LIttle Red Ants on the hill

have lived in New York City for almost two decades now and I find the place so intriguing that it seems I have not lived here at all. The statement is so surreal even to me that I feel I need to search my inner self to find a response to this nagging desire to learn more about this city of the Big Apple. The name was coined way back at the beginning of the twentieth century when John J. Fitz Gerald, a sports writer, coined the phrase with reference to New York horse racing. The name stuck and was well liked by the young emerging American youth who ever threw a leg over a thoroughbred and dreamt about making it big at Big Apple. I ended up in the city when my son called me to join him when he found I had lost my home in the city of Srinagar and was now on my own in the capital city of Delhi living in a rented low cost apartment, called a Janata Flat, in a remote location and watched over by an old maid who cooked my meals and cleaned my laundry. Having lost my beautiful wife at a young age soon after we married our son, I lived some kind of an ascetic life in Srinagar where I was routinely visited by my relatives who had a fellow feeling and a soft corner for me in their sacred hearts. When I shifted to Delhi I lost all contact with them and in their own right they were settled at places unknown to me. I had a small pension and that was good enough for me to live the rest of my life until the routine was interrupted by my shifting to New York much to my own displeasure. But I could not convince my son that I was capable to live on with the meager attention by me to myself and to all my needs at an advancing age. I was fit as a fiddle at age 60 and mirthfully I chuckled to myself.

I have a very strong penchant for detail. I think it was my academic curriculum that is responsible for my sifting facts from a pile of debris. I have graduated in Mathematics and that is a subject that needs careful handling. It is a numbers game all along and these numbers can deliver a punch of facts that can result in awesome abilities at collecting evidence of order. That is why I worked for the Comptroller & Auditor General and got speedy promotions for my efficient abilities to audit accounts. I will never forget the day when our Math Professor brought us a device in the classroom that looked like an old model telephone in shape and size except that there was an LCD screen where the dial ring should have been and a numerical keypad that had numbers 1 to 9 and a 0 at the end with signs (+), (-), (x), (÷) and (=) for addition, subtraction, multiplication, division, and equal. He punched some numbers and then another and added these up by clicking the add-key and presto the answer was seen on the screen. At first sight I was impressed and that day we boys discussed the advance science has made to make life easier for the mankind. And now with advancements in technology and better scientific and more sophisticated equipment, it is today I find the impact it has had over generations of young children who can’t now add, subtract, multiply or divide without the aid of machines and who don’t do their tables by rote. The point I want to make is that my mind has been disciplined to look out for an order that is natural and that sustains scrutiny of anything happening around me. So much so I think the unending balancing of mathematical equations is akin to balancing life itself.

At first I thought I was a misfit in the society that I was now living in after having arrived at the alien shores. I soon figured out that I must adapt and do in Rome what the Romans do. Having felt there were curious eyes looking at me wherever I moved in Manhattan in New York, it made me feel uncomfortable. Or was I just imagining things. The city hosts to a composite culture with South East Asians closing with the ranks of immigrants after the English and the Irish, the Italians and the Israelis, the Chinese and the Japanese, the Arabs and the Greeks, the Koreans and the Taiwanese, and a whole assortment of citizens from all other places, big or small. I was just one of them and I could easily blend. Within just six months of stay in the city I found a solution. I bought myself a fedora hat at the Marks & Spencer’s and I bought a cane at another store. I was simply transformed to a person who belonged to this metropolis. I had solved a tricky mathematical problem that dealt with the human psychology and was immensely pleased with the results. I decided that putting on a little accent was also necessary. It wasn’t difficult for I had the capability of modulating my voice with techniques that I had learnt by singing the lyrical “bhajans” at home or in the temples of my faith. The clarity of speech and grammatical excellence came from the teachings of my college professors who were stalwarts in teaching the English language and were referred to as Lord Byron and Radio Kashmir as an honor title respectfully bestowed by the entire student community. What makes me self sufficient is a decent weekly allowance my son gives me to take care of my personal needs. This allows me a free movement in the Big Apple and I take care of my routine visits to places of interest around in the city. I can take a ride on the Metro and go anywhere I like and eat out at joints I feel welcomed. My favorite haunt is the Central Park where I spend my time taking a long walk or sitting on a bench and conversing with someone who is willing to listen to me or talk to me. I have come a long way away from home at Zaindar Mohalla, Habba Kadal and I want to enjoy my stay. My coming here was forced and just an accident of fate and a travesty of the times.

