the-south-asian.com February 2003
FEBRUARY 2003 Contents
Page 2 of 4
'KNOCK AT EVERY ALIEN DOOR'
RUM - RUM
The next time Rum Rum appeared at the base he was carrying in his arms a mongoose. The sleek furry animal was uncharacteristically docile in his embrace, except for the darting head that moved like a frenzied periscope to survey for enemy action.
"Kill rats for you," Rum Rum said, rubbing the length of the animal's tapered body. "Do good job."
He had heard us talking before about the number of rats -- the breed of big Indian rats with fangs and bushy tail -- that plagued us from time to time, and their resistance to our efforts at extermination.
"I thought they just killed cobras." The corporal who spoke ventured a tentative hand to pat the animal. "You sure they kill rats?"
"Like rat like cobra," Rum Rum said. "He kill for you. Sahib." He held the mongoose out to the corporal.
No sooner had the corporal cradled the creature in his arms than it began to squirm and suddenly jumped and skittered to the safety of a near-by hedge. Rum Rum ran over to the hedge and easily retrieved the mongoose. He brought it back to the corporal who, this time, held it in a firmer embrace. Rum Rum held out his hand in the familiar baksheesh gesture, patiently expectant.
"Get outa here, you little thief," the corporal growled. "You didn't say anything about no charge."
"Rum Rum's right," I quickly intervened. "He's providing a service for us. We should pay him for that.
How much. Rum Rum?"
"Two rupee. "
Several of us came up with enough annas to equal two rupees, and placed them in Rum Rum's cupped hands already eagerly waiting for his bonanza.
"If this mongoose don't do the job. Rum Rum," the corporal said, his voice filled with mock menace, "I'm gonna come and get you and cut out your thieving little heart."
Rum Rum took the threat seriously, backing away from the corporal as he clutched the annas in his fists. When the rest of us laughed. Rum Rum finally took that as assurance that he would not lose his heart to the corporal's knife. He grinned.
When I called the mongoose Rikki Tikki Tavi, there was tacit agreement in the absence of other nominations. But as it turned out, the name was naturally shortened to Rikki.
Most of the time Rikki was nowhere in sight, which led to some grumbling that Rum Rum had taken us for an easy two rupees. But when we confronted Rum Rum with the fact of Rikki's invisibility, he always countered with the assurance that he was busy diminishing the rat population. That was, he insisted, the way of the mongoose.
For weeks thereafter we had no reason but to accept Rum Rum's explanation of Rikki's disappearance, so that every rustle in the bush, every animal sound heard from the shadows, was a sign that the furtive mongoose was busy at his deadly trade. It was only a short time later that I had good reason to believe this was true when an event occurred that presented rather dramatic evidence of Rikki's presence.
I had gone one day to check an abandoned wing of the hospital. Built as a ward, it had been closed off when patient occupancy proved less than anticipated. It had through months of disuse become something of a storage room for hodgepodge material, which the C.O. insisted might one day be essential to the war effort. Periodic inventories were made to discourage any black market operations, and it was on such a mission that I was embarked that day. As I entered, throwing back the door for ventilation, I immediately heard on the canvas ceiling beneath the thatch roof a scurrying sound, accompanied by squeaks and squeals, in response to my disturbing entry. I looked up at the rippling canvas, certain that I had stumbled on a large nest of those dreaded creatures, rats. My skin crawled with the thought of their presence in such numbers, and I hurried to the other end of the building to open the remaining door. I stood there breathing in the heat of the outside air while armageddon raged above me. Reluctant to reenter that place of dread, I waited for the frantic sounds to subside. And in those moments I thought of one wise decision I had made when, in my eagerness to see the strange sights of India, I had turned down an opportunity to visit Rajasthan, the site of the famous temple where the rat is worshipped. That was one prejudice, I was sure, my adventurous spirit would never overcome.
Finally gathering courage, I re-entered the long musty room. The sounds of strife had subsided somewhat, but the ceiling still rippled with frantic feet. As I walked ahead I was aware of a slight sifting of straw from above. I looked up in time to see a hole appear in the canvas, through which a dark object, barely missing my head, plopped at my feet. The body of a large black rat -- the front half missing -- lay on the concrete floor without a twitch of motion.
The twitch was in my stomach, now on the edge of queasiness as I hurriedly left the place. I was confident I had seen the handiwork of Rikki at its deadliest, but who would believe me unless I found a witness. And, I would certainly insist on help with any further inventory. Some things were beyond the call of duty.
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