Consider the rat

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“Hey just saw this. How about rats? We have rats all over our office.”

This was our designer Indu Manohar responding to my email soliciting ideas for a seriously long overdue community post. What followed in the email was Indu’s breathless proposal for what I believe to be our most vital community post thus far. To adequately bring out the grandeur of this tale, I will proceed in an ancient bardic form, separating the akam (the inner landscape) and puram (the exterior landscape). Normally, akam poems are concerned with love and the personal (in this case, our anecdotes with rats) and the puram poem concerns war, the state and worldly affairs (in this case, the rat in an urban context). Let’s begin with the proverbial thalaivi, Indu in this instance.

Akam

“My electric car is currently facing rat biting problems, so I came by cab today. I also offered a rat from office a lift to my house last week. No joke. I stopped to open the gate of my house and it ran out from under my car and disappeared into my garden. I don't know if it was a home rat that went for a day trip to work, or a Leela rat that decided to move.”

Our modest garden rat, possibly hearing echoes (well, this a bit of a stretch but rats do have incredible hearing) of an ancient, far more ambitious trail left by their ancestors who followed the human migratory patterns, sailing with us over the oceans, settling and thriving where we did.  Our other office rat, a distinguished fellow, promptly feasts on any crumbs we leave behind and helped himself to an entire packet of Grand Sweet and Snacks’ asafotieda infused potato chips one weekend too. Our attitudes towards the garden rat are reminiscent of the ambivalence that the devoted feel for their preferred deity, samples these lines written by Nammalvar in the 9th Century CE

“While I was waiting eagerly for him
  saying to myself,
     "If I see you anywhere
       I'll gather you
  and eat you up."

he beat me to it
  and devoured me entire.

    my lord as dark as raincloud.
      my lord self-seeking and unfair.”  

Two winters ago, I found myself embroiled in a battle of wits with perhaps one of the most wily individuals I had ever met, a rat the size of a bandicoot plaguing my apartment. Mine was a largeish, old apartment located two floors above a bakery, the ideal abode for rats. The rats never really bothered to come up as their needs were taken care of downstairs. Atleast I’d not noticed them upstairs and my comestibles seemed untainted. However, that winter the bakery shut shop, the owner had defaulted on a few month’s rent and it turned out he hadn’t paid his share of the water bill which meant the BWSSB promptly came by to cut off our water (well, mine, as the first floor was rented out to a call center that didn’t really seem all too perturbed by the lack of running water). It was then I first encountered my nemesis, let us name it Ishtar for purposes of simplicity and cheap symbolism.

Poisoning and trapping the rat was out of the question because I’m uncomfortable with the notion. I decided that it would be a war of attrition, in the style of Fabius Maximus, depriving Ishtar of all resources so it would find it prudent to seek another home. Weeks of living very carefully, taking out the trash diligently, sealing all my grain and vegetables, leaving not a tiny drop of water on the floor, all went to naught, as I would come back home only to find Ishtar peeking at me from under the fridge, tauntingly. I figured that a scorched earth policy wasn’t enough, so I decided to seal all entries and exits, only to realise that this meant nothing to a rat, they find a way where God does not will a path. Eventually, a month went by, a month that seemed like something out of the Parallax View and those other Pakula paranoia thrillers,and  Ishtar just quietly moved out. This didn’t feel like a victory, it just felt as if Ishtar was on their way to better prospects, the next big thing.

Puram  

But how did our rats become so emboldened? While research on rats is very, very hard to conduct as this article shows, given their subterranean existence and society’s taboos about them and their reputation for spreading disease, our designer Indu has some answers;

“We all kinda know why the urban rat population is so high. It's because the urban dog population is so high, so not too many cats. And the dog population is so high because the vulture population is so low. When our vast number of dairy cows go to die in the carcass dumping fields outside cities, the dogs thrive. The vultures have all died out because of a drug called diclofenac that's given to old cows to ease their pain. Immediate renal failure. 99% of Indian vultures have died since the 90's. I can go on. Vultures are a bit of a pet passion of mine.”
 

And how do they move and enter our homes?

In cities, rats can enter buildings through openings as small as a quarter. They also may “vertically migrate” upward and enter residential dwellings through toilets. Because rats often make their way into homes from parks, subways and sewers, they can transport microorganisms they pick up from decomposition of wastes, thus earning the colloquial nickname of “disease sponges.”

Unlike humans, rats are not limited by the density of their population. In population biology, they are referred to as an “r-adapted species,” which means they mature rapidly, have short gestation periods and produce many offspring. Their typical life span is just six months to two years, but a female rat can produce up to 84 pups per year, and pups reach sexual maturity as soon as five weeks after birth.

