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.
In 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.