Like all Indian phenomena, Indian cockroaches are extreme creatures.
Some live in kitchens, savoring spice residue on stoves and living in aromatic, smoky cracks in the shelves. Others live in toilets, surviving the pungent stink of digested Indian gastronomy and languishing in holes in the gridded tiled walls.
Like Indians after them, cockroaches realized many years ago, that there is simply no middle ground. Not if you wanted to survive. A study by the Cockroach Death Institute (CDI) in CKY89 had shown that a cockroach in the living room was 25 times more likely to be accidentally crushed than in the kitchen or the bathroom.
Over the course of history, the two populations of cockroaches had grown increasingly hostile towards each other. Something to do with a concept called sanitation.
Indian kitchens existed long before Indian toilets. So, for a long period of time, the kitchen roach had free reign to the resources of the home. Stove spillages, dry and wet trash, water from stagnant sinks, rotting fruits and vegetables, you name it. But then, Indians built toilets under the same roof as kitchens. And a whole new population of roaches moved in.
In CKY34, during the meeting of The Council of International Cockroach Welfare, the kitchen roaches staged multiple protests demanding rules that gave them first use rights to home resources. “We were here first,” they said, “and we will not let the newcomers take away what is rightfully ours.”. The toilet roaches, of course, formed their own secret underground organizations and conspired to overthrow the existing order.
The upshot was the now infamous Roach War of CKY40. Studies by the CDI revealed at least 40 lakh deaths on both sides of the war. Surprisingly, only around 10% of these were caused by cockroach infighting. Forced out of their hiding places, the roaches had come to the attention of the bigger creatures – humans. This had led to a spike in the usage of the notorious chemical weapon called Human Identification Threat (HIT). A famous photo from the war showed a toilet roach on her back, legs flailing wildly, struggling to breathe. In the background was an empty can of HIT in the trash amongst some soiled human baby diapers.
After the war, the CICW had laid down rigorous protocol for in-house cockroach movement and resource sharing. All cockroaches were to remain strictly within their cracks until 1:00ACM every day and return before 6:00ACM. Home resource usage was to be decided strictly on first-come-first–take basis and local Roach Dispute Bodies were set up to resolve any conflicts.
But the two sides remained wary of each other after the war. No toilet roach ventured within 5 feet of the kitchen and no kitchen roach ever left the kitchen.
The toilet roaches knew that the war numbers weren’t really accurate. HIT, due to its toxicity, had rarely been used in the kitchen and was responsible for far more toilet deaths than kitchen deaths. A far less toxic weapon, known as LXMR, was deployed in kitchens and rarely caused death or permanent disability.
One night, when it had been many years since a toilet roach had seen a kitchen roach and a kitchen roach had seen a toilet roach, Abbax T. from the toilet ran into Meens K. from the kitchen.
Meens was the most beautiful cockroach Abbax had seen in his life. A dusky dark red compared to his dirty light brown, Meens was sleek and long with a perfectly segmented thorax from which her slim, tender legs arose like the skilfully carved tendrils of a banana peel’s inside. And those antennae! What he wouldn’t give to brush his antennae against hers!
Meens first instinct was to run. Her father, who, lived behind the sugar dabba on the top shelf had warned her every day she went out to eat. “Remember,” he had said, “if you see one of them, you turn around and you run. As fast as you can.” So, she turned around to run.
“Wait!” Abbax chirped, “I won’t hurt you.”
Meens stopped and turned around. Ah, those antennae again. And now, facing him for the first time, he saw her beautiful face. No, not her face, her eyes. Amidst all the roachy detail, those eyes like black mustard seeds, so kitchen-like, so unlike his, so wonderful. He stared silently.
“Hi, I’m Abbax, from Toilet.”
Meens remained silent, ready to run.
“And you are…”
“Meens, from Kitchen.”
Cockroach legend doesn’t record the rest of the conversation. Instead, it tells us that Meens and Abbax continued to meet each night under the dining room table, behind the old teak chair, where they would be hidden from their warring families.
