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Red Ants and the Santali Boy

by K. L. Kamat

The shores of  the Bhagirati river not only have exotic views, but also provide education on human nature, the life of insects, and their co-existence.  The author narrates experiences while living in rural Bengal amongst the Santal tribals. Excerpted from  Kannada Original Iruveya Iruvu.
Experience occurred in 1969, in the village of Plassey in West Bengal.- Ed.

This Web page Last Updated on: May 09, 2017


Bengali Justice System

One day as I walked on the shores of the Bhagirati river in Plassey in Bengal, I heard a distant cry of a child. People on the beach started running towards the calling voice. I followed them expecting an accident, but what I saw was beyond my comprehension as an adult. A twelve year old  boy belonging to the Santal (a.k.a. Santhal) tribe was tied to a jackfruit tree and red ants were running all over him. They had sprinkled sweetened water on the boy's body to entice the ants. The ants either seduced by the sweets or by the blood of the boy, kept on biting him. The boy's body was fully swollen. I was shocked at the cruelty and asked around for the crime of the boy that deserved the punishment.

"The Santali boy must have had a delicious revenge!"

Most Bengalis have a pond (Pukura) in their backyard on which they raise fish. The Thakur's is the biggest pond in Plassey. He was raising a delicious variety of Katla fish in it. The Santal boy who lived in the tribal colony off the village, apparently wanted to taste this delicacy. The previous night he had come in secretly and fished in Thankur's pond. Another family who was jealous, informed the Thakur when he was at the marketplace and the Thakur had arranged the punishment. "Some justice system this!" I thought. I wondered where Thakur got all these ants and was told that one of the Thakur's servants had cut a branch of a tree to get them.

 Why should the man be so cruel a fellow human? That too to an unassuming boy? Why are all these people watching it as if it's an entertainment? What can I do?

Then I heard more noise approaching. A team of Santals (see: The Santals) were running towards us with axe and bamboo sticks shouting in foul language. Immediately the crowd disappeared, including the members of the Thakur's family and his servants. There was no one for the tribals to take revenge. So they destroyed everything in sight and liberated the boy.

While I did not want to take sides in a village fight, I was really concerned about the boy and followed the tribals to their habitat. They had laid him under a Ashwath tree on a mattress made with coconut leaves. Four women were rubbing hot ash to his body. The boy's pain knew no bounds and he was crying in heart-rendering voice. When they saw me (dressed in pants and shoes) they made room for me to approach the boy. The mother begged me "Babu, see what they did to my child. Do something and keep him alive." She burst into tears. I asked the ladies to stop the ash application and asked them to wipe him with wet cloth. After repeated wiping and spraying of soda water (an alkaline), he felt better. I asked them to keep doing it till the boy fell asleep.

The next morning, even before I woke up, someone knocked at the door. Now I had to pacify the Thakur's family, I thought. But when I opened the door, it was the boy's father with five bananas in his hands. "You came just in time to save my boy. His elder brother died by ant bites... I am ever grateful to you." I served him breakfast, and sent him away. Apparently he spread the words that I am a educated magician (shaman). Since then anyone stung with honeybees, attacked by wasps, or stung scorpions started coming to me for treatment. Most of them felt better after some pain relievers and antiseptics. I had to buy some primary medicine from Calcutta and store it for them. Then they started coming to me for snake bites, and would not listen to me that I am not a physician. They told me I have good luck. So it didn't matter what I gave them.


The Red Ants

During my morning walks on the shores of Bhagirati, once I noticed that the leaves of hibiscus were folded inwards. As I started watching closely, I noticed something walking on my hands. I ignored it thinking it was a spider whose territory I was encroaching. But the burning pain resulting from the bite announced that it was not a spider! I quickly went home and discovered that it was the same red ant that was released on the Santali boy. For experimentation, I let the ant bite me again, and watched the process through a lens. It bit me with all its strength as if there is no tomorrow. As I tried to separate it from my skin, it would not let go. Due to the formic acid in its bite, the point of contact was swollen for three hours and it pained for a whole day. I shuddered about the pain the Santali boy had endured.

© K. L. Kamat
Ants Building a Leaf Building

Next day the same hibiscus plant was carrying a leaf sculpture. The leaves were folded into cones and stitched. There were red ants all over the plant making sure the sealing applied to the leaves was tight. More ants were bringing in dead bodies.... The queen ant was pregnant.... But I was surprised there was no soldier ant. Probably because every ant in this colony was strong and had tough jaws, there was no need for the soldiers.

The subsequent day, I got an opportunity to watch the entire process. There was a team of pioneer ants who decided which leaves are best suited to fold and stitch. They chose the tender ones as matured leaves are harder to fold. Then the stitching team was aligned on either side of the leaf. A third team would bend the leaves by biting the edges and moving in a direction. Sometimes some ants dangled in the air holding the two edges. Many a times they had to redo the work.

Then some ants went and fetched young ants. When some pressure was applied to young ants, I found that they produce a type glue which the seniors used to glue the edges of the leaves. The superglue dried in no time. Meanwhile some other ants already working on building windows, doors, etc. Then they went on to work on next leaf.

I was curious to know the internal structure of this leaf building and opened it after wearing gloves. Their emergency response is truly commendable. Every time I opened it, within a few minutes they would repair it. Inside the habitat, the queen ant had the biggest room. Most of the place was occupied by food. All the worker ants shared a small room.

As the leaf turns brown, the ants abandoned the nest, and built a new one. Sometimes they migrated like a circus company, everyone working in parallel. They completely eliminate other insects residing in the neighborhood due to their enormous need for food. So in Bengal, it is common to buy red ant nests to control other insect attacks. 

One day the Santali boy that I helped brought me a big nest of the red ants. I asked him why he was even getting into the proximity of these dreaded insects. "The nest has lots of ant eggs in it. If you deep fry them, they are very tasty!" he told me with a lot of saliva in his mouth. He asked me for a pot, opened the nest, and removed the yellow eggs which resembled pearls, into the pot. "Are you sure you don't want to try?" he confirmed before leaving. 

The Santali boy must have had a delicious revenge!

See Also:


The Ants and I
The Ants and I

The Queen AntAnt FightAnts Building a Leaf Building
Ants at WorkAnts at Work


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