Tag Archives: Tim McGirk

DON’T MESS WITH THE MONKEY (1996)

The third instalment of Mr McGirk’s simian trilogy, after “Coming to Grips With All This Monkey Business” (1990) and “Police End Romeo’s Monkey Business” (1994).

DON’T MESS WITH THE MONKEY

by Tim McGirk
The Independent
June 7, 1996

If Rudyard Kipling were writing about India in the late 20th century, he might be tempted to change the Jungle Book around. Instead of having Mowgli, the man-cub, raised by wolves in the jungle, Kipling might be inclined to tell tales of the monkeys living in New Delhi who have become eerily human.

Monkeys and men have co-existed for so long in India that, inevitably, the primates have acquired some human traits. As Iqbal Malik, a primate specialist, explains, “In the forests, monkeys are shy creatures, but in the city they become very confident and quite aggressive. They will try to pull off a woman’s sari.”

You find monkeys riding public buses, like morning commuters. Wisely, they seem to mimic politicians in their choice of habitat and behaviour. While in Bombay they might take after businessmen, even a monkey is smart enough to figure out that in the capital, it is the politicians who are highest on the food-chain. You find thousands of monkeys living around the North and South Block bungalows used by the MPs.

Monkeys have even invaded the Rashtrapati Bhavan, the regal old viceroy’s palace which is now used by India’s president. They importune the president when he strolls through his rose gardens, and even his crack commando bodyguards, with their karate kicks, can’t shoo them away. And – just like MPs in any country – the monkeys periodically swagger into the government ministries, ripping out long-forgotten files and causing much fuss in whatever office they visit.

Urban living affects the monkeys the same way it affects humans: they become more aggressive and short-fused. In other words, monkeys in New Delhi experience road rage.

You don’t find monkeys driving – yet. But the commuting monkeys get just as exasperated with public transport as do Delhi-wallahs. Thus, one monkey hopped on the same bus every morning, chose the same seat and got off at the same stop. The other passengers were accustomed to this. One day, the monkey swung onto the bus as usual and found another commuter in his seat.

Using tact and gentle manners, the monkey politely tugged at the interloper and tried to get him to move. The man refused and committed the cardinal sin of primate etiquette: he looked the monkey straight in the eye. Never look a monkey straight in the eye. It’s even worse than laughing out loud at their shiny, red bums. You are challenging his dominance, begging him to sink his teeth into your face.

Need I say more? The monkey got his seat back.

This was not an isolated case of monkey road rage, either. A fortnight ago, bus number 260 pulled up outside the Railway Ministry near India Gate and, along with the other passengers, a monkey clambered aboard. The bus conductor happened to forget another rule of Monkey Dos and Don’ts: never resort to violence unless, mafia-style, you plan to exterminate the monkey and all its relatives, or you plan on leaving town immediately after. He messed with the monkey.

The next morning, the monkey was back at the Railway Ministry bus stop. Teeth bared, the monkey jumped onto every bus that halted until he found the one with his conductor. (There is a second version to this story, which appeared in the Indian Express, in which the monkey returns with reinforcements, a platoon of other male monkeys. This exaggeration could have been spread by the conductor himself. It is, after all, rather embarrassing to go one-on-one with a member of a squat, lower species and lose.)

This monkey did a very bright thing. He went for the driver first, knocking his hands off the wheel and forcing him to stop the bus. (I suspect that the the monkey picked up this trick from watching Keanu Reeves in Speed.) Once the bus was stationary, the monkey lunged at the conductor, who fled in panic. He took refuge in a jeep, but the monkey forced him out.

For the most vivid description, I quote the Indian Express: “The humiliated monkey went up to a cop, tapped him gently on the elbow and pointed at the locked car. Obligingly, the cop went to the locked car. . . and ordered the man to open up.”

Experts I’ve spoken to say this is nonsense. Ms Malik, the primate specialist, explained, “Monkeys are apprehensive about men wearing uniforms and boots.” Quite right. Monkeys, like people, have learned through bitter experience that asking a cop for help always leads to more trouble.

Anyway, this monkey slapped around the conductor, took bites out of a few painful places, and chased him into the railway ministry. From there, the injured conductor limped to hospital. Yesterday, the monkey was back outside the Railway ministry, pacing angrily. A betel-nut seller on the corner was sure he was waiting for the conductor

It’s a different kind of jungle out there from Mowgli’s.

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POLICE END ROMEO’S MONKEY BUSINESS (1994)

POLICE END ROMEO’S MONKEY BUSINESS

by Tim McGirk
The Independent
May 28, 1994

NEW DELHI: It was inevitable the Indian press would call the monkey Romeo, even though his intentions towards women were more menacing than amorous, writes Tim McGirk.

The animal would swing into the wards at the SMGS hospital in Jammu, a town in north-western India, biting and pinching helpless female patients.

He also developed a taste for nurses. But the cowardly Romeo would never attack men.

The monkey is considered a sacred creature by many Hindus, and this Romeo was allowed to swagger around the hospital as he pleased. Even in the capital, New Delhi, at the prestigious All-India Institute for Medical Sciences, staff have suffered invasions of monkeys, scampering through wards and ripping the intravenous drips out of patients’ arms.

But finally, after Romeo had injured more than 60 women and children over the past few months, the hospital staff’s tolerance snapped. They went on strike.

Faced with the hospital’s closure, the authorites on 11 May issued shoot-to-kill orders against the furry female chaser. But killing Romeo was not easy. Animal lovers and followers of the monkey-faced Hindu god, Hanuman, sabotaged attempts by the police to get a clear shot at Romeo. And, sensing that the mood in the hospital had swung against him from reverential to hostile, Romeo clambered off to blend in with a troop of other monkeys.

Romeo was safe until his lecherous urges got the better of him. He abandoned his fellow monkeys and slipped back into town to assault a woman on Wednesday. Witnesses immediately rang the police, who gave chase. Forty-five minutes later he was cornered on a window ledge and killed with a shotgun blast.

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COMING TO GRIPS WITH ALL THIS MONKEY BUSINESS (1990)

COMING TO GRIPS WITH ALL THIS MONKEY BUSINESS

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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