Homo Coleoptera

A short story

Leaving aside his beetle collection, most of Mr Ghosh´s prized possessions had been won in contests. Early on in life he had realised that all he had to do, once he had filled the form and cut along the dotted line, was to send in his entry and then simply will the prizes his way. When it came to contests, he had the willpower of a bull. Nine times out of ten it worked. He had paid for more than half his mortgage with prize money collected and saved over the years. The bank job paid for the other half. His second car had magically arrived at his doorstep one morning, some weeks after he had filled in a multiple answer questionnaire about a new brand of milk chocolate, and completed a slogan that said, "Milky Mints are the best because milk is for health and mint is for taste." It wouldn´t have mattered much had Mr Ghosh written, "Because they come in real handy when you want to throw up." He would have won the blue Esteem anyway. Simply because he had willed it to happen.

In fact, Mr Ghosh was sure, as he rubbed his cleanshaven chin with thin, artistic fingers, if most of the really good contests weren´t rigged to benefit some distant relation of the Managing Director, he´d have been a millionaire by now and would have travelled the globe twice over on airline-ticket prizes. Had he travelled the globe thus, thought Mr Ghosh dreamily, ensconced in his red armchair with The Further Expanded Beetle Encyclopaedia (opened at S – Scarabaeoida) on his lap, he would have been able to obtain the predaceous Diving Beetle from North America. He would have hunted for species of Amphizoidae in Tibet. And he wouldn´t have had to order the enormous, shiny, seven-inch long Africa] Goliath from the Coleoptera Collectors´ Society. What a beauty it was! He might have come upon it himself, crawling through the quiet leafy undergrowth of an African jungle. The Initial Sighting. The Stalk. The Inching Closer. A sudden, strong splutter of wings and six crawly legs frantically pawing at the still, humid air. And the giant would be his.

An unlikely persona, since Mr Ghosh, even if he had been able to afford it, had neither the pluck nor the endurance to go on any such expedition. But his years as a banker had produced in him the particular temperament (or perhaps it was the other way around) of a meticulous desktop researcher. And so Mr Ghosh´s head was filled with practically everything there was to know about beetles, from their antennae ("usually 11-segmented," he would clarify to anyone who cared to listen) to their mandibles ("often triangular in shape"), from their tensegmented abdomens ("though all ten segments are not externally visible always") to the thin little hairs ("sometimes not so thin") on their legs.

He had a formidable collection of beetles entrapped for posterity in a variety of glass-topped trays in his desk Painstakingly gathered over the years, the various shaped and sized creatures lay spread-eagled on their stomachs with long, silver pins thinly piercing each of the six delicate, angular legs, firmly fastening the shelly carcasses to the soft green board underneath. At the tail end of each beetle was a neat white label detailing the family that particular specimen belonged to. Arranged in rows so that they all faced the same direction, they were like so many phalanxes arrayed for battle, frozen in a state of suspended animation, held as if by a magical spell which, when lifted, would send them all scuttling up the board like tanks or whirring out the window like helicopter gunships. Only the prized African Goliath was awarded a small, glass-encased tray of its very own, where it lay in armoured splendour, its crisp covering never losing its sheen.

In the-silence of his curtained study where the columns of red material muffled out every sound save the steady ticking of the wall clock, Mr Ghosh would pore over his tomes, then pore over his collection, various facts, histories and explanations of beetle structure (bodily and familial) turning over in his mind. Occasionally he would remove the glass casing and thoughtfully nudge some of the less rare beetles with his pen. At other times he would just bend over other, more precious specimens, with a magnifying glass.

Mr Ghosh had another prized possession: often, he would call Mrs Ghosh his ladybird (family Coccinellidae, he would remark, playfully). She was indeed beautiful. And Mr Ghosh knew that, thanks to clever matchmaking by his parents, he had indeed been lucky. Mrs Ghosh´s hair was young and thick and black. When she left it loose, it cascaded about her round, shapely buttocks. Her skin was luminous and creamy, her eyes large and shapely, as expressive as a Bharat Natyam danseuse. Her bare waist, with just a hint of fat, showing through the drapes of the thin chiffon sarees she was so fond of, would make Mr ´Ghosh´s heart flutter like a moth. Her smile was sweet and wide, displaying pearly white teeth. And she cooked as if the soul of every master chef who had died and gone to heaven, had descended on her, playing out its culinary fantasies all over again. Mrs Ghosh was perfect.

