If the rat catcher’s aim or courage fails, the rat may scurry into a hole or drain pipe, forcing the man to reach in, bare-handed, and extract it by the tail.
By 1:30 a.m., Mr. Sheikh and two other rat catchers have packed 94 dead and dying rats into two bloodied sacks to be carted away in a rickshaw, counted by the city, and samplings taken to be tested for bubonic plague.
Mr. Sheikh’s father sees himself as a public servant, ridding the city of vermin for the greater good of its citizens.
Besides, he had no choice.
At age 8, he set forth on a 36-hour train ride, alone, from his village to meet his father in Mumbai. Before boarding he went to a mosque. “I prayed to God for a job in Bombay,” he said. “I prayed for money. I prayed for a settled life.”
For 10 years he hawked peanuts and puffed rice to crowds at a commuter train station while his father did odd jobs, baking the flat bread called roti or collecting scrap metal.
They slept on footpaths.
One day a woman came up to Jahed Sheikh and asked whether he wanted to work for the city.
“She changed my life by giving me that job I desperately needed,” he said. “Now it’s my kids’ turn.”
Drunks sometimes would tease him for having nothing in life. Once, he got beaten up. But he knows he has more than nothing: He has nine children and a daughter-in-law who makes excellent biryani. He has a stick-thin wife who sits quietly by his side.
And he has a job, which is not a gift Mumbai gives easily to men like Mr. Sheikh. All around him, as India’s richest city gets richer, Mr. Sheikh and his sons remain trapped in a painfully slow cycle of aspiration. He hopes his children get as lucky a break as he did.
“I’m happy with what I have. I came to Bombay. I had nothing. I got this job,” he said. “Now I pray to God that all my sons get employed.”