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When life hands you rats, make ratatouille

March 31, 2008

by Ivan Raconteur

Most of us have occasion to complain from time to time.

There are the run-of-the-mill, garden variety complainers who interject the odd complaint as a way of passing the time.

This comes under the heading of “misery loves company” and it is a matter of shared human experiences.

For these people, complaining is not serious, but a way to let their neighbors know that their lives are not all peaches and cream. They do this lest someone think they have it too easy, and, as a consequence, feel justified in heaping more unpleasant duties upon them.

Then, there are the chronic cases. These people really believe that they have it rough. They make a meal out of every small grievance, and never miss an opportunity to burden anyone who will listen with the details of how unfair life has been to them.

The reality, of course, is that most of us need not look far to find someone who is worse off than we are.

We tend to ignore this fact. Perhaps we find it difficult to take on all of the world’s pain and suffering, so we take the easy route and concern ourselves only with those who are close to us.

We know there are people out there who suffer from hunger, disease, injury, or oppression, but we find it difficult to care about all of them at once, and we become desensitized.

Every so often, though, we hear a story that does get our attention.

We are sailing along, minding our own business, when we read a report that takes the wind out of our sails and leaves us a bit breathless, rather like being struck squarely in the solar plexus by the helmet of an unusually hard-headed defensive tackle with a bad attitude.

Having nothing better to do while we flop around like a stranded salmon trying to catch our breath, we reflect for a moment on what this other person’s life must be like.

One such story is that of Sangram, a rat catcher in the remote Bangladeshi village of Theihkyong.

One presumes that being a rat catcher is not a particularly glamorous job in the best of times, and for Sangram and his family, these are far from the best of times.

A rat infestation of Biblical proportions is causing severe food shortages in his little corner of Bangladesh, near its borders with India and Burma.

Sangram, his wife, and their five children live in a one-room grass and bamboo hut that sits on stilts.

The people of his village normally enjoy a diet consisting of rice, maize, and assorted vegetables, but this year, the hordes of invading rats have wiped out the crops.

Because of this, Sangram’s job has taken on a new level of importance. Each day, as he checks his network of traps, his mission is not simply to exterminate the vermin. The very rats that destroyed the crops have become a source of survival for Sangram and his family.

All that stands between them and starvation is two bowls of smoked rat per day, along with any wild roots they are able to dig up.

Nearly 125,000 other people are in the same boat, and things are about to get worse. The monsoon season is approaching, and the rains will soon flood the rivers, leaving many villages cut off from the outside world.

These people demonstrate a remarkable kind of optimism, waking up each morning and facing the new day with a smile, despite the knowledge that the best they can expect is two bowls of smoked rat and a few wild roots.

But, face it they do. They go about their business and do the best they can with the resources that are available.

They probably don’t complain much, since there is no one to listen anyway.

One can imagine the children, sitting around at the old schoolhouse, (if, in fact, they even have a schoolhouse), and trying to swap lunches with their little friends, only to find that their friends’ mothers have packed their lunch boxes with rat again, too.

In the evening, when the old man gets home from a hard day at work, he sits down at the table, tucks a napkin in his shirt front, and asks his wife what’s for dinner. It must take some of the joy out of life when he learns that it is smoked rat again, just as it has been for weeks, and will probably be for months to come.

No matter how talented his wife may be in the kitchen, there is only so much one can do with smoked rat.

We can probably learn something from these simple people.

The next time life is getting us down and we feel tempted to complain about the injustice of things, we need only remember our friend, Sangram.

However bad things might seem, chances are when we sit down to dinner at the end of the day, we can take some comfort in the knowledge that smoked rat won’t be on the menu.