By Saudha Kasim
When they decided to do it, they called her first. She was on her way back to the apartment, the bus stuck near the Command Hospital, the flow of traffic to MG Road and Marathahalli staunched by a turtled Uber that had tried to overtake a BMTC bus and rocketed over the median.
She heard her mother clearly—her mother who always talked loudly over the mobile phone, the same volume in the house, in a park, in a cinema. It’s been getting too much, her mother said. The crunching sound. You can hear them nibbling in the night. The house echoes with it.
Is it really that bad, she asked.
Of course it is. It’s driving us crazy, the sound.
Look, umma, don’t do anything until Basheer looks at the situation.
Nadira, your brother will only be coming next month and your uppa hasn’t slept for weeks because of this noise. It’s affecting his health.
He didn’t mention anything to me when he called yesterday.
Like he would do that. He doesn’t talk about his health to anyone. But I can see it affecting him.
She heard her mother’s voice rise to a higher pitch and she knew the waterworks would start soon enough. First the rise, then the wobble, then the break. It’s a routine she’d absorbed, something she could predict even better than her own mood swings.
Don’t do anything until he comes, she repeated.
She knew they wouldn’t listen.
That weekend her father sent her the first set of photographs over WhatsApp: the door and frame intact and pristine in the beginning, then slowly being taken out, bit by bit.
The last picture just had the void where the bathroom door had been. It’s a mess, her father said in a text. Termites everywhere.
And centipedes, too, her mother told her that night when she called.
Yes, they were inside the frame—which was practically hollow—and they were eating the termites.
Sounds like you had a whole ecosystem there, umma.
When the carpenters knocked it all down, the insects were just rushing all around the floor. We were chasing them with brooms, but they were good boys who said no, they would take care of it.
And did they?
Yes, you know, for them it’s a good omen.
The centipedes. It’s a sign of Lakshmi and wealth. They didn’t let us kill them, they took them out to the garden and dumped them all there.
That night, when Nadira couldn’t sleep, she went on YouTube and watched a series of videos of centipedes eating termites.
On Quora, someone had asked about centipedes and good fortune and someone else—an engineer, an Indian Institute of Technology graduate no less—had explained the complex formulae combining the number of centipedes’ legs and the days of the months when they were spotted that resulted in varying degrees of good fortune. It read like a troll-ish response her cousin Towfeeq would come up with when high.
She expected the centipedes and termites to appear in her dreams that night, the multi-legged creatures hoovering up hapless bugs. Instead, she dreamt of her professor from architecture college, Dr. K.A. Pai, who’d taught them Vaastu Shastra in the first year, which everyone had ignored over the next four years when designing projects for class. In her dream she saw his pale, thin face and black lush moustache reflected in a window, his mouth opening and shutting like a fish.
The next morning, as she brewed her green tea before heading out to work, she remembered that it was Dr. Pai who’d told her class about the finite life of houses in the modern world. The average number of good years a house in Kerala could have now was 25. She had asked him what he’d based that on—was there a study done?
Yes, which explained this number that you’ve just mentioned.
He’d stared at her and then mimicked her accent in his reply: I am sure your Gulf millionaire father has built a house that will outlast us all. How many marble quarries did you empty to build it?
She never saw the number he quoted anywhere—insurance tables and papers in research journals mentioned lifespans of modern houses from 40 to 100 years.
Their house, being eaten by termites and seamed through with centipedes, was in its third decade.
When she went home to Thrissur a month later, they had started replacing the doors and windows in the kitchen and dining room. Outside, the soil was sodden with the morning’s rain and the sky was still greyed over.
Her mother, serving her lime juice as the carpenters hammered and drilled, said: It’s much quieter now in the nights. Remember when you were here in January and you said you thought the neighbors were sawing something in the middle of the night?
I don’t remember saying that.
Yes, you did. You came down to our bedroom and you stood by my bed and you said umma, the neighbors should be told to stop.
Okay, maybe I did. And?
Those were the termites. Her mother smiled at her triumphantly.
Did Basheer say anything?
Oh he asked your uppa about the work estimate and he will transfer some money when he gets back to Dubai next week.
She could hear Basheer with her father in the study near the dining room, discussing fund transfers and stock performances. After drinking her juice she stuck her head around the door and watched them both hunched over her father’s laptop, editing an Excel sheet.
She asked: Need help?
Basheer didn’t seem to hear, but her father looked up, his eyes clouded, mouth muttering a number. He shook his head and smiled at her and she went up to the first floor. She looked around the TV room with its old woolen carpet bought from an Iranian furniture store in Dubai and the paintings on the walls, which were now slightly faded and inside the glass cover of one a moth was stuck, petrified and preserved forever it would seem—or until they decided to throw it out and the glass broke. Then it would crumble and fall, join the earth in the garden where the bathroom-door termites and centipedes had rushed through and established dynasties to rival the Japanese imperial family in longevity.
