This city of 20 million people, the frenetic embodiment of India’s energy, ambition and chaos, doesn’t do quiet very well, even as it pauses for a few hours after midnight to rejuvenate. Tonight, monsoon rains from the Arabian Sea are forcing its thousands of street dwellers to retreat to dank hallways and dimly lit underpasses.
Mahesh Suresh Kamble and his co-worker, Sangpal Sitaram Bachate, wait for the rain to ease before heading to a complex of four-story apartments in the heart of the city, aware that their prey prefers indoor comfort in such weather.
The buildings, a few blocks from Mumbai’s posh Queen’s Necklace shoreline, are decrepit, their cornerstones chipped. The friends wade through butter wrappers and rotting onions tossed from windows above. It isn’t long before they find what they’re looking for: dozens of rats, scurrying along the walls, skulking behind parked bikes, crouched under newspapers.
The pair, assigned to “C Ward” in the old city, soon separate. As Bachate heads around a corner, Kamble enters a narrow alley and calmly approaches an 8-inch rodent, shining a flashlight into its eyes. The animal is blinded just long enough for Kamble to whack it in the head with his metal-tipped pole.
His blows are usually fatal. But this time he doesn’t land a clean strike and the injured rat leaps into the air like a miniature circus performer. This job doesn’t reward the squeamish. Kamble grabs the animal by the tail and finishes it off by slamming its head twice against the concrete sidewalk.
All in an evening’s work for the 33 night rat killers employed by the Mumbai government under a system dating to the days of the British Empire, with the archaic equipment and tradition-bound requirements to prove it.
Kamble, 20, and Bachate, 27, beat out hundreds of other applicants for the job, some of whom had college degrees. Candidates must be 18 to 30 years old, have at least a 10th-grade education, be able to lift 110 pounds and pass a written exam and a video review of their rodent-killing skills.
After all that, a dozen finalists are taken to a field to see who kills the most rats in 15 minutes. Kamble and Bachate trained weeks for this challenge. Both bagged around 20, the best of the lot.
Six days a week, the city’s night rat killers — NRKs in acronym-happy India — fan out from midnight till dawn to satisfy their individual quota of 30 fresh corpses per shift. Each has two nights to make up any shortfall: 90 in three days, or they don’t get paid.
Oversized ledgers maintained by pest-control bureaucrats show that 214,848 rats met an untimely end in Mumbai between January and July of this year. Two-thirds were done in by the night killers, the rest by traps and poison. To put that success in perspective, consider that a single rat couple can give rise to 20 million offspring in three years, under ideal procreative conditions.
Those who administer the system from the comfort of their desks say details on its origins and evolution are all but lost to bureaucratic history. Nor can they explain why such exacting educational and fitness requirements are needed to thump a rodent with a stick.
The fastidiousness may stem in part from the subcontinent’s history of devastating outbreaks of bubonic plague, an infection borne by the fleas of rodents. A sample of the daily rat haul is combed for fleas, which are tested for plague. Mumbai’s last epidemic was in 1896, although several dozen people died in a 1994 outbreak several hundred miles to the north.
Mumbai, with Asia’s largest slum and a port where cargo and furry stowaways from around the world are disgorged, is an ideal breeding — and hunting — ground for rats.
“We don’t have a special rat census,” city spokesman Ganesh Puranik says. “But I think we must have the most in the world. Rats don’t think about family planning.”
After conking a rat senseless, Kamble grabs its limp body between his toes and flings it onto open pavement, distant enough from walls and burrows that it won’t be able to slink away if it suddenly recovers. Then he collects his kills in a plastic bag.
Kamble has honed his craft over time, stalking rats barefoot so they won’t hear him, perfecting an overhead swing with his trusty pole. Bachate wears sandals and prefers a side-arm motion.
Other rat killers claim they can hear, even smell, their adversaries in the dark.
Kamble says he picked up tricks from older rat catchers, including which markets or dumpsters offer the best hunting and how to craft the best stick. He proudly shows off his creation, a bamboo rod 6 feet long with a nasty hook-shaped piece of metal on its business end.
Stick men are relatively rare even in India. Most cities here rely on traps, cats, poisons, fumigation and glue strips.
But the cudgel method is “brutal and simple,” says Amrit Suryavanshi, head pest-control officer for C Ward.
It’s also efficient. Traps get stolen. Poison makes children sick. Glue strips leave rats suffering for days.
The rat catchers say they haven’t heard much from animal rights groups, although bystanders sometimes interfere during the annual festival of Ganesh, the Hindu elephant god, who is traditionally depicted riding a rat.
Kamble says he’s had pangs of conscience, given the Hindu belief that a person could be reborn as an animal. (A temple in northeastern Rajasthan state worships rats as reincarnated storytellers.) But he reasons that he’s doing God’s work by eliminating disease carriers.
Suryavanshi believes Mumbai’s rich classes could learn a lot from Kamble and Bachate. “They’re not afraid to work hard, no matter how unpleasant it is, to safeguard the community,” he says.
Another motivation, Kamble and Bachate say on a break from their killing spree, is the $175 a month income, provided they meet their quotas, and the chance after several years of rat catching to land a regular city job.
That sort of upward mobility is a fantasy made real for the likes of Kamble and Bachate, whose families migrated to Mumbai from subsistence villages in the 1980s.
Kamble is his family’s only breadwinner. Among his responsibilities (he’s still single) is saving for his younger sisters’ dowries, often an Indian family’s biggest expense.
Bachate works in construction during the day to supplement his rat-killing earnings.
“I don’t get much sleep,” he says. “Life’s long and you must work hard.”
At 27, it’s time for him to think about marriage, which usually is arranged in India.
“I’ve been introduced to a girl, and her parents think a rat catcher in the family is great,” Bachate says before heading into the darkness, his rat bag over his shoulder. “In fact, with this job I’m a bit of a catch.”