27 June 2016

Two brothers pitted against some tiny ants!!

Part 1: Attack of the Ants

From the day my dad brought my mom and him back from the hospital – way back in 1971 – my brother has been the person I have been closest to all my life. Forty five years later, we are still almost inseparable. We talk every single day – even if for a couple of minutes. When in India, we travel together (usually he is the driver and I am the hapless guy clinging on to dear life :-)), we drink together and almost always in any family squabbles, we align our positions together.

I am going to see him today! There are way too many memories I have with him. The one that Sharmila and I often laugh about was how the two engineering brothers were almost shown up by a few tiny ants. It was a seventy two hour ordeal that had our heads scratching but we did come out on the top.

It was four years back. Almost to the day. I was visiting India with my family. We were at his place in Kolkata. As you can imagine, it was beastly hot. Sharmila, myself and the kids were sleeping in a room with air conditioning. And all of us were sleeping on the floor. That room has no bed – we just put extra mattresses on the floor and went off to sleep.

The fun started early in the morning. Suddenly, Nikita woke up saying ants were biting her. I thought it was most likely bedbugs. Switched on the lights and upon close inspection realized that there were indeed a few ants near the bed. Hearing all the commotion, my brother came in. We did some quick checking around the bed, cleared out the ants and the kids went back to sleep on the two sofas nearby. Sharmila, myself and my brother simply got out of bed and had tea sitting outside in the balcony.

My sister in law, when, she woke up and heard about it, could not be any more embarrassed. We told her to think nothing of it but she got the maid to clean out the whole room with phenyl, put the mattresses on the terrace in that beastly sunlight for the whole day and searched for any signs of food in the room like a hawk.

Except that next day, early morning, the same thing happened again!! Like clockwork at around 4am I woke up bitten by an ant!!. My sister in law was hopping mad about the whole thing and at that point of time, no ant – even if it was a hop, skip and jump away from her – had a flicker of a chance of survival as she hopped all over them 🙂 The girls just went back to the sofa to sleep. The nephews, who had woken up too, came by and started coming up with their own theories about the source of the ants while walking around dazed themselves.

That is when the day got interesting for the two brothers though. As the wife and sister in law started plotting their shopping plans for the day, my brother and I concluded that between us we had eight years of engineering studies. And this was our calling. We were going to get to the bottom of it. Where were the ants coming from?

Part 2: The Initial theory – where is the food?

At around 10am, everybody left. And the two brothers sat down to work. Wait – first we needed some tea. No amount of investigation is properly done without us drinking steaming hot tea all the time! Okay, now. First course of action was to move everything away from the floor. We reasoned that ants were always looking for food. (see, we are deceptively smart brothers, that way 🙂 ). So, there must have been some food in the room for them. Or at least the room was in their way to get to food elsewhere.

We swept the room clean and then waited. Sure enough! In ten minutes we could spot a few ants around the middle of the room. As an astute software engineer, I knew that half the problem of debugging was recreating the situation! We were in a good spot. Now, to carefully observe the ants and see the line they were toeing.

We hit a snag almost immediately. Try as we might, the ants were not filing in a queue. In fact, they seemed to be very confused and going all over. Plus they were to be found only in the center of the room. That made little sense .

At this point, I need to introduce you to something called “lakshman rekha”. I was introduced to it in India a few years back. It looks like a chalk. And you basically draw a line on the floor on it. What is amazing is that ants cannot cross it. If they come near it, they die. I have seen that with my own eyes. I am sure that chalk is filled with potent chemicals that are not allowed in any other country.

Part 3: Location! Location!! Location!!!

So the two of us went to the next logical step. If the ants were not coming in a line from somewhere in the corners of the room, we needed to figure out what location were they gathered around. With the “lakshman rekha” chalk that I talked about, we divided the whole room into grids of two feet by two feet squares. And then went around inspecting square inch by square inch visually. Pacing up and down, with our hands behind our back. Much as I would surmise Sherlock Holmes would do in his days. No smoking pipes for us, though. Just hot tea 🙂

This move met with some success. Fifteen minutes later, we were able to pinpoint a few dead ants within a two feet by two feet block. Now the engineering brains went into overload. How come the ants were to be found only in the middle of the room only? Where are they coming from?

The most logical conclusion was that there must have been some cracks in the floor and they are coming up thru that. It was time to test that theory.

Part 4: The ants – they upped their ante!!

First came the visual inspection. Every single spot within that big square was inspected. We swept out that part of the floor again and then we took two sides of the square. And started continuous scanning from edge to edge – you know like those raster scanners!

“Any ants?”

That exchange continued for a few minutes till one of us yelled – “There is an ant!”
And the other one yelled “What the heck, where did it come from?”

“There is another!”

This was getting to be a one of those mysterious whodunits!! We spotted the ant suddenly but we did not see it emerging from anywhere! Taking a break to make some more tea, we told the ants – “Well, it is going to be your industriousness versus our perseverance in logical thinking”.

It was time to further subdivide the square. The big square was now divided into smaller squares with the “lakshman rekha” about two inches square each. By this time, we had our noses literally to the ground looking for minute cracks in the floor. My resourceful brother had already scared up a magnifying glass.

Here was the problem though. Mysteriously, ants continued to show up – as if from thin air! I had scanned that spot a second back – nothing. And yet, a second later, in front of my eyes – was an ant!! That was crazy! We had further narrowed down the space. Every few minutes, another ant would appear and very soon would die due to the “lakshman rekha”. (Not that a live ant would have been much of a help – there were no direct interrogation methods we could have used 🙂 ).