And Mr Ghosh, try as he might to stop himself, was jealous. He loved his wife. And he couldn´t deny that his wife was always kind to him and never refused him anything. Except that she never seemed to understand her husband´s passion for beetles. When they married, three years ago, he had taken her eagerly by the hand to his desk and brought out his trays. She had flinched and shuddered as if the whole pack of them had suddenly come alive and flitted down her bare back. But apart from an appreciation of his collection, she had never denied Mr Ghosh anything. She supported him wholeheartedly, helping him concentrate on willing the prizes to come his way. She cooked delicious meals for him day after day. She never withheld her beautiful body from him. She would give herself to him without a murmur, wrapping  shapely legs around his thin, bony hips, smiling up at him as he grunted out his pleasure. She never shied away  when, looking up from his beetle collection, he felt a desire to touch a shapely breast as she bent over his desk with his evening tea-tray.

Yet, despite all this, Mr Ghosh knew that his wife was withholding her essential being from him. And that made him furious. He knew that in bed she could have wrapped her legs around him a little more tightly. He knew that her smile could have been wider and more inviting when he returned home every evening. He knew her lips could have been more yielding to his kisses. Worst of all, he had seen a special smile and sparkle in her eyes whenever she met his cousin Amolan at family gatherings. A sparkle and smile that was never directed at Mr Ghosh. After the obligatory circuit of the room was over, Amolan and Mrs Ghosh would inevitably end up in a corner together talking animatedly about God-knows-what, with Mrs Ghosh laughing at Amolan´s pathetic little jokes till her sides ached. Mr Ghosh had tried joining them a couple of ´times, but inevitably felt excluded. Amolan and Mrs Ghosh talked about films and books he knew little about. They laughed at jokes which Mr Ghosh didn´t find funny in the least. And their eyes seemed to know his smiles were halfhearted when he tried laughing with them. After a while Mr Ghosh gave up joining them, but continued to be secretly jealous and afraid. More so, because not only was Amolan young, handsome and a raconteur to boot, but he was also unemployed: his afternoons were free.

Mr Ghosh had begun to wish he had never won that second car in the Milky Mints contest. He didn´t know where his wife went in the afternoons in it. Quite possibly she went out with Amolan. At first it would be an innocent shopping excursion. Then maybe a matinee. Possibly they had graduated to having lunch and coffee. And then… At this point in his imaginings, Mr Ghosh would irritably go and spend the rest of the evening in the company of his beetles. And because he tended to be a coward, he never said anything. A cold fear had begun joining palms with his heated jealousy. He began to be afraid that she might leave him. And because his cowardice made him vindictive, he would often take the keys of the second car with him when he drove to work. In the evening he would pretend he had forgotten that they were in his pocket. When Mrs Ghosh put on her best saree to go out with him, he would tell her the colour didn´t suit her, and ask her to change so that she looked less attractive. At night he would give her painful love bites on her neck so that the next day she would have to leave her thick, black hair flowing down her back in order to hide the purple patches on her delicate skin. She couldn´t go out like that, and if Amolan visited her, thought Mr Ghosh grimly, he would see proof of Mr Ghosh´s authority. When Mrs Ghosh bent over his desk with his evening tea-tray, he would squeeze her breast brutally; he was quite sure it hurt.

She never said anything. But her large, dark eyes would look puzzled, and a thin crease would appear between the graceful sweep of her eyebrows. It was frustrating. Mr Ghosh wished she would say something, protest, so that he could tell her angrily that she was his, that her body was his. But she never did. And glowering angrily, he would spend evening after evening at his desk, his shiny bald patch bent over his shiny, spread-eagled beetles. At such times he would wish that Mrs Ghosh would shrink so that he could keep her in a bottle with airholes in the lid. Like a little live beetle. After dinner when they sat in their comfortable drawing room, their conversation was of the most mundane variety and even that began to dwindle away. While Mr Ghosh scoured various newspapers for contest opportunities, she would look silently through baby patterns in crochet magazines. Pretending, thought Mr Ghosh maliciously, that she was going to have a baby.

