It was a couple of weeks before I moved to India, and I was on the phone with the friend I'd be moving in with in Varkala.
“Seriously, you're going to have to do a lot of cleaning when you get here,” she said.
“Sure!” I said excitedly. My mind was already deep into the future, where I would daily sweep the floors and scrub the bathroom tiles in my rustic new Indian home. I couldn't see the present, where a rubble of clothes and empty crisp packets covered the floor in the bedroom I was speaking from.
She laughed once down the phone. She'd seen my room. “No, Barns. I am really not kidding right now. You wouldn't believe how quickly things get dirty. You have to clean, like, every day.”
“Sure, absolutely,” I said with as much feeling as I could muster. “I understand.”
It's a good thing I can look back on this exchange and laugh, for at the time, I had no idea of how blatantly and repeatedly I would go back on my word. Or, indeed, of the horrors that awaited me.
In the jungle-like environment of that plain old house, we were fortunate to have almost an acre of land populated with numerous banana, coconut, mango and pineapple trees. In order to reap the benefits of these tropical delights, however, we also had to coexist with a much greater number of creep-crawly things. Spiders all the way up to hand-sized and beyond, for example. Lizards (though they kept mostly to themselves, and were kind of cute). Bats soaring overhead every single night, once even flying in through an open window to hang upside down from our indoor washing line. And ants. Untold numbers of ants.
Spilled a spot of milk on the floor and only wiped it once? Have some ants. Left the honey out after getting your toast? Unfeasible amount of ants. Placed a paratha on the bench for twenty seconds while you washed a plate? HA HA SO MANY ANTS you won't even be able to comprehend how they got there so quickly.
The worst thing you could possibly do was to let dishes pile up in the sink. Doesn't matter if they're rinsed to within an inch of their life; no soap = ants. They smell the residue of your masala dosa or paneer tikka masala and rush for it – from their many nests in the roof above, inside the walls of the house, underneath the concrete steps outside the back door. I was partial to a cold breakfast of rolled oats, milk and banana, and would often leave it too late to wash my bowl before having to dash for the train, so I'd just throw the bowl and the sink and run. When I came home at night and switched on the kitchen light, I'd swear I hadn't left that many oats stuck to the side of the bowl. Oh wait, those oats are black. Oh wait, those oats are moving. Oh my God, they're not oats but a billion ants come to wreak havoc on my pitiful existence.
The first few times this happened, I faced a moral dilemma. Given that I was now trying – and mostly succeeding – to become vegetarian as much as possible, could I possibly end the lives of these creatures without severely insulting my conscience? I'd gingerly try to pick the bowl up out the sink, planning to carry it outside and whirl it around until most of the ants had been flung off into the trees. Then they'd swarm my hand, spreading up my arm, biting sharply all the way. (As I wrote that last sentence, I swear on Mammootty's life, the memory was so powerful I felt a nip on my wrist. I had to desperately roll back my sleeve to confirm it wasn't an ant come back to haunt me.)
Panic. Ow. Ow! Ow stop it you insane creatures ow get off get off get off aaaaaaaa–
–and I'd hurriedly twist the tap to ON and plunge my arm under the running water, drowning hundreds of ants in the process, dulling their bites to nothing. Then I'd thrust the bowl under the stream, too, obliterating those left in it. Then – carried away by revenge now – I'd grab a cloth from by the sink, soak it in the flow and run it over the bench wherever the now swiftly moving black trail led me. Most escaped to fight another day. The remains of the unlucky ones littered the bench, the sink, the cloth and my arm.
Guilt setting in, I'd send their dead bodies down the plughole, vowing to douse the entire kitchen with Texma so that they knew never to come back. Not now, though. Too exhausted and frustrated by my moral failing to do any more cleaning now. I'll Texma tomorrow.
And I wouldn't, and the whole hideous cycle would repeat itself – hundreds upon hundreds of times during over a thousand days in God's Own Country. I had two rules that I wanted to uphold for my own satisfaction: 1) to keep the house clean on a daily basis; 2) to not harm another living being in my quest for moral balance. In both cases, the exception became the rule.
In fact, I came up a new rule – or rather, a new moral code. Watching the ants poison and drag a slowly dying cockroach ten feet up my kitchen wall one day, I figured the ants would certainly kill me (and all my loved ones, and indeed humanity in general) if they had the chance. Why, then, should I not kill them?
Photo credit: Taro Taylor