One morning, when Gregoralingam Samsamurthy woke from uneasy dreams of buxom maamis with big breasts and oiled black hair, he discovered that he had been changed in the night to a gigantic insect.
Yes, it was all there, he saw, lying on his back and looking down the length of his body through his compound eyes – the three pairs of jointed spiny legs, moving spasmodically; the relatively long antennae whipping back and forth, the mouth parts which he worked against each other in a futile attempt to lick his teeth.
“I’m an insect,” he thought. “Now how did that happen?”
Trying vainly to wriggle into a more comfortable position, he thought about how it might have occurred. “Perhaps,” he said to himself, “it was that woman in the dream with the very big – I mean the one who told me to quit bugging her when she caught me looking at her very big...! Well, if she didn’t want me to look at her she shouldn’t have walked around without anything on but panties, even if it was a dream.”
This train of thought gave way to another. “Assuming that this is not also a dream,” he thought, “I suppose I am actually an insect. This is a bit inconvenient. The kids in school won’t take too kindly to being taught by an insect. Especially in biology class,” he added, “they’re going to say they want to dissect me!”
The idea proved so distressing that he tried to find solace in the poster he’d bought from the bearded old Muslim man who had a stall in the lane behind Kumaramangalam Hardware Stores and sold porn books and photos under the counter. He’d bought the poster just yesterday in the evening and had intended to hide it away before sleeping, but had forgotten, and it stood propped up against the cupboard, the woman smiling coyly at him over her bared and, if truth be told, rather pendulous bosom. He couldn’t bend his head enough to see down to her exuberant thicket of pubic hair, but for some reason she no longer looked appealing at all. He wondered what he’d ever seen in her.
“Ayyo!” he thought. “Maybe I’ll only ever be sexually interested in insects again. I don’t even know how one would go about seducing a cockroach or a beetle, even supposing one could find one my size.” The thought was so appalling that he forgot to worry about the kids for some time. But the growing demands of his body brought his mind back to the situation.
“I had better get up now,” he thought. “It’s probably something like six in the morning and if I don’t get up soon I’ll be late for the morning tuitions.”
This proved to be easier said than done. His carapace, with its chitinous plates, was convex, inflexible, and proved difficult to manoeuvre on the soft mattress. He hated the mattress, but his mother had insisted on him putting the softest one in the house on his bed. “You work hard,” she’d informed him, as if he didn’t know that, “and you need to sleep comfortably.” So he’d had to take the accursed thing, which was so soft that it had always hurt his spine. Now, of course, he didn’t have a spine, but instead of giving him leverage to get up, it just led to his wriggling around like, well, a bug on its back.
As he lay wriggling, there was a knock at the door. “Perianna”. It was, of course, his sister Umaparvathi. “Perianna, your kaapi is ready. You should get up now. You’ll get late.” Samsamurthy waited, hoping she would go away, but Umaparvathi was a persistent girl, always had been. “Perianna,” she called, knocking at the door, “are you sick? Your kaapi is getting cold.”
Samsamurthy began to get exasperated with her voice. He’d never, he thought, noticed just how whiny it was, and he wished there was some way of making her shut up. But she just went on and on and on.
“Amma Appa,” she called, “Perianna is not answering. I think he may be sick.” This, quite predictably, brought Amma scurrying. “Kanna,” she called urgently. “Kanna, open the door. Are you ill?”
Samsamurthy attempted to deny this vigorously. Indeed, he was not ill. He was merely an insect. But all he managed was a kind of hissing noise through his spiracles.
“I can hear him coughing,” Umaparvathi said.
“Maybe he’s got the whooping cough,” Amma replied. “I can hear the whooping noise. I’m sure he’s got whooping cough. Get a doctor, quick.”
“What’s going on?” it was Appa’s voice, heard faintly. “Where’s my breakfast? What are you two doing outside the boy’s room? Why isn’t he up yet, anyway? He’s getting lazy; he needs a good beating, but you never let me hit him when it would have done some good.”
Samsamurthy listened to this peroration with mounting irritation, and tried without success to push himself upright in the bed. All this did was bring the poster into full view, dimples of cellulite, unkempt pubic puff, unshaven legs and all the rest of it. It provoked a moment of such pure nausea that he tried to close his eyes so as not to see it. But, not having eyelids, he couldn’t. Hissing with disgust, he sank back on the bed.
“Now I’ve had it,” he thought. “At least I hope I’ll be interested in female insects.”
There was a much louder banging on the door. “Get up!” Appa commanded. “You young ones have it too easy, disobeying your elders and betters. I’ve a good mind to break my walking stick across your back.”
“He’s sick,” Amma protested, in the whispery little voice which was all she dared use in counter to her husband. “He has whooping cough.”
“Whooping cough?” Appa yelled. “When I was his age I had malaria, and measles, and still I wasn’t ever one minute late getting up. Open, you! I tell you, if my dad had caught me locking my door, he’d have whipped the skin off me. I’ve been far too indulgent with him.”
“Appa,” Umaparvathi broke in. “The students are coming for morning tuition. I can see them from the window.”
There was a pause. “You get up,” Appa shouted. “You’re supposed to be a teacher, and you know that the tuition brings in more money than your salary, and you owe it to us to earn, and...”
With a convulsive movement, Samsamurthy rolled off the bed and fell on to the floor with a thud. Fortunately he fell the right way up and didn’t hurt himself too much. He was about to scuttle to the door and open it when he thought of the poster. His parents couldn’t be allowed to know that he had bought a nude poster. It wasn’t what good boys did – good bachelor boys weren’t even supposed to know or care what a naked woman was like. Even though the thought of a naked woman was enough now to make him puke, he went to it and yanked it down from where he’d propped it up on the wall. Not finding anywhere else to put it, he finally slid it under the bed.
