the plank being stepped on. A dejected and befuddled Palash again fell to discussion with his friends. Here, Jui gave information to Palash. She asserted that it is not a mouse, but a rat. Not some Mickey-mouse, not even a Jerry like Tom and Jerry. When Nargis was given to understand of the species that Jui was referring to, she affirmed her realization that it is no tiny mouse, but a big-sized rat who is the size of a mini cat, and not only that, its manner of kill is similar to that of a cat too. So the adhesive might not do the job, even if the gum sticks to its body, it will not be difficult for a rebel rat to scrape through and escape. And Nargis was convinced that this big rat might not have even come near the adhesive, on the contrary, he must have come from another path to reach the paneer and shutki, and then again must have fallen to test whether or not the food was laced with poison. But Nargis did not go into the details of how the test got conducted since she had previously already mentioned the rat’s superior intelligence and lo, she was just a mere human! Jui gave some new facts. She thinks that this is one of the descendants of Hamelin’s rat army and this creature requires a Pied Piper. Barna, however, laughed it away. The rat which has the capacity to cut through or eat away plastic pipes and wooden chairs, she believes, must definitely be of the class of Brazilian Capybara or some monster rat of the same genus.
Barna though being Jui’s friend, was senior to her by 2 years and on so being, she provided many unknown facts-that the earth is inhabited by 60 species of rats, that there are rats who eat away a sleeping person’s eyes, ears, nose and that holds the capacity of even killing a human when they attack in groups. Capybara, however, cannot be called a rat proper. The capybara looks like a barrel, measuring 2 to 2.5 ft. It has a small tail and teeth… Barna refused to go into any further details surrounding the teeth because the book through which she came to know about the creature has illustrations of the face that are weird and despicable. By sharing such knowledge about the rats, she assured them that their case does not resemble that of a capybara but, nonetheless, it is big in size and aggressive in nature.
Palash wasn’t spared from becoming a source of banter. There was more to come. That which was not only pathetic but also heartless. After the rat had eaten away the food without getting stuck in the adhesive, Palash had placed that very plank on the rack which was already occupied by detergents and fabric softeners. Normally birds do not frequent the balcony, they might fly around it or sometimes sit on the neem tree, but never have they been seen to enter the balcony space. But this time, they entered and for committing suicide! What else can you call it? There was no reason for them to come and sit on the adhesive. On seeing two yellow tailor birds who are otherwise very sprightful in nature to be writhing in pain, Palash rushed to free them. In his desperate attempt to bring them out of the soup they landed themselves in, Palash pulled at one of them so hard that one leg of it got torn yet stuck to the adhesive. Seeing the birds’ pitiable state, Sahana sympathized, and after a moment of consideration, asked Palash to end their misery by killing them with a knife. Though Palash was taken aback by Sahana’s suggestion, he felt that there was no other way. He did carry out the execution but he was left unnerved by it the whole day. Meanwhile, he realized that his head was burning in anger. Two beautiful birds had to die only because of that bastard rat, and that too, by his hands!
Now what does Moeen tell Sahana! He decided to call a mechanic. The old mechanic was aghast at seeing the scenario of torn rubber and plastic and claimed that this was one of his firsts. He felt that the reason behind could be something else if it wasn’t the rat and demanded a whooping 12000 rupees to repair it. The entire drum had been destroyed, nothing remained of the control panel and the copper wire had even been chewed off. No, this couldn’t be the work of a rat!
The more the man expressed his suspicion towards the rat, Moeen silently got angry. If not the rat, then who else would invade the balcony? Would it be some bear or ghost? It finally got fixed at ten thousand bucks. The man, however, gave an idea—he said that if the machine is set inside a square-shaped iron cage, there were chances of it being safe in the future. The idea could not be rejected though it seemed strange enough. Moeen remained silent.
After the adhesive episode ended in tragedy, Palash brought a magnanimous trap. The snap trap was made of a thick wired net. An attractant such as food would be placed on the sharp metal and lifted to the box’s roof so that the moment the metal gets tugged at, the door of the trap slides shut.
