190608 dragon fly
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Antlions, have you seen them? No, they are not the lions among ants. The tiny creatures are larvae of laceflies, which are somewhat similar to damselflies and dragonflies. As children, we were fascinated by antlions, which live in small pits with beautiful circular patterns to snare their prey.

We call them kuzhiyana. In Malayalam (the language spoken in the southern Indian state of Kerala), kuzhiyana literally means pit elephant. In reality, antlions bear no resemblance to elephants barring the two tiny prongs that could be misinterpreted as tusks. So kuzhiyana is a misnomer.

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Antlions were among the first targets of my cruelty. My sister and I would tease them out of their pits, and when we had collected enough, we would set them free on a bed of fine sand. Soon these creatures would start moving in reverse, drawing patterns. We would watch in absolute amazement, telling each other that they were drawing pictures. No wonder they are called doodlebugs in North America.

Why didn’t we leave them alone? Little did we know that we were disrupting their lives. Otherwise, why would we collect fireflies in a bottle and dive under beds to watch them glow in the dark?

‘Horror’ of creepy crawlies

Insects always scared my sister. A buzzing beetle would send her scurrying for cover, and a tiny spider could easily freak her out. Cockroaches were another of her pet hates. And lizards, the insect killers, were also not among her favourites. Ants were always an irritation, raiding the kitchen for crumbs for their larder.

None of these held terrors for me. I was the brave one. The cruel one. I could easily splatter beetles and cockroaches with my sandals. And a broom would work fine for the spiders. Chameleons and garden lizards were for target practice. My aim was quite good, considering the number of mangoes that I threw down from the trees.

Fish, too, caught our fancy. My friends and I would wade into streams to catch tiny fish with bare hands. No, we didn’t kill them. We merely relocated them, building small dams beside the streams.

Angling, kid-style

We also did our version of angling. A local shop sold tiny hooks and plastic threads. Tie them onto a sturdy stick, and you have a decent fishing line. Earthworms were rousted from their burrows and slipped into the hooks before we cast our lines and waited patiently. A smaller cousin of the catfish (whiskers and all) was always the sucker.

None of what we caught was good enough to eat. And if we had taken them home, we would have got an earful from our mothers, not to mention the flying ladles and airborne brooms launched from the kitchen. The cruelties inflicted on these creatures came handy during zoology classes. At home, dissections were practised on live frogs caught from the fields in the neighbourhood. Marking out the sciatic nerve of a frog was easy. But cutting cockroaches was a messy affair.

Killing the venomous types

Centipedes and millipedes evoked different reactions. Centipedes bite and are venomous, or so I was told. So they had to be killed. And slippers were the weapon of choice. The ponderous millipedes were an ugly sight, but are harmless. A well-directed kick was enough to keep them out for a couple of days as they wound themselves into coils.

Butterflies are beautiful. But why did we have to catch these fragile things? Once you handle them, their wings are easily bruised, and their flight will never be the same again. Dragonflies and damselflies are easier to catch. And they survive better. But we had to make them lift small pebbles, and yelp in delight.

The encounters with insects were a source of fun. But that fun came at the cost of their lives. Insects they may be, yet they are living beings. My friends and I didn’t know better. None warned us against doing it. My reverie was broken by my wife hollering from the kitchen: “Please do something about these cockroaches. They are all over the place.”

OK, let me call the pest control!