That evening, Momo didn't curl up under my table as she normally did. Instead, she lay down beside me. When I shut down my computer, the little dog sat up and looked pointedly at my bare feet. There was a scorpion inches away. I scooped it up on a piece of paper and flung it out the door.
This wasn't the first or last scorpion to be found in the house. Occasionally, we find the large greenish-black forest scorpion wandering across the floor. The Irula tribesmen don't take them seriously, so I've learnt not to be awed by their size or theatrically threatening display. Rarely, we find a stumpy, metallic black species whose identity I haven't pinned down. But the Indian red scorpion is more numerous and the one we fear the most.
The Reds make themselves comfortable in open book shelves, nestling in the depression between hard covers. Tiled and thatched roofs also make perfect scorpion hide-outs. When the creatures come out of crevices to hunt at night, they fall down on sleeping humans, and, sometimes, sting. A lot of children are known to die every year, their small bodies unable to resist the potent venom.
The vast majority of scorpion stings are non-fatal, but extremely painful. On the victim's arm, Rom places iodine and citric acid crystals, and adds a drop of water. The chemical reaction causes bubbling, a wisp of smoke to rise, and sharp pain. This dramatic show doesn't neutralise the venom; it's a psychological trick, a placebo. The victim experiences instant relief from intense pain.
Ironically, after years of living peacefully with Reds at home, I ran into one in the wild. Some years ago, a few friends, Rom and I camped on the sandy banks of Denwa river, Madhya Pradesh. Next morning, after breakfast, we began packing to leave. I was barefoot and planned to put on my shoes after we crossed the river. Suddenly, I fell forward, a sharp pain shooting from my little toe. There had been no thorns about and I looked around, puzzled. Sticking up out of the sand was the raised tail of a scorpion. Until then, I would never have thought of finding a scorpion at that time and at that place.
Rom scooped it up; it was a Red. Clearly I had stepped on it, pushing its whole body under the sand, and the critter had stung in self-defense. Others were concerned, but I was confident I was in no danger. It was an extremity, farthest away from the heart, and I wasn't a child. I just had to give the venom time to work its way into my system and be metabolised. As the pain crept up my leg, I thought one of us could have been stung on the face in our sleep. Scary thought.
The entire leg throbbed, I couldn't bear to touch it or even rest it on the ground. When everyone was ready to go, I hobbled using a stick as a crutch. Wading across the cold Denwa took the pain to greater heights. I wasn't sure if I would be able to climb up the steep slope. But there was no alternative way of getting out. Where was Rom's magic crystal kit when I needed it?
Golak, one of our friends, had a bad knee and was carrying painkillers. I popped a couple and slowly made the long climb up to civilisation. I was totally fine and free of pain in twenty-four hours.
A few months later, I described the experience to a doctor-friend who specialises in tropical medicine, and he was aghast at my nonchalance. Rom and I hadn't known the Red's venom can cause life-threatening complications, affecting the lungs and heart, even in adults. Some venom specialists consider the Red the deadliest scorpion in the world.
Momo is smart to be vigilant, unlike me, her sometimes dumb and blind mamma.