Moeen took the snap trap from Palash and surveyed it. The same old traditional trap—even after so many evolutions happening, the event of mouse capture did not seem to be much of a concern for anyone. And here Moeen got all the more surprised when he, in spite of himself, was reminded of the mechanic’s suspicion surrounding a mouse’s doings to be absolute and final. Actually, the fact that there was so much happening around a mouse though nothing could be done about it made Moeen’s head reel in different directions and seemed to hold him in a maze. And in the exercise to clear his head and steer it unidirectionally, when he decided to concentrate on the singular thought of catching and killing a mouse, he began hallucinating about a big fat whiskered mouse. Even while sleeping at night, he woke up to peer through the balcony. And in his consistent efforts to catch some sleep, the mouse again seemed to visit him, and this time, his size kept on increasing. And he could clearly see its terrible facial features—the clamoring sound of the rubbing of its teeth with the movement of his hairy jaws also growing visible.
One night, the sound of the shutting down of the trap made everyone in the family wake up including Moeen only to see nothing but a banter—a two, or two-and-a-half-inch mouse, that which was madly running hither thither, running for life. Jui said, Mickey. A dejected Palash declared it to be a lizard. Jui once again said, Mickey.
The unexpected happened in the morning. The mouse lay dead. Either out of fear or of being constantly wounded by the iron net. It turned out to be just as it was conceived in the night—the length of the mouse was 3 inches if the tail was to be taken into account. Palash prodded the body with a stick and concluded that this mouse must have been sent by that one.
“What do you mean?” Jui exclaimed.
Palash didn’t bother to reply though he said a little later, that that was the original one.
Jui did not understand the head and tail of what Palash said. But Nargis said that Bhaijaan has been fooled. The no-one-knows still remained elusive.
How come both Palash and Jui knew that the real one didn’t turn up? Nonsense. Not only did he come, but he even dared to leave proof. The wooden door of the balcony had fresh marks, marks that bear evidence not of any scratches but close scrutiny reveals clear displays of being struck at by some sharp instrument. But where could that razor-sharp machine come from! Nails. And by the look of the scars and the assumed device of attack, digging a hole of sorts was not an improbability. And who could guarantee its impossibility? What next?
The problem, as well as the challenge, in its entirety, seemed to be of Palash. As he had declared and threatened to see the problem to its end, he himself got enmeshed in deep thoughts rather than have his friends’ suggestions on the matter.
On the other hand, the mouse had gained full control of Moeen. The mouse sat heavily on Moeen. All he saw was the mouse. And the creature haunted him at odd hours. And it is not just the heavily whiskered mouth glaring with oversized teeth and red eyes on a black distorted face that pops up and vanishes into thin air. He now feels it inside his head. Not only that, the mouse had held him captive in such a manner that he feels he might see that satanic creature when he stands in front of the mirror in his stead.
In a foul temper, he cannot fathom the power that such a tiny creature is exerting on him. It might be that he is too clever—will not dip his legs in the adhesive, will not mouth the poisonous bait, will not come anywhere near the trap, so much so that neither Moeen nor his family will be able to catch any trace of him and would only be a witness to the ruckus he is creating!
Again Moeen suffers from another problem. Is it really the mouse’s doing? The mechanic must have not really given it a thought. It was not unnatural yet Moeen got angry at him. Now, what does he say to himself!
The ugly ferocious face called the mouse that visits him often again changes its contours frequently. The unknown, preposterous face with its gaping mouth gradually increases in dimension.
And once it fades away, he feels restless. Splashes water on the face with eyes closed, afraid to even open eyes and look at himself in the bathroom mirror—who knows what one might see!
Meanwhile, the trap that Palash has set noisily shuts down every night. And each night, a tiny rat, after getting trapped, gets itself wounded by the wired net and dies with its belly turned upside. A dead rat is never uttered by either Palash or Jui or Nargis. And even after all this, every night the trap gets laid habitually. And nobody wakes from sleep, disturbed no more by the sound of a rat falling in the trap. And every morning begins with an upturned belly in the closed machine…
The same unease that was churning inside Moeen would also be affecting Sahana, was beyond imagination. One night on seeing Sahana running out of breath in her sleep, he woke her up. Sahana, on opening her eyes, uttered that it was not the rat, saying which she, in a frantic voice, asked for a gulp of water. It was difficult to understand whether she was awake or asleep. Moeen, on returning with the water, found her in deep sleep again. He could have asked Sahana what the matter was…
Even if he didn’t get the answer, Moeen in full consciousness repeated Sahana’s words in her support. Once, twice. Right then, the same jumping noise was heard on the balcony.
What could stop the rat from being caught and dying on the balcony?