I like to think that I’m very tolerant of the creatures and even creepy crawlies that live with me in the house, rent-free and home-cooked food provided. Ever so often, little mice have scuttled across the drawing room, along the edge of the wall, running up and down as if taking part in a relay race, while I watch TV. One little fellow even sat on the sideboard in the dining room, craning his neck outwards so that he could see what I was watching. I’ve known grown men to quickly draw up their feet and shout in alarm when this has happened and you can only look askance at the contrast in sizes between “aggressor” and alleged “aggressee”! Larger, more bristly rats and bandicoots are, of course, lured with gajar-shalgam achaar in traps, and then let loose in the cemetery next door.
I’m not too fond of baby cockroaches: some can be so small that you could mistake them for crumbs from a chocolate cake or brownies, until, of course, you realise that you haven’t made any chocolate cake or brownies recently. The big fellows, the goliaths, usually only emerge at night and will retreat with dignity beneath whatever suitable furniture they can find, when you switch on the light and enter the kitchen or bathroom.
Even the implacable looking yellow paper and potter wasps, which so often blunder into the rooms and then whirr unnervingly next to your ear, are gently coaxed outdoors with the help of a newspaper or magazine. Night flying insects, like moths which gatecrash especially during the monsoons, are helped on their way by switching off the room lights, switching on the balcony light and leaving the door open. Even spiders — and there have been some pretty hairy ones — are just chivvied out of harm’s way. The bright-eyed jumping spiders that always remind me of SPG security guards being given multiple Code Red alarms simultaneously — I leave them alone so they can do their posturing in peace.
But the creatures that freak me out are centipedes. Their twisty-turny wave like method of locomotion is utterly nauseating, what with all those spiky legs looking like some hideous waving fringe or some hobgoblin’s escaped moustache. They get around pretty fast, especially while heading straight for your bare toes. To make matters worse, you usually encounter them while happily whistling in the shower — and to be made to do a tap-dance in a slippery shower cubicle as this venomous writhing moustache heads straight for you, is inviting disaster. You need nerves of steel to extricate yourself with safety and dignity, and speed.
I had one such encounter in the shower just last evening. The thing revealed itself, clad in camouflage colours (the exact indeterminate grey of the marble floor) just as I had turned on the shower. I exited with dignity and then peered into the shower area. The thing had vanished. I stared, scanning all the corners (where they like to take refuge) but there was no sign of it. One thing was certain: I was not getting back in until I had accounted for it one way or the other. Right, I thought, let’s see how it likes a dose of Baygon. I sprayed the insecticide liberally in the showering area. Not a movement. Nothing. It had completely disappeared. I was quite sure it hadn’t wriggled back down the drain, so it just had to be somewhere right under my nose, probably eyeing me and waiting: let the sucker get back in, then I’ll make a dash for his feet and see how he likes being bitten between the toes!
I turned on the taps again. It didn’t like being spattered! Suddenly, there it was, wriggling at the edge of the tiles in the corner into which, it had completely merged. But now, it was wriggling aggressively on the floor and I thought “hah, now I got you where I want you!’ I sprayed it with Baygon again. It behaved as if I had just showered it with champagne after winning a Formula One Grand Prix. It was time to take out the heavy artillery: the toilet brush. It took several solid thwacks before the creature was still and while slamming it I was aware of only one thing: there was not the slightest compunction that I might be hurting it — it had to be dealt with and finished off — period.
Nor was there was any sense of enjoyment or pleasure in hammering it: it was just a job that had to be done, if I wanted to use my shower again. Bites from centipedes are not pleasant. This I realised, was probably the killer or survival instinct at work: kill or be bitten in the shower and writhe in agony thereafter! I could have perhaps caught it with a pair of long tweezers or tongs and thrown it into the garden, but none were at hand and I was not going to let it do its disappearing trick again, while I went looking for tongs.
I won that battle. But the war is still on. According to my notes, last year a deadly black-and-red centipede was discovered on the potty lid, followed by a swarm of squirming, writhing babies.
There are protocols in place if you find a cobra in your bathroom or a leopard in the bedroom or a monkey with its face in the fridge. There are professionals who will deal with the problem. But when you’re soaked and starkers in the shower, about to be attacked by a bristling centipede with attitude, you only have your own resources to fall back on. And a toilet brush.
Ranjit Lal is an author, environmentalist and birdwatcher.