i’m not saying it was symbiotic but still …

At the Hot Spring Cottage in Jhinu Danda, there was a spider as big as a baby’s palm above our bed.

Dhanno went out of the room, screaming. She jumped near the door for a while, thereby letting a few more moths in. I said to Teja, “Do something.” Teja who is usually quite good at doing something, hesitated. “What if it is poisonous, or something?”

We decided only Harry, our guide could deal with this. Harry, who we learned at the end of the trip was really a Hari, came in calmly and took the spider away wrapped up in the sleeve of his sweater. After Harry and the spider had left, Dhanno still stood in the middle of the room, suspicious. “Are you sure he took the spider away? Did you see it? What if it is under the pillow? What if there are more spiders somewhere else, under the bed? What if there are more critters in the room?” I said, “Please calm down. What are those critters going to do to you anyway? Do you know …. ?”

And then I began to tell her of all the critters who surrounded us in our childhood. My grandfather built a wing of a sanitarium in Kirkee, a small village and cantonment area near Poona. The sanitarium was used by members of our community for the holidays, you could book a room for the month, and have a really cheap family holiday there since each room also had a small kitchen. It had 3 wings, with a big compound in between, a goldfish pond, a mosque and servant quarters and lots of trees.

InΒ  the wing my grandfather had built, we had a room to ourselves. Our special room had a L-shaped verandah, and throughout my childhood, we spent every single holiday there.

Most nights we slept in the verandah, under mosquito nets. Even so, we had moths making shadows outside the net. Sometimes a lizard would plop on the mosquito net and we’d have to shake it off.

During the day, there were the tiny red ants which attacked the kitchen in single line formations, relentless and unstoppable. There were the small black ants which tickled us. There were bigger black ants, whom we blocked with twigs or pebbles and watched them scurry around. But you had to be careful or they could bite. Specially if you sat down on them by mistake.

There were dragonflies around the pond, and I am not sure if I remember it right or if as usual, it is a dream I dreamt, but if we managed to catch a dragonfly, we’d tie a thread around it and fly it like a kite. We’d put our hand into the pond, and let the tadpoles swim between our fingers.

We did not mess around with the grasshoppers who seemed like machines with their angles and their clickety-clack. But the beetles broke open with a satisfying crack.

Sometimes, we saw ladybugs and they seemed like marvels with their dots. We caught butterflies to get their color on our fingers.

There were critters we wouldn’t touch. When the rains came, the earthworms huddled up by the dozens near the bathroom drain. There were slugs and snails. But there were also more obnoxious critters too. Lice, which seemed inevitable with our long hair and the communal living. Sometimes bedbugs. And cockroaches. All of these could be crushed and killed with no guilt involved.

But the ones we couldn’t get the better of were the bees and the occasional wasp. The sanitarium had the old-fashioned toilet system, with privies being outside the house at the far end of the compound. This was a favorite place for the bees to build their hives. Every visit to the toilet was fraught with danger, and I don’t remember a single holiday when one or the other of us was not stung by a bee.

When I couldn’t remember any more critters, I ended rather smugly with, “Anyway, so this means that I don’t get afraid of critters like you.” Dhanno was not impressed however. “You were such cruel children.”

Yes, we were not kind, I am afraid. In our defense, all I can say is that our parents didn’t pay much attention to what we were doing, and we thought the critters were having as much fun as we were.

And for all our cruelty, we didn’t mind sharing our space with other critters. And perhaps because we knew them and played with them, and teased them, yes, we also learned to tolerate them.

23 thoughts on “i’m not saying it was symbiotic but still …

  1. What a delicious post to send me back into summer holidays, and childhood memories.

    What were those little red bugs with a velvety coat called in english? We called them laal gai (red cows). They appeared after the rains. We’d pick them up with a leaf and put them all in a tray. We really did believe that velvet was spun from their skins.

    And it was my task to draw lines of haldi to keep the darned black ants out.

    And my poor child sat on a red ant commune few days back. How she howled. The poor thing loves slugs and snails. I think she felt betrayed by the critters she was trying to like.

    I never did get a bee sting but I remember seeing someone chased by a bunch of angry bees. It is probably the most traumatising moment of my childhood.

    1. Hmm, I can’t remember those red bugs. And I forgot all about the lines of haldi. πŸ™‚

      Poor Sanah, sitting on the red ant commune is a big no-no, to say the least.

      1. I remember sprinkling salt on earthworms or leeches when they’d crawl in during the monsoons. It would make them wriggle and curl up and die, and we’d be relieved that we wouldn’t end up finding them crawling over our toes or something…

        That brought back a lot of childhood memories, Banno. Thank you!

        P.S. I found a tiny black scorpion among the pillows a couple of years back, while we were on holiday near Rishikesh. Critters!

  2. I remember taking great pleasure in confusing the ants marching up and down the wall by disturbing their path with a finger pulled across, being bitten by the fat black ants with a pincer grip, the little red ones, and at least one bee or wasp sting. Cockroaches terrified me more than anything else. And the night when a baby bat fell onto my bed and I stayed awake all night, too scared to move and not wanting to disturb my sleeping father……….

