CHENNAI: I was lying full-length on the ground one morning — and although this is my natural state when I lose myself in my tablet, opportunities to loll about on the varappu of rice fields wasn’t something I’d had before. As for why I was indulging in this pastime? My mother was giving me an impromptu lesson in the various stages of rice growth.
Unlike some of my schoolteachers who’d either sent me into a state of pleasurable drowsiness or induced hammer-strength migraines, my mother had a knack for making lessons interesting but in this instance, even what she had to say about rice grains and rats faded away from my consciousness, for I was watching something else: insects.
Such wholesale interest in creepy-crawlies might seem weird — especially as my only interaction with bugs in the city had been to hunt for a broom the moment I spied a cockroach, but an intensive course of Gerald Durrell’s Corfu adventures had opened my mind. My first serious insect-encounter on the farm happened one afternoon, when I spied a dragonfly atop a large, leafy kambu plant. I’d seen them in plenty before but not of such dimensions, with delicately structured, transparent wings. He was clutching the top of the kambu crop, buffeted by the winds; the way he hung on for dear life like a man bouncing on a bronco was impressive. The next time I spotted a dragonfly was at our own front door: a gorgeous, well-proportioned gentleman, all brown, gold, and calmly asleep — having crossed his arms over his head, first!
After this, I began to look for insects of all kinds whenever I could. We’d acquired a new part-time employee called Ettiyaan who’d immediately pointed out the presence of tiny insects called “Pugaiyaan” which frequently attacked rice-stalks; while my mother worried about the damage, I nosed amidst rice stalks. We’d recently introduced the Azolla, a tiny aquatic weed which increased nitrogen in fields, while also used as fodder and even salad ingredient. Between tiny ferns I caught sight of elegant water-striders stalking by; lynx spiders scurrying along the banks; jewel beetles lurking amidst the grass, their brilliant neon green backs flashing against miniscule pink and violet flowers; earthworms, crickets; grass-hoppers and a huge, hulking black-brown beetle, the Jabba Hutt, it seemed, of the insect world — appropriately called gandamirugam poochi by locals.
“You should have sprayed DAP,” Ettiyaan counseled irritably, as he waded through our fields. “That would have taken care of —”
“Why are there so many dragonflies buzzing at the base of the rice stalks?” I asked, curious, having observed this phenomenon. “Because of the water?” “Could be,” Ettiyaan answered dismissively — and then bent suddenly, peering at the rice. “Well, I’ll be damned.” He squinted at us, awed. “Those dragonflies are eating the Pugaiyaan insects!”.
(The writer is a journalist, artist, translator, historian and editor but not necessarily in that order)