COMING TO GRIPS WITH ALL THIS MONKEY BUSINESS
by Tim McGirk
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.