I have always been suspicious of white ants.
Not that I have tangled much with them, but nothing that you read and learn about them can be considered inspiring.
I mean , the black ants variety is much like me, walking a straight path, industriously trudging about, organizing food, making folks think I am working, when actually gallivanting with large groups of friends, with uncontrollable diversions when sweet sugary food items are sighted. Occasionally all that moving of earthy stuff results in formations of ant hills; similar to what people living in Mumbai do, when they take group initiatives in forming innovative, default housing, which the powers then patronize at election time.
But the white variety, officially referred to as termites, are like politicians. They have leaders, workers, queens who send messages to some other functionaries who with tiny antennas decode these messages. In actions reminiscent of powerful types around us, they greedily seek, grab, and amass food, all the while gnawing the life out of solid wooden upright structures, and make important documents useless, by vandalizing them.
At this point I must add that my position as the sole family person handling paperwork post passing away of parents, sometimes snows me under with paper documents. One leaves things in a hurry in some desk or cupboard, and forgets to retrieve them for sometime.
Such a thing happened when I recently collected these documents (FD's or fixed deposit receipts), for further processing at a bank. The heart missed a beat on seeing a fine powder of stuff spread around the various envelopes. Tachycardia almost happened when I opened the envelope to see two FD receipts with artistically eaten gaps , fine powder sitting at the envelope edges, and some minute white creatures resting in false poses of gluttonous somnolence, due to what some may call their sedentary lifestyle.
These were not even in my name. And the entire lot was in small pieces on the top part of each receipt with the lower part showing recent activity of renewed vigour from the creatures.
My first impulse was to clean out the entire cupboard, sort out the destroyed and semi destroyed stuff, and then conduct a massive anti termite treatment there and in the environs.
(The building where I live, is Institutional housing where anti termite stuff has been done at foundation time , and for 18 years I believed it, because I didn't see any termites around. Turns out that termites don't just climb upwards from the soil; they actually fly in organized hierarchical swarms, settle mostly in damp and hot conditions in places where they feel a killing can be made, drop their wings in a blink of an eye, and settle down for a life of gnawing the life out of innocent stuff, like cupboards. Reminds me of some folks whose name appears in newspapers, but never mind.)
I immediately kind of shoved the financial remnants into a Ziploc bag, and a few days ago, visited the bank in Pune where they were issued, Some erstwhile previous smart behaviour had resulted in a photocopy of one of the receipts.
I was a bit skeptical of the bank's official reaction, as there is a tradition of tangling with this bank over some years. Some folks there think I am bad news, some get alarmed when I land up , that too just once or twice a year. Some take their tea break when I go to see some official.
My late father was in the habit of minutely inspecting entries, was hard of hearing, and every time he berated them, it happened in a very loud voice ( as happens with hard of hearing geriatric folks in their 80's), and everyone in the bank , including other customers listened in. I've inherited some of that DNA in spirit, and some folks were looking in extra serious fashion at their screens /ledgers as I approached the desk.
Over the years, I suppose I have become more tolerant, particularly when its my fault :-)
The lady at the FD counter was dealing with a customer. I waited my turn.
"Yes ? What can I do for you ?" A brave smile.
" I have this really terrible problem ...." I hold up the plastic bag, with a a sheet inside.
"Oh ! What happened ? " Now the lady is really intrigued, and sympathetically geared.
"I have these two FD receipts, but the white ants have been eating them into pieces, and I am here with the pieces, as well as a xerox of one of the receipts which I just happen to have. " I opened the Ziploc and emptied the stuff onto a sheet on the counter.
Several staff suddenly left their screens and ledgers, to converge around the sheet. The lady clerk, placed it on her desk to investigate, then paced it right back on the counter, and asked me to talk to their Section Head. They had never seen anything like this, maybe in the history of the bank.
I put on my best stupid and troubled face and approached the Section Head. (Some folks think that is very natural).
He couldn't understand my language, Marathi, and asked me to explain in Hindi. He looked at all the ruins of the FD, and noticed some numbers that made his mouth twitch. He keyed them in to the system, and then looked up.
"Madam, can you take all this stuff away , and reconstruct what is left of each FD by sticking stuff on a sheet of paper , and submit it to me ? " He looks up.
Customer service in Indian banks does not include giving you papers and gum bottles. It is for "staff only". But unusual times ask for unusual risks.
"Sir, could I ask your office for two waste printer sheets, and an old bottle of gum ? The damp of the monsoon may further disintegrate the paper if I go out. " He agrees.
I sit at a central table meant for customers, and solve the FD jigsaw puzzle placing the fraying pieces this way and that , and finally come up with two sheets with FD receipts that look that they have emerged from a war. I am asked to write a covering letter . I approach the section head , watched by the very curious bank staff.
"Ma'am, these FD's have matured two moths ago, and have been auto renewed by our system. Had this not been so, you would have had to do a very complicated procedure getting notarized signatures of all the holders on indemnity bonds etc, for issuance of duplicate receipts. Please hand these to the clerk, and she will issue you the new receipts".
I couldn't believe my luck. The signatories were in a another country, and I had done this kind of long range processing before to know what a hassle it was. I had had my full share of affidavits and court stamps and standing in lines. Maybe the planets were behaving this time. The bank was actually helping . Hurrah!
"Ma'm, they said to give you this", and I handed over the stuff, to the earlier lady clerk. She accepted it and went through the pages, and notings by the section head. Whipped out some very thick ledgers, checked some stuff, and nodded. She asked me to wait. Be seated.
I just waited there. Everything was happening too fast. She made some entries on the screen. Checked some more stuff. Suddenly she scratched her arm and thighs, and looked up.
"Are you sure these white ants are not flying around ? I am suddenly itching. Maybe some stuff kind of descended on me from the FD's..." and she started brushing off imaginary stuff, with an alarmed look.
"Not to worry. I sprayed the stuff before I put it in the bag, which I also sprayed. The ones on the FD are dead , because this has been in the Ziploc for a fortnight and had they been alive they would have chewed up the stuff to smithereens by now." Me.
" I guess , may be it's a psychological thing." Scratch. Scratch. Brush . Brush. She stands up and shakes her kurta.
About fifteen minutes later,I have my new renewed receipts. I thank the lady and walk over to the Section Head to wish him and convey my gratitude.
" Ma'am, its interesting. But your white ants , while marauding through the FD, left untouched the one number that is the key number that allowed me to trace the FD details. They ate up the FD number, the issue date, part of the holders names, maturity date, and even the amounts. And of course, the fact that these FD's have matured , helped." He shakes his head and smiles.
I am in a daze, as I walk out, with the bank probably glad to see my back, and probably wondering what I will come up with next.
But I am wondering.
Do the termites have any secret intelligence ? Have they evolved over the years ? Is it the result of Global Warming, and the damp monsoon pollution in Mumbai ? Do termite brains thrive on hydrocarbons in the air ?
How did they know they couldn't eat through the numerical key pertaining to both the FD's ? Do they have a psychological problem with some inks and numbers, not to speak of certain alphabets ?
Is someone doing some research on the Secret Life of Termites ? Or is it the Secret Life of White Ants ?
Do they follow the 33% reservation for women while deciding which FD's to ignore ( and attack a bit more lightly), given that two holders of this FD were women ? How do they decide which documents to attack in a cupboard full of books, printouts, CD covers, posters and stuff ?
Should I initiate research and publish a paper on " Investigations into the methylation of the DNA of Zootermopsis angusticollis (wood dwelling termites to you non technical types), and the possible development of the termite brain in times of Global Warming in the 21st century.." .......
Will I find some Inconvenient Truth ?