With rats out of the menu in the eastern Uttar Pradesh countryside, Dalits have come out of the food that has been traditionally stigmatised
In the third week of June, I visited a Dalit hamlet for three days. My scholar friend D Shyam Babu, along with local contacts, was part of the east Uttar Pradesh trip. Our big question was: What has changed post-1990? We focussed on food. As the conversation went on, someone spoke about rats.
“Kids born post-1990 no longer eat rats,” said a man of my generation. To begin with, let me clarify that there are two types of rats: One that live only in homes, godowns, building, rail tracks or buildings. Then, there are rats that live in fields. It is the second variety of rats that humans eat.
In central and eastern Uttar Pradesh, Dalits traditionally ate field rats. Field rats were eaten by most Dalit sub-groups that lived in the countryside. In Bihar, however, rat-eating got associated with one Dalit sub-group called Mushahars. Needless to say, Mushahars are the most
backward among Dalits. Unfortunately, Dalit leadership whether political or intellectual, has been mostly indifferent to the cause of Mushahars in Bihar.
A rat-eater myself, I have some idea about field rats. I may have eaten over a thousand rats. There are two varieties of rats in eastern Uttar Pradesh — Karaun-chhava (black-haired) and Harna-hva (brown-haired). The black-haired rat would be well-built but short. Seen from the front, the Karaun-chhava rat would appear quite threatening. Needless to say, this rat is gutsy. It, however, would not run fast. We, during our childhood, would cherish eating black-haired rats.
Harna-hva would be brown in colour and longer than the black-haired rat. It runs quite fast.
There were various ways of rat hunting. The most exciting was hunting rats after the first rains that would hit eastern Uttar Pradesh in the third week of June. A group of hunters aged eight to 16, would carry sticks and a spade. Teams of boys would spread in fields all over.
Rains flood holes the rats live in. Rats would flee their holes and hide under plants or trees. The moment rains stop, they would dig holes in areas above the water level. The holes would be fresh enough to be easily identified.
There were occasions when rats were caught digging holes. They would be barely few inches inside the land and hunters would use their sticks and the game was over. In most cases, rats would have gone a few feet under the ground and that’s where spades would be required. The hunting team had to be on its toes all the time. If the rat happened to be brown in colour, it could run into bushes and the game would be over. Almost always, rats make an escape point at the other end.
But the most popular method of rat hunting involved the suffocation method. Wheat is harvested at the beginning of the summer when the soil turns hard. The hunting team carries a bucket or baked earthen round-shaped pot to carry water.
Once the entry and exit points of the rat hole are identified, the team members pour water at one point. Before water is poured the team members use spade to broaden the area around the hole point to ensure smooth flow of water into the hole. Other members of the team stand at the other point with sticks ready to hunt the rat. Facing water from the other point, rat and its entire family try to escape and that’s when they are hunted down. Sometimes, team members deploy another method of covering the hole with a piece of cloth. This method is applied when there are standing crops or bush near the hole. After hunting is over, rats are eaten outside the village, mostly under trees. Hunters prefer eating outside the village to ensure only hunting team enjoyed the rat meat.
Eating rat meat doesn’t require cooking them like other meat varieties. Hunters roast rats on fire, and after cleaning stomach of intestines, these are eaten after pouring salt to taste. Often, the team leader has right over the head of the rat. This columnist might have eaten about a thousand field rats during the childhood. With rats out of the Dalit menu in the eastern Uttar Pradesh countryside, Dalits have come out of the food that has been traditionally stigmatised.