Elippathayam: The urban rat-trap

We were sleeping peacefully in our home in the prestigious IIT Delhi campus after an exhausting day of travel and partying! I woke up suddenly feeling that someone was lightly running over me! I sat up and felt around, but there was no one or anything! My partner slept peacefully! I fell asleep again and then it seemed like someone was running a hand over my hair! I sat up with a jerk and looked around again. No one and nothing to be seen. This time my sudden movement woke my partner! “What is it?” “Don’t know, may be a rat?” “Turn on the light lets see.” So on come the lights, obviously there is nothing. We look in all corners of the bed, lift the sheets, look around the room. Nothing to be seen. “Perhaps I was dreaming!” We turn off the lights and I start to think. Am I hallucinating? Is something the matter? Or some super natural force working? Come on don’t be silly, I tell myself and fall asleep again!
Next morning my partner is all groggy! “What’s the matter?” Says I, all fresh and ready to go! “I did not sleep after that. The rat was running all over me!” “Good heavens! So I was not hallucinating! At least I have not lost it!!” But this is awful, how could a rat enter the house and how could it be so brave as to climb on the bed? The conversation at the breakfast table was on the bravery of the rat. Is there only one or many in the house? My niece and nephew claimed that there were two rats upstairs as well. “They climbed up? Can rats climb the stairs?” Kids were convinced they can! “They must have come up some tree or pipe, surely they cannot climb stairs? There are clothes all over and the suitcases are open. I was afraid they will nibble on the clothes” My brother-in-law (BIL) feels that they do not nibble on clothes. They are only interested in food and plastic! My sister-in-law (SIL) comes out of the kitchen with a half eaten potato! How did the rat get into the locked kitchen and locked storeroom? This leads to speculation again that there are many rats in the house, some living in the kitchen store! Or they can squeeze themselves under the tiny space under the doors! “But plastic, surely not! Urban rats eat plastic?” SIL was convinced. “A little plastic bottle with oil on my bedside, used for creaking door hinges, was missing. I looked all over and did not find it. One day while changing sheets on the bed I found it on the opposite side of the bed completely chewed up! Surely the rat ate plastic.” I gently suggested that perhaps the rat was after the oil in the bottle. The next morning she produces a tin of biscuits with its top plastic lid chewed up to prove her point. Rats eat plastic, QED!
But this made me think, are we infringing on the lands that rightfully belong to these creatures of nature? They are either trying to survive in the new urban milieu or taking revenge!!
In my mother’s apartment in Cochin, I have seen huge rats running around even during the day. How do they come up to the first floor? Do they use the lift? Or they come through the pipes and apertures in the veranda! Those rats generally make for the kitchen! They enter the food cabinet that did not close properly and eat bananas and spoiled the grains and other food stuff in it! My father waged a battle against the rats! He set up the traditionally rat trap, Elippathayam! The rat was too clever for that. It managed to get the pieces of food out without getting trapped. Next morning, father found no morsel and no rat either! He tried balancing food precariously atop buckets of water. To no avail of course! And so the battle continued between urban man/woman and the urban rat! I am sure the rat was watching and laughing its head off!!
It’s not just the rats. The birds, peacocks on IIT, Delhi and IIM, Ahmedabad campuses. The Red-naped ibis on the IIMA campus. The large University and Institute campuses are a refuge for natures’ flora and fauna, as these are large patches of greenery still preserved in the urban landscape. These birds and animals are making their peace with the new urban milieu or fighting back as in the case of the rats! On the IIT Delhi campus, one peacock regularly visits our house and my SIL feeds him with bread crumbs! If she does not appear he calls her making his loud cackling sound or hits his beak on the ground! “He loves parathas and puris! If you give him paratha and later roti (dry bread) he turns up his nose, beak,” Domestication of the peacock! This bird has made peace with the ‘Urban Agenda’.
Domesticated Peacock at IIT, Delhi
Peacock at IIM, Ahmedabad
Urban Man has been inventing new methods of trapping the rat that invades homes. BIL says there is a new device available to trap rats. He brings home a device that is a small mat spread over with an invisible semi-liquid glue. The rat gets stuck to it when he steps on it. With much warning to all of us on the placement of the mats and not to step on it at night, he leaves one in the corner in our bedroom and one in the kitchen store room. We fall asleep. My partner gets up at 1.00 a.m. “What is it?” “The rat is trapped.” It was kicking about, trying to get away. We turn on the lights and see a small mouse on the mat looking pretty scared! What to do now? He pushes the mat outside the house and into the garden. Next morning we find two more small mice trapped, on the mat in the kitchen storeroom, looking pathetic, having struggled all night trying to escape. Wow! What an invention, technology to the fore. This round goes to the Urban Man! Well, just wait, next round may rightfully belong to Nature’s creatures!
I recently wrote a popular article on Inclusive Urbanisation, which discussed the New Urban Agenda of the UN Habitat III and different categories of workers. I argued that these workers, street vendors, domestic helpers and waste pickers, lived and worked on the fringes of ‘urban’ and now even more than ever need to be included in the thinking and planning of cities! After last night’s invasion by the rat, I pondered whether urbanisation was also infringing on the natural habitat of the rodents and many such creatures of the earth!
I was reminded of ‘Elipathayam’, a very famous award winning Adoor Gopalakrishnan film in Malayalam! It depicts Unni, the character, feeling trapped within a feudal set up, unable to reconcile or comprehend the changing society and societal norms around him. Of his three sisters some adapt, while some are unable to! An apt title!  Perhaps the rat in our story felt like Unni in the film and the peacock was more like his sister who adapted better to the changing ‘Urban Agenda’!

Do urban planners need to worry about urbanisation that includes, besides the workers in the lower  strata, also the flora and fauna and creatures of nature? The entire ecosystem is disturbed every time a new structure is erected. In fact, what we note as the over activeness and invasion of the rats into urban homes may be related to new construction work across the street, both in Delhi and Cochin. The ecosystem was disturbed again and nature fights back, unlike Unni in Elippathyam, who succumbs to the situation.


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