Mumbai: Behram Harda was a dancer in the Hindi films of the 1970s, gracing the screen with his twist and his cha-cha. Then he became a rodent assassin.
Today, in the sprawling B Ward of this teeming, filthy, exhilarating city, Harda is admired by his colleagues as the last of the great Mumbai rat catchers.
Harda, 55, is a relentless executioner. He fumigates. He drops poison laced with garlic into rat burrows. He brings new traps to shopkeepers and collects the previous catch for killing.
When he got the job 33 years ago, rats were no match for the catchers. Government service attracted the brightest in those days, and Mumbai was still clean enough to starve rats of the garbage on which they snack.
But in three decades India has turned inside out, and so has the equation between catchers and rats.
Jobs beckon, and the government struggles to attract men of Harda’s calibre. Many rat-catching posts lie vacant.
Meanwhile, Mumbai has metastasized from a genteel city of a few million into a grimy megalopolis of 17 million. More than half the population lives in shanties surrounded by garbage—and, consequently, by rats.
Harda accepts that his is a losing battle. In 10 years, he expects Mumbai to have more rats, not fewer. “It is impossible to get them,” he said. But he keeps trying.
To accompany Harda on his rounds is to navigate a parallel city, a world apart from the malls and luxury apartments sprouting in Mumbai.
Harda and his three deputies strode through these lanes, cages in hand. They stopped at food warehouses full of sacks of rice, sugar and lentils. Many had installed cages the day before and found a specimen or two.
Harda collated the catches into a single, swarming cage.
By 10.05am, they had two full cages. Now the rats had to die. The cages were dipped one by one into a bucket, but the bucket was too short, and many of the rats managed to keep their noses above the water level.
When the cage was restored to dry ground, the rats patiently rearranged their fur, as if nothing had happened.
But Harda had an alternative plan, which was not subtle or hygienic, but was terrifyingly effective.
One of his deputies plucked the rats from the cage one by one and slammed each one onto the ground. The rat would convulse with shock, then suddenly go still.
The men killed 26 rats in five minutes. Afterwards, a few would be sent to a laboratory, to be tested for plague.
All this may seem like strange toil for a man who once danced in hit movies such as Brahmachari and who still looks, in a certain light, like a man of film, his greying hair slicked back with shiny cream.
But when he was a young dancer, Bollywood was not much of an industry and a municipal job in a socialist country seemed more secure.
His father made him trade cha-cha for civil service. “I killed all my ambitions,” Harda said.
How was his father to know that India would swivel to capitalism, that Bollywood would grow into a cash machine, that government jobs would surrender their appeal?
Harda is by no means bitter. He is happy with his $210 (around Rs8,500)-a-month salary. He brings to his work an exactitude ordinarily asked only of those who execute humans.
The high point of his career, he said, came in 1986, when the Mumbai municipal commissioner, having heard of Harda’s prowess, came to see his work. Back in his office, Harda pulled out logbooks that he has kept since 1989. They list every rat catcher employed by B Ward and the tally of rats killed each month.
Rat catching is one of those jobs that swallow you whole, said the top pest-control officer in Mumbai, Ashok Adsule, who is Harda’s boss. Adsule reached for the right analogy to explain the battle with rats.
First, he compared it to a chess game, then to the IndiaPakistan rivalry. The art is to know the enemy. “You can be successful in this work only if you can imagine yourself in the shoes of a rat,” Adsule said. “This is a war.”