Every evening, Neil’s mother would send him off to play only after she had applied mosquito repellent on his tiny hands and legs. The hint of neem in it confirmed the efficacy for her, but Neil didn’t like its smell. She knew that superheroes of any kind were his soft spot. “Neil, this lotion gives you superpowers and doesn’t let mosquitoes bite you,” his mother said, trying to persuade him to use it. He wasn’t entirely convinced, but sometimes you must agree with your parents to make them happy.

Recently, Neil had seen other children wear the mosquito patches, so he insisted that his mother buy some for him, too — he could start using them on his own now. They had his favourite superheroes printed on them. In fact, this was more likely to bestow superpowers on him than the neem repellent, he thought. His mother was not too keen on them, though. We may never know whether it was because she believed in the power of neem or that she was afraid of losing their evening ritual together.

Growing armoury

All family members had their preferences. Neil knew that his grandmother didn’t like any of the new mosquito repellents. For her, the repellent coil worked the best. So, every evening, when the adults sat down for tea, the coil sat in one corner, spewing a shield of smoke to keep away anything that might interrupt their precious family time. He would have loved to light the coil, but he was just a child, so he wasn’t allowed to set it up. Sometimes, his baba (grandfather) used the insect repellent incense sticks while they both sat on the balcony to read his favourite storybooks. They loved its citronella smell; it was truly luxurious.

When Neil was younger, he couldn’t understand why many of their daily rituals involved one mosquito repellent or the other. But age makes everyone wise. In time, he understood that if not repelled, the mosquitoes would come in the way of everything he loved — his TV time, his play time and, less importantly for him, his study time. Instead of being able to enjoy himself, he might end up scratching himself rather severely. Besides, he realised that he loved how the repellents brought so many rituals into his family that led them to spend more time together.

At night, getting ready for bed was an enormous affair. Sometimes, they used a vaporiser that created an invisible shield in the room, which he thought was cool. But they mostly used mosquito nets. The adults in the house loved the safety and security it provided in typical middle-class fashion. So, he and his father would set up mosquito nets for everyone’s beds every night. His dad would lift him up while he secured the net’s strings onto the hooks in the wall. This was when he would feel the most like a superhero. Not all superheroes wear capes, he thought. Some simply help protect their families. If the mosquitoes were his enemies, he knew they had all these gadgets to fight them.

(The A-Z Series: This series of short articles explores how familiar objects from everyday life embody concepts and values dear to the urban Indian middle class. It takes a light-hearted and humorous look at how objects shape our wants and desires, lives and lifestyles, ultimately making us who we are as a people.)

(Hamsini Shivakumar is a Semiotician and founder of Leapfrog Strategy. Khushi Rolania is a senior research analyst at Leapfrog Strategy.)