An Ode to Mumbai’s Spirit Animal: The Resilient Rat


An Ode to Mumbai’s Spirit Animal: The Resilient Rat

Illustration: Arati Gujar

Since the day the coppersmith barbet was anointed as Mumbai’s official bird, I’ve had one nagging question permanently stuck at the back of my mind: What would be the city’s official animal?

Could it be the leopard that keeps infiltrating our swanky housing societies and disrupting our idyllic urban lives? The stray dog, loved and cursed in equal measure? Or the crow, that’s taken it upon himself to be every Mumbaikar’s morning alarm? Come to think of it, if sheer numbers and strength of character are what count, the honour actually needs to go to the humble rat — all eight varieties of the species that call Mumbai home.

Yep, we’re talking about the whiskered ball of grime that gets underfoot every time you are shopping at Kalbadevi or navigating a lane in Malvani. The same scurrying creature that grabs more headlines than the leopards in Aarey Colony, yet continues to live out its ignominious life in the city’s underbelly. Even as the number of BEST buses dwindle by the month, the number of rats staking claim on the city appears to be on the upswing.

This poor rodent has survived innumerable half-hearted Swachh Abhiyaans and celeb-led drives against open defecation. It has even braved the bone-rattling underground digging of the city’s entrails while Mumbai upgrades to its ambitious Metro network. At this point, it wouldn’t be wrong to assume that the Mumbai rat is almost invincible. Could it be that while gorging on leftovers, it’s also imbibed some of the famous Mumbaikar spirit?

Their utter domination on our lives is evident from the fact that Mumbai is the only city in the world that employs full-time Night Rat Killers (NRK) to exterminate a whopping population of 88 million rats. But despite the army of NRKs cracking down on these rodents in stealth every night, there’s nothing stopping these rats from frequently making headlines.

I think the Mumbai rat has proved, more than his human counterpart, that he is a Mumbaikar to the core.

Mumbai’s doomed affair with rats go back a long way. It’s assumed that the first species arrived as stowaways on Dutch or Portuguese ships, slyly mingling with the native population. However, it was only in the winter of 1896 that the city sat up and took note of these brand new inhabitants. It was the year the great plague beset Bombay, killing nearly two lakh people.

Kalpish Ratna’s Room 000 that documents the gruesome spread of the plague and its aftermath evokes a disturbing picture of these rats. “Dead rats began to rain into houses. Women ran out screeching when fat bundles tumbled into simmering pots on the hearth. Men woke up at all hours uneasily aware of stirring that had nothing to do with desire. It was usually a dying rat burrowing frantically into the bedclothes. Toddlers chased after rodents that staggered drunkenly about. Children devised cruel and interesting games of torment. The street stank of putrefying rats. The disgusted villagers had tired of clearing them: within an hour of sweeping away the corpses, there would be a fresh richesse of rats, twitching in their death throes. A few days later, plague broke out…”

According to official figures, over a lakh rodents have been killed in civic drives in the first three months of 2018. In 2016 and 2017, the BMC stunned, clubbed and chemically killed a little over two lakh rats annually. If Mantralaya itself was said to harbour 3,19,400 rats in its hallowed corridors, would the congested alleys of Bhuleshwar and the bylanes of Kurla lag far behind? Considering that we are a city whose USP is overpopulation (humans or otherwise), naturally these numbers hardly bother us for we’ve openly embraced rats as a legitimate part of Mumbai imagery.

In the last few months, the now emboldened Mumbai rat stepped out of the shadows for its share of gory glory; he had tasted blood. Back in December, two patients in a suburban hospital had the misfortune of having their toes and eyes chewed on by rats. Just last fortnight, a rat found its way into another suburban hospital and chewed on the eyes of a comatose patient. If that wasn’t enough, in March, the scam of the month starred our humble rats. “How can you eliminate 31.68 rats per minute?,” asked Revenue Minister Eknath Khadse, unearthing a scam that pointed fingers at unscrupulous contractors who claimed to have exterminated over three lakh rats in Mantralaya in a matter of seven days. And, yet it’s clearly not enough. They will emerge, triumphant, in the monsoon and teach us all about leptospirosis giving enough material for the newspapers to be filled with statistics of infections and preventions.

I think the Mumbai rat has proved, more than his human counterpart, that he is a Mumbaikar to the core. He’s got it all – the die-hard spirit, the indifference to unhygienic surroundings, the apathy to the din of construction and an immune system that quaffs anything edible, and lives to tell the tale. Above ground level, the human Mumbaikar may routinely crib and threaten to leave the city and its squalor but the subterranean Mumbaikar merely chuckles and looks forward to the debris of the next demolition drive that will bring additional housing and food for the next few months.

The rats also know us rather well. It knows that we will not stop littering which gives them the confidence to continue procreating. At this rate, the humble rat might just outlive all of us to earn the tag of the “Ultimate Mumbaikar” in the future. Considering that they’ve been fighting extinction for over a 100 years and still emerged victorious against 10 million of us, it makes a lot of sense.