    1. Dipali, for some reason I’ve erased the cockroaches from my childhood memories, they seem to be what I’ve needed to contend with as an adult. πŸ™‚ I don’t think I ever want to encounter a bat, that too on my bed. Poor you!

  3. aaj kal ke bacche! no contact with nature! πŸ˜‰

    And I used to think that only white kids shrieked at spiders! πŸ˜‰
    But arachnophobia is a serious thing. Nothing to laugh at. But I have heard homoeopaths curing it.

    Thanks for the post, reminds me of my childhood at my uncle’s farm without electricity, but with good doses of snakes and scorpions. Even when we didn’t see the snakes and scorpions daily, there presence loomed over all our activity. In Bombay flat in Kandivali, it was quite normal till few years back to share the rooms with cockroaches, ants, bumblebees, lizards, different types of spiders, and in the garden the occasional snake.

    1. Harvey, thank God I had nothing to do with snakes and scorpions. They are seriously scary. I am sure the gardens in Kandivali still abound in critters of all kinds, they are just absent from the flat, specially since we live on the 13th floor. Do you still live in Kandivali by the way? If so, we could be neighbors??

      1. What you live in Kandivali!?! My parents still live there. It is in Kandivali East, Ashoknagar. Where are you?
        I live in Austria now, I’m in Kandivali mostly for Christmas. Our flat is near the military base, thus wilderness abounded there. Now what with redevelopment and all…
        Anyway, love to meet a fellow-Kandivalite? don’t know if I am allowed to say that now.

  4. I so liked this piece. Reminded me of my kindergarten days- lunch boxes emptied quickly during the break and used to collect tiny fish and tadpoles in the school pond – the smell of frogs, fresh grass, rabbits, pigeons, the occasional swoop of the kites, the catching of butterflies with those idiotically long butterfly nets (this used to be cited as an “hobby”, esp. by girls who would then colour their finger tips with butterfly dust – sounds cruel, but ya!), the trips to my grandparents place where sacks of groundnuts and other goodies would be stored with a “laxman-rekha” of gammaxene (again a no-no now), sleeping in the open in starry nights, watching bats wheel around, stray locust invasions, bees, wasps, occasional fireflies too,and of course, lice, bed bugs and other irritants.
    Thank you, Banno!

    1. Thank you, Shankari. I had forgotten the frogs and the gammaxene, with its strange smell. And the fireflies, yes. I saw fireflies again, in hordes recently on the trek.

  5. i re read your post and realised that i had blocked out the word lice. Reading the word makes my scalp itch. I had thick thick hair and i went through a phase when i wanted it long, very long.

    All i can say is that my mum and i had some seriously traumatic times. Its a wonder that she did not act on the temptation to shave my head at night when i slept.

    1. Same to same, Surabhi, same to same. I think we spent hours getting our hairs pulled with nit-combs by my mother and grandmother, and I had to repeat the same exercise for years with Dhanno.

  6. What a lovely post! Though it had so many bugs in it. And thanks for unflinchingly speaking of lice, that pestilence from schooldays. I’m remembering an angry note my father wrote my 4th grade teacher, telling her all the things my mother was doing to solve the problem, despite her busy life, balancing work and home and could the teacher show some patience please? Nitpicking, she was. Licel, Oona and Scabalcid were the remedies at hand then. That last one really helped, doctor’s recommendation, don’t know if I remember any of the names right.
    Yes, I’d salted earthworms, thwacked cockroaches, drawn chalk lines to keep out ants and then read the story of the Buddhist monk, Chakshupala, who is brutally blinded by the king’s soldiers for not telling them the direction in which a thief ran and that blinding is explained as payback for his cruelty to ants in his childhood or a previous birth, I forget now. Was so scared that ever since, I’ve embarked on a mission of gain-good-insect karma as far as possible. While I can’t be as particular as barefooted Jain munis (refer Indrajal comics title Bahubali), I try. My younger daughter and I actually pour water around stranded and struggling earthworms, making a trail leading to damp ground whenever we see them at our doorstep.
    A beloved Biology teacher at school and a classmate told us that when the butterlfies lost that powdery stuff, they died.
    I’m still mulling over this one – just by our existence and actions to perpetuate our kind, we’ve destroyed so many species of fauna and flora, that would all thrive and flourish in a mere 50 years if humans were to disappear from the planet.

    1. Desi-at-large, the thought that nature would revive its full glory in 50 years if human beings disappeared from the face of this earth, comforts me for some reason. Though I wonder if the non bio degradable stuff that we have unleashed in the last 50 years has wiped out the chances of that happening.

  7. Diapers (no point in beating the non-biodegradable stuffing out of them) come to mind. Time was when I looked at the fixed municipal enclosure by the hospital, always spilling over and shuddered at what I saw and sent a prayer up for the ragpickers. Now I agonize over the people who ransack electronic discards for precious metals. So yes, you raise an excellent point.

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