Right in the neighborhood where my son has his apartment there is a small hill that has a dense growth of trees over at the top overlooking the Railway Line that runs carriages from New York to Washington on one side and a small stream that runs on the other side. During the fall season the color of the leaves turns to a myriad colors of red and brown and the sight excites me immensely. That is because it reminds me of the Chinar trees back home with leaves turning red at the end of summer. The difference is in the vastness of the scene here which is overpowering and majestic. In fact the whole of New York State witnesses such grandeur and I often request my son to drive me around at this time of the season and let me savor these sights. But my going up that hill is a routine kind of exercise to keep my body in shape. The climb is not so steep and is just the right incline for me to effortlessly do a four mile walk up and down every morning. I don’t really care about the time it takes me to do this for I have all the time in the world. I am just pleased to see some other folks who do the same as I do and we nod at each other in greeting as we pass by. I often have the company of some squirrels who frolic around in the area and they have got used to my hand out of unshelled peanuts that I dish out as they follow me expectantly. I sit around on a bench and talk to them as they greedily watch out for the treat they get if they listen patiently to my prayers that I sing when alone with them. A small clearing in the middle at the top has been decorated with a few benches placed in a wide semi-circle where one can rest and enjoy the passage of the noisy stream below. Just ahead is a door-less wood cabin under a big tree that gives shelter if it rains. And it was one such day soon after 9/11 when I got caught up in a situation as it rained heavily. I took shelter there and patiently waited for the rain to stop and it did not. I was alone that day and the regulars had not turned up. They must have watched the weather channel and taken the cue. I had missed that weather forecast to which I am accustomed to now. And it was then that I witnessed a deluge of little red ants creeping all over the cabin and it appeared these creatures were trying to avoid the rain and in the process devour me up. Their advance was menacing and I got real frightened as I could not run away in the heavy downpour. I instantly thought of calling 911 on my cell phone and seek help from the authorities who would immediately respond to my call. May be then I would as well get a free ride back home without getting drenched in the downpour.

Ants have since long ago colonized the world and are present wherever humans are. They form colonies where they live in large territories and have two distinct members, the larger individual is the queen and the males are a bit smaller and are called drones. Together they make millions of offspring in just the minimum possible time. A queen can lay 3500 eggs every day for her entire life that spans for about five to six years, while the males live only for about four to five days after mating. All other ants are female workers, generally sterile, who build and repair the nest, care for the young, and find food supplies. There are thousands of species of ants that inhabit the world and they usually nest near moist areas such as river banks, watered lawns, or dead trees with hollow trunks and stay under objects like timber, rock or bricks and some of these are over in the hills where they can’t be disturbed. And now I was on the hill and under attack. I had not noticed the creatures as the fall leaves had hidden their advance and appeared as part of the landscape that did not vibrate until I saw the creatures active. These ants are also called the fire ants as their bite creates a sensation of being on fire when it stings. I started thinking fast as their advance did not slow down and the creatures must have smelt my presence that excited them ever more. It was then that I smelt something myself. A powerful stench was emanating from a close range and it appeared to be of rotten flesh. I had no way of examining the detail and was trying effectively to save myself from an imminent attack. I climbed over the pane-less window ledge that threw off my scent for a while but I knew the creatures would finally crawl up the cabin wall and though unable to kill the consequence would still be calamitous.

