There is a very thin line, they say, between the sublime and the ridiculous. I never really thought about it, until one day, my education as an Army wife on an Indian military base took me down a path that made me wonder.
It was a crisp winter morning in the foothills of the Vindhyas, just right to laze in the sun and bury my nose in a novel.
Suddenly and rudely, I was jerked back to reality.
“Memsahib!” (“Madam!”) It was a strange wail. I put my book down. “Memsahib!” It was coming from the kitchen.
I hurried in to investigate and found Ramu, our military orderly.
“I found him, memsahib! And I’ve got him!” he cried. He pointed grimly to a drawer that was vibrating alarmingly.
A human intruder could not fit in a drawer. A snake wouldn’t rattle around like that, I concluded. Ah! It must be that rat! Good for you, soldier, I thought. But now what?
He grinned. “You guard the door,” he said to me. “I’ll bag it.” He was whirling a sack over his head like a club.
How about we just close the door and I wait outside? I thought. But I didn’t want to dampen his obvious enthusiasm, so I stood bravely, hoping that I could hold my own against a fleeing rat.
But I hadn’t taken into account Ramu’s years of practice: In one swift move the rat was out of the drawer and into the sack. I scrambled to find some string and handed it to Ramu to tie the burlap sack closed – or so I thought.
But no. Instead, Ramu coiled the string into a neat lasso, and suddenly – before I could speak (or shriek) – he had grabbed the rat by its torso through the bag.
Expertly, he maneuvered the rat until its whiskers popped out of the top of the sack. Then he neatly flipped the lasso around the rat’s neck, the way you’d put a leash on a dog.
Something must have shown on my face. “I cannot kill the rat, memsahib,” Ramu apologized softly. “I’ll take it to the other side of the canal and leave it.” His declaration brooked no argument; clearly, he did not think it was necessary to harm the pesky creature.
Before I could respond, he had eased the rat out of the sack, and – to my astonishment – began walking it out of the kitchen.
“Wait!” I screamed. “It’s just going to come back.”
On the lawn, with leashed rat in tow, Ramu paused and turned back to me. “Then we’ll catch it again, memsahib,” he assured me.
I watched, dazed, as the twosome set off, man and rat, in a synchronism I wouldn’t have believed possible. It was a sight I’d never seen: a puzzled rat shuffling obediently down the road behind a burly man tugging gently on its leash with a cajoling “aao, aao” (“come, come”) every so often.
I waited until they were well out of earshot before doubling over with laughter.
When I’d composed myself, I peered over the fence to make sure they were really going all the way to the canal. Ramu had stopped and was talking to someone on a bicycle. The two nodded and exchanged smiles. Then, to my amazement, Ramu handed over the leash to the boy on the bike. I watched to my further disbelief as the rat began to run to keep up with the cyclist as they continued toward the bridge over the canal.
Sometimes, as they say, there is a very thin line between the sublime and the ridiculous. When I retell this story at parties I often play up the ridiculous aspect.
As I write this, however, new layers to the story emerge: the unexpected gentleness I witnessed, the sense of understanding between man and vermin, the proof of our orderly’s deep conviction that the earth must be shared.
I gained a precious insight from a soldier who ensured that, somewhere on an Indian military base in the foothills of the Vindhyas, a rat lived. He, more than many of us, I believe, truly understood the value of life.