Homestays have, of late, become very popular amongst holidaymakers. You get comfortable accommodation, ghar ka khana, affable hosts and none of the synthetic smiles of trained hoteliers. Creepy crawlies and other creatures have known this for years and I was just making out a list of the guests I’ve hosted — wittingly and unwittingly — at home, over the years. Needless to add, none have paid any rent, though, heh-heh, many have with their lives.
Ubiquitous to any home are, of course, cockroaches. Last year, fortunately, I had very few cockroach guests, and I still remember, with a certain fondness, a magnificent old codger, in polished mahogany, which made my bathroom its home for weeks before being turfed out because family was visiting and would get hysterical. Another bathroom squatter I got fond of was a large hairy yellow-and-brown (wolf, I like to think) spider that made the potty lid its holiday home, but which would deferentially disappear when it had to be used — and so upset no visiting Ms Muffet.
Bathrooms hold a strange fascination for creepy-crawlies and their ilk. Two years ago, there was a mass invasion of big, black ants in another bathroom: they poured out of the shower drain in a nightmarish black tide, covering the floor and advancing like extras in some Alfred Hitchcock horror extravaganza. Their intentions were clear: Take the bathroom, then the bedroom, then the house, then Delhi. All-out war had to be declared and it took two days before they were routed. It was sad, because I like these fellows — even with their huge pincers and metallic black eyes and mechanically programmed brains — they’re not mindlessly vicious like red ants are.
Or wasps: Come spring and the orange-yellow “potter” and “paper” wasps will be hovering hopefully about, investigating keyholes, lamp shades, screw slots, even as we duct-tape all prospective orifices. They’ll still find vacancies and you have to be careful you don’t disturb them while doing the housekeeping because they’ll chase you around your own home, if irritated. They’re touchy, these guys, I got bitten once because I took objection to one sunbathing on my neck while I was in the pool. They loved the pool too and would land on the water, legs splayed, and float implacably towards you. The deadly metallic greeny-black spider wasp is another ghoulish interloper and makes its appearance during the monsoons. It’ll catch tiny, anaesthetised spiders by the dozen in, say a screw slot, lay an egg on one of them, seal up the slot with what looks like white cement and whiz off. Its grub, when hatched, will feast on fresh spider-meat, grow and eventually wriggle out of its prison. I did some rough maths and calculated that at any one time, there must have been at least 50,000 anesthetized, soon-to-be-eaten spiders in the complex where I lived, which is pretty much holocaust scale. But nature keeps everything balanced, so I guess there must be plenty more.
Mosquitoes, of course, are the most unwelcome guests. They lurk about on the plants outside the front door and in the garden, and slip in when the doors are opened. I’ve banned most plants in the house for that reason. Perhaps the most welcome “guest” was the caterpillar of the lime butterfly.
Years ago, I saw one (and later more) on the leaves of the Chinese orange plant just outside the front door. I jam-jarred it and fed it; it duly pupated and then early one morning, I watched as the gorgeous butterfly emerged, dappled in black-and-lemon yellow, with crayon smudges of mauve and orange. It crawled tiredly out on to a twig, hung its wings to dry. But, alas, as it attempted to fly, it was brought down by the dog.
At the moment, I’m waging another grim bathroom war. Some months ago, a nasty looking black-and-red centipede was discovered, again on the potty lid. Its contract was terminated with extreme prejudice. Now, just back from a short holiday, I was informed that hundreds of baby centipedes crawled out of the shower drain (again) during my absence, along with an adult, seeking revenge no doubt. They were cleared, but just yesterday, another lot emerged: tiny, filamentous and moustachoed. I’m showering with slippers on.
Enough! Wait for reptiles and mammals in Homestay 2!
Ranjit Lal is an author, environmentalist and bird watcher. In this column, he will reflect on the eccentricities and absurdities of nature