The story is not what it seems at first glance! It’s children’s and more. You’ll figure it out if you read it until after the end.
As in any other civil society, rats thrived and over time multiplied to menacing proportions finally awakening the collective concern of the subjects of a certain rajyam (kingdom) in the western parts of Bharat (India).
The growing public outcry moved the Raja to convene his court of mantri’s (ministers) and officials to look at the problem of rats that had assumed menacing proportion. Though he didn’t quite understand what was the hullabaloo about – for he saw no rats around his palace.
The proceedings were kicked off with the Raja’s ‘Is it really serious as it’s made out to be?’
‘Yes, Raja, we cannot take a step forward without squashing one if it doesn’t run up our legs.’
‘But I never saw one coming to this court from my quarters.’
Thinking to himself ‘We were stupid not to have posted road-signs to the palace,’ the mukya mantri (the chief minister) clarified: ‘That’s because we maintain a pandal outside to lure them away from the palace with a constant supply of food with the fare varied to avoid boredom.’
‘Why didn’t you alert me earlier?’
‘Well…we didn’t want you to be troubled by these trifles.’
Their concern mollified the Raja. ‘Oh…so what do we do?’
Words were shot out thick and fast:
‘Let me caution you, mooshika (rat in Sanskrit) is the transport of our revered Lord Ganesha. We’ll incur His wrath if we cause harm to them in any way.’
‘So what do you suggest?’
‘May be we catch them all and release them far away from our city.’
‘What if those guys out there wherever don’t like it and decide to do the same in our direction? Or the vermin’s, with due apologies to our beloved Lord Ganesha for the unflattering reference, decide to find their way back on their own? You can never trust them to behave.’
‘Why don’t we open pandals likewise all over and keep the rats away from our houses?’
‘Doesn’t it occur to you all to simply deploy their natural enemies – cats, I mean. These rats – they would be decimated in a trice.’
‘If you haven’t noticed, be informed there aren’t enough cats around. Also these bullies have grown big and bold enough to give nightmares to poor cats – lucky they aren’t eaten up yet. On occasions don’t you see our kids running for the hills?’
‘Simple, let us ask people to bring their rats killed and we’ll pay them a reward of, say, a silver for ten. Nothing like the shine and jingle of silver for our folks. All we need to do is to count and disburse. No sweat.’
‘Yes, that’s better than asking them to do the gory stuff.’
‘A silver for a bunch of rats? Mmmm…Okay…and how do we do it?’
So the Raj-Vaidya (medicine man in the royal court) was summoned. He confirmed the non-availability in the jars of his back-room of any potent herbal mix that would clean up the conscience and do the dirty. At the risk of losing his home, hearth and possibly head, he was tasked to concoct a suitable solution.
A month later, the Vaidya, the master he was of his trade, delivered on his commission exceeding himself, just as the public clamor for relief turned shriller.
The mukhya mantri advised the Raja to take the plans to the public without further ado.
A full court was convened with the crowd spilling to the fringes of the pandal of feasting rats – them (not the rats) on their toes not so much for catching a better view of the proceedings as for presenting a smaller obstacle to the frolicking rodents on the ground.
On behalf of the Raja, the minister unveiled the scheme. And for those who were in need, a sturdy trap with a capacity to catch ten average-sized rats was also made available for a silver. A total solution with no loose ends stopping shy of including the bait – though fail-proof recommendations were made for the latter.
Silence reigned for a little while before the coin dropped (never mind there were no coin operated machines in the days of Raja’s and Maharaja’s).
Commercial instinct came to the fore ahead of other matters (now you know why the story located the rajyam in the west!):
‘Would the payment be immediate – like cash and carry, nay, carry and cash?’
‘Would any rat we catch would be counted as one or it depends on its size, weight…’
‘Can we bring dead ones too?’
‘Is the compensation proportional or there are slabs? Is there a minimum?’
‘It’s not fair to those catching more of the large ones. Rats and mice must be treated differently.’
‘The breakeven should be set lower at five rats.’
Then there were quality issues: ‘If the trap loses the bait and fails to trap? Has it been tested enough?’
‘What happens if the rats chew off the trap? Tough customers, you know.’
Metric issues: Can we not be paid by weight?
Governance issues: ‘What happens if your count is less than mine?’ The other way round was not an issue.
The mukhya mantri somehow managed to persuade his audience to go back to their homes with the scheme offered, largely helped by the growing restlessness of the Raja and his hardening glare at the relentlessly vocal section of the audience.
Some weeks later…
An overpowering stench gradually enveloped the palace and its grounds.
On making enquiries, the Raja learnt it was from the dead rats piling up into a big mound before their pit burial.
Why was the rat-o-cide committed near the palace grounds?
The mukya mantri explained it was so for a good reason: Well, the potion had to freshly brewed to be effective. With the herbs for the same sourced from the gardens behind the palace, administering the potion could not happen at any place far.
The Raja was not pleased visibly and vocally.
The mantri’s and officials went into a huddle
It was collectively decided to make a small change to the scheme: Henceforth it was sufficient to produce as evidence only the tails snipped off the dead rats to claim the silver. Never mind how the de-tailed rats met their fate. Were they dead at all when they parted with their appendages? Raja-Tantram (The Official Book on Tricks of Rulership) clearly emphasized ‘While solving a problem, stay solving the problem.’ Others can take care of themselves, wait out, go elsewhere, lived with, whatever…
So that was it.
The tails made smaller mound and were easily dispatched before turning malodorous.
Peace returned, the sun shone in all its glory – the Raja and his ministers went back to whatever they did ruling the rajyam.
After an unimpeded run of six months disquiet reared its head in the shape of the peshkar (CFO) when he perceived a-silver-for-ten significantly denting the treasury. The inflow of tails continued unabated and was, in fact, threatening to graduate into a torrent and a flood as a distinct possibility. It was as if some piper was luring all the rats of the world to their doom in this rajyam in an unending stream. How could this happen?
Strangely, meanwhile, the tails were turning up young and rarely twitched. Perhaps the virile adult population with the propensity to procreate was already wiped out and the trend would soon reverse – a thoroughly welcome and encouraging augury.
The Raja conferred with his ministers and officials. Was it the unseen hand of some ill-meaning neighbor to destabilize the rajyam pumping rats through underground tunnels across the borders? Or something more sinister?
They decided to send out an investigation team to uncover what was happening. Who was rolling out this diabolical plan?
It wasn’t long before the team returned with its findings none could imagine!
The team reported the operation of an entirely new industry that had sprung up in the rajyam – rat farms!! Using adult rats they bred and sold the young fifty to a silver. The buyer sold the lot (the tails) to the state profitably at ten to a silver. The demand far outstripping the supply. If their sources were to be believed research had reached an advanced stage to breed a rat whose tail could be periodically harvested without killing the ‘goose’.
Not hard to guess what followed.
PS: Seeded by a very short piece from Gautham Iyengar (here) on unintended consequences of state subsidies!
Mixed metaphors and some inappropriate ones and a few neologisms may be excused.
Sources for images: Rats Crawling around the Floor of the Karni Mata Temple (Rat Temple) near Bikaner, Rajasthan, India from sharingtheglobe,com, forum.spiritualindia.org, reddit.com, .michaelfreemanphoto.com, vacanceo.com, rustlertraps.co.uk, Album of Mysore Maharaja from kamat com, liveleak.com, aaanimalcontrol.com and estellaandford.co.uk.