Tag Archives: simian encounters



by Tim McGirk
The Independent
November 24, 1990

NEW DELHI: One of the first visitors to The Independent’s India bureau swung in from a tree. He was a large red-faced monkey. He strolled around the room, saw there was nothing to eat and came out on to the veranda where I was sitting with the previous tenant, a Czechoslovak nurse. “Ah, yes, I almost forgot about the monkey,” she said nonchalantly, as it ambled over to our table. He was larger than my six-year-old boy and had fleas. “He likes to pee from the top of the stairs and watch it go cascading down,” the Czechoslovak, told my wife and me.

“Whatever you do,” advised my wife, “don’t smile at the monkey. He’ll think you’re baring your teeth at him. Act of aggression.”

“I wasn’t smiling,” I retorted. In fact, I was scheming how to rid myself of the monkey. It wouldn’t do to have visiting ambassadors and politicians hosed down with monkey urine. After that, I began noticing monkey stories in the newspapers. Monkeys pelting schoolchildren with stones; monkeys splashing in the swimming pool of a five-star hotel; and a troop of monkeys invading a hospital ward.

My first plan was to scare away the monkey. During the Hindu Diwali festival I bought a rocket so powerful that Saddam Hussein could have altered the balance of power in the Gulf with it. I fired the rocket straight into the garden tree from where the monkey had first arrived.

What if he came back? The monkey would no doubt consider that shooting a firework at him was an even more blatant act of aggression than smiling. I rang the Delhi Municipal Corporation and asked if they had a monkey catcher. Friends had told me that snared monkeys were released at the temples in the countryside, where they had a fine time stuffing themselves with offerings of bananas. But, inexplicably, the city authorities referred me to the Animal Research Centre at a medical teaching college. So I rang. “Is your home now being monkey molested?” a voice asked eagerly. “Not really. I’m a journalist.” When I said “journalist”, the telephone went dead. The Animal Research Centre was beginning to sound ominous.

My assistant, Benny, and I went to the Animal Research Centre to scout around. In the hallway there was a board listing the day’s experimental victims: rabbits, mice, guinea-pigs and . . . donkeys. Donkeys? Benny went out to the animal pens and could not find any donkeys. But he did find hundreds of caged monkeys. Some had had limbs amputated; others had been surgically tampered with: their heads and torsos were crudely stitched back together. These hacked-up monkeys were shunned by the others in the cages. I asked the research centre’s deputy director about his monkeys. “What monkeys? We haven’t got any monkeys,” he said. “Well, show me your donkeys, then.” He showed me to the door.

Later a zoologist, Iqbal Malik, who has been studying Delhi’s urban population of 5,000 monkeys, told me that the Hindus consider monkeys to be special beings, ranking with snakes and elephants. That’s because Hanuman, the monkey king, helped Lord Rama to get his kidnapped bride, Sita, back from the Demon King of Lanka. “If people found out that monkeys were being cut up for scientific experiments,” she said, “there would be a terrific uproar. That’s why the medical schools never admit to it.” She showed me a photo of a Muslim monkey catcher. He was dressed as a woman, in a bright sari. “Women appear less threatening to monkeys than men,” said Dr Malik.

I asked her why a large male monkey wanted to come and pee all over my stairway. It had occurred to me that perhaps this was the monkey’s way of marking off territory; any day I expected it to return with a troop of 50 fellow beasts. She assured me that this monkey was a loner.

“He’s probably quarrelled with the chief monkey, the alpha male, and lost his place in the hierarchy,” she said. “He’s been deprived of the best females, food and space, so he left.” I was starting to feel sorry about using the rocket.

At nightfall I drove to Tughlakabad, the ruins of a fortified 14th-century city the high stone walls of which had withstood everything but the curse of a Sufi saint. Only monkeys and owls would ever live in Tughlakabad, the Muslim mystic had predicted, and he was correct. It was too early for owls when I arrived but a Sikh on a Vespa stopped and walked up to the base of the fortress wall, tossing bananas on the ground. The monkeys came, cart-wheeling and swinging down the ancient wall.