It was during one of those unbearable, interminable post-dinner silences when it first occurred to Mr Ghosh that he should try using his willpower to win another kind of contest. It was asif a little red switch in his brain had been casually but deftly flicked into the ´on´ position. If he won, it would be the victory of his life. There could be no real contest between the thin, angular and balding Mr Ghosh, and the handsome, youthful Amolan. This much Mr Ghosh grudgingly conceded. But he would win the contest as he had won every other. And in the same fell blow he would show Mrs Ghosh to whom she belonged. When the thought first slipped into his mind, it was as a kind of bitter fantasy. Looking over the top of his newspaper at his wife, he would imagine a tiny version of her sitting in the palm of his hand, like a mermaid stranded on a landlocked desert island. It gave him a strange pleasure to imagine her thus, and the thought almost never failed to bring a slight curl to his lip. When it first took shape as a serious idea, his heart had been jolted. Not so much by the ludicrousness of it all, as by the possibility that he was going insane. It was fantastically horrible that such a thought should occur to him and stay with him. But stay it did, like a not entirely unwelcome guest. Once it had slipped into his mind it gripped him like a pair of pincers. Like a predatory beetle it had wormed its way into his very core.

One evening, after dinner, he decided he would do it. He would bring to bear all his willpower in order to shrink his wife. She would be his in every way. In a glass bottle with airholes in the lid. Like a little live beetle. Like a stranded mermaid. When she had learned her lesson he would will her back to her original size again. Or then again, he might not. A little lump of pungent phlegm slid down Mr Ghosh´s throat, making his prominent Adam´s apple dip inside the sticky blackness.

In short, Mr Ghosh had reached a point in his jealous musings when it seemed more than likely to him that his fiendish, fantastic, impossible plan would work. There was no reason why it shouldn´t, he thought, when his willpower had helped him win every other contest. It was just that this contest was a little different. And the manner of winning, a little unusual. He thought it ironic and unfair to have to try and win back what was anyway rightfully his in the first place, but he really had no choice. It never occurred to him that Mrs Ghosh might not enjoy being shrunk and made to live in a glass jar with air holes on top. It never occurred to him that anyone might quite conceivably die of shock if such a thing ever happened to them.

So it was that he stopped looking through newspapers for new contests. He wanted to concentrate all his energies on winning this Contest of Contests. He was so absorbed in this task that he found it difficult to concentrate at work. Instead he constantly focused on mentally dissecting Mrs Ghosh and then willing her individual limbs, head, fingers, torso, to shrink. This went on for several weeks. Every morning he would wake up and look at his wife to see if she had begun shrinking. But Mrs Ghosh would be lying there in her pink nightdress, fast asleep, as innocent as an angel. And definitely, most positively, the same size as she had been the day before.

And as each morning commenced thus, Mr Ghosh would burn with frustration and despair. Each day his jealousy grew larger. He started making surprise telephone calls to his house. When the reply was only a monotonous ringing, he would concentrate on the shrinking process with the fury and vigour of a madman. If Mrs Ghosh picked up the phone, he would make up some unimportant question to ask her. At other times he would simply disconnect the line quietly. Then the thought struck him that even if she was at home, it was entirely possible that Amolan was with her. He would imagine Mrs Ghosh putting down the phone receiver while Amolan teased the little folds on her bare waist. And yet, how composed, how stealthily composed she looked when her husband returned home in the evening!

