I’ve always been afraid of rats, and when I moved to New York City, I began seeing them everywhere: on the subway tracks of course, but scurrying in tiny teams back into Tompkins Square Park early in the morning (after a night out partying in the Lower East Side), trundling enormously alone into vacant lots in the Bronx, sopoforically stomping on garbage outside my poorly maintained apartment building in Inwood, screeching maniacally in the backyard of the kosher butcher behind our building in Crown Heights. I would see their burrows in the cracks between buildings and in the soil of the community gardens where my middle-school students and I would sometimes go. As everyone knows, in New York City there are a lot of rats.
So when I went to India, I was sure I would see plenty, but I didn’t see any. Lots of cows, dogs, pigs, goats, camels, yaks, and monkeys, but no rats. Until I went to the Karni Mata temple.
Karni Mata looks like an ordinary Hindu temple– ornately embossed doors, an entryway where you take off your shoes– and then you pass into the central courtyard and see thousands upon thousands of rats. Screeching at each other in tiny rat voices, patting each other with tiny rat hands, passing in and out of the walls from their secret homes, in constant and impenetrable communication with one another, the rats mostly ignore the visitors who come to gawk at them and share the huge plates of sweetened grains and milk that are left for the rats and which visitors will sample, too. You can pass over a small ornamental bridge to a kind of inner sanctum where a holy man is reading Vedic scriptures out loud, and incense is being burned, and more rats (having passed along the ropes of the ornamental bridge) are eating more grains and drinking more milk.
You have to wonder how they all got there. The story is that they are reincarnated storytellers, in which case this is a substantial portion of all the storytellers that have ever lived, and O. Henry and Mark Twain must be squeakily vying for their section of the milk dish down there, along with Homer and Ra(t)elais.
Certainly it gives the impression of being an isolated population, where the rats not only look alike (who I am I to judge) but have the same weird protrusions from their back end, with an unusually large proportion of albinos (who apparently are especially good luck.) Presumably that isolation is one reason that the visitors to the temple (of which I count myself one, thanks to an unusually persistent and convincing travelling companion when I was in India, despite my fears), don’t get sick when they visit or (something I did not do) share food with the rats. There are allegations that the area around the temple was spared an outbreak of plague not so very long ago– were protective antibodies shared with the rats?
Perhaps the temple was there first, and the nest of rats could not be eradicated, and eventually someone started feeding them, and gradually the most even tempered and easily tolerated rats became the ones to predominate. Something like the Soviet scientist Belyaev, who bred wild rats, minks and foxes into domesticated forms (as well as hyper-aggressive forms) over several generations, except largely accidental. The rats I saw in New York, despite their urban environs, are still in most ways wild animals, making their way on their own and fighting it out in a Hobbesian rat world. But the Karni Mata rats, like modern humans, have to worry less about getting enough food and more about going along to get along, not rocking the food-laden boat. The odd-looking, hypersocial, apparently sweet-tempered rats of Karni Mata (at least as long as they get their milk) may be more like domesticated animals, and also more like us.