I’m sure the monkeys would have recognised the smile on the Sikh’s face as a smile.

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by Nergis Dalal
Christian Science Monitor
March 8, 1982

NEW DELHI: This is an absolutely true story. I can vouch for it. It all began around six or seven years ago with the sudden arrival of a small female monkey in the shopping center of one of Delhi’s more affluent areas. She was a small brown rhesus monkey with a lean and hungry look and dark, wistful eyes.

This might sound absolutely extraordinary in the United States, but in India monkeys do tend to appear from time to time in thickly populated areas.

I first saw this one sitting mournfully on the high roofs of a cinema, blinking in the sun and looking both forlorn and pathetic. Other observers presumably responded as I did, because very soon she was eating a banana, shelling peanuts and even eating a slice of buttered bread. She still looked sad and lonely.

Two weeks later we were astonished to see not one but two monkeys sitting in the sun and blinking down at us from the high roofs of the cinema. This new one was a male, and he too looked lean and hungry, but there was a wicked gleam in his eye and a certain swagger to his movements.

The cinema garden had shady trees, a fountain, flowering bushes, and lawns. Now, instead of keeping to the rooftops, the two monkeys were more often seen leaping in the trees, drinking water from the fountain, and sunning themselves on the lawns. They caused a certain amount of amusement and interest, and foreigners were known to bring their children for an afternoon’s outing to see the monkeys and to feed them peanuts, toffees, and fruit — so much more entertaining than the zoos.

Both monkeys soon lost their lean and hungry look and became positively rotund. Fat and furry, coats gleaming gold in the sun, the female continued to look wistful but the male was smug and often aggressive.

Instead of sitting on the trees or at a distance from humans, they now began to approach them with great confidence. First they would simply sit and wait to be fed with handouts, but soon the male snatched packets of peanuts out of the hands of his benefactors, and even stuck his hand into their pockets.

One young man, in tight jeans, had his wallet sticking out, which the monkey calmly lifted and inspected closely. The young man gave an angry shout and made a threatening gesture at which both the monkeys fled, climbing rapidly to the top of the cinema canopies. Here they put their heads together and carefully began to inspect the contents of their booty. Money in notes and coins was flung down in disgust, showering the small crowd that had collected. The male then chewed at the wallet ruminatively, but not finding the taste to his liking, flung that down as well.

This was the beginning of a life of delinquency, which they embarked on with great gusto. Anyone eating chocolates or nuts was pounced upon and the food grabbed with lightning speed. The monkeys seemed fascinated by the parked scooters and often spent their leisure ripping up the leather seats and bouncing on the carriers. Close by was the office of the International Airport Authority, which the pair would raid, appearing through the windows and snatching at files and papers, and disappearing again like highly trained cat burglars.

The end was approaching fast. Complaints came hurtling in, except from the children, who found the whole thing delightful. The municipal monkey catchers were called. The furry pair led them a very complicated chase, at the end of which the monkey catchers left, panting and exhausted, while their prey sat placidly in their favorite spot on the cinema roof and basked in the sun.

A senior zoo official was asked to come and help. He brought his tranquilizer dart, which he shot at the male, successfully hitting him in the middle of his back. The female ran squeaking in fright. It takes fifteen minutes for the dart to have effect and the trappers climbed up to the roof, hoping to find an immobilized monkey. They found only the dart, and neither of the two monkeys was visible. One of the two had obviously pulled the dart out and thrown it away. The next day they were again sitting in their favorite spot, looking down at the people.

Now expert trappers of a private company were called in. They set nets and traps with luscious tidbits inside, and both monkeys found themselves trapped at last. Safely inside a large carrier, they were taken to a distant part of a heavily wooded park and released.

Alas for the trappers! Before they could return to collect their fee, the monkey pair were back, sitting on the roof, a little ruffled and chattering with annoyance, but in full possession.

They are now an accepted feature of the place, and the only ones to attempt any “shooting” are the cameramen. The couple pose without any shyness, the female very fat, but still with a wistful expression, and the male even fatter, with an expression that can only be termed thoroughly triumphant.

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