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Oh, Those Clever, Clever Fleas

20/09/2016 10:26 AM IST | Updated 02/10/2016 9:22 AM IST
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Pest control was never my strong suit, but circumstances have led me to know more about fleas than I would have liked. They, the fleas, rob me of hearty dreams; I wake up in the middle of the night, sensing the slightest movement in the pit of my left knee, wondering if the buggers returned, and try to go back to sleep, only to feel the now familiar burn, followed by an itch that will last (sometimes worsen) for days, and it is then I know that in this battle, the fleas have won. Again.

Sometimes, just to screw with my sanity, the fleas feast on the least appetizing bits around the bones of my elbows or on the thinly stretched skin over my knee caps...

It really is no less than that, a battle. Some I've won, others I've lost, like the one last night, and I have the scars to prove it: red welts, nasty little things the size of my thumbnail (it is a large nail, that of my thumb, proper and short and square, a solid 1.3 centimetres wide), freshly formed on the choicest, most tender parts of my body: the vulnerable chub of belly and hip, the always warm, slightly moist pits under my knees. Sometimes, just to screw with my sanity, the fleas feast on the least appetizing bits around the bones of my elbows or on the thinly stretched skin over my knee caps; itching bony skin is a challenge, frustrating at best, verging on mania at worst.

It wasn't always like this. Rocky, the dog downstairs, keeps to himself and doesn't bother us so I don't know why the evil little ones chose to abandon his fur and join mine, other than for the obvious reason of my foreignness in this village I've chosen to live in. The people are more accepting than the fleas, or maybe the people have unleashed the creatures in my dwelling as a passive-aggressive way of declaring their intentions regarding my stay, but that's a far-fetched idea I'd rather not humour.

Clever they are, the fleas. They let me be for the first few days, when I unpacked and inhaled the fresh mountain air and got up every morning with a spring in my step and did yoga and worked, by which I mean I wrote until my fingers cramped, and had no reason to feel discouraged, because everything—the people, the place, the sun, the food—was so beautiful. They let me enjoy it, the fantasy, let me taste the calm before they declared war that night.

I itched, half-dreaming, half-awake. The morning sun cheerfully entered through the east-facing window, and I discovered more than a dozen welts on my inner thighs. Had I not been angry and sad and confused, and had I not lost one of my anklets on the village path the day before, I might have admired their Pollock-like quality, the way the red dots scattered in symmetry.

After the first flea attack, my partner circled each of my bites with black ballpoint pen so that new welts could be identified more easily.

That morning, I scrubbed myself clean, washing all my clothes by hand, scrubbing the bejesus out of them, and wringing out the water before hanging them out to dry. In retrospect, I realize my stupidity. Various websites, including fleabites.net, will tell you washing clothes with soap doesn't get rid of the fleas. With subdued panic*, these websites further explain that fleas must be controlled at once, by washing not just the clothes, but the mattress and blanket and blanket covers and pillows and pillow covers and carpets and rugs. A mixture of baking soda and salt kills the eggs, dehydrating them to death (now that's a satisfying visual, it brings a wave of peace to my heart), while soaking clothes and sheets in a mixture of hot water and vinegar kills the living ones. The process, they fail to mention—perhaps because it will scare the flea-bitten into either inaction or deserting their homes—takes a lot of time, especially when one is washing and sprinkling by hand; we don't own one of those nifty salt shakers the website displays in its Products section. And so the return attack was a success, albeit a tiring one, but a full night's rest ensured I was up again the next morning, saluting the sun with my sun salutations. In this battle, victory was ours.

The people are more accepting than the fleas, or maybe the people have unleashed the creatures in my dwelling as a passive-aggressive way of declaring their intentions...

What makes hard work so spectacular is that one—and by "one" I mean me, or humans in general—refuses to believe that it was useless. I worked so hard, one tells oneself, surely it could not all have been for nothing. Surely.

Mornings became moments of truth. I found a tiny welt between my ring finger and pinky, a harmless one, really. Surely, I rationalized with subdued panic, it was from an ant or a mosquito; it didn't even itch that much. After the first flea attack, my partner, I should have mentioned earlier, circled each of my bites with black ballpoint pen so that new welts could be identified more easily. This blotch was uncircled. Surely, the ink was wiped off by my natural oils or surely, he had missed circling this one. Surely, I was in denial.

Their next attack, mild but impactful, was last night. I had been in "surely" mode for far too long and itching a new arrival on my lower back as a thunderstorm raged at dawn, I knew two things: one, I would never find my anklet again and two, there were fleas in our midst. There was no turning back after knowing.

Come morning, I hauled out all my clothes and placed the mattress outside, hoping, as I looked at the gray sky, that it wouldn't rain today. This time, I had my vinegar-water spray and salt-baking soda mixture ready. This time, I held no fear, only vengeance as I sprayed my clothes with diluted vinegar and dehydrated the joy-sucking parasites with generous handfuls of baking soda.

A mixture of baking soda and salt kills the eggs, dehydrating them to death (now that's a satisfying visual, it brings a wave of peace to my heart)...

The clouds parted to reveal a Windows-desktop-worthy blue sky and lots of sunshine, and so I washed my vinegar-soaked clothes with a peculiar optimism. Clothes drying, I walked into the room to find, resting by the window, my lost anklet. Our neighbour M had told our neighbour S that I lost my payal and she mentioned that she found one and the lost became found, and I was happy, because I could lay my locals-sabotaging-through-fleas theory to rest.

The battle between flea and human will continue, but like any good solider, I won't rest until the war is won. The vermin might occasionally ruin my nights, but they can't stop me from having a lovely sun-filled day like this one, where my clothes are clean and the breeze is strong and the air is warm as I walk up the village path, anklet on each ankle, with renewed conviction that I, and not some fleas, will dictate my well-being.

*The kind of panic that evolution has taught us to engage our primal reflexes in, but we are instead asked to use our rational, civilized brains to evaluate the potentially life-threatening situation calmly. The kind, for instance, found in airline announcements: Ladies and gentlemen, oxygen masks will drop down in case of an emergency, but (they soothingly assure us) please don't panic at the possibility of no oxygen at altitudes which, if we fall through, your life will not flash, but burn before your eyes.

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