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     Volume 6 Issue 25 | June 29, 2007 |

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Food for Thought

Friendship, Phobias and Fearless Explorers

Farah Ghuznavi

Creepy Crawlies? Who do you call? Bug-busters of course!

A recent e-mail from my friend, Britta, nearly made me laugh out loud. She was updating me on the antics of her two-year-old son, Konrad, with particular reference to his alarming fascination for all kinds of creepy-crawlies. She wrote "I was reminded of your comment to me several years ago about "the age at which children eat cockroaches". I fear that my son has reached that age, and can only be grateful that there are not many insects in Sweden, and even fewer of those are poisonous!"

I have to say I can't remember the conversation that my friend refers to, though I suspect it was in the context of a late-night discussion, during a field trip to Kushtia. After a long day of driving, the rest of our team members had fallen asleep. Though the two of us remained awake, we were still somewhat wary of each other - Britta's demeanour one of classic Scandinavian reserve, and mine demonstrating a most un-Bengali sense of shyness. The ice was broken by the unexpected appearance of a (mercifully small) cockroach that national pride demanded that I despatch with urgency, if not flair. On that occasion I managed not to disgrace myself, but we immediately bonded over a mutual hatred of creepy-crawlies...

Never mind the ball, what just crawled past?

Personally, I feel that I come by my cockroach phobia quite legitimately. My maternal grandmother, an otherwise fearless woman (she managed to bring up nine children successfully after being widowed at a very early age, in addition to providing a home to the children of any number of indigent relatives - that too, in an era when Muslim women were not known for their independence), was absolutely terrified of cockroaches. She remained constantly vigilant lest any of the monsters materialise in her home. Drains were firmly covered with netting, and the house was religiously cleaned from top to bottom on a regular basis.

Despite these precautions, the odd cockroach invariably managed to make its way through the formidable obstacle course she had created. But all was not lost, because Nanu's last line of defence was her dog Lucy, who could be relied upon to race into the room whenever her name was called in a particular pitch (which she somehow knew indicated the presence of one of these dreaded intruders). Lucy would rush in, brace herself for the unpleasant task, and immediately crunch up and spit out the offending bug!

It was when a cockroach took shelter under one of the steel almirahs that things really got noisy though, with a desperate Lucy barking hysterically at the cunning - if cowardly - insect, which would then have to be sent to its maker through the judicious wielding of a jharu (soft broom). Needless to say, my grandmother's long-suffering staff members were well-acquainted with this particular set of procedures...

The basic rule of being a kid: love a bug or squash a bug.

Nanu's fear of creepy crawlies was very real. Indeed, one of her children famously said that the ultimate proof of her mother's love was clearly evident on the day when my grandmother was attending to one of her (adult) children who was in hospital, and a cockroach emerged from some corner of the room. Not just any cockroach, mind you, but a flying cockroach (as any phobic will tell you, the very worst kind!) Although her daughter weakly urged her to leave the room, Nanu stayed firm, and somehow managed to ignore the monster!

Though I am one of her biggest fans, it must be admitted that her own phobia of cockroaches never stopped my grandmother from exploiting the fears of others when it suited her wicked sense of humour. In her younger days, she was fond of tormenting her sisters-in-law, several of whom were terrified of lizards. She would wait until they were having an afternoon siesta, and a lizard had reached a convenient position on the ceiling just above the sleeping women. Then she would place a small amount of zarda (a stimulant that is consumed with paan i.e. betel leaf) on the end of the stick, and offer it to the lizard from a safe distance.

After a few licks at the potent offering, the lizard would inevitably lose its balance and plummet down towards those resting on the bed below, leading to screams of alarm as the women realised what had happened and threw themselves off the bed, scrambling to get away! Needless to say, by the time anyone was calm enough to look around, my grandmother and her "stimulant stick" were long gone - only for her to re-emerge shortly thereafter, innocently enquiring what had happened to make everyone scream like that…

Most children (not unlike adults) can be divided into two general categories where insects are concerned: either they are not frightened at all, or they are completely terrified. My niece, during her childhood, fell firmly into the latter category (and the truth is that she has not improved much in the years since). But I have to say, she was one of the few children I have ever met who was even afraid of ants, including the harmless little black ones. To be fair, I think this may have been related to some childhood obsession about the fearsome soldier ants of Africa, which simply eat through everything that lies in their path, including sleeping humans (you see, there is such a thing as too much educational TV - I blame National Geographic myself…) At any rate, though her tolerance level for grasshoppers, cockroaches etc remains low, I am happy to report that she is at least no longer afraid of ants, whatever their complexion!

But you may have a problem on your hands when both kinds of children - insect haters and insect lovers - live in the same family, as my friend Helen found out when she moved with her husband and kids to southern Africa (from Denmark). Her son Joshua hates any and all bugs, while her three-year-old daughter Kate is utterly fascinated by them. They are in the process of discovering all kinds of interesting creepy-crawlies in their new home (despite all attempts to keep the house insect-free, during the grasshopper and flying termite seasons, this is completely impossible), and Josh is finding the experience less than comfortable. Kate, on the other hand, keeps coming up to her mother with questions like "Why do the caterpillars become curly when you poke them?" Since this clearly indicates that she is getting up close and personal with the intruders in their home despite instructions to the contrary, Helen is just keeping her fingers crossed that Kate does not actually try to "poke" anything poisonous that might react in a manner other than curling inwards (as the centipedes do)…

There is a ray of hope though. On a recent trip into the bush, they were travelling back in their car when Kate suddenly discovered a rather large green caterpillar crawling up her leg. According to Helen, the peace of the surrounding valley was rent asunder by her outraged shrieks, while the caterpillar itself probably died of fright. So it's just about possible that Kate will now think twice before approaching other insect species in her previous, somewhat cavalier fashion...

My friend Sarwat is experiencing similar problems in trying to persuade her four-year-old son Nusayb not to go too close to the variety of bugs that live in their African garden. He remains unconvinced by her arguments, asking again and again why he should not pick up a creepy-crawly. To Sarwat 's despair, her warning that an insect might bite him is met by the (perfectly reasonable) response that he would just bite back!

I have to say, I admire these children who so fearlessly approach and inspect anything with six or eight legs. My friend Tina's daughter Joya is one such child (though her fearlessness is admittedly not limited to multi-legged creatures...) A narrow escape from a close encounter with a chhanga - a kind of furry caterpillar with stinging bristles - still has the power to make her mother shudder at the memory!

In Joya's current stage of development though, she appears to be moving from exploration to extermination (can you tell that I approve?) On a number of occasions, she has been seen following cockroaches around the room, employing a mixture of coaxing and threats, exhorting them to "ektu darao na" ("just wait up a little"), with the clear aim of stomping on any cockroach foolish enough to heed her request to slow down. Indeed, I have to say that this variety of child provides for me one of the best advertisements for parenthood. Just think, you would have immediate assistance for all close encounters of the six-legged (or worse) kind! What more could any parent ask for…?


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