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Mr. Sheikh is a daily wage laborer, but still hopes for a permanent job with the city. He said he makes $271 a month, if he makes his quota. That’s slightly less than the general wage of a city bus driver, at $293 a month, or an entry-level call center worker, $338.

His father, Jahed Gabul Sheikh, 56, has been a rat catcher for 30 years. He makes $383 a month.

“I am trying my best to get the city to hire my other sons,” he said. “All my kids know how to catch rats very well. But the city doesn’t employ them.”

Sabid, his son, said his friends envy him for his steady paycheck.

“A government job is a very secure job,” he said. “Everyone wants to be famous and known. But this is my destiny. Everything you wish will not come true.”

India seems to exist in multiple historical epochs simultaneously - nowhere more starkly than here, amid the crumbling stone walls and old goat bones of the Sathe Nagar housing colony in a northern suburb of India’s financial capital, Mumbai, formerly called Bombay.

One side of the neighborhood is edged by a high shining fence beyond which lies 21st-century India: the Bhabha Atomic Research Center, the country’s premier nuclear research facility.

On this side of the fence, people live in a vaguely medieval place where need outweighs hope and there is still talk of the plague.

To the south is a 50-acre slaughterhouse, one of the largest in Asia. To the north is a city dump.

In other words, rat heaven.

The alleyways between buildings are frothy with trash. Look closer. In the faint light of the windows, the ground is alive with rats. A twitching nose peeks from a crevice in the wall. A rat tail vanishes down a hole.

Sabid Sheikh waits. The trick is to catch the rat’s eye and shine a flashlight in its face. The rodent freezes like a deer in headlights.

Thwack! If perfectly aimed, a single blow can kill a rat. But most do not surrender meekly.

Thwack! Thwack! Thwack!

And so it goes until the rat lies windmilling its legs and expires in a final, furious shudder.

Story Continues →