The Shuklas, Baba and Adhir, were a father and son team of rat catchers, lived in a small archipelago of weeping huts on a hill overlooking the village they were tethered to. Boney, bamboo beds swallowed up most of the room in their sleeping hut; the odor of kerosene and rats and of men who’ve worked in the sun and dirt steamed the air. A cooking hut sagged under the weight of palm leaves soaked by the latest summer rain and a small washing shack housed a rusted basin and soap along with toothbrushes and an old comb. Various earthen holes served as toilets and there were no mirrors or running water. Everything about the Shuklas was stained by time, and the toil of their days hung on them like hot leather. From a short distance, their home was row of worn out soldiers trying to stand at attention after a great and bloody battle, exhausted at the mere thought of living even one more day. From a further distance, it was a melting iota.
A stream fell from the slopes of a huge mountain that sat majestically behind the Shuklas. It then meandered past the rat catchers’ huts and disappeared into the jungle where at some point it became a water fall. The stream was the Shukla’s lifeline and each morning, Adhir filled four wooden buckets with the cold churning water; one for drinking, one for cooking and two for washing their clothes, which were often covered in the blood and gore of their odd livelihood.
On most days they were left to themselves, the villagers preferring to keep their distance from the rat catchers and their filthy ways. And although the villagers secretly appreciated what these men did for them, it was entirely different to be witness to their work or even speak of such things, thus resigning father and son to a marginal life. Their insignificance was compounded by being a moon to a village that was itself a pebble in an endless hardscrabble landscape of tiny hamlets across India. But they were further lowered, in many eyes, because they occupied the one of the most prostrate positions in Indian society, even lying underneath the suppressive caste system. Gandhi named them, the Harijans or children of God, but they were really known as “untouchables”. Regardless, father and son carried on under a weight unjust but patiently borne and living like bounty hunters who were asked to hunt down a persistent, crawling plague that oozed from the jungle’s pores.
Baba often screamed at the villagers as they carried their splintered buckets past the Shukla huts to the stream. He called them hypocrites and phonies, sometimes throwing dead rats at them as they ran away cursing and yelling. Such bitterness hadn’t overtaken the young Adhir, but he did harbor some resentment - although not for the villagers as much as for his own father. The boy understood why his father was dark and tattered, the exhaustion of his daily life pressing down on him more and more, but such understanding failed to make life with him any easier. Baba tried to smile with his big, square teeth when he was with his son but more often than not the effort was too great. At one time, when mother and sister were alive, his father must have smiled all day long, thought Adhir, but these days, the older Shukla wore the heavy cloak of despair in the heat of the Indian summer, trudging along to a predictable demise.
It had been just Baba and Adhir for some time; Adhir’s mother and sister having died years before. The boy remembered little of them and was told they had been overcome by a great fever that had decimated the entire village. “Many people lost,” Baba had said. But their absence was felt as a lack of softness that only mothers and sisters can bring to life. Perhaps, Adhir often dreamt, they could have given him a different view of the world, one that might have changed his entire life and he would be able to go on to greater things, maybe even attend college and became a doctor like his uncle Bomat. Adhir greatly admired his uncle, who he had not seen in many years now. As a teen, Bomat fled India and broke free from the imperfect label their family was born under. He made something of himself and now healed people all over the world and was respected by all, even those who shunned him as a boy. But those were just dreams and Adhir learned not to waste his time on such things. Village rat catcher was his path in life and now, at sixteen, he had finally learned to embrace his calling. God had chosen him for this role and he would fulfill his destiny. Perhaps in his next life he could become a great and respected man who affected the lives of many people and lived in a big house by the sea with servants and fine clothes. But for now, there were rats to catch.