Then he went over to the door, but he found himself labouring for breath, since his spiracles couldn’t oxygenate his tissues fast enough. Whistling like a boiling kettle, he heaved himself up to the door and somehow slipped the latch open.
Perhaps he should have known what would happen next. In his defence, though, he wasn’t exactly thinking straight.
Fortunately, though there was a stampede, nobody was hurt.
“I’ll go to Tirupathi Temple tomorrow,” Amma sobbed, “and shave my head. I’ll beg the Lord Balaji to cure him.”
It was later in the day. Samsamurthy was locked inside his room, his parents and sister whispering urgently outside. They’d phoned him sick at work, and sent away his tuition kids. Fortunately, none of them had caught a glimpse of the big insect or it would have been the talk of the town.
“I talked to the astrologer,” her husband said. “He says it’s because of the positions of Rahu and Ketu, and we shouldn’t do anything until the malign influence passes.” From inside his room, Samsamurthy could hear Appa’s urgent whisper. “Most of all,” he said, “we can’t let it out that this happened. Who would marry Umaparvathi then?”
“I don’t want to get married,” Umaparvathi said sullenly. “I want to become an engineer.”
Her parents ignored her. “This is what happens when we don’t keep tight control over children,” Appa said. “They go wild and then the gods get angry, and this kind of thing happens. I told you again and again, he needs to be beaten, but you would never let me put a hand on him. Now see where that gets you.”
Samsamurthy tried to protest, but only ended up hissing angrily.
“Listen to him!” Amma said. “The poor boy must be suffering. Now if only Lord Balaji takes pity on him then everything will be all right.”
“In any case,” Appa responded, “he has to recover quickly, so as to keep earning. We can’t risk his losing his job.”
“At a time like this,” Amma sobbed, “all you can think of is money?”
“Well, what do you suggest I think about? If he doesn’t recover, who’s going to earn? Do you expect me to go to work at my age?”
“I can work,” Umaparvathi declared. “I can easily get a salesgirl’s job in Muthuswamy and Sons. They pay well, and I can work in the evening, after school. All I’d have to do is give up music class. I hate music class anyway.”
Neither parent looked at her. “Your music class is important,” Amma said. “You’ll be able to get a better husband if you can sing. And I won’t let you go work somewhere like Muthuswamy where you can talk to boys.”
“The astrologer told me he’ll do some special calculations tonight,” Appa said to Amma. “He’ll be able to say when the influence of Rahu and Ketu will ease.”
“Give your brother some dosa to eat,” Amma told the girl. “He’ll be hungry and dosa is his favourite.”
The thought of dosa made Samsamurthy’s stomach turn over just as the naked woman in the poster had earlier, but he was hungry. Suddenly he realised he was famished. So when his sister pushed open the door and timidly slid a plate of dosa into the room, he made an attempt to eat. But he could not taste the food at all, and found it excessively crumbly – his mouth parts couldn’t handle it. So he flung it down again, and, disconsolately wandering about the room, suddenly he smelt something that felt to him like heaven. Throwing himself upon the bookcase, he pulled out the school textbooks, and, one by one, began to eat the paste binding the pages together.
Later, he had a sudden idea. He had heard Appa going out, stomping angrily across the floor, and knew he was going to the astrologer to find out what the reading had disclosed. Amma was sitting in front of her household shrine, praying loudly, and Umaparvathi had gone to evening music class. He decided to see if he could crawl up the wall and through the ventilator under the ceiling.
It turned out to be extremely easy. His spiny legs proved able to adhere easily to the plaster, and his broad but flat body squeezed without difficulty through the narrow space. He didn’t even have as much trouble breathing as he’d had down on the floor.
He squatted on the terrace of the building, looking out at the city, and especially at the big shopping complex opposite. Without too much difficulty, he thought, he’d be able to crawl across the intervening space and through ventilators like the one he’d just come through, all the better to find things he could eat, like the wonderful glue earlier in the day. He could even perhaps rob a safe or two and bring back the money, and leave it lying around, so his parents wouldn’t feel the pinch. He’d do it tomorrow, he thought. For tonight, it was enough that he knew he could do it.
After a while, he climbed back through the window, rooted around and ate a little more, and then went to sleep.
That night he had a dream. He was scuttling around in a huge room full of other insects, all of whom were very attractive and female. One particular lady cockroach drew his attention immediately, with her long sexy antennae and the come-hither look in her smouldering compound eyes. He ran after her, trying to caress her with his own antennae, but she kept on flicking him away. At last, with an angry hiss, she scuttled away faster than he could follow, squeezed through a hole in the floor, and disappeared. And when Samsamurthy looked around, he found that all the others had disappeared as well. He was alone.
He woke so bitterly disappointed that it was some time before he realised that his spine was aching. This was followed by the discovery that he had a spine, and a moment after that he realised that he had the usual four limbs again, and a nose and mouth and the rest of it. In the wan light of dawn, he saw that he was sprawled on top of his terrible soft mattress, human once more.
“Ayyaiyyo,” he said. “I wonder if I’m attracted to women again? There’s only one way to find out.”
Leaping up eagerly, he bent under the bed and pulled out the poster, his heart already thumping with excitement. And then, looking at it, he let out a hollow groan.
Sometime during the evening, he’d eaten most of it.
Inspired by, but with no apologies to, Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphosis.
Copyright B Purkayastha 2012