They are big and black, nearly the size of blueberries, blood-seeking missiles dive-bombing in the fading light of the sun that fills the room. “These are the evening species,” explains my uncle, as he waves the electric swat bat with practised precision and grins with pure satisfaction as a few splatter against the bat with small, sizzling noises. Like mini firecrackers going off.
“The morning ones are smaller in size, and bite with less malice,” he offers.
After long years, I am once again on a visit to my village, a not-so-sleepy-anymore place deep in the rice-growing region of Andhra Pradesh, drawn by the need to spend time at my ancestral home built nearly a hundred years ago with such attention to posterity that the massive pillars that hold up the portico look like they could last a thousand years. In fact, the cherished ritual in the family has been trying to encircle the pillars with one’s arms stretched backwards, much like tourists are wont to embrace the historic Ashoka Pillar in New Delhi. Of course, our family prefers to believe that our pillars are more amazing to behold, and hold.
So it is that sitting in that house filled with a thousand memories, I am looking forward to an evening of nostalgia with my uncle, aunt and nieces, but it soon becomes apparent that nature has other plans.
As the clock strikes six and the sun begins its descent into the horizon drop-box, a battalion of mosquitoes invades the home. The battle plans are drawn. Battle No 1 is with the mosquitoes. Battle No 2 is between my uncle and his grand-daughter on his deployment of the WMD. “Why must you use the bat,” my uncle’s eight-year-old grand-daughter cries. “It’s cruel.” She is deeply troubled by the sizzling noises the combat zone produces.
My uncle gazes at her consternation with grandfatherly love.
“Don’t we have mosquito repellant coils?” I ask, trying to be the emissary of peace.
“They mostly don’t work anymore because the mosquitos have got used to them,” my uncle replies.
“What about the plug-in devices?”
“The power supply is erratic in the village, so they don’t always work.”
“You can use the mosquito repellant cream, but you won’t,” scoffs the eight-year old.
“The smell kills my appetite,” he shoots back.
My aunt, a silent spectator, offers no particular opinion. “They don’t come near me,” she says simply.
“The thing is, these repellant coils and devices are only leading to a generation of mutant mosquitoes,” expounds my uncle. “The more we use them, the more we are proving the Darwinian principles, survival of the fittest and all that. This bat is what works best.”
It’s time to call it a day and I am ushered into the guest room by the eight-year-old. There, set against the farther wall, is a huge four-poster bed. On it, tied to the four corners of the top frame that connects the posts hangs what seems like frozen morning mist. A beautiful, white mosquito net. I gasp and stare ... and hear the oncoming rush of memories. The last time I had slept inside a mosquito net was during my growing-up years, a reluctant explorer moving from place to place as my father took up new postings across India.
I walk towards the bed, and the drill comes back to me with the force of a returning wave. It was a manoeuvre my father taught me. Lift. Duck. Slide. Tuck.
The young activist checks to see if my manoeuvre is infiltration proof and satisfied, she hits the switch and leaves the room with a parting shot: “We can learn to coexist you know, we just need to draw the boundaries.”
As I settle into the comforting dark, I wonder if her grandfather, who is probably powering up the bat for tomorrow, will agree.