It is funny but lately I’ve been thinking of rodents. Probably because I leave for Kerala this weekend and some of my earliest memories of my grandmother’s house were built around rodents.
Of soot streaked faces and hands; of light catching the glass of a train window; of an early morning blur of suitcases, porters and the family car that resolved itself into faces of uncles and a grandmother, five cousins, half a dozen hens, two dogs and a mountain of fluffy white iddlies and a little lake of chutney….but it was rats that give an edge to these childhood reminiscences.
First there was the grim bedtime story that was brought out when we dawdled at bedtime and tried to wriggle out of brushing our teeth. “Remember what happened to Uncle Mani when he was a boy!” my mother would say. The story goes that Uncle Mani when he was a boy woke up hungry one night. So he crept into the store-room and rummaged for something to eat. He ate several ripe bananas and a few slices of halwa from a tin. Instead of going back to bed, lulled by a full stomach and the sweet scent of excess, he fell asleep there. A little while later, he felt some thing move on his lip. He peered from between his eyelids and spotted a mouse sitting on his chin. A mouse that was about to lick his sugar crusted lips …
In a family where agriculture was mainstay, it was natural that there be rats and mice. Apart from grain in the pathayam, [grain room], there were bags of rice piled in the store-room, bunches of banana and pumpkins dangling from the ceiling and wooden cupboards laden with all kinds of eats. We children found it worth a forage so why blame a rat whose nature it is to strive and seek and to not yield till it had foraged and found…..my grandmother or uncles didn’t, of course, let nature prevail. Instead every few days there would be a rat hunt. All it needed was a few days of a hint. Of a whisker, or a tail, a scurrying of feet and sometimes simply a movement that suggested gnawing jaws at work….and it would be time for Brownie, the half retriever-half restoftheworlddogbreeds dog to be ushered in.
The youngest of my uncles and Brownie would go into the designated area of the passageway where it was suspected rat forces were at large. Doors and windows would be slammed shut and we would wait outside pressing our ears to the door. Inside there would be much mayhem and finally when man and dog emerged, my uncle’s face would be wreathed in a grin and Brownie’s face with a rat…sometimes there would be a couple of dead ones lying on their sides……
Adults go through life thinking that children have to be protected from the macabre. The truth is that children have a great .fondness for the grotesque. The more bizarre the situation, the more monstrous the scope of imagination, the greater they love it. That perhaps explains why Roald Dahl continues to be such a favourite even today.
A couple of dead rats didn’t appeal to our imagination. What did was the mouse and sack technique….While Brownie was a champion ratter and had a fondness for mammoth bandicoots, he ignored mice and shrews. Were they much too little for his ego or chops, we never did know. For them there was the mouse trap. Not the spring kind that either impaled the mouse or concussed the creature but a cage that trapped the mouse. Which was where the sack technique came into effect.
The mouse would be released into the sack and then my uncle, the youngest one again, would gather the ends of the sack, heave it over his shoulder and lead the way to the backyard. Rather like the Pied Piper ‘Into the street the piper stepped, smiling first a little smile’ he’d walk whistling a tune. Giggling, we would follow, my brother, cousins and I. And then when he was by the granite slab that was the washing stone, he would pause and ask a rhetorical question, “Don’t you think this sack is much too dusty?”
We would giggle some more. “I better get rid of some dust,” he would announce and raise the sack and bang it on the wash stone. A couple of more times and as if to add veracity to his words, a small cloud of dust would emerge. When there was no more dust, we knew the mouse inside was dead, splattered, pulverized….and we would giggle some more….
Some years later my uncle lost his sense of smell and he blamed it on his youthful predilection for destroying rats, mice and shrews. “It’s the curse of those creatures that twitched their noses all the time!” He said.
Almost a decade ago, my son Maitreya and I returned home from our travels to a house that had been shut up for more than two months. For a couple of days, everything felt out-of-place and then we settled in. Except that I thought I heard a scurrying every now and then. Next I would hear bells ringing, I thought. Was this the beginning of insanity? Then one evening as I stood near the book shelf, something ran alongside it. Damn cockroaches, I sighed. Must call the pest control guys, I made a note.
Next day, there it was Again near the bookshelf and this time I saw it was a little mouse. I don’t know who was more scared, the mouse or I. The mouse skidded in panic and I screamed. When I had calmed down, I thought of how the mouse had slithered across the floor like a cartoon mouse and giggled.
When my husband came home a month later, we had a new member in the family. “Dickens the mouse,” Maitreya announced. “He loves the bookshelf so we decided to call him Dickens.”
The husband didn’t approve but he was much too ill to protest. Then my mother in law came visiting and Maitreya confessed to his grandmother his plans of taking Dickens to our new home; my mother in law’s jaw dropped. I could read the look in her eyes: The mother is weird; the son seems even weirder…what has my poor son done to be stuck with these mouse lovers?
We never figured out where he, Dickens ie, lived but we knew every day he went for a run through the house. And soon everyone who came home began Dickenspotting. And my husband decided enough was enough. Then began the pogrom in our home. Soon every grown male who came home tried his hand at mouse catching. God knows what it is about a man and a mouse but men seem to think that catching a mouse is testimony to male prowess….
Tired and having created more havoc than a score of Dickens could possibly have, they would retire to the dining table and have a heated discussions about Dickens’s DNA. Was he a rat, a mouse or a shrew? It was easy enough to see what motivated Hitler and his generals….
Later one night when everyone had gone to bed and I sat up alone, reading, I saw a movement from the corner of my eye. And into my mind swam another pair of feet from W.H. Auden’s An Acre of Grass:
Midnight, an old house
Where nothing stirs but a mouse
Post script: Dickens didn’t move with us. He stayed back and probably found other bookshelves to haunt.
Note: Read more about how mice and man work together at http://brainposts.blogspot.in/2009/09/man-and-mouse-work-together-to-uncover.html
Anita Nair is the author of five works of fiction, a collection of essays, a collection of poems and has edited an anthology of Writings about Kerala. Nair has also written four books for children and two plays and has translated Thakazhi Sivasankara Pillai’s Chemmeen into English. Read more about her and her work at http://www.anitanair.net