India has struggled to get a grip on its mosquito problem for many years. The stagnant rainwater that collects around homes and everywhere else serves as a suitable breeding ground for mosquitoes, who bring along with them the deadly omen of diseases such as malaria and dengue. In 2019 alone, the country reported 487,000 cases of malaria, dengue, and chikungunya, all of which are transmitted by mosquitoes.
Most Indians know (or worse yet, are) those deeply misfortunate people who attract more mosquito bites than anyone else. In a room full of people or when out on nocturnal trips, they’re the only ones tormented by the annoying little bastards that always seem to appear out of nowhere. 19-year-old Shreya Mohapatra happens to be one of them.
Normally, you’d protect yourself against mosquito bites by applying mosquito repellants, or turning to those mosquito-killing electric machines or coils that all of India grew up watching ads about. You might even give the badminton racket-style electric bug zapper a go.
But when none of those seemed to work, Mohapatra decided to take matters into her own hands, quite literally. Two years ago, the Delhi-based design student killed her first mosquito, and there was no looking back.
“I realised it was a skill that needed a combination of speed, patience, and precision that not everybody has,” she tells VICE.
At the time, she was also appearing for her 12th grade exams. These exams are the highest level of the Indian grade school system and the pressure to perform well is so intense it can mess with anyone’s mind. It didn’t help that the exam season coincided with the time mosquitoes begin to appear again in Delhi, following the cold winter.
“I remember the night before my biology exam. I was so done with studying I spent hours killing one mosquito after the other and collecting them in a bowl,” Mohapatra remembers.
She believes using her unique skill to kill those evil little suckers became a way for her to cope with all the undue pressure she was facing at the time. And that’s when she decided she wanted to do something to preserve all the mosquitoes she’d managed to whack the life out of. She started pasting their little corpses in a notebook and numbering her kills, much like hunters mount the heads of the animals they kill on the wall as trophies.
It wasn’t something she put much thought into, just a mechanical exercise she’d perform when she saw a mosquito buzzing around the house, threatening to bite. Over time, she honed her mosquito massacre skills and developed a technique that would ensure they were dead, but not squashed to the point where she couldn’t preserve their remains.
“First of all, you have to be quick. Instead of trying to smack them, use your entire palm and slowly but surely, close in your four fingers around them tightly enough for them to be unable to escape, but not so much that they’d be smashed beyond recognition,” advises Mohapatra, who suffered from a severe bout of dengue at 14, which made her even more aware of mosquitoes in her surroundings.
Sounds complicated, but she’s had years of experience. Even as she’s meticulously killed and collected these mosquitoes over years, no one really knew about it till recent times, besides maybe her mum. But 2020 had other plans for her.
In October 2020, the “how it started vs. how it’s going” meme format became popular on the Internet, where people shared pictures with their partners from when they’d first met and how it was going now. Many creative adaptations of the format also did the rounds but feeling quite single, Mohapatra decided to hop on to the trend with her own version.
“I posted this tweet showing the first mosquito I killed and my collection now, and then went about my life. But when I checked my phone again after some time, it was blowing up with notifications,” she says.
The tweet garnered 110K likes and was re-shared over 25,000 times. Mohapatra, who joined Twitter in 2015, started off as a One Direction stan account, and then felt really at home on the social media platform. Over the years, she has amassed a decent following of over 5,500 people. But none of her previous tweets have received so much attention.
While her post blew up, some people replied to her tweet calling her a “psychopath”, a “serial killer”, and even tagged the PETA Twitter account, while others felt avenged in a weird sort of way.
The people saying this isn’t normal have possibly never heard of Taiwan’s “Doctor Mosquito” Lien Jih-ching, who preserved mosquitoes and studied them for 70 years, later donating his collection of over 2,000 mosquitoes to his high school, where students could use it to learn about the insect.
Many in the replies even pointed out that this looked like the first step towards becoming an entomologist—a scientist who studies insects—but Mohapatra says she hasn’t given any of it much thought.
“I felt bad at first, but then I chose to ignore it. I felt like a celebrity for a month or so, not gonna lie. Even my family thought it was hilarious,” says Mohapatra, who’s also an artist and is used to receiving criticism online for her works or opinions.
But things got even weirder when the tweet was picked up by the media, who shared these pictures without her consent, and even referred to her by the wrong name and age.
“It was my best friend’s birthday and so, I’d changed my Twitter name to hers for a day. Without even cross checking with me or doing any research, some media outlets published articles about my tweet, attributing it to the wrong person,” she says, clearly annoyed by the experience, “They even said I was 12. I have no idea where they got that information from.”
But as she moves past the experience of having broken the Internet, even if only for a little while, her scrapbooking practice has also slowed down.
“I still collect the mosquitoes I kill, but I’m not pasting them in my notebook right now. I’m just too busy,” says Mohapatra, who has killed over 187 mosquitoes so far.
Swatting mosquitoes dead often leads to mini splatters of blood on your skin, which can make many people uncomfortable. Especially during the pandemic, when hygiene and cleanliness are even more important than before, even a speck of blood might be enough to freak people out. But it doesn’t bother Mohapatra.
“It’s probably my own blood that they were sucking on, so I just get them out of the way and wash it off,” she says nonchalantly.
She attributes what some would call a bizarre hobby to her penchant for collecting things, from keychains and stamps as a child to now mosquitoes. But while she’s not sure of the whereabouts of her other collections anymore, this one has claimed a special place in her heart.
She shares, “I’m very attached to this notebook of mine. My family often threatens to throw it away, but I don’t think I can bear that.”
And even though they might find it weird, her parents have slowly become more accepting of her hobby.
“Now if they spot a mosquito around the house, they call out to me right away,” she says.
But of course, not everyone reacts to it in a very pleasant way, which might also be why Mohapatra didn’t share her notebook with anyone for long. Her friends are especially freaked out by this revelation, she says.
“I think some of them are scared to be out in public with me now. One day, we were on the metro when I noticed a mosquito and had an uncontrollable urge to go after it, but my friends got together and restrained me,” says Mohapatra, who once came across an article explaining why the world can’t get rid of all its mosquitoes at once.
Even though they’re possibly the deadliest animal in the world to humans, mosquitoes still play an important role in the food chain and tampering with the ecosystems they help sustain is fraught with risks.
“When I read that, I was disappointed. But I just thought to myself, ‘I have to keep killing them’,” says Mohapatra, who in the future, plans to take her hobby to the next level by designing textile prints inspired by the very mosquitoes one could call her mortal enemies.
Here’s hoping they’ll create a buzz.
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