The morose ranger rolled up his pant legs to reveal his secret protection: sheer black pantyhose. He feared leeches so much he even resorted to cross-dressing. I repressed a smile, and remembered the horror of my first leech bite.
Rom and I had trekked all morning through a forest to reach the top of a spectacular waterfall.
As I marvelled at the water crashing on the rocks below, I noticed a trickle of bright red blood between my toes. I unstrapped my walking sandals, and tried to pull off the slippery blood-gorged, grape-like leech.
Watching my desperate attempts, Rom said, “Let it be. It’ll fall off on its own.” Let it be? It was drinking my blood, for crying out loud! I managed to get it off my leg, but it stuck to my hand. Getting rid of it wasn’t easy. Like snot.
After I flicked it off, I watched with dismay as blood flowed freely from the wound – leech saliva has anti-coagulating enzymes – while Rom gushed on about the scenic beauty of the waterfall.
Forest villagers used their machetes to scrape leeches off their bare legs. Some applied snuff mixed with petroleum jelly, but most let the worms drink and drop. Researchers sprayed insecticide, but Rom worried that rains would wash these dangerous chemicals on to the forest floor.
I consoled myself, “It’s just a few drops of blood. I’m part of the food chain.” I learnt to ignore leech bites and they healed in less than 48 hours. Occasionally, I scratched the bites in my sleep and woke up the next morning to the horror of white bed sheets stained with blood in the homes of friends and tea estate guest houses.
I read about workers in Malaysian rubber plantations using ‘leech socks.’ Leeches can wriggle through knitted socks, but not through tightly woven cotton fabric.
Based on the description, my mother crafted large, green Christmas stockings that were fastened with a drawstring above the knee. In the early 1990s, Rom and I sashayed through the dark dense forests of the Western Ghats in our baggy leggings, setting a fashion trend. Now leech socks have become standard-issue rainforest accessory.
Before heading out on one forest walk, a colleague and Rom insisted leeches weren’t about, and there was no need to wear leech socks. Wouldn’t you know it? Zillions of leeches advanced towards us, the worst outbreak I had ever seen in my life. The leaf litter seemed to be alive and in a ravenous hurry to reach us, their buffet.
The men dashed through the forest, hoping to outrun the bloodsuckers, but instead they lost me. I had myself to blame. Kitted out in my leech socks, I was lagging behind.
The exhaustion and hunger brought macabre thoughts. If I fell down and broke my legs, how would I deal with the legions of leeches? Could they suck me dry? Such thoughts steadied my stumbling feet as I stepped over exposed roots.
An hour later, I was relieved when I found my way back. I expected the men to make amends for abandoning me. Instead, they were stripped down to their underwear, counting their leech bites. Rom grinned with pride when he won with a score of 132.
In reality, leeches are benign; they don’t transmit diseases. Snakes may be the symbol of medicine in the West. But in Hinduism, Dhanvantri, the physician of the gods, is portrayed with a leech in one of his hands. But the slimy worms are reviled, perhaps more than any other creature.
People display unbelievable cruelty to leeches — snipping them in half with scissors, burning them with cigarette butts, and sprinkling salt or insecticide on them — and take satisfaction as the itsy-bitsy creatures writhe to death. Some folks then hold forth on how farmers and villagers should learn to live with large dangerous animals, and express strong opinions against holding dolphins in captivity.
If it weren’t for leeches, I wouldn’t know such anomalies as cross-dressing straight men, devoted wife-deserters, or conservation-minded torturers.