The total number of guests adds up to forty-odd. It is too many, yet Nishat and I are not prepared to drop any. I have just finished my PhD and we are leaving America to take up my new job in Saudi Arabia. It is time for celebration, it is time to say goodbye.
We now have to solve a couple of problems. First, we cannot accommodate so many guests in our university apartment. So, we decide to split it in to two events– about twenty invitees on each occasion. Second, Nishat needs a few large pots and pans for her cooking. She suggests that we borrow them from our Indian friends Topon and Deepa Mollik, who live a couple of miles down the road.
We fix the dates a week apart and make two guest lists with their phone numbers. We even decide who will call whom and what not. I cover the outdoor and some indoor preparation, like helping in the kitchen and with the cleaning. Nishat covers the bulk of the indoor work– the cooking and serving.
It is almost noon when I get off the university shuttle bus. On the hot summer’s day I begin to perspire, even after this shortest of a walk. Deepa opens the door and invites me in.
“Are you all moving?” I ask, seeing the entrance hall is full of boxes and pots and pans.
She laughs. “No. The exterminator came this morning, so we have this mess.”
I do not know about the rest of Texas, but cockroaches are a nuisance in Austin, particularly during the summer when it is hot and humid. And they are never just a few; there are probably dozens, invisible during the day. It is at night they come out, looking for food all over the place – in the kitchen stove, sinks, shelves, tables, garbage bins, floors and even the bathroom. We keep the kitchen and bathroom spotless, shiny clean, yet it does not help.
Despite their unpleasant looks, the cockroaches are interesting creatures with quite a few unique traits. They multiply exponentially, for the females will have up to forty babies at one time; they can live with little water and can go without food for a month; they may become thin but do not die of starvation for, like termites, their close cousins, they have a unique digestive system that allows them to eat almost anything, including paper, clothes and book binders; they can walk, jump and fly; their lightning reactions, armour-plated bodies and ability to hide themselves in all sorts of places make extermination virtually impossible. They prefer to live in warm, moist places and are more abundant in tropical areas. However, they can live in almost any environment. They have even been sighted at the Poles!
Cockroaches are one of the oldest surviving creatures (some 350 million years) and the only creature that can withstand radiation – they would not become extinct even in a nuclear catastrophe. To put things in perspective, they predate the very first known dinosaurs by150 million years and were around not only to watch their demise but also remain in our world to day in a nearly unchanged form. In fact, they’ve needed to evolve so little in all this time that fossils of the species are nearly identical to living specimens found today. None of the cockroach species is known to be listed as endangered. They are the most perfect of all creations and yet, ironically, sodespised.
Deepa asks me to take a seat and offers me a drink. I explain to her that I have got to run to catch the returning bus. She hands me two large paper bags containing the requested pots and pans.
I feel relieved to find that the bus has not yet arrived. There are a few students waiting at the bus stop. There is not much room left to take shelter from the hot sun. There isn’t much shade underneath the only barren tree, either. I put the bags down and stand near the tree trunk, hoping that the bus will arrive soon.
Something catches my eyes. I find a thin, malnourished cockroach, that has probably not had food for weeks, shuffling out of one of the bags. He obviously saved himself by hiding while the exterminators were rampaging all over the place.
With a sudden jolt, I throw him off the bag. He instantly jumps back on it, sensing burning sands and pebbles under his feet. This time I give a sharper jolt to throw him further away.
He is lost in a desert, with burning sands underneath and a glaring sun straight above his head, without any shade or water in sight, unless he sees a mirage miles away. He is weak, vulnerable and hapless. He may be the most perfect of all creations, but is still no match for this hostile environment. If his physiology is similar to that of humans, he will soon suffer from hallucinations and then run mad. At some point, he might collapse unconscious and eventually his respiratory system would fail.
Now here I am playing a game. Firstly, I throw this innocent creature into hellfire and then watch his fate unfold right before my eyes. Why? What right do I have to play with his fate? Does he not suffer? Does he not feel pain?
I push the bag in front of the cockroach. He jumps on it and instantly disappears into the safe haven through its wide-open top.
The bus comes in time and I pick up the bags. I do not think it will matter. What difference does it make if there is one more guest in the house among the dozens who have already made our kitchen their permanent den?
Tohon is an emerging short-story writer. He has published in the Star Weekend Magazine and Star Literature & Reviews pages.