A rat’s life.

Mayur J Raol

She had returned home, earlier than usual, after having an argument with her husband. It happened while she was helping him at a client’s hotel, where he was called to fumigate the premises and take some pest control measures. She left in a huff, asking him to finish his work, on his own. Why did he need her — merely to heap insult and treat her like the vermin they were here to eliminate? He was a pest killer by profession and she occasionally helped him, when, either the time available was less or when the area to be covered, was extensive. She had been cleaning an area behind the staircase and had forgotten to remove a can that was placed in the landing area that separated two flights of stairs. A customer, who found his path obstructed by the can, brought it to the notice of the hotel staff. The front office executive lost no time in seizing the opportunity to berate her husband. He in turn, chided her for being forgetful and admonished her saying that this wasn’t the first time that she had done this. She snapped back saying that it was his job in the first place and that it was excusable – given that it wasn’t her regular job – to occasionally forget something. This took its own course, as it often does, among couples who have already been on the edge for a variety of reasons. The latest incident just pried the lid open.

She stormed off and decided she had had enough.Who was he to comment on her dad’s philandering when he himself was no saint? She finished taking a bath and then began to ponder on how to end this constant bickering. Then an extreme thought occurred to her. What if she simply poisoned his food? A pest killer by profession, ingesting pesticide, might simply fall under the radar. Accidents happen. This thought had never previously occurred to her and now that it had, she was surprised at how sure she was of going through with it. It seemed to be an elegant solution for ending the scrappy life that she had been living. She hated living in that meagre hut and most of all she hated the fact that her sarees were always wet. If there was one thing she despised above all else, it was that she was always bound in a saree that constantly dipped itself in some form of water; detergent water, water from vessels that she washed, water that gathered at her feet while she filled her plastic pots at the public tap and water that splashed on her while she mixed the pesticide solution. But was he entirely to blame for this? He did work hard, after all. Just as she finished doing all this thinking, the venom that had risen so rapidly in her, merely a few moments ago, seemed to immediately subside. She cursed herself for even having had such thoughts.

She planned to do a complete turnaround. She would surprise him when he returned home by being the first one to speak. She would have dinner ready and she would tidy up the whole house. Now in good humour, she even laughed at the thought of a ‘whole’ house. For it was barely two rooms that housed the kitchen corner, bathroom and bedroom.

Why had she left the can on the staircase? If it had toppled onto the carpet below, it would have been a disaster. The carpet would reek of pesticide for days, therefore forcing the hotel manager to change the carpet. He would lose his contract and neither would his bill be settled. There was no way he could afford the carpet. He had shouted at her, albeit with clenched teeth, so as to not attract the attention of the hotel’s clients. He knew well, that these affluent people, did not like to set their eyes on impoverished lot like his wife and him. Yet, pests had to be removed, carpets had to be cleaned and door knobs had to shine. They were expected to work in the shadows and this was the way things were ever since he had begun work. How could his wife be oblivious to this and casually leave the can, right in the middle of the staircase, thereby forcing them out of the shadows?

The sharp-tongued receptionist had lost no time in removing the remaining shards of dignity that they hung on to; all due to his careless wife. Things between his wife and him had reached an edge. He often stayed out of his house, longer than necessary, to avoid her nagging. Maybe it was time to end this kind of life by running away from here. After all, what would he lose? There was only a new life to gain. In fact, why leave the house? He was aware of a thought that seemed to be dancing in his head and thrilling him, even though he had not fully grasped it yet. And then it came to him.

What if he simply poisoned her? It could be something like buttermilk or kheer. He recollected that she preferred the latter. But would not the police suspect him, since there were so many pesticides at home? It could be made to look accidental. He had subconsciously walked to the dairy store. He purchased the kheer for his wife and some buttermilk for himself. He did not acknowledge the store keeper as warmly as he was used to doing. The store keeper placed the buttermilk and kheer in a plastic handbag and placed it on the counter. He absent-mindedly paid for it and collected the change. He left the store in a hurry, sweating and excited.

Soon he was at a secluded bus stop. He sat down and removed a few granules from the packet of pesticide that he used on rats. These granules were odourless and he normally mixed them with a bit of dough. Rats couldn’t resist nibbling on these little dough balls and within a few minutes of consuming the poison, their stomachs contracted and their nervous system stopped responding. That was the way they met their untimely deaths in the very hotels that they had flourished. He poured a little water into a small plastic container and then sprinkled a few granules into the water. As he began to move the container in a circular motion to dissolve the granules, he leaned over and retrieved the tub of kheer from the plastic handbag. He opened the tub and placed the lid aside. For a while he looked at the kheer as if someone at the bus stop had left it behind. In that moment he brought it closer to him. He was about to tip the container with the deadly concoction into the kheer when he noticed that several granules remained undissolved. With the container circling above the kheer, he began to have second thoughts. Was he doing the right thing? There would be no turning back. Was she that bad and overpowering, that he had to take such a drastic step? What if he simply ran away as he had earlier contemplated? If he couldn’t stand her, it didn’t necessarily flow that she had to die. Let her fend for herself. That was revenge enough.

Unknown to him, the plastic container with the now fully dissolved granules, had a hairline fracture at its base. Several drops of the odourless liquid had fallen into the kheer. Just then, he snapped out of his deep thinking, having decided that he would not kill her. He capped the container, unaware that the kheer no longer held the delight that it appeared to offer. He reunited it with the buttermilk and he shuddered at what he had just contemplated; more because of the consequences that he conjured, than at the prospect of losing her.

Now he hurried home and slowly his mind began to churn positive thoughts. Maybe she had chanced to meet some neighbours on the way and had no time to brood about the incident, thereby not having made any resolutions to quarrel with him. He knocked on the door, sporting a mild smile on his face. She opened the door and was headed back to the kitchen, even as he pushed open the door. There was the smell of food in the air and it was a good sign. She had been busy. Over the sound of something frying in the kitchen, he heard her asking him to take a bath and settle for dinner. She had called for a truce. Food was prepared and she had spoken to him first. What more could he ask for? A sudden warmth spread in him as he placed the buttermilk and kheer on the floor where the couple usually sat and ate their food.

She turned when she heard the sound of containers being placed on the floor and smiled when she realised he had made a visit to the dairy store. So he was calling for a truce, by bringing home some buttermilk and kheer. Something for each of them. After he had left to take a bath, she walked over, squatted and poured the buttermilk into a glass. She picked up the container of kheer and decided to heat it again. She went to the corner that was the kitchen and she poured the contents into a small pan. She turned on the gas and then turned her attention to setting dinner.

He finished his bath and dried himself all the while looking into the mirror. He was overcome by remorse and slowly his mood turned affectionate. He called her name in a hushed tone and she responded. He followed her into the only other room that they had and soon they were playfully exchanging jibes. She was mimicking the tone that he had assumed at the hotel and he in turn, mimicked how the hotel receptionist had admonished them. For a few moments they were completely lost and they behaved like a couple who had for the first time, a room to themselves.

Just then, she caught a faint smell of the kheer and realised that in a few moments it would begin to burn. She broke loose and turned to go, but he held her back and with a short tug, had wrapped her back in his arms. It was only the smoke of the charred kheer that finally evicted them from their room and each others clasp. She stood up and opened a window. He joked saying it was time she took a liking to butter milk.

The End.

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