Part 5: Falling from the sky?

Wait, that was getting too complex. Ants mysteriously appearing on a small piece of floor space and there were no cracks?

“You think they are falling from the ceiling?”, I asked.
My brother looked up.
“Maybe from the fan,” he said. “You know what? There must be a dead insect on the fan. We have not been using the fan since we are using the air conditioning. I bet that is where they are dropping from”.

Now, how do you test that? How do you get up to the ceiling fan? We needed a ladder.
“”Our neighbor has a ladder”, he said.

“Wait! Before asking them, let’s make sure they are falling from the top. How do we separate the bottom from the top? Do you have a white towel or a white piece of cloth?”, I asked.

At this point, the family had come back from one round of shopping. They came inside the room. Had the heartiest laugh looking at the two brothers poring at a white piece of cloth looking for ants. They took a few pictures to prove the two brothers’ ridiculousness to posterity (which I have duly attached here) and then went back – no doubt for more shopping.

In the meanwhile, we figured, if we could spot ants appear on the top, they must have fallen from the top. If we saw them crawling – especially near the edges of the towel, that meant they were coming from the bottom.

And with baited breath, we kept staring at the white towel.

“There it is”, I yelled. It appeared like a small black dot at first. And then expanded into an ant.

The brothers felt triumphant. They ants were falling from the top. That is why they were curled up into a ball when the appeared.

Knock! Knock!!

“Ma’m, can we borrow your ladder?”
“Sure! what’s going on?”

My brother, smart as he is, quickly calculated that “We are fighting a couple of ants” would not have been very convincing words. So he opted for “Oh! We want to clean the fans”.
Myself, smart as I am, was going “Idiot! They will think that you are making your brother from America clean your fans”.

Long story short, the jubilation of the brothers was cut short in about thirty minutes when we realized that there was not a trace of an ant or dead insects or anything remotely interesting to ants on the fan. And we had two dead flashlight batteries at the end of search to vouch for it.

Part 6: The lucky break

Ladder duly returned, we plopped back on the sofa. With more hot tea in hand, of course. Step by step, we went thru the logic of the search. We knew that they appeared only in a small place of the floor. We had eliminated the possibility of coming from the bottom. In fact, we had proof that they were falling from the top. Where could they possibly be coming from?

In the meanwhile, the hot tea was making me sweat already. Noticing that, my brother asked “Should I move the AC flow towards you?”.

“No, that is okay”, I said, casually glancing at the AC. I had almost taken the next sip when I yelled “Pinku! I think they are coming from the AC”.

My brother – I call him Pinku – was incredulous. How could they come from the AC? But he agreed. All theories have failed. Why not give the new theory a try?

Now imagine this – two brothers, standing in close quarters, holding a white piece of towel at the four ends right next to where the AC blower was. And every couple of minutes, was inspecting the towel. As silly as it could ever get.

But the silliness paid off. My brother was the first one to spot – “There it is!”. And there it was! Fruits of labor for six long hours!! The ants were indeed being blown into the room by the AC!!

A few more minutes of testing proved our latest theory to be totally on the mark.

The excitement, jubilation and sheer sense of achievement was making us quiver. We could not wait for the family to come back home to tell the story (On an aside, the entire family had a “Whatever” reaction to the discovery). My brother, in the meanwhile, started working on the solution.

A few minutes later, a quick patchwork involving a mosquito net and a few clothesline clips (see the picture) the blockade was set up. For good measure, the window sill below was marked with the “lakshman rekha” chalk thoroughly. That cup of tea that we sipped was the sweetest of them all as we watched the ants getting spewed from the AC once every couple of minutes, get caught by the net and slowly slide down to immediate death upon impact with the lakshman rekha!

Part 7: Almost done!

Nice showers and some snacks later, both of us headed to South City to partake of what we thought were thoroughly deserved alcohol with Sharmila and my sister in law in tow. The kids stayed back to watch something. The scene at the bar table was one of complete mirth as we regaled in telling the whole story to our wives. While both of them thought that it was ridiculous – but funny, we thought that it was the ultimate vindication of our parents’ money that they poured in for us to get our engineering degrees.

And somewhere, my sister in law asked “But how are they getting inside the AC?”


My brother and I stared at each other with our half finished glasses! How the heck were they getting there to begin with? See, we, engineers are not about asking questions. We are about finding answers. We leave all the questioning to our wives 🙂

Sharmila thought we did not have to go further. We disagreed.

Part 8: Epilogue

Next morning, the ladder against the outer wall, two brothers scaled the window sills and then realized something. The AC, working thru the night, would have a few cold parts exposed on the outside. The terrible humidity would condense and drop as cold drops of water. The industrious ants – awake early in the morning – would stay close to the water line avoiding the direct sunlight (I assumed it was cooler) and in a line would file along. Some of the curious ones were straying from the line and getting inside the AC. And eventually they were getting spit out from the other side!!

For a moment, I asked my brother “Should we open up the AC to see how they are making thru it alive on the other end?”

He suggested that we only finished our bachelor’s degree in engineering. Maybe we should leave some problems for those who did a master’s degree.

I concurred.


Posted June 27, 2016 by Rajib Roy in category "Family in India", "Vacations

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