Image source: Google Images
I am petrified of leeches. The sight and even the mere mention of those ‘worm with suckers’ sends a shiver down my spine. My childhood memories are filled with images of tiny red leeches crawling across our lawn and verandah. We used to call them ‘cheena jook’ in Assamese, which meant, believe it or not, Chinese leech! Blame it on our penchant to attribute anything and everything to the Chinese.
We used to alternate between staying in Manas Wildlife Sanctuary and our grandmother’s place for schooling. It was no better in my grandmother’s place than in the jungle – there were plenty of the red cheena jooks at her place as well. It was a joint family and we were nine kids altogether. Every evening, after play time, we would return home and undergo a sharp examination of our feet. More often than not, one of us would be carrying home a member of the leech family. Loud exclamations would ensue, both from the carrier and the examiner, and soon an aunt or uncle would rush in with a spoonful of salt. For, salt is the nemesis of these blood-sucking, elasticky creatures. Some of it sprinkled over the ‘caught-red-handed’ leech and within moments, it would perish in a pool of blood.
Later when we left the jungle and settled down in Guwahati, a bustling city, I let out a sigh of relief. Surely those leeches can’t follow us here. My father looked around our new house premises and decided that it needed a lawn. So, he got two varieties of ‘lawn grass’ (actually known as Bermuda grass) and in no time we had a lush green cover on our plot. Our two little dogs were delighted as they detested doing their stuff in the bare, red soil. Plus, it was fun rolling about the grass. All was fine until one evening, one of the dogs came inside the house and started sneezing violently. Suddenly, something dropped out of his nostrils. A closer look at the red lump and the nightmare started all over again. This became a regular affair till my father got tired of hearing us wail along with the dogs (“Oh God! Lipsi has a leech up his nose! Do something, Deta!!”) and finally our lawns disappeared under a concrete cover.
Monsoons in our part of Guwahati were bad. There would be streams of water flowing across the road and some parts would resemble deep oceans. We had to walk quite a bit to reach our school bus stop, sloshing through those puddles. We were considered too young to walk to the bus stop alone and so our domestic help would accompany us. Once, he did not turn up at the bus stop and sis and I decided to walk home alone. We reached a patch where we had to take off our shoes and socks and waddle through shin-deep water. We had almost made through the water when sis said she felt something below her foot.
“It is soft and squishy,” she described.
I told her to lift up her foot and what I saw took my breath away. It was a greenish-bluish giant water leech stuck to the bottom of her foot. I had never seen anything like that even in the jungle, although I did hear of leeches that feasted on elephants. I was dumbstruck for a moment and then I started looking around for something to detach that horrible creature from my sis’s foot. Finally, I found a twig and started scraping away at her foot. The leech was stuck so hard that even the twig broke into half. Sis was meanwhile bawling away to the heavens. I scurried around for another twig, a sturdier one this time, and somehow managed to peel off the blood sucker. As if on cue, our domestic help appeared, after all the drama had subsided. Sis sported a black patch on that area where the leech was stuck for many days.
It has been years since I last came across a leech. In the meantime, I re-discovered my love for birding after marriage. Now, I have so many places on my list that I want to go and look for birds. Ironically, most of them are rain forests and marshy areas where several varieties of leeches thrive. In fact, I remember how my father would describe canopies filled with leeches and how they would drop on anyone who cared to pass below them. A few months back I had seen two birding enthusiasts dressed up in amazing gear, covered from head to toe, and wondered why such outfits were required. Later on, the husband broke the news to me that the area was infested with leeches (I think it was the Dehing-Patkai Wildlife Sanctuary, not sure though) and they kind of ‘rained’ down from tree leaves. Wow. So much for my birding dreams in rain forests.
But, despite my fear (illogical, some may say), the fact remains that leeches are actually not so villainous. They are quite an interesting class. Contrary to beliefs, most leech species do not feed on human blood, but instead prey on small invertebrates. And then, there are the medicinal uses – leech therapy! So, maybe when I see these creatures the next time, I will not cringe (hopefully) and instead act mature. And then, maybe I will outgrow my fear and actually shake them off nonchalantly when I roam about the rain forests and marshes looking for my birds. Cheers to that seemingly fantastic thought!