Meens’ grandfather had lost his life in the war, heroically taking a final stand against a swarm of toilet roaches that had cornered him under the kitchen sink. He had faced them with courage and had managed to kill five of them alone before he had died. His actions in the war had earned their family respect and repute, and they had since been living in the coveted space behind the sugar dabba. Abbax had lost his family in a HIT attack. The war had driven them into a vulnerable spot under the drain cover and one night a cursory spray had ended their lives. Abbax had stayed hidden and watched helplessly as his parents choked to death.
Their first kiss was gentle, a mild, quiet touching and rubbing of antennae. They made love under the fridge in a pheromonic heat that made their wings flutter and pulled them close together. Meens soon laid her eggs in a corner on the leg of the black fridge stand.
One night, when their eggs would hatch in a few days, Meens returned to the shelf to find her father waiting for her. His face said it all. He knew.
“All my life, I warned you”, he said, “yet I dreaded this moment. The day I would hear from someone else that my girl was with them. You don’t understand a father’s pain, Meens. It cuts deep when his community whispers about his daughter. After all that grandpa did. After all that we went through, you make me go through this?”
His antennae twitched and stood erect. Meens knew better than to speak. She bent her head and remained still.
“Don’t you dare come back here. This isn’t your home. You don’t belong.” His words plain, simple. His tone matter-of-fact, emotionless.
Meens stared, startled. It wasn’t that it was unjust. It wasn’t that it was unexpected. She was a female cockroach who had directly opposed an alpha male. She knew it came with certain traditional risks.
She was shocked that her father no longer considered her as his own. Whatever the circumstances, she had hoped for forgiveness from him. She thought that under all his stoicism and nationalism, he loved her. Now, it seemed he did not.
She threw herself on him with tears streaming down her face, begging to be accepted into his home once again. He pushed her away. And as they struggled on the edge of the sugar shelf, the kitchen light snapped on. Just as the human noticed the two dark red spots under the bright white light, Meens toppled. As she plunged onto the floor, her father skittered away.
The last thing Meens saw was the hexagonal design on the sole of a slipper, rapidly descending from above.
He had climbed a rotten onion in the trash the next day when he found her. Parts of her. Lying vivisected, decaying in a thick splash of coagulated blood. Her blood. A leg here, a segment there, an eye in a bunch of coriander stems. And there, her antennae, those antennae that had filled his days and his dreams, lying half-crushed in a coconut shell.
It took a while for his mind to catch up. And then, a million emotions erupted as a billion cells buzzed within, their electric pulses crawling like a bug on his body. In that moment, when time stood still, in that frame of existence where the seas of his feelings crashed against the benign sands of reason, he climbed out of the trash where his lover lay broken and began to walk.
To the kitchen. Defiance on his mind. Revenge on his mind.
Near the spice box, a kitchen roach sensed an unfamiliar presence. A strange scent. The smell of the aliens from the toilet. He turned around and noticed Abbax marching in, revenge on his mind.
Abbax reached the centre of the kitchen. And screamed. As loud as his waning strength would support him. From somewhere deep within his thorax, that soft segmented cavity that she had caressed so lovingly, arose a wail of anguish and anger. A battle cry, a mourning lover’s moan.
And slowly, the kitchen came to life. From cracks behind cupboards, from holes in the ceiling, from every tiny orifice, the kitchen exhaled Arthropoda. The clan going to battle. To punish the outsider who had dared to overstep their tenets and shatter the fragile peace of the system. At the head of the hoard, Abbax saw him.
Shatterer of dreams. Breaker of bonds. Upholder of honor.
In that moment when the walls of the kitchen turned a dirty insectile brown, when an army of hostility headed towards him, Abbax realised that he could no longer continue to exist in this world. This world where his love had no place.
Under the fridge, an egg hatched and a baby female roach emerged into this world. Neither kitchen, nor toilet. In a minute, she would crawl out into a maze of inscrutable mindsets, a universe designed to divide, a selfish world that was unabashed in its pride, unforgiving in its love and unmistakably Indian.
Sai Shriram is an aspiring writer from Bengaluru, India. His work explores themes of death, grief, guilt and more recently, love. He has previously been published in Brilliant Flash Fiction. While not writing, you can find his nose in a book and his head in the clouds. Despite what people say about his city, he enjoys driving around Bengaluru, drawing inspirations from the crowd. He believes in the transformative power of art and its ability to express deep, hidden truths. One day, he hopes to write a story that unites.
Shriram can be reached at email@example.com.