Tuesday, 8 November 2011

Rat flashbacks

Let me introduce you to a phenomenon that afflicts people from Mumbai when they travel elsewhere – it’s particularly related to ex-pats (like me, when we go back to Britain).
It’s called ‘rat-flashback’.

Just like the person who takes an hallucinogenic drug one day, only to find s/he has ‘flashbacks’ weeks, even months later, so the ex-pat will continue to ‘see’ the rats that are so common in Mumbai - even after the ex-pat has travelled back to a rat-free village in a sleepy English market-town.
It’s creepy.

Rats love Mumbai
The thing is: rats are everywhere in Bombay. Mostly I experience them on the walk from Colaba centre late at night back home.  Rats are nocturnal.
(I know, you’re asking: why does he walk???  Because I like to, that’s why. The streets are strangely quiet at 1am, and even the traders sleeping on the pavement by their stalls seem profoundly unconscious). 
As I walk silently, a rat will suddenly emerge, like an indistinct speeding shadow, and, just as immediately, disappear into a hole - on their way to their own kind of work.
They are the parallel population of Bombay, doing their own thing, slipping along walls, sometimes looking like leaves blowing along, sometimes looking as highly-motivated as a missile.

The most common place to see rats is... er.... as they scurry along a greasy back-wall in a restaurant. They move amazingly purposefully, keeping in the groove of the right-angle of wall and floor, hoping to be ignored – and most of the time they are of course.
I remember three of us, staring (as each of us caught the other looking open-mouthed), at one rat in a restaurant, which ran in a swift and business-like fashion across the back-wall before disappearing again. The waiters (who are used to it perhaps?) did not notice. 
You may think we all got up and left.  Of course we did not.  The fact is that rats are in all restaurants (bar the five-star hotels, I suppose), so… where else would one go?
My theory about the food in such restaurants is this: as the cooked food is generally served so hot, most germs are killed, so it’s – generally – safe to eat. The corollary is: never touch the uncooked food.
Living with rats

I myself am not too bothered about rodents. The visceral fear that some people have – of, say, a rat nipping at one’s bare toes under a café table, or even wandering across your bedsheets one night – doesn’t really affect me.

Wandering in the slums one day, I came across some spilt milk in the corner of a dank alleyway. There, an elderly grey bruiser was lapping at it. We looked at each other. In disgust, he turned away, to hide and wait until I had gone. I was sorry to have disturbed him.
(Incidentally, I am wondering if the milk had been left out deliberately, as an offering. This is what happens in temples in north India for example. And, rats don’t have such a bad press in India as in England or the US, where there are constantly tabloid horror stories about them eating the noses off unprotected babies etc! But, by contrast, as you probably know, in India they are often seen as a sacred animal).

However, even though I’m relatively unbothered about rats, I did draw the line at one which had clambered a tree outside an upper-floor apartment and made its way in to our living quarters. (When the maid heard about this, she said, almost with satisfaction: “Indian rat – very clever.” She then added, darkly: “Indian men – not clever” though that was clearly her rehearsing some internal, private issue of her own...). The maid and I worked together all day to try to find it and drive it out, but of course it was hopeless. What she suggested then I found vaguely laughable – but it worked.
Secure all the food in the house on upper shelving, then leave some loose food out, overnight, she suggested, because then it will take what it wants and depart.
Hmm. I said I thought poison might be better, but she found this unpalatable (see my previous posting on ‘Stray Dogs’, a post about why some Indians find killing pests problematic).
Strangely, it worked. Er, I think. How would one know?


But… to my point, about ‘rat-flashback’.

Even though I’m not as bothered as some about the sight of rats, I did become mildly jittery. A quick passing shadow in an unlit corner, a small object brushing across my path at night, an unexpected movement in a dark room – all can still give me a start, as though it were really a rat, and I even get a shiver of fear.
But I honestly thought this shivery apprehension was a Mumbai-only phenomenon, and was due to – frankly – the huge amount of rats one is likely to encounter in the city. Surely, the reaction would fade once I was away from Mumbai - after, say, six months?

Hmm. But, back in England, it continues. 
In the corner of my eye, at a theatre during the play, a man a few rows ahead suddenly moved his foot (which happened to be in a black shoe): and I jumped!
As I walked home one night, a passing car threw a light on to a hedge, just as a leaf at its base trembled in a breeze…
The weirdest is when my glasses catch a small quick dark reflection in the peripheral vision. Of course, it’s an illusion.
Each time though, I react…

There’s even the parallel audio phenomenon. I can wake in my bed in a friend’s house (in a nice English residential area) and, yes, hear that skittering sound that rats make in the walls. Mostly, it's another illusion, being really a curtain flapping at the window, but it can be a small shock.

It’s a not a debilitating state of course, and I’m not going crazy (I hope), but it is an interesting phenomenon – and quite long-lived apparently. I am told by other ex-pats that these ‘rat-flashbacks’ can go on for years...


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