At four in the morning, only three-quarters awake, I switch on the kitchen light. A big, rum-colored cockroach, which was probably at work on the remnants of sugar on a spoon that was left unwashed, scurries across and hides under the water pot.
I gingerly pick up a slipper. I hate to kill. But killing these little six-legged monsters I shan’t mind. I do not wish to share my world with roaches that are supposed to spread diseases and cause food poisoning. Never mind that Bear Grylls, the survival specialist in Discovery television munches on living cockroaches to demonstrate the technique of survival and seems none the worse for it. Presence of cockroaches and rats in the house – especially in the kitchen – is a sure sign of bad sense of hygiene. Bad sense of hygiene is related to what is known as the third world, even if you believe that New York, the headquarters of the First World, has more rats and cockroaches than in New Delhi and Bombay counted together.
In the meanwhile, I am contemplating the next action, the slipper poised in my hand. The cockroach is thinking too, for I can see its antennae, which jut out from underneath the water-pot, rubbing together as if relishing a challenge. The cockroach’s horizon of vision must be quite small, much smaller than mine, but its perception of details has to be large, much larger than mine. It probably never sees me as a whole, but only a part of me when I am this close, like I would only see every blade of grass when standing close to the mountain but not the mountain itself. Its tiny equipment of sensory perception is probably sharp enough to sense the urgency of blood movement in my veins, indicating the degree of my agitation, just as the movement of its antennae gives me a clue of its own state of mind.
The cockroach aims at survival and is rather sure of it. I plan destruction, but am yet unsure. I do not want cockroaches in my house. If I do not kill it, but pick it up and throw it away, it will come back with its brood and cause me bigger embarrassment or raise the chance of my children getting sick.
By now there is a steady stream of hostile communication happening between me and the cockroach. Both of us are assessing the probability of success. It, of survival under such an adverse circumstance. I, of destruction under a different circumstance. I am annoyed to notice that it is not half as agitated as I am, but is playing a game.
I move to lift the pot, simultaneously banging the slipper down on where I estimate the cockroach to be. The hateful insect dashes before the footwear touches the ground, and hides behind the tea kettle, this time positioning itself in the corner where the flat slab of the cooking table meets the tiled wall. Intuitively or by careful computation, it knows that my slipper cannot crush it flat in that corner.
The kettle is on the boil by now. I consider flushing it with boiling water, but decide against the cruelty involved. I do not eat at high-flung restaurants where the chef brings a huge living crab or throbbing lobster for your approval. You nod in appreciation, and he throws the living thing into boiling water. No. I cannot cause that much pain. A slap with my slipper would cause quick death, not a slow and painful halal. I had never considered joining the Islamic State for the vicious pleasure of cutting throats.
Not aware of my dubious philosophy of non-violence, the cockroach is still computing the probabilities of success in dodging my next murderous move. Its antennae still rub together cheerfully, but the heat of the kettle must be getting on its nerves by now; it has to move away quickly.
I know I can prod it out of the corner and then try to kill it. The cockroach knows it must move faster this time and find a safer and cooler place or be killed. It’s a battle of wits between a presumptuous self-made electronic engineer and an apparently simple cockroach with no schooling, but a tremendous amount of intuitive skills. Perhaps mother cockroaches do home-school their little ones before sending them out to match their wits with human demons.
The cockroach wins. I give up. I will get you next time, I murmur under breath. Next time is another time, you loser, says the cockroach in its ultrasound roach-speech, showing me the victory sign with its aerials. I pour the boiling water into my coffee cup and move away.
The ultra-sonic call of Loser, loser, reverberates in my mind.
Nicholas Strausfeld, celebrated neuroscientist, had said that insects possess the most sophisticated brain in the planet; yet that brain is no larger than a grain of salt. Had my own brain been created with a network of a million such insect brains, I could probably be much smarter than I am right now. I wouldn’t be surprised if the theorist of Natural selection were to conclude that a cockroach is a result of nature’s attempt at miniaturization – that at this point of time it is the cockroach that stands at the tether end of evolution, not us humans. If survival and propagation of species are the prime aims of life, cockroaches get a walkover on humans.
A human tries to get maximum benefits from least amount of work; the cockroach is already doing it. A human exploits the labors of other humans to make a living; cockroach exploits as many humans as it can find to make a cozier living. The cockroach stands a better chance of living out a full life span than one born human. Cockroaches are not known to make racial or religious wars or to commit genocide- not even suicide-bombing. It is capable of raising a deadly stink, but is not known to have gassed its own species of a different race. They do not invent gods and then kill each other in the name of those weird products of imagination. They are, I mentally give in, nobler than the average human; even smarter. Humans took several millions of years to develop an unwieldy and potentially dangerous flying machine to flit across their places of interest, the cockroaches that needed to move fast simply developed a set of wings to achieve the same end.
If human efforts at progress end up in a nuclear holocaust, cockroaches, they say, would be the only ones to survive. This could be true, for I once tried to bake a loaf of bread in a microwave without noticing a cockroach that had crept in beneath the loaf. After a few minutes of ‘baking’, the bread came out charred at the top, the cockroach slunk away from underneath as if nothing had happened.
Humans live in a fool’s paradise. Only they have consciousness, they say, the rest of the animal kingdom are zombies doing things by ‘instincts’ – whatever that might mean. Humans get a soul on the forty-second day of gestation in the womb, or may be as soon as one is born, but then the souls live on forever – whether to go to heaven and have fun with houries (or maybe play a harp to God which is not much fun), or in hell to be burnt, pulled out when nearly burnt-out and still screaming, hung up on skewers, brushed with chili paste and oil, and then put back into the flaming barbeque, again and again, on and on, till the end of time which has no end in time. As for my own kind, since I was born a Hindu whose souls never die, they just change the body the way you change worn-out clothes. To beat the Abrahamic God at his own fire-boarding game, my relations would burn my dead body to ashes before His agents thrust their skewers into me.
If evolution means the progressive improvement of destructive power, then alone, it would seem, humans stand at the final end of progress – exploding a series of fusion bombs in each other’s’ front yard to utterly destroy all that mankind has, putting to death both man and woman, child and infant, ox and sheep, camel and donkey, sparing nothing, as once the God of the Bible demanded of man.
Yet, I guess, after all those nukes have fallen and this globe had become a bleak landscape of tree-stumps and blackened hills, ashen waves rolling sky-high under a sun hidden by spreading mushroom clouds, the cockroach would live on, hiding behind charred wood and rocks, rubbing its antennae together, confused but already scheming to start life again after things cool. There will be many such lucky roaches roaming the landscape, looking for burnt flesh under human and animal skin, but also for mates to mate with. Life would go on in the roach world; there will soon be evolutions and mutations that would go on for millions of years, and after thousands of such millions would emerge humans with their multi-cellular brains, soon fashioning swords and axes, bows and arrows, nukes and missiles, prodded on by their imaginary Gods and Godlings.
I guess that’s how the cycle of life would keep spinning. Good thing I did not kill that cockroach.