Cockroach Hotel

Looking for a place to live in any city on a tight budget is usually tough, but doing it in Delhi can really kick the spit out of you with a steel-toed boot.

After a morning of peering into the dank and dripping concrete warrens that litter Delhi’s backstreets, I was a walking sigh. Shabbily constructed, rapidly decomposing, cramped, cold, grease-stained walls like archeological sites of dinners past, leases signed in desperate necessity or existential fatalism under the sullen light of fluorescent bulbs.

It was December and the current occupiers wore woolen hats and scarves in their living rooms. Christmas Day 2011 was colder in Delhi than in London. A grubby pollution-sucking Jack the Ripper fog sneaks into the bones, pricks the eyes and clenches the chest. Hurtling through this substance in an auto rickshaw at night, the driver bunched inside ear mufflers and headscarf, is like a journey in an apocalyptic cataract-lit dream.

Sharma, my broker, looked genuinely puzzled when I turned down the plywood bed and scratched plastic table set that came with the rent. “I’ve shown her all I have,” he complained to my Hindi speaking friend. “What does she want?” My progressive seasoned traveler image melted into fussy Memsahib throwback.

I didn’t think I was asking much. A window that looked out onto something other than a brick wall 3 feet from the glass, a window with glass IN it, a fan, a shower (not just a tap), and a decent landlord who would allow me to install an AC when the temperatures get above 39 degrees. I wasn’t even asking for a geyser (what Indians endearingly call water heaters).

When I found a place that met one or two of my requirements (accommodating landlord and….erm, maybe that was it) I signed the agreement (under the sullen light). I’d found an apartment around the corner that was under construction and planned to move there on March 1st. My temporary place was set to be demolished in a month, so my landlord was keen to rent it and get an unexpected installment as it’s hard to find tenants for such a short stay. I was there for 6 weeks in the end, during which time I got a head cold followed by a viral infection, fought off light deprivation induced depression, was evicted by the police and forced to leave the city (and then invited back), and (unknowingly) spent one of the most uncomfortable evenings of my life waiting for a bus at a well-known prostitute pickup point. But all this another time….

Because I have moved and it’s a miracle. Never mind all the things that have gone wrong or weren’t done right in the first place, or are bound to go wrong in the future. I have a balcony. I have windows with actual daylight that comes through them. I have a shower. Oh, and stowaways.

In my last place, I’d noticed a bunch of small cockroaches scurrying around, but didn’t think much about it, since there didn’t seem too many of them, plus I had just re-viewed Wall-E with its animated plucky cockroach character. When I set up the kitchen in my new place, there they were again. I knew there hadn’t been cockroaches when I first moved in. I’d checked. They must have stowed away in something during the move. But what? I spent yesterday evening on my hands and knees on the kitchen floor, catching them and throwing them onto the leaves of the neem tree that (gratefully) grows up to my balcony. I got pretty good at it too. But I couldn’t figure out where they were all coming from. I’d noticed that they liked to hide under the electric kettle, and recalled finding the odd roach floating in my hot chocolate. I inspected the base (the part that you attach the kettle to) and noticed 3 small slits on the underside. A tiny pair of feelers waved at me from one of them.

I took the base outside and began to shake it, and one by one, cockroaches galore fell out. I looked more closely at the electric kettle base. It looked almost identical to the cockroach traps you can buy in the US that let the cockroaches in but not out (don’t ask me how it works). They call them Cockroach Hotels (They can check out any time they like, but….”)  It dawned on me that my electric kettle had been an actual cockroach hotel. I felt a small pang of regret that I’d shown them the door so unceremoniously. But I got over it.

About subincontinentia

writer and eternal optimist
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