License to kill
By Danish Siddiqui
Mumbai provides everyone living in it with an opportunity to earn and survive. Be it a white-collared job in a multinational company located in one of the city’s plush high rise buildings or killing rats by night in the filthiest and dirtiest parts of India’s financial capital. This time, my tryst was with the latter.
I decided I wanted to meet Mumbai’s rat-killer army employed by the city’s civic body. Very little is known about this tireless force that works the bylanes of the metropolis every night. Mumbai’s municipal corporation employs 44 rat killers and also has a freelance contingent, who aspire to be on the payrolls one day. Employees of the pest control department receive a salary of 15,000 to 17,000 Indian Rupees ($294 to 333) while contract laborers are paid 5 Indian rupees ($0.10) per rat they kill. The rat killers are expected to kill at least 30 rodents per night and hand over the carcasses to civic officials in the morning. If they fall short by even one rodent, they are expected to make it up the next night or else they stand to lose a day’s pay.
I zeroed in on a family living in the eastern suburbs of Mumbai, six of whom kill rats for a living. The oldest of them is Javed Sheikh, 61, who has been killing rats for the last four decades. The youngest rat-killer, on the other hand, is Javed’s son, 12-year old Waseem Sheikh. Only the father and the eldest son are employed by the sanitation department of Mumbai’s municipal corporation; the rest work as freelancers.
On the first day, as I went through dingy dark lanes with busted sewage pipelines, I realized this was not going to be easy. The biggest problem was the low light I had to shoot in. I also had to learn how to tread softly so the rats were not alerted by the sound of my shoes. I dropped the idea of wearing a face mask too, as it carries the risk of detaching you from your subject.
The next few days I spent chasing rats and rat killers from open fields to slaughterhouses to lanes that one would not venture into for obvious reasons. The first couple of these days were a bit tough, as I seemed to be making a little too much noise while walking. I made a tough decision to get rid of my shoes for the rest of the shoot days and switched to my flip-flops which made less noise.
The whole business of killing rats may seem easy but it requires really sharp eyesight to spot rats in pitch darkness. After spotting a rat the rat killers switch on the torch and point it directly at the rat’s eyes, blinding it for a few seconds, which gives them an opportunity to hit the rat with a stick. Sometimes, the rat killers put their hands in the holes, pulling the rats out by their tails and then killing them by banging their heads on the ground or a wall.
It all sounds unpleasant and probably unspeakable for some in society, but this is what Javed, his son Waseem and four others in his family have been doing to earn their daily bread. Javed has only known this way to feed the mouths of his family for the past 40 years. Mumbai is regarded as the city of dreams in India but it appears that some dreams have to go through dark and mucky lanes before they can bear fruit.