However, we are yet to truly understand our rodent friends, society is still mired in largely antiquated notions of rats. And no, I’m not appealing for you to fall in love with rats- that’s bizarre. What me and my colleagues (this is a WLW endorsed statement) humbly ask of you is to simply consider the rat..

 

Indu Manohar and Satyavrat Krishnakuma

Becky Bowers

This month we caught up with Becky Bowers, a research student in anthropology who focuses on female construction workers and gendered spaces in Bengaluru. While working on the field in Bengaluru, she decided to undertake the rather challenging task of starting an English class for the children of the construction workers. This is one of the most insightful and vital community posts that we have done, so we implore you to take some time and hear what Becky has to say. 

What sparked the idea that led to this initiative? What were the initial responses from the children and their parents? What were some of the hurdles that you had to encounter? 

There were a couple of moments that sparked this for me: Firstly, I frequently encountered people in my work who asked ‘What are you doing for the poor?’ and since it was difficult to explain how my research or what I wanted to do once I finish my PhD might have any direct or positive impact on the lives of my research participants, I considered what I might be able to contribute in the present. Ethically, anthropologists try to adhere to the practice of fair return in ways that are not cash incentives but that contribute something to the people we work with. The catalyst though was when a teenage girl approached me during the Sangha and told me that she would like to improve her English and become a teacher. All her family were in construction and she was concerned she would have to drop out of school too. It was her request that motivated me to begin English lessons for the children of that community. Even if it was a small contribution, I wanted to help improve their chances of moving outside of the construction and domestic worker roles that most of their parents undertake.

The initial responses from the children and their parents were positive and we began with classes of around 20 which was also thanks to APSA, the NGO who worked with the community and promoted the lessons to them as well as letting us use their office space for lessons. However, getting frequent attendance is always something of an effort due to the children’s trips to their parent’s and grandparent’s villages in the north of Karnataka. Some children also dropped out - not just from the classes but from their school as well. Hearing this is very disheartening, but unfortunately not surprising given the precarity of family incomes in the area. Many of the children were very shy to begin with especially when asked to speak about themselves and why they wanted to improve their English, some could barely introduce themselves. Co-ordinating the volunteers was one of the biggest challenges due to the shifting nature of Bengaluru’s population (as well as getting people to brave the traffic and come to Jayanagar!) and it was always difficult when one of the teachers had to leave. Besides improving conversational English, our main objective was for the kids to enjoy themselves and improve their education of the world outside the colony in which they live - explaining where and what Europe was for instance, proved quite a challenge! Getting the children to think outside of the box and beyond the world of a rote learning dominated education system still proves a challenge today although they have certainly embraced our more interactive methods. Anything with teams can easily become chaos due to the competitive nature of the kids - in fact many are formidable kabaddi players. 

What are some of the other problems that migrant kids of construction workers face in a new city?

The children from the colony are mostly members of settled families (that is they are often second generation city dwellers) although the colony still maintains strong links with areas such as Gulbarga, Raichur and Yadgiri, in northern Karnataka. Some of the girls may still have to return to rural areas for marriage and farming. From my experience working with migrant children whose parents frequently shift between Karnataka and neighbouring states, they face substantial challenges. The most immediate concern is health issues. A number of migrant children live on construction sites with their parents which are obviously not child friendly places. Like their parents, they inhale and are exposed to cement dust, and are housed either in tents or tin shacks with poor sanitation. As a result, dengue and other such illnesses are also fairly common occurrences. Despite various laws in place to protect the children of construction workers and the attempts of NGOs, access to education and healthcare is minimal at best. One group of migrant children I came to know bore visible signs of poor nutrition since their parents were unable to leave the site to buy fresh fruit or vegetables (perhaps once a week), or even afford them.        

Aspirations ranged from age group to migrant status of construction workers. Some workers could only express the desire to endure - that is to keep working and being able to eat until they were no longer able to. Others would express their denial in terms of what they wanted their children to do: whilst many did not want their children to follow them into their occupation, for some of the inter state migrants, this was the only foreseeable option since their children did not go to school. Since I worked mostly with women who are restricted to the bottom rung of the skills ladder in construction, many could not envision an alternative form of income and since promotion for them was impossible, they placed everything they had on their children’s future. For the children, the same was also true in terms of demographic vis a vis aspirational variances. For my students aspirations were high and often focused on improving the lives of their parents (one of the older boys wanted to become a bank manager "because my parents are poor") and another wanted to become a doctor in order to cure dengue which was also prevalent in the colony. When I asked the children from a construction site I frequently visited what they wanted to do when they were older, such alternatives to construction or agricultural work seemed inconceivable to them.