The Rev. Heng Sure, our friend and Abbot of the Berkeley Buddhist Monastery, is forever reminding us to show compassion to all living beings. Emphasis on the all.
I’m the first to admit that I don’t always walk on this planet with the softest of footprints and my patterns of consumption (and ingestion) might cause some to reasonably question my fidelity to this precept. Still, I have always endeavored to be aware of my effects on this earth and I fully embrace the ethics (and, if pressed, the most basic metaphysics) behind the principle.
Or at least I did until last night.
Safely ensconced in the cozy womb of my netting, with repellant incense smoke still perfuming the air, I was awakened in the wee hours by the sound of mosquitoes spinning victory laps past my upturned ear. They were celebrating having just turned my body into a pin cushion. California cuisine: so much the tastier after the steady diet of South Indian they usually get.
Raking at my itchy skin with nails that doubtless still smelled of my evening’s dinner (fingers masala is tough to get rid of here), I found myself pondering that universal question: what would Charles Bronson do?
Kill the little fuckers!
And you know what? I’m OK with this.
Well, sort of. In a limited way.
Mossies certainly play a role in the food chains of certain aquatic ecosystems, at least in larvae form, by consuming floating algae that would otherwise reduce the oxygen content of standing water and by serving as three-squares for certain fish. But our earlier attempts to rid ourselves of the needle-nosed menace was contemptible for the toxicity overused chemicals introduced to fragile environments, and its spectacularly unstrategic execution; not because it triggered a doomsday reaction of species extinctions. Indeed, the goal should not to eliminate all of them – just a hell of a lot of them. Including the ones in my bedroom.
It would take some pretty creative science to show how the explosive increase of mosquito populations, particularly in developed areas, play meaningfully into the greater post-development ecology, such as it is. The mosquito is pure parasite in the urban context; and of doubtful value in non-wetland semi-developed rural settings. But the damage they cause is immense.
The World Health Organization estimates that mosquito-borne malaria infects nearly 500 million people each year, more than one million of whom – mostly children in Sub-Saharan African and South Asia – die from the disease.
On a less dramatic, but deeply personal note (tell WHO to get its own damn blog!), I estimate that I get bitten by mosquitoes not less than 8 times each day in South India, despite taking reasonable precautions, including wearing DEET on my skin (toxic, toxic, toxic!) as dusk approaches. In the short two months I will have been here, that adds to nearly five-hundred bites. Yoo-Mi probably gets more, and hers welt-up rather nastily.
Am I so evil for smashing the little suckers against the wall? Yeah, probably. But let me make the case for myself anyway.
The mossies are out to get me. This is beyond dispute. And it’s not just the look in their eye; I’ve heard them say it. Late at night. I swear. Don’t the mosquito’s violent attitude toward me, the certitude of discomfiture, and the possibility of disease, justify a seemingly-violent defense? And am I not doing less violence by eliminating the possibility that a female mosquito might breed and spread disease? I’ve heard no less eminences than the Ven. Sri Sadhvi Shilapiji, a Jain nun, and Dwarko Sundraniji, Gandhiji’s last living direct disciple, sit in my living room and make just such angel’s-wings-on-the-scales-of-justice arguments about what qualifies and doesn’t qualify as violence or non-violence in a various hypothetical situations. And as I love to point out to my Gandhian brothers and sisters, the man named after MG Road was a famous monkey killer. (I’d provide the citation, but I don’t have his autobiography handy. Pavi?) Hanuman, of all things!
Then there’s the let’s-redress-the-imbalance argument. Isn’t the death of a couple (or a few zillion) mosquitoes at the hands of a human insignificant in comparison to the total population, which has artificially exploded precisely because of human development?
And can’t I get a little sleep, for crying out loud!
Am I feeling absolved of my murderous feelings? Not exactly. If you fail to see my shining face winking at you from the corner of a mandala sometime in the next several millennia, its a good bet that the mossies were one reason I failed to make the grade.
Perhaps I should take my cue from Tib, who can’t understand why people from California (or anywhere else for that matter) would even pay attention to the minor nuisances that pass for mosquitoes in the locales they occupy. Now in Minnesota, where Tib grew up, those were mosquitoes! A man would be proud to be bitten by an insect of the same rough dimension and attitude as a Pteradactyl. According to Tib, Boeing (who was, after all, Scandinavian), got the inspiration for the widebody jetliner from the grandeur of the mossies of Minnesota.
“Of course, we didn’t have malaria in Minnesota, but if we did…”