What would this room be then? She stood right in the middle of the carpet and turned, her eyes following the thin crack on the top of the walls—not a structural fault, it was just flaking plaster—and she could see it ten, fifteen years from now, painted over in the pale peach or pink her brother’s wife Zeenath favored, the colors she’d used in the apartment they’d rented for their family near Ayyanthole. For the colors to be changed her parents would not be here. They would be absences, their time here marked in the little things they would have left behind in drawers and shelves. Spectacle cases, broken pens. Her mother’s needle book and embroidery rings.
In fifty years these walls would no longer be carrying loads, would no longer exist. From the window of the TV room she could see the tall apartment building peeking over the tops of trees. A two-year-old building. It would be still standing in fifty years. The carpet she was standing on would not. The floor would not. She would not.
She heard slow footsteps on the stairs and her mother appeared, shiny-eyed and happy, her soul joyous at the activity in the house, the people rushing about, the smell of varnish and wood shavings and glue.
Your uppa said you’d asked if he needed help.
He and Basheer seem to have it under control.
Her mother nodded. She went into the little room where they stored the bed linen and towels and came out with a pile of sheets. This is for your bed, Nadira.
Her mother put a soft hand to her cheek. Do you feel alone there? In Bangalore?
She shook her head.
It needn’t be that way.
But you’ve made up your mind.
Her mother stopped at the top of the stairs and said, this is yours, Nadira.
I think you’ll find it’s really Basheer’s, umma.
Your father won’t deprive you of anything. You should trust him.
I do, umma, I do.
That night, she slept on the bed her parents had brought back with them from Dubai a decade ago and felt the springs creak each time she turned. Outside, a small orchestra of frogs had started up and soon enough it started raining softly, a monsoon shower on a July night.
Did frogs eat centipedes? She would have to ask her mother in the morning.
In the early morning, in the milky light, she felt something skitter up her hand and she looked down and saw a trail of black ants. She brushed them off and sat up on the bed.
A line of red bumps had risen overnight on her forearms.
The ants were coming from inside the boxspring and marching across the quilt.
The multitudes of lives this house contained.
She pulled open the drawers of the dressing table near the bed, panicked that her old books and papers had been nibbled and shredded to bits when no one was looking. They hadn’t. The edges of the books had yellowed and the pages were stuck because of the years of damp. But they hadn’t been eaten, no ants had colonized the drawers. She pulled open the last drawer and next to a pile of photos was a Quran in a vermillion pleather jacket. She took it up, opened it and saw Basheer’s name scrawled in pencil, in Arabic, on the flyleaf. As she turned the first pages, something brown and papery fell out. Dried flowers. Jasmine. Rose. Marigold. Hibiscus. Her brother had dried them one summer when they were still finishing reading the Quran. That had been two decades ago, almost. He hadn’t opened it since then.
Neither had she.
She tucked the Quran back in its place and turned to the photographs, which had been stuck together. The damp, once again, to blame. On top of the little pile was a photograph of her father, standing on top of the roof of the house. August, 1990, the date on the photo said.
To the edge of the photograph was a smudge that she first thought was a smashed ant. But she took it to the window to look closer and saw it was her own left arm with the teddy bear watch she’d asked her father to buy for her at Dubai airport duty free just before they’d boarded the flight to Bombay.
The following March, she was back home in Thrissur and inside the house the new doors and window frames and shutters gleamed. No more wood in all this, her father said over lunch just after she’d reached the house. Pest-resistant, solid fiber doors, with warranty cards.
Warranty cards, she said. Imagine.
We’ll do the balcony railings next.
Do you want me to put in some money?
No, no, he patted her hand. Basheer has sent some. He’s spoken to the contractor.
I could help.
Keep it, Nadira. If I need anything, I will ask.
Her mother took her to the bedroom and showed her the new bed with a flourish of the hand.
We couldn’t get rid of the ants, her mother said. We thought it would be best to just change the bed.
Did Basheer pay for this as well?
Her mother looked at her, a frown deepening on her broad forehead. Yes, he did.
She looked at the bed, solid and dependable, not a trace of an ant anywhere on it.
I could have bought this.
Her mother smiled. Of course. But it’s here now.
The house was so still that night that she thumped the side of the bed slowly to make some noise.
No busy insect hives in the door frames now. No ants building settlements in the beds.
Even the ceiling fans were hushed.
Outside, the frogs were quiet too, the dry season not to their liking so they didn’t croak, aware of the pointlessness of effort on their part.
A slight breeze wafted through the fronds of the coconut palms and she heard the odd bat flutter past, flying from mango tree to guava tree.
She hoped for a coconut to fall, too heavy for its drying stem. She stayed awake for its crash to resound through the neighborhood and the house. She could drowse off then, the echoes of the noise it would make lulling her to sleep.
She stayed awake for a long time.
Saudha Kasim is a writer and communications professional working in Bengaluru, India. Her short stories and essays have been published in Elle India, Cha, Out of Print, Eclectica, RIC Journal, Memoir Mixtapes, and elsewhere. She was a writer-in-residence at Sangam House in 2017-18. She's currently working on a novel.