Mahesh P. Dash

Two tight slaps on my face. You can’t even settle your scores with your younger sister; leave apart your classmates! My mother (Bou) yelled at me.

“The innocent ants, the most disciplined and hardworking tiny creatures! And what is their problem with you?

And the adolescent me with acute stubbornness did not attempt to answer anything, lest to invite two more!

Those days every square inch of our dwelling was used for optimal utilization of storage space for one item or the other. The space below the beds invariably accommodated the tender coconuts brought from the village & replenished at periodic intervals. The dampen atmosphere ideally suited the carpenter ants to thrive & was abundantly found in long queues on the walls.

I developed a part-time hobby of killing the ants moving in the row either on the walls or on the floors by tapping the index finger, quite on a regular basis.

Bou, don’t we also kill mosquitoes, rats, cockroaches which are also living beings! Then why so much fuss about killing ants? My argument never stood a winning logic!

Above all, it is only the body that changes shape while the soul is indestructible. The transmigration is a constant cum continuous process of this dynamic universe and so are the ant souls. The dead ants should be grateful to me as their liberator to attain another form of the body in their rebirth!

Inflicting instant killing of a long queue of ants on the walls became an impulsive desire to derive sadistic or rather masculine supremacy over the hapless tinnies!

The onset of puberty was driving me intolerant & violent.

No matter Bou kept on reprimanding, it was fun I loved doing and kept on repeating whenever I got a chance.

The ants on the walls always moved in a single queue with small food particles in their mouths and even carried their fellow dead bodies after my misadventures.

I often congratulated myself as the savior to get rid of their present bodily beings to take another form in their next birth as per our popular Hindu religious beliefs.

I could laugh away the unheard pain and scream the tiny creatures made, while being mercilessly decimated fed the demon within, to derive untold pleasures in doing so! Reminiscences of the lines of dead ants on the wall for days together, till they got dried and fell down on their own, gave the immense satisfaction of being supreme over the conquered. The feeling of the victor over the oppressed! Alike the SS guards had over the Jews in Nazi concentration camps!

Those carpenter ants seemed very intelligent & always had a scout in the front to lead. The scout is normally at a distance away from the rest, who perhaps is entrusted the task of locating the food and water. The sight of the scout meant the beginning of the line & distracting the leader brings complete indiscipline amongst them & was such an amusing experience.

The boy in me was restive, wanted to become edgy free from the bondage of any discipline, the way ants moved directionless after the scout is gone!!

Middle-class families of our childhood era were highly concerned, maybe they still are, for the academics and getting a good grade in the final school board. Immediately after middle school, the years left to finish school starts getting counted and reminded daily. And I was no exception.

It was the year 1982, my final year to complete high school. Based on the pre-test marks, the school management divided us into separate groups of ‘below average, ‘average’ and ‘above average’ categories. The best of the teachers were deployed for the last group, as they were destined to bag laurels for the school. And everybody in the coveted group was strictly monitored, on and off the campus. Any indiscipline and nuisance were strictly dealt with.

My alma mater, Secondary Board High School, stood tall in the ranking of the vernacular medium schools those days and who’s who of the city sought admission for their children, as the results spoke for themselves in the final year grades.

In January, I was infected with chickenpox when only two months were left to cross over the finish line. The bomb exploded.

The days of sickness in the school were always more than welcome. Special attention from parents and relatives, protein foods and moreover no studies!! Pouring affection from all near and dear ones plus the mostly disobedient immediate younger sister would listen to anything at my command. A feeling of being a special entity in those days was always sought for a longer duration!

But this was not the time. Had it been a cold fever or tonsillitis or minor injuries of some kind, hell would have broken loose with a lot of stern advice, raised eyebrows, and never-ending lectures; but it was a viral infection. I thought of being fortunate, as I was spared.!

Very soon, I started realizing the nightmare that was in store during the next five weeks and why chickenpox happened only once in a lifetime!

The symptoms of chickenpox slowly started with a few rashes on the forearm, then all around the body. Within a week’s time, the rashes turned into itchy fully blown, fluid-filled blisters. All over the face, head, full-body including the palms and the feet, the blisters started appearing in graduation with intense pain associated with high fever. Perhaps they were erupting deep from the bones, as it was called Hadafuti (popping out of bones).

There was no vaccine those days and no medicine to soothe the fluid-filled round blisters with constant aching and somatic pain. It felt as if they were completely racing to cover every inch of my body.

I never wanted this kind of sickness. The pungent, stinking odor of my flesh attracted the red ants. Now, this was their turn. Their living friends in countless numbers started visiting my pains-stricken sleepy body, in their gratification to express their subservience! each tiny one, with a tiny bite to the blisters, got stuck in the sticky fluid and intensified my pain manifold.

It took hours of struggle to remove the world of ants from my body.

Immediate preventive measures were taken to avoid reoccurrence. The application of chalk to distract them, and all other homemade arrangements including a sprinkling of flour, herbal powder and thorough cleaning of my isolated bedroom as nothing should be left to chance. Water-filled plates beneath the legs of the bed were kept to make it further foolproof.

Following day, still carrying a very high temperature, the semi subconscious mind was hallucinating with the dreams of the ants with wings, flying from everywhere every corner and entering through the mosquito net.

And they all came back. This time the army of carpenter red ants mixed with some bigger red ants of unknown species having stronger bites, with their new wings acquired and aided by the ongoing rains, seemed more determined to feast on the juicy fluids of my aching chickenpox blisters!

I squealed with the ultimate unbearable agony of getting hundreds of stings on the already wounded surface of the skin and cried vehemently. I had learned my lesson at the lesson.

My heart bled not entirely out of pain also on being defeated perhaps by the collective vengeance of the mere creatures always at the mercy of my soft tabs for crushing. The millions of ghost ant- souls thus liberated in those past years were having the last laughs.

The conqueror became the conquered!

The story of a grasshopper and an ant who works to store food for rainy days never to starve came to my mind. The hardworking living being, a beautiful creation of nature, can also be dreadfully dangerous to the strongest African lions once trapped in their cluster.

Bou kept advising me to pray and meditate seek forgiveness for the sins committed to get relief. Tears of repentance from the heart blew away the years of sin. So we reap as we sow!

“Weak can never forgive, forgiveness is the attribute of strong.”

The redolence of my late mother’s words never to do what is not to be done would perhaps remain ever vivid as long as I walk on this earth. The world of ants is mightier than the mightiest!