Wednesday, 19 September 2012

The Night of the Centipede

It was in the late 1980s. I was travelling with my mama who was a veterinary doctor. We were at a bus depot, waiting. Nearby stood a woman, who was quietly weeping. I kept my eyes averted, unwilling to invade into another's private space, on public display, heaven knows under what private tragedy. But my mama on noticing her, went over to her, spoke a few words, then rushed to a nearby medical store and got a strip of tablets. He made her swallow a tablet with some water and left the remaining tablets with her. It seems this lady was standing under a tree, when a bee hive fell over her and the bees had badly stung her. Then I noticed the tell-tale black spots all over her face and arms. The poor woman was clearly in great pain.

Then the bus came and we all got into it. Within half an hour, the woman had stopped crying and clearly the pain of the stings had diminished. I was impressed. The tablet was Avil, an anti histamine. I made a mental note of it. Now my mother's home  - built on a half an acre plot, surrounded by flat grassland, teeming with insects, some of them poisonous- is in the outskirts of a town. Nearby plots those days had not been built over. I made a strong case for Avil,  much to my mother's amusement and stocked some of those tablets at home.

A few years later, I was visiting my mother. Our home was still in wilderness, but now we had telephone connection. By phone, we could order groceries or call for an auto rickshaw. But that day, the phone had gone dead. We had just gone to bed, and my bed was close to an open window. Now this has always a bone of contention between my mother and me. She wanted all the windows shut at night, while I used to sleep with an open window even in winter in Delhi. I am a sound sleeper but a stabbing/burning pain on my neck woke me up. I flicked the light switch on. There it was, on my pillow, a huge centipede, nearly a foot long. The next moment it lay squashed on the floor. The commotion woke the others- my mother, sister and grandmother and one by one they came into the room.
-I've been bitten by a centipede.
-My! What an ugly creature!
-You kept the window open. How many times I've told..
-Does it hurt?
-It is as bad as the worst pain that I have ever experienced..
It was a combination of stabbing and burning pain. The pain was maddening. I went and had a look in the mirror. I could see the bite mark.
-The phone is also dead. We could have asked for a medical opinion.
- Is centipede poisonous?
My grandmother started to hunt for information from book on home remedies that she had. My mother got the bottle of pepper corn from the kitchen and asked me to bite a few pepper corns. I couldn't taste anything. I remembered a friend of mine who was in a road accident and suffered concussions. She lost her sense of smell and the ability to taste chillies, though she could taste sweet, sour, salt, bitter. Tasting chillies is very close to being able to smell. So when one has bad cold, one's ability to smell is reduced and chillies are less hot. I remembered all this and was not unduly worried.
-Nowhere in this book is it mentioned that centipede is venomous. So nothing to worry..
This annoyed my mother.
-Can't you see that my daughter is not able to taste pepper.
-Don't worry, I am a full grown adult. This might have killed a baby or a small child. I am not dying. Now where is the Avil?
-Last time I had kept some of those tablets.
-But that was many many years ago. I must have thrown it after it was past expiry date.
By now my neck had begun to swell. In the middle of wilderness. Phone was dead, so auto could not be called. No neighbours. Hospital is about 3Km away. But no vehicle except a bicycle and I can't cycle. If you step outside, there was a real danger of stepping on a viper or a krait.

Now the point of writing all this was to capture this one particular moment - I knew that the bite was not venomous enough to kill me. But my neck was swelling at an alarming rate. Then one thought entered my head and before it could possess me, I put it aside. At that moment, I understood how people die of bites from non poisonous snakes. The thought was this - What if I am not able to breathe with my neck swelling like this?

My grandmother ground some paste of onion and turmeric and was applying it to the wound. My mother was making me chew and swallow pepper, which I could not taste. Three generations of females under a roof   and time for me to take charge.
-I will walk to the hospital with Rikki(our dog)
-Drink milk. It can counteract many poisons.
Half a bottle of pepper had vanished by then and I drank a glass of milk. Feeling nauseated I started hunting for a torch and the leash for the dog.

Then my grandmother rummaging in her medicine pouch produced an Avil tablet.

About 20 minutes after taking the tablet, I was able to taste the pepper. Then again the taste would disappear and reappear after chewing some more pepper corns. That night no one slept. The bite mark festered and took a few months to heal. It took a few years for the "dracula" marks to disappear.

Note added :
1. If bitten by a poisonous bug, wash the area with running water. Many of the insect venoms are unstable at high temperatures. So pouring hot water(but not so hot that you get scalded) over the bite mark may help.(Do not use this procedure for snake bite)
2. Any anti histamine like Avil is advised.
3.Sense of smell/taste is first to be affected. Do not panic.

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