In a Clean Country

Kaushik Viswanath

At night, I am woken up by the sound of incessant scratching. I turn on the lights, kick the furniture until it goes quiet. I will have to deal with it in the morning.

Your complaint has been registered. That is the most that they will say at the one phone number that picks up and doesn’t redirect me. When I tell my neighbours we should do something about it they tell me the contract will expire by the end of the year, that in January there will be a new service handling the garbage. January is two and a half months away.

At the provisions store at the end of the road I contemplate rat poison. On the box, beside the picture of an upside down rat, feet curled in the air with skull-and-crossbones hovering above it, is an assurance that the rodent will go outside to die of thirst. A final politeness on its part. I ask for a trap instead. The shopkeeper hands me a heavy contraption—a wood and wire-mesh box crudely nailed together with a trapdoor on a spring—large enough to hold a small cat.

Already the garbage bin on the street flows over with food waste and polythene bags that congeal and stick together to form a buzzing, breathing mass. It drips fluids that collect in little pools of brown and green and oily black. It smells alive; it smells of death; with its stench it lays claim to this street and calls out to its cousins around the neighbourhood and the city and the country who rise up and envelop us in a loud chorus of smell. The maids who bring down garbage bags from the apartments no longer aim at the bin as they toss them from halfway across the road – for them to land in the general vicinity is enough. The bin only marks the epicentre of an expanding zone of filth, encroaching steadily upon the world. I fired our maid long ago, telling her that I would find someone who could do a better job of keeping this house clean, or I would do it myself. She left without complaint, dropping broom and dustpan and a little pile of dust on the living room floor before walking out the front door. She had her own home to clean, I suppose, in some part of town where the streets are sewers. Now, I get as close as I can to the bin outside my building, stand at the edge of the sea of garbage that surrounds it, and hurl my bag of trash at its mouth. The bag hits the rim of the bin and breaks, sending submerged scavengers scurrying away.

From the bottom of the shoe rack I dig out an old rubber slipper. I realise that this is the first time I’ve thought of my wife all day. I used to feel ashamed about this kind of thing; now when she tells me I don’t call often enough I see no point in feeling shame. In a clean country, I will tell her, there is more time to think of your beloved. My mind is occupied with other things. When she asks if I’m keeping the house in order, I will say nothing of the ongoing invasion, of the cockroach squirming and spasming under the heel of her old slipper. Somewhere nearby an egg case breaks open; faster, more elusive cockroaches are being born.

The garbage climbs over the walls, up the stairs. When I call the lift, the doors open on my floor to spit out toffee wrappers and banana peels.

My daughter will call in the afternoon, to ask for money, or to tell me she will be graduating in May, or to tell me that boyfriend of hers proposed. It is difficult to pay attention. In a clean country, I will tell her, trying to keep my front door shut against the pushing tide of garbage, there are fewer things to distract you from conversation.

It is large, black, and lies very still within the trap. It is alive and breathing; its wiry tail wedged in the trapdoor, the end still twitching. I could take it outside and let it go, but I imagine it coming back with a vengeance, bringing its children with it. No family in this household, why not move in? I get a hammer from the kitchen, the same one I used to break the coconut that I used as bait for the trap. My mother always told me that rats like coconut better than anything. They watch cat-and-mouse cartoons from their holes and know to avoid cheese, she would say. I grab the end of the rat’s tail and it panics, scrambling purposelessly. I open the trapdoor and lift it up, holding it aloft by its tail, and observe it at arm’s length. A fundamental flaw in God’s design, no? I ask it. When I kill you, I will make my case for a tailless species. In between bouts of struggle it hangs still, either in despair or in fervent hope that I will cause it no harm. I put it down on some sheets of newspaper, without letting go of the tail, fold the sheets over it, lift the hammer, and pause. There is, for some reason, a greater resistance in my arm than when it brought a slipper down on a cockroach. It is not just because it is larger, or because it will bleed red blood. Or maybe it is exactly that: red blood and white bone, like my own. A creature that does not lay eggs, that sees with two eyes, that hears with two ears, that has four limbs and—

Perhaps we lost our tails so that we could lord over other creatures. The other apes, I assume, cannot feel guilt, so it makes no difference to them. But our taillessness is essential. It sets us apart from those other mammals, allows us to breed them in factories, to poison them or crack their skulls when they enter our homes, to make them our servants. If we still had our tails, might we have felt too uncomfortable riding horseback? They would get in the way; they would make us feel too similar to the beasts we make use of.

Bones crunch and headlines bleed.

At night, I am woken up by the howling of a dog, singing out its misery while its comrades romp silently through a paradise of filth. It is four thirty AM. I go down to the corner tea stall, wading through and climbing over mounds of garbage. I drink sweet, milky tea and take two biscuits out of the glass jars on the counter. A stray dog sees the biscuits in my hand and hobbles towards me, wagging its limp, withering tail. It’s a bony, balding, itchy, smelly, flea-ridden, diseased little runt of a mongrel that inspires no love. Canine vermin. Go eat some fucking garbage, dog. No biscuits for you. It sits at my feet, comes back when I try to push it away with my leg, looks up at me with longing eyes. When I continue to refuse it, it begins to whine, then howl. So you’re the fellow who woke me up. That’s a strong pair of lungs for something so shriveled. I buy some more biscuits and feed it crumbs, leading it away from the tea stall and into the dark violet of the early morning.

When the garbage truck comes, the men upturn the bins into the back of the truck, spilling most of their contents on the street. Garbage on the street stays on the street. It is no one’s problem. Everyone’s problem. As the truck pulls away I shout at them to wait. I have a deposit to make. Pushing past piles of refuse, I heave my arms and throw into the back of their truck the body of a dead dog.

The next night I sleep well. I have grown used to the stench. When my wife calls me and asks me to move there, I will refuse. In a clean country, I will tell her, there is no smell to remind one of home.

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Kaushik Viswanath grew up in Chennai, India. He currently writes fiction as an MFA student at the University of Notre Dame.