“The room was filled with rats.” said the old man with the tired smile.
About to press the stop button on my tape-recorder of my iPhone, I looked up, surprised that he had chosen those words to start his discourse. I played the recording back to check the quality. “It’s fine,” I said. “We can start now.”
It was early August and the seasonal monsoon showers had begun in earnest once again, drenching the populations along the West coast of India as I drove up from Mumbai towards Gujarat in search of my Pullitzer-prize winning story. Well, maybe not PP-winning… but every journalist does dream that big dream, the one where a story he writes suddenly makes it into all the papers, with his name splashed all over in bold print. I was a relatively successful writer, had covered assignments from Kashmir to Sri Lanka, working free-lance over the last several years and more or less enjoying what I was doing for a living. I had never intended moving into the writing arena, but having failed to take off earlier on as a physician – but well, that’s another story…
This one begins in a town just at the southern border of Gujarat, where it meets with the state of Maharashtra. I had planned to drive on through the night, so that by mid-morn I would be in a bed someplace south, but the skies opened up and the fury of the rains was monumental, and deciding that discretion was the better part of valour, I stopped at the little town, and found a bed for the night.
Coming downstairs after a hot shower, I found myself seated in the quaint restaurant, the lighting dim, either due to low voltage or intentionally to conceal the food quality. I settled onto a bench, propped up the menu, and began studying it.
I was nursing a large brandy when the man entered. He was struggling to close a black umbrella. I don’t know why I stared at him with so much interest, probably because he was the only other customer in the joint, but I remember suddenly feeling that there was something about him that appeared familiar. His was a face I had seen before, but for the life of me, I couldn’t recollect where.
As a journalist, I admit that I am a trifle more snoopy than the rest of the human race. I was really intrigued: what was a ‘face’ doing out here in the middle of nowhere? Passing through? That didn’t seem likely, because he was dressed like he’d just walked out of his house for a bite; it wasn’t the visitor/tourist kind of wear, if you know what I mean. No, this guy looked like he lived around the place. But how could I possibly have found a familiar face in a two-bit, out-of-the-way town like this one? Oh yeah, I was intrigued, and when the waiter came with my order, I asked: “Who’s the old man who came in?”
The waiter frowned, then looked at the old man and nodded, face clearing. “Oh, him… that’s Sinha. Jasgopal Sinha. He stays-”
I could have clapped my hand straight into my forehead when he said the words. Jasgopal Sinha. Now I remembered…
It had been months ago, maybe even as long as a year back when his name burst onto the public stage. A scientist. He was a scientist, and some research he was involved in had suddenly generated a great deal of excitement. Not just interest, but real excitement, the thing that will have the public gasping for more until the story has been completely milked. I frowned. What was it, what was the story… something to do with rats… something to do with a medicine that was he claimed was a ‘miracle drug’.
The stage had been set, cameras and sound mikes all aimed at the podium for the next day’s press conference, the one that was to make Jasgopal Sinha a household name all over India. Except that he never turned up. Ever. He simply disappeared. An investigation was launched into his disappearance but came to nothing. All sorts of theories ranging from Sinha having had his formula stolen by a rival firm, to having been bought out for crores of rupees were circulated, but no evidence to support it ever turned up. He just vanished, without a trace, from the public eye. And now, here he was, waiting for dinner to be served, in the middle of a shanty-town on the Gujarat border.
I lifted my plates and walked over to his table. He looked up as my shadow fell over him. I nodded politely. “Hello, do you mind if I join you? I’m passing through, and like you, I’m alone. I could definitely use some company.” Not the best of opening lines, but I wasn’t in the mood for eloquence, and I sat down opposite him. “What are you eating?” I asked, mainly to get him to respond.
He stared at me blankly. “Do I know you?” His voice was quiet, almost resigned.
I pursed my lips. “My name’s not important. Your name – well, you’re Jasgopal Sinha, aren’t you?” His eyes flickered, not with the alarm I was afraid he would display, but with something akin to almost surprise. “You are Mr. Sinha, aren’t you? The scientist who never turned up?”
“The mad scientist.” He laughed softly. “That’s what they were calling me for weeks afterward.” A small shake of his head. “The mad scientist.”
“Everyone thought you were dead, murdered by people who had stolen your formula. Either that or you were living in a chateau on the French Riviera, drinking in the good life on the millions your formula would have sold for.”
He looked at me. “Which do you think it is?”
“Neither, by the looks of things.” I hunched over my dinner. “So, what actually happened?”
“You really want to know?”
“Call me curious.”
“Where are you from? How did you land up here?”
I made a judgement call, and pulled out my visiting card. He studied it, and nodded slowly. I told him how I had reached this hotel.
“And you just happened to recognize me?”
“And now you’d like to know what happened that day.”
I sat, silent, waiting.
“Let’s have dinner first, okay. I don’t think well on an empty stomach.” He settled into his food without more talk, and I was forced to follow suit. It was probably the fastest meal I had eaten in a long time.
I offered to settle the bill, and asked if he would accompany me upstairs and tell me his story there. He shrugged, and got up. On the way past the bar, I picked up a bottle of brandy and two glasses.
* * *
“The room was filled with rats.” began Jasgopal Sinha. In one hand, he held a half- brandy. The room was warm, and the iPhone was in front of him. I sat across, trying to keep focused as he spoke.
“Converted to a research lab, two of the walls were lined by dozens of cages filled with no less than four species of rats of all sizes and ages. In the center of the small room was a table, upon which was a large rectangular cage with steel grilles. It was empty.”
“I had at the time been engaged with the trial of a new rodenticide I had developed. It had been the result of almost three years of work, and the results looked exceedingly promising. On that fateful day, at 8.15 at night, I walked into the lab. I had no idea that within hours, my whole world would be turned upside down.
