Our White Mosquito Net Palace

A loving tribute to our protector against all things that buzz, bite and bother

Indu Balachandran Published Nov 12, 2020 14:19:32 IST
Our White Mosquito Net Palace Illustration by Siddhant Jumde

Every household I knew had one—a great, big, family-sized mosquito net. It was among the classic symbols of middle-class necessities in our ’60s childhood—a purchase as basic as the pressure cooker, the Godrej steel almirah and Pond’s talcum powder. This 12x12 feet gossamer nylon curtain was our ‘fortress of protection’, preventing us from waking up with red pockmarked faces the morning after, which even Pond’s would not hide.

Growing up in Bangalore, it was with a certain smugness that we regarded our city’s weather. The envy of the rest of India! Well, at least it was for my Madras cousins, who landed up every sweltering summer holiday, thrilled to be shivering on a May morning. But the sound of clapping as evening approached wasn’t applause for our climate—it was my cousins’ barehanded murder-spree among the swarms of singing mosquitoes that Bangalore was also famous for.

Mothers would scream as we left the doors wide open on our way to play in the streets after our evening tiffin and Ovaltine, rushing to shut the windows before 6 p.m. Usually, even this was too late and the stealthy marauders would have already snuck in, lying in wait to make a meal of us when we returned from play to enjoy our own pre-dinner snack.

 As bedtime drew near, and we busily fought over an after-dinner game of cards, ludo or mah-jong, my father would begin his important head-of-the-household duty—transforming the living room into a huge dorm for us noisy bunch of pre-teens.

 The first order of business was to lay out several makeshift beds on the floor, with cushions for pillows and my mother’s soft old saris for sheets. Next, he would bring down a huge, white bundle from the top of the Godrej—the made-to-order, giant koshu-valai—and proceed to construct our very own Mosquito-Net palace.

It was a precise, practised operation. The structure would be suspended with the help of a nada—a cord hastily pulled out of a sari petticoat or pyjama, or a ribbon from one of our braids. (My cousin Ambi was once admonished for readily offering up his brand new, sacred upanayanam thread that draped across his chest.) To ensure that the square tent made the perfect height to allow for a neat tuck-in, four points in the room— usually a convenient door latch—were predetermined to hold up the four ends of the nylon fort. Dad would then neatly spread the net over our many beds and, one by one, the corners would go up.

One corner however required him to perform a most memorable preamble— removing the sombre, framed portrait of his grandmother from the wall because the nail from which she hung was the perfect point on which to tie the final loop. Early next morning of course, she would regain her place next to our other ancestor. Somehow, even here, my distinguished, patriarchal great-grandfather was never disturbed for a bit of domestic help.

With our grand palace ready, it was time to set in motion an operation of super stealth and speed—each of us had to enter without our treacherous enemy infiltrating the premises too. Accompanied by raucous yells and laughs, the whole brood would enter one at a time. The few sneaky intruders would be quickly hunted down, their black bodies showing up against the white walls of our fortress—and with a CLAP! they would perish, leaving blood on the hands of a triumphant cousin, who’d immediately proclaim an exaggerated tally of kills.

Even the groundbreaking invention of the Tortoise-brand mosquito repelling incense coil never fully replaced our pest deterrent. Worried that we were gulping smoke in our sleep, or that the coil would topple and set us on fire, our parents stayed loyal to the net. An occasional rip would appear through wear and tear, but this emergency was easily dealt with by bunching up the area and deftly securing it with a clothespin.

Today, with oils and creams that smell less like dead insects and more like Cleopatra’s oils, and neat plug-in devices that promise us a ‘Good-Knight’s’ sleep, we may never see these elaborate containment chambers except perhaps in Satyajit Ray films.

But whenever the family gets together, a collective hysteria breaks out as we look back on those days. “Remember how your kolu paati [great grandmother] came off her lofty perch every night to make way for the net?” my cousin Bhavani recalls.

Our bewildered spouses and children look on, wondering what could be so funny, as a flood of nostalgia binds us in a hug of memories and we huddle again inside our gossamer chamber of white.

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