Soon Mr Ghosh could bear it no longer. The more he willed his wife to shrink, the more tortured his thoughts became. In his study, among the still red curtains that stood like somnolent monoliths, his evenings with his rows of beetles grew longer. He went up to bed later and later. He woke in the mornings earlier and earlier. He was losing vast amounts of sleep and energy due to his extraordinary feat of continuous concentration. And he ate with a vigorous appetite to replenish that energy. Soon Mrs Ghosh had to buy more rice, meat and vegetables during her weekly shopping. The more she cooked, the more her husband ate. She was an excellent cook and had no trouble serving up large quantities of Mr Ghosh´s favourite dishes. Potato curry. Fish curry. Biryanis of all kinds. Parathas. Samosas. Jalebis. He started carrying an abundance of food in his office tiffin. When everyone else was busy working at their desks, he would snack on high energy candy bars, surreptitiously and with enjoyment. Consequently, his chin grew thick. His shoulders forged an alliance with his head so that his neck all but disappeared. His waistline surged forward to meet his arms. His bony fingers acquired a bulbous globule of fat at each tip. His teeth grew yellow because of his nibbling chocolate in bed, too lazy to get up and brush his teeth before bedtime. In the span of a few months, Mr Ghosh flabbergasted everyone around him by going from thin and lanky, to fat and round. Only his head retained its small, bony shape so that it looked like a brown cherry perched on top of a giant chocolate fudge sundae. Compared to the rest of him, his arms seemed undergrown and thin. And, like all fat people, he started to look short. Mr Ghosh had never been a particularly sprightly man, but now he was positively sluggish. His mind, however, had never been more active. Day after day his willpower was on overdrive, forced and pushed beyond belief in the single-minded pursuit of his goal. He was driven relentlessly by the prospect of holding a stranded mermaid in the palm of his hand. And all the time, while he thought, willed and concentrated, he ate.

One morning, several months after Mr Ghosh had hatched his fiendish plan to possess his wife forever, Mrs Ghosh woke up earlier than usual. She looked at the alarm clock on her bedside table and saw that it was only five o´clock. She was surprised. She liked to sleep late in the mornings and never woke before seven when it was time to prepare Mr Ghosh´s breakfast. After he had left for office she would have another snooze till about ninethirty, read the papers till ten, and then go into the bathroom for a hot, luxurious shower which lasted well over twenty minutes. This being Mrs Ghosh´s morning temperament, she felt rather annoyed at feeling so wideawake at this odd, early hour. She licked the stale sleep off her beautiful, pouting lips and lay on her back, trying to relax her body so that she could fall asleep again. But she couldn´t sleep and she couldn´t relax. There was a funny feeling inside her. Not quite nausea. But definitely an uneasy sensation. As if something was going to happen. A few minutes later, feeling distinctly uncomfortable, she turned to wake Mr Ghosh. He wasn´t there. His green pajamas were there, laid out neatly like a deflated, green balloon.

Mrs Ghosh sat up in bed in wonder, and then gave a little scream. A small brown beetle was lying on Mr Ghosh´s pillow, spread-eagled on its back with its little legs HRdcking furiously in the air.

It was all over very quickly after that: she reached for the can of pesticide she always kept under her bed, and sprayed for all she was worth. At first the little legs had kicked even more frantically, but after a while they slowed down, as if they were tired. Finally, they lay quite still and a silence filled the room. That was when Mrs Ghosh, a handkerchief to her nose, realised that the small hum that had filled the air while the beetle was alive, has stopped. She looked closely at the little creature and her expression changed.

Slowly, Mrs Ghosh got out of bed. In silence she picked up yesterday´s newspaper from the floor and walked across to the other side of the bed. Gently, but with a shaking hand, she scooped him up like a dead fly and stood looking down at the pudgy, naked body with the neck that had thickened into an extension of the shoulders. Fattened on her delicious curries and biryanis. The four angular limbs. Capped by the bulbous little cherry of a head.

After a while Mrs Ghosh slipped into her warm bedroom slippers and padded down the stairs. She opened the door to the still, red study and brought out the beetlelined trays. Methodically, she arranged them all on the desk and then stepped back thoughtfully, as if she were choosing a shade of lipstick. Then she brought out four thin, silver pins from a drawer and carefully added one more item to Mr Ghosh´s prized collection. "This is the best place for you," she whispered, softly. Then her beautiful lips parted to reveal a sparkling smile. Outside, the sun was just rising.

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Himal Southasian