One of the new experiences you have to adjust to when you visit your home in Calcutta from your home in New Jersey, travel from the temperate zone to the tropics, is that of living with the constant presence of insects in the summer. Even in city apartments, these companions make their presence known in various obscure or aggressive ways.
The glow worms are beautiful when they float in during a power cut. The ants and the spiders are a silent lot. If you leave a box of sandesh on the table, in no time will you see a group of industrious ants pushing globules of sweet, white balls away. You might have to keep an eye out for the spider doing the silent dance around the toilet seat or the lizard suddenly bursting into a loud tick-tick-tick on the wall. The millipede could climb on your arm while you’re asleep or a winged cockroach might decide to spend its last few hours with you. Then of course the mosquitoes will sing to you and keep you company through the night until dawn. Those who are wise know that a single one inside the mosquito net could treat you to its serenade all night long.
But here’s my experience this summer with a harmless insect I’d never thought I’d have to battle with so vehemently in a city apartment.
It started as a loud, whirring sound from the tiny bathroom attached to one of the bedrooms in the evening. It wasn’t as though this sound was anything new. It was the noise of the cricket, made by our own jhee jhee poka, that I’ve been used to hearing in Calcutta if there were to be some grass or shrubs nearby. In fact, I’d heard their chorus in the evenings quite frequently along with the croaking of the frogs which would inevitably start if there was any rain.
Panting as I did in the heat wave, my pain somewhat worsened by the more than fifty degrees of temperature difference I had encountered due to my travel half way across the world from an unusually cold New Jersey this year to an unusually hot Calcutta, I’d hoped against hope that the noise meant imminent rain.
As the night progressed, the sound became louder and louder and made itself quite individually distinct from the milder chorus of the crickets outside. Sometimes it was a staccato rhythm, just like the chorus of the jhee jhee brethrens’ outside and sometimes it was like a loud, aggressive roar. It became clear that this was an individual jhee jhee located somewhere very close, inside the room or bathroom close to the bed.
I guess you could call the noise somewhat tuneful in its own way but it certainly wasn’t melodious or soothing to the ears. Moreover, it failed to blend into the background from this close. Louder and louder and louder it went until it changed tone and became quite aggressive. Soon it surpassed the loud quarrels in the Bengali soap operas on TV, the clanging of vessels by the maid in the kitchen and the rushings about of The Boy and his car noises.
It was The Boy who rushed to us after dinner with a face bursting with excitement. “I’ve seen the jhee jhee poka. I’ve seen it! It’s sitting in the bathroom and rubbing its wings. It’s leg is broken.” He had brought his own personal rechargeable flashlight to look all over the bathroom floor at his own initiative.
As is the fate of most observations by eight-year-olds in any household, most people continued doing what they were doing. Some seemingly responded with feigned surprise in an attempt to look through him at the TV screen or concentrated on making sure he was away from the gas burners and the cooking pot. Soon, The Boy was taken away amidst loud protests to work on his homework problems and arrange his school bag for the next day.
That night, as everything else quietened down, we realized our mistake. The Boy was asleep. Despite a search with a flashlight, the cricket could not be found.
That night no one needed a nightmare. Try to sleep and there was the whirring sound. Try to think and it was the sound. Get up and sit in the darkness and brave the mosquitoes and even their incessant prickings faded into the backwaters of consciousness because of the aggressive whirrings of this cricket.
It was no longer a cricket to me. It had become the cricket. The cricket that lived. The Lord Voldemort of insects.
Precisely at around five am, as it became light outside, the sound stopped with a few final notes as though delivered as a challenge. Yet, an insect was an insect. We forgot about it through the day. Only when the sound returned again in the evening did we think about the jhee jhee seriously again.
That evening, armed with The Boy’s strong flashlight that he always meticulously charges himself, we saw the creature for the first time. A big, black, glossy insect with huge wings stood in the corner of the bathroom. It was rubbing those wings together like two combs while flaring the wings outward to create that loud noise.
The moment we opened the door it retreated into a huge hole between the door frame and the floor gouged out by water. But the moment we closed the door, the noise would start again. Again and again and again we opened the door and again and again and again it moved back into the hole.
But we discovered that it couldn’t stay holed up for any length of time at night. It was as if it had to come out and rub its wings and make that infernal noise.
We tried to shoo it away towards the drain or make it fly out the window. It would go a little way towards escape but then would dart back again into the crevice. I got a pair of old, rusty tongs to catch it and throw it away to no effect. It was too fast for me and constantly retreated into the hole.
To be totally honest, I almost got it once at about 2 am. But some deep-seated revulsion prevented me from picking that creature up even at tong’s length. If I crushed its wings, it would make me recoil. If it got killed by pressure, I’d be repulsed. If it flew at me. . . I could not even imagine that.
It had already been two nights of sleeplessness. The cricket was my personal enemy.
I found the Wikipedia page on crickets the next day. Apparently mostly males make the sound by rubbing their wings to attract females when the sound is relatively musical. When the cricket senses another male nearby the sound becomes aggressive. Apparently crickets were harmless but I had a hard time swallowing that factoid.
On the third night, it seemed like the cricket had become a little slower, was dragging its legs as it retreated into the hole everytime we chased it with the flashlight, the tongs or a broom. Sometimes it seemed too tired to either leave the corner or to get back into the hole yet always just made it there.
I was very frustrated. We had already discovered its hole. It was no longer safe there. Why did it not do the rational thing and climb out the window with our help? For all it knew, there might be more females out there at night responding to its winged call. At any rate, what were its dating prospects in this small bathroom? Why didn’t it take the responsibility of its own life or death out of our hands by moving to freedom?
Yet, such is the nature of life that it repeatedly wants to go back again and again into the comfortable and the familiar, even in the face of imminent disaster in preference to the uncertainty of escape and freedom. So did this hapless insect.
Besides, it was impelled by its very nature to give itself away through a compulsion to continue its ear piercing song.
And so it kept going back to its hole. What seemed amazing to me was that it couldn’t hide there for long. It was as if some power beyond the scope of my comprehension made it risk everything to come out again and again to keep making that noise. The noise was intermittent this last night and slightly weaker. The jhee jhee did not even move as fast as before.
I figured that my time of action would have to be during daylight hours like Van Helsing’s plot to defeat Count Dracula. So the next afternoon I looked into the hole with a flashlight. I knew that daytime wasn’t the cricket’s forte. Sure enough, I saw the ends of wings and legs lodged inside the narrow hole where the light reached.
My intent was to bring it out and then catch it in the daylight when it wouldn’t be quick. So we tried to bring it out of the hole. We used some burning paper driving the smoke into the crevice. Then we used some warm water but to no avail. The insect did not come out.
I prepared myself for another night of pain.
But later that day, I saw a telltale sign. A line of small, black ants were making their way into the hole steadily. I knew these were industrious scavengers. I had seen the last remains of many a moth or bug being carried away by an army of these tiny carnivores.
That night, there was no noise.
[I like to think that it was the President of the Immortals, not me, that had thus ended his sport with the jhee jhee.]
If you liked my post on this creepie crawlie this summer in Calcutta, you might like my post Hope on me vanquishing a bug this winter in New Jersey.