(Published in Business Standard on February 8, 2014)
India may as well give up rat racing with China, because China has done something we can’t even imagine: it has become insect-free. I know this because I was recently woken at 7am by a high-pitched, perfectly constant scream, straight out of that movie in which people who have been replaced by aliens point out people who haven’t yet by pointing at them and screaming—I think it was Body Snatchers? Just like in that movie. It caused me some concern because we were on holiday in Goa, where all the raving aliens tend to stick to the beaches.
Vibrating like a tuning fork, I staggered into the garden. The morning was dewy and fragrant. Steaming tea and Tiger biscuits were laid out under the chikoo tree by the pool. Hibiscus and bougainvillea blooms nodded in a gentle breeze, and jewel-like birds glittered among the branches. It was a paradise in which ear-splitting screaming really stood out.
It turned out to be my three-year-old niece, Lia, who has lived most of her life in Shanghai. Why is she pointing at the ground and screaming, I asked my sister. “Because there’s an ant,” she replied. “She’s not that familiar with ants.”
While I was trying to process this information, the niece began to jerk and flail around like a tiny short-circuiting appliance. She had gone from screaming to some kind of panicked shamanistic chanting. I listened carefully. She was repeating “Soufflé the border me, shuffler dabba demi” and other variations on the theme, very fast. “We don’t have too many flies either, in Shanghai,” said my sister wearily. “This is a lot of unfamiliar wildlife.”
Luckily neither Lia nor her six-year-old aunt Meera had trouble with regular wildlife. There was a wild-eyed kitten that spent its time either shooting around the kitchen with back arched and fur and tail standing straight up, or slaying dead leaves, slippers, and its own tail like a deadly predator with some motor control issues. Lia and Meera adored this kitten on sight, and decided that the best way to befriend such a clearly unstable creature would be to poke it tenderly in the eye while shrieking endearments at it. The kitten quickly learned to give them a wide berth, even though they tried to force fish down its throat.
The frogs were not so lucky. They jumped for their lives, even up upon wall-hung picture frames, but the two little angels shook them down like a kind of supercute assassination squad and followed them around. The frogs were so traumatised that one was discovered shivering inside a ceiling lampshade it could not possibly have reached without lethal amounts of adrenaline. I think it starved and prayed up there for three days. There were also gekkos, which Lia loved because she was told that they eat insects.
It turned out that she had been worried that insects eat people. Her parents said they didn’t (skirting some counterproductive truths involving end of life etc), but she felt that they must eat small people at the very least. She demanded that her father make her a bridge of towels to help her cross over the carpets of ants she was sure were snapping at her flesh.
But it’s amazing how kids learn. By the last day of our vacation Lia had gotten a little more used to insects, and was now only pointing and making a high whooping sound, and singing Shoo Fly with a little more control. It’s a shame that she has to go home so soon. It would have been nice to have her in Delhi a bit longer: I think she’s ready to be introduced to cockroaches.