“Phenomenon” sounded better than “Cockroach”: no doubt that was part of it. Even while tackling the problem head-on, one’s mind slid away from the real thing in all its disgusting materiality; the hard, shiny carapace, the long, endlessly searching antennae, the swift, purposeful forward movement, all gave the impression of a sentient and malevolent tank, intent on its evil purpose (whatever that was; it didn’t do to look too closely into it). And in this case the Phenomenon was an infestation: not one tank, but an army of them, and an army that clearly had the positional advantage—at least, at the outset.
I don’t have a fear of insects in general, aside from this particular insect. Even uttering its name draws forth a shudder. My repulsion is so great that its source must lie buried deep in my unconscious, perhaps not even my own unconscious but my mother’s. Arriving in India for the first time with an infant daughter, laying her delicate, lovingly handmade baby clothes in freshly lined drawers, and opening them one day to find that a colony of cockroaches had established themselves there, flying out to greet her. When she found her baby daughter actually playing with these creatures, her horror knew no bounds, and it was this horror that I inherited, when, in my own childhood I reached out to retrieve a book from our best glass-fronted bookcase in Kharagpur only to find a nest of newborn, still-translucent cockroaches scattering in all directions; or when I had to get up in the night in Ratnagiri and run the gauntlet of a host of these armored arthropods lining the walls of the narrow corridor in close formation.
My mother flung herself into a tireless campaign to keep them at bay. Eradication was out of the question, so it was an endless struggle. Last thing every night, I remember, Mum poured boiling water down the drains in the kitchen, in hopes of preventing—or at least, deterring—them from swarming up out of them as soon as the lights were turned out. Deter them she did. Alas, when it was my turn, I was not as diligent.
The varieties that prevail in the Eastern megalopolis of the United States are smaller but no less of a menace. There, tough urban varieties combine into even stronger strains, with rapid-fire reflexes and resistant to pesticides. When we lived at White Pond in Concord in the late 1970s, a particularly virulent hybrid of New York City and Somerville, Massachusetts roaches were inadvertently imported into the cottage, hidden in the corrugations of the cardboard boxes used to pack Eve’s and my books. The new mega-breed that emerged was of an order that the pristine town of Concord, home of rustic Thoreau and transcendental Emerson, had neither seen nor even contemplated. The population explosion in the cottage, where no such creature had ever been seen before, was like that of an automobile going from a standstill to 100 miles per hour in less than twenty seconds. We were trying to lead a simple life on the shores of White Pond, using only natural materials and organically grown foods, doing as little harm to the Earth as possible. Naturally then, when first one, then five, then legions of these creatures seemed to spring forth overnight, we were taken by surprise and were unwilling to fight back with chemical pesticides. We hesitated, and our hesitation was our undoing; the super-strain saw their opportunity and swiftly seized the upper hand. In no time at all before they were in charge and we were on the run. It came to the point where they would not even wait until dark or until we had gone out: they would simply sachay out insolently in plain sight.
One day, when our friend Michael was visiting from New Mexico, the tide turned. I can pinpoint the exact moment. As I was ironing in the spare room that day I felt a prickling feeling at the back of my neck as if I were being watched. Indeed I was: I turned round to find a large cockroach looking me boldly in the eye as if challenging me to act. From that moment on it was war as, rapidly and with ruthless efficiency, we conducted our research and designed and implemented the Phenomenon Prevention Program, or PPP. Within a matter of hours of the start of the campaign we had regained the advantage and had the enemy on the run. Where just a few hours earlier they simply stepped fearlessly into the open, they now peered out from under cover of a picture frame, and looked cautiously in all directions before making a break across open ground to the next place of safety. But with the PPP, there was no safe place; although we were slow to get started, once aroused we pursued the program to the bitter end.
Here’s how I described the campaign some 20 years ago:
We began to systematically break up their strongholds, cut off their food and water supplies, remove vital bridges along their travel routes, and wipe out as many as possible.
Why “Phenomenon”, you might ask? Again, quoting the younger me:
We called them Phenomena because they had come to symbolize much more, they were “everything you know is wrong”, they were they were problems which were externalized through fear rather than those which are recognized and dealt with. They thrived on fear and tension; their central nervous systems sent any input of nervous energy straight to the muscle bundles in their legs and made them scurry.
In the end, we had removed everything we could but for one thing: heat. We had learned that although the Phenomena preferred temperatures between 68 and 84 degrees Fahrenheit (20 and 29 degrees Celsius), their eggs could survive in temperatures as low as 20° F for up to 10 days. Having come so far, it was impossible to contemplate not carrying the program to its conclusion, so when we learned that a cold snap was forecast, we drained the water pipes, shut off the electricity (they loved to recharge their batteries in the warm current of the electric clock), lined all the edges of the floors and counters with boric acid, and left for California. Three weeks later we returned to a blissful (if Arctic) Phenomenon-free existence, and I am happy to report that not a single specimen—nay, not even a shadow of an antenna—ever darkened our doors again. But never again did we relax our vigilance: we had learned our lesson and I hope never to have to undergo such an ordeal again.
Immediately following that successful campaign we began a period of our lives when we engaged actively in the movement against nuclear power and weapons. I wonder how much of the subconscious motivation for this next struggle came from the widespread belief that the only creature that was resistant enough to radiation to survive a nuclear war was the cockroach?