I met a Western nun in India who lived in an apartment infested with rats. They had burrowed deep into the fabric of an old sofa and armchair in the living room, and god knows where else. She said that at night they came out and ran around the apartment, creating mischief in the kitchen and then flattened themselves down to squeeze beneath the closed door of her bedroom, where they entertained themselves all night by scurrying over her prone form.
At first she was horrified, doing her best to keep them out by stuffing an old blanket into the crevice beneath the door so that they couldn’t get into her bedroom. But they easily chewed and clawed their way through whatever barrier she put there, until finally she gave up fighting them. They were playful in a dominant way, as if to say, “This is our home, and you are merely an intruder here.” They never bit her at night, nor tried to harm her, rather they used her bed as an obstacle course, running across her plump form, hunkered down for safety under a thick duvet. They scampered back and forth, and then would crash onto the floor as if playing a demonic kind of tag.
Most times it was hard for her to fall asleep with her mind steeped in fear, and she hated that they kept her awake at night full of anger and loathing. Eventually, exhaustion would win and she’d doze off, her mind weaving in and out of fitful states. Once she was startled awake to find herself staring into the inquisitive, beady eyes of a rat just inches from her face. She screamed and scrambled off the bed, but as her foot landed on the hard wood floor, she felt the wormy firmness of a rat’s tail beneath her foot. This caused her to run for the hallway, crying out as she saw shadowy forms slithering along the baseboards, making rat-a-tat sounds with their scratchy little feet.
I learned all this one afternoon, when I had come for tea with Ani Sherab. She had set out the ubiquitous Indian bickies on a yellow Melamine plate, served up with mugs of hot tea, lightly flavored with milk powder and sugar. I sat perched on the edge of a stained and lumpy, overstuffed brown armchair. Ani-la sat across from me on a matching sofa.
“They sleep in here during the day,” she said, pointing to a few well-placed holes in the upholstery, indicating the entrances to their burrows deep within the sofa.
“Oh my,” I said aghast. I wasn’t ready for this. I had been to this small town in Bihar many times, and thought I’d seen everything but this was something else. “Oh yes, it’s true. They sleep during the day and come out to play at night. But what can I do? A khenpo friend of mine kindly offers to let me live here rent-free whenever I’m in Bodhgaya, and you know, otherwise it’s a lovely, roomy place with a great view of the Stupa.” She craned her neck around and pointed towards the window where the Stupa could barely be seen in partial view.
“It is great to have a view of the Stupa,” I nodded, “and this would be a wonderful place to live if rats weren’t running wild at night; that would be a real deal breaker for me.” “A deal breaker,” she repeated softly. “I know…you would think so. And yet, there is something in me that rises to the challenge.” She picked up the yellow plate and reached across the coffee table, offering me a cookie.
“I was horrified when I first came here,” she went on, “and even now I’m a little stressed out. At first I fought them tooth and nail. Finally I called Khenpo-la in Sikkim and said, ‘I’m sure you know about the rats, but WHAT SHOULD I DO ABOUT THEM?’ Obviously I was very upset, but Khenpo-la just laughed cheerfully, ‘Consider them to be your roommates, with as much right to be there as you,’ he said. ‘Think kindly towards them and they’ll leave you alone for the most part.’
And you know, strangely enough that was the best advice he could have given me. When I finally resigned myself to their presence here, they calmed down a bit. They stopped spilling the cooking oil in the kitchen, for one thing. They still run over me at night though; there’s nothing I can do to stop that.” “Hmm,” I said, fiddling with the slightly stale bickie, wondering why I had taken it. “That’s quite Buddhist of you Ani-la, hehehe.” But I still couldn’t believe she would sleep in the middle of a rat den. “You’re much more spiritually advanced than I, no doubt!” I quipped.
Our conversation left the subject of rats for a while, and meandered here and there to other topics—the usual chitchat that accompanies such a first visit, where we were privately sizing each other up as potential friends.
Time would prove that we didn’t really have enough in common to sustain a friendship, and she never had me to tea again. But from time to time, all these years later, I still remember her dilemma and admire her stalwart resolve to make peace with her claw-footed demons. And sometimes when my mind is difficult, fielding dark thoughts, or just plain going wild during meditation, distracted by memories and rattled by my failures, I take comfort in remembering Ani Sherab’s truce with her rodents, diving hither and yon, scurrying about, trying their best to terrorize her, and I am able to just let go and give it all a rest, following my breath in and out, counting my blessings.
Photos by Simon Steinberger, Deutschland
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