“I drew a cage out of its socket and looked at the cowering form within. It was a specimen of the rat species Bandicota bengalesis. I took the cage to the central one and placed it on the table. Opening both doors, I then released the rat into the central cage.
“The drug I was working on was basically a single-dose anti-coagulant: it doesn’t give the rat a chance to develop resistance, something they are quite adept at. It’s also faster acting than most of its sister drugs.”
”I then picked a test-tube from the corner, and emptied three cooked rice grains onto my gloved palm. The drug was intentionally shaped into the form of cooked rice grains since rats are highly suspicious by nature.
”The rodent by then was prowling about the recesses, snout probing cautiously. I dropped the grains through the grills onto the floor of the cage. Almost instantly, they started staining yellowish-brown. I recall frowning. It looked like I had dropped it on a patch of rat urine …
“The rat suddenly neared and pounced on the discoloured grains. It gobbled one up, and was brushing its nose against the next, when suddenly, it gave out a squeak, then began convulsing. The rat dashed to the opposite end of the cage, wailing and hit the bars and fell, body wracked by powerful spasms. It struggled against the steel for a while, and then-
“I stared in amazement. Because the rat was delivering… She was pregnant. The convulsions were causing her to bear down. Even as I realised this, a pink mass had popped out onto the floor.
“I continued to watch. The sixth and final baby pushed into the wriggling bundle. Squirming frantically, they made their way along the flanks of their still breathing mother, seeking nourishment. When they found them, one after the other, they sucked, drawing in milk. Within seconds, the first baby convulsed and rolled away, followed by the others. What happened next, the changes that suddenly occurred in the six babies were like a punch in the chest. Still twisting, the pink of their bodies was diminishing and giving way to a brown shade, the ears were becoming pointed, the eyes opening and beady, their tails elongating, and most amazingly, beginning with follicles, hair began sprouting over their bodies.
“The next change occurred almost instantly: three of the rats, now much larger than their original sizes, moved over to the other four rats which seemed unable to rise, and violently and frantically, began mating with them. The process lasted a minute during which time, the growth continued: and just as suddenly as everything else had occurred, the trio of active rats turned on the four helpless ones, and just devoured them. Now almost as large as their mother, they split up and slunk into separate corners of the cage to give birth to their own new litters.
“Within 15 minutes, the cage was swarming with rats…
* * *
“It was astounding, truly astounding.” Sinha was caught up in his story, had momentarily stopped sipping at his brandy. “After hours spent in analysis, I discovered that the grains of my rodenticide had fallen into rat urine which lay on top of rat excreta, waste matter, decayed food, a whole pot-pourri of organisms and who-knows-what-else that made up that crap on the floor. A mixture of all that in the urine had penetrated the grains, causing them to discolour, and secondly, converted it into a drug with three amazing properties: the first – it speeded up the metabolic processes of the body systems to an unbelievable rate. At a cellular level, their body cells were being born, ageing and dying in a fraction of the time they would have in a normal rodent, leading to the onset and subsequent disappearance of body functions much before their expected time. What changes normally occur in a rat over a period of 3-7 months, the drug gave it the capability to do in three minutes! Secondly, the drug acted as an aphrodisiac in the females, which made them mate. Thirdly, the drug crippled the male rats in some way to which the female genetic system seems resistant. It made the males helpless. The females then fed on them to nourish their rapidly growing bodies. It was incredible, almost inconceivable – except that I seen it happen, with my very own eyes…
“It would have been the end of it, right there and then, except for one thing: I still had a single grain left after experimenting. My thought was the obvious one: if it worked on rats, why wouldn’t it work on other animals, maybe even humans? Think about the implications: a drug that could result in more animals, more livestock, more food for an ever-growing population…
“I thought of the money I would make overnight, of how famous I would become with this discovery, and I decided to go ahead with a press conference during which I would display the amazing properties of the drug. My thinking was this: the effect of the drug, my drug, the one for which only I had the formula, would be telecast live. There would be millions watching, if not the live broadcast, then the repeats when the news became wide-spread. Pharmaceutical firms would fall over themselves to outbid each other to offer me funds, facilities and a share of the profits involved in developing the drug for future use. I had it all figured out. My future was made.”
He sipped slowly from the glass. I dared not say anything for fear of disrupting his train of thought.
“The press conference was scheduled for Tuesday. On Monday night, I entered my lab to check on the rats. My whole world came crashing down…”
* * *
“I was aware that something was amiss the moment I entered the lab. The noise, or rather the lack of it. The utter, absolute lack of it. I turned on the lights, and stopped, stunned.
“The rats, all 150 of them to which the population had grown, were dead.”
I felt my heart thump inside my chest, sure that there was more to come.
“I was filled with shock, then fury. I realized I should have first performed some trials before throwing caution to the winds and announcing a press conference. Now, my prized specimens were dead, and all I had left was one grain.
“I was filled with dread. What if the grain failed to work? With these rats, I would have had the proof – living proof – of what had happened as a result of my discovery. Now, there was only one grain left. Would it be enough? Thinking, I knew I would have to go ahead, and risk it all. There was a 50:50 chance it would work again, using pregnant rats. I nodded to myself; I would go ahead. The press conference would go on as scheduled.
“And then, as I stared at the corpses of the rats, something clicked inside me. Some common fact jarred, and as I looked them over, I knew at that moment with a cold certainty that no pharmaceutical company would ever want to get their hands on my ‘miracle drug’.
“The rats were covered with white hair, skin wrinkled to an almost ghastly finish. Facts were facts, no matter how painful. These rats had not died of any disease. With the drug having speeded up their metabolic processes so miraculously ahead, they hadn’t had to.
“The rats had died of old age…”