Post the bombing of the twin trade towers, that is now referred to as 9/11, the NYPD has become more vigilant and more aggressive towards incidents of terror that may come from any source and is very intolerant of people who create such a scare. I was scared I may be a source of anguish for the police department if I do call 911 for help. I waited and waited until it was past lunch time and I knew I would be missed at home for not being in time for lunch. I was right and my cell phone crackled and I had to explain my predicament. My son could not pick me up as he was quite some distance away and my daughter-in-law who just returned home after work had to leave to pick up the kids from school that was at the other end. I said I will manage on my own and that I was waiting for a slight improvement in the weather. Before long as the powerful stench in the area sent escape-from-the-scene signals to me I foolishly decided I should investigate.

What sent shivers down my spine was the sight of a dead human body, less than a furlong away, with a trail of the little red ants leading me directly to the site and thousands creeping all over it. When I came closer I found that it was perhaps hastily buried at the spot and that too not deep enough. The rain must have washed away the top layer exposing the rotting corpse. Now the panic in me heightened and in mortal fear I called 911 from my cell phone. In a jiffy I heard the calls of the siren approaching and hastily I positioned myself where I could be seen from the hill road that is used for emergency and fire services vehicles only. In less than five minutes I was spotted and in other few minutes more vehicles and an ambulance followed. The spot soon turned into a cordoned off area with police personnel spread all over. A uniformed officer approached me and heard my story until he was satisfied with my response. He asked me about my home address and to my utter good luck summoned a vehicle to drop me there with an assurance I would soon be called to the 13th precinct to record my statement.

It was only the next morning when I was still in bed and contemplating about my next move of going back to yesterdays’ scene that I saw my grandson rush in to my bedroom waiving the newspaper at me that carried front page news of what I went through on the previous day and my picture flashed across the column together with that of the victim whose identity so far was unclear to me. Now I remembered my picture being taken at the precinct last night when I was with the investigating team and the picture was accessed by the media. Reading through the column I realized that I had inadvertently helped the NYPD uncover the case of a terror suspect who was associated with the 9/11 and was on the most wanted list. I had kind of become an overnight celebrity and the New York Times had done some basic work on my profile and chances were I would soon be asked for an interview with them. And in fact that came true when shortly after breakfast I got a call from their office asking for an appointment. Following the incident the neighborhood was alive with TV crew with cameras that covered up the story in such a way that I was seen as the guy who had helped uncover something big. Flashes of my interview appeared on TV and there were debates if America had finally nailed the last link of suspects in the chain to 9/11 bombing. I had no idea, whatsoever, that all this would lead to such an exposure of my personality and suddenly I felt vulnerable. I spoke to the police chief about it and I was told not to worry and that I would be provided adequate security. I started getting calls from my acquaintances in America followed later by my relatives all over India asking for more information about this episode and praising me to help the US authorities in uncovering something big.

I would probably have never realized that coming from a small corner of the world and living an austere life in a social and peaceful environment in the most beautiful valley of Kashmir I could have been instrumental in unearthing of a terror scene in another country. I sure was an eyewitness to the bombing of the WTC in as much as I had seen smoke arise from the general direction of the site from my bedroom window on the morning of September 11 that is about 7-8 miles away, as the crow flies. And I visited the site later to pay my homage to all the innocent lives lost on that day. Notwithstanding the conspiracy theories making rounds after the event I still feel my involvement in the case was as a direct result of my encounter with the little red ants on the hill.
Shri BL Dhar was born and brought up at Srinagar. After completing his Master’s Degree in Mathematics he ventured out of the state and found a job in the Civil Aviation Department joining as a Gazetted Officer. His area of activity was at Delhi and Mumbai International airports. He was selected to undergo training at the school of aviation; Luxembourg under the UNDP program and later posted at the Corporate Headquarters in New Delhi. He had in the meantime joined the newly formed PSU, Airports Authority of India, from where he retired as a General Manager in 2000. He has written innumerable articles about aviation that was published in the house magazine. He is now settled in Delhi and keeps his interest alive in writing..
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Comments
A well knit story with attention to detail. No one will be able to say if all this is true or a figment of imagination. I will give it a 10 out of 10.
Added By Sabita Raina
Wonderful. I get a feeling this is my kind of a story.
Added By PN Saraf
Full of twists & turns. Brings out the feeling "Phir bhi dil hai hindustani".
Added By atul raina
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