My recent trip to one of the hill stations in the Kumaon Hills where the ubiquitous langoors and Rhesus monkeys can be spotted swinging on trees and jumping on rooftops, brought home some memories of other Simian encounters in another time: past and not so distant past.
When I was a young collegiate, we lived in a city situated in the foothills of the Shivalik Range and would drive uphill to towns further up very often. One of these places was Shimla. The town was infested with monkeys, some of which were just naughty while others were downright pests. The first time I actually observed simian cunning, was in the market where a fruit vendor had a rehri full of bananas. He was having a tough time keeping the thieves at bay. Every time he dealt with a customer, a bunch would be flicked off the cart. He would yell and gesticulate threateningly and smack his forehead but it just didn’t matter to the long-tailed Rhesus who would happily munch through the bunch and wait for the next distraction at the cart. While we were having our laughs at the expense of the agitated vendor, a young boy probably the vendor’s son, arrived. His appearance was an obvious relief for the man. He gave him a stick and put him on guard duty. Many of us, who had nothing better to do than watch the show, decided to move off. The fun had ended or so we thought. Fortunately, we were among a few who took their time moving along, and that’s how we got to witness this scene.
The boy successfully staved off all the monkey attempts to steal bananas. Every few minutes a monkey would approach the cart and by then there were more than one, coming in from different directions. The poor fellow had to run left and right shouting and twirling his stick. We cheered him on and this helped him to go at it with more gusto. Suddenly my friend whispered something and pointed under the cart. Underneath the cart, perched on the metal support was a smaller monkey who would stretch his arm and pull a couple of bananas from a bunch near the edge. It would eat them while staying hidden beneath the cart. It was not visible unless one bent down low and peered under the cart. With the bigger ones keeping the boy distracted and customers keeping the father busy the little one was making hay while the sun shone! However, we inadvertently gave the little thief away, and he was shooed off.
The next day we went up to Jhaku. It’s a point higher up and is frequented because of a famous Hanuman Mandir that sits on the top. Here the monkeys dominate the place, not only by numbers but also by the reverence they enjoy. In India monkeys are revered, as they symbolise the Hindu god Hanuman. This is why in places of worship as in Jhaku, they are kings of all they survey. It was amazing to see how they applied themselves to profit from the faith of the believers. This was a long time ago, in 1974, and things might have changed now. I haven’t been there in years. Anyway, to come back to the narration, we set out for Jhaku. It had rained and the pathway, which was quite narrow at places, was slippery. Certain patches had little pebbles and gravel and those of us who had worn leather-soled shoes had a tough time staying on their feet. Being a group of teenage girls, there was a lot of screaming and laughing as we slipped and slid. Finally, we managed to get to the top without much damage beyond scraped knees and palms.
Unfortunately the mandir had too many devotees at that time, so we had to wait. The place to sit it out was on a plain ground below the temple. Since I did not intend going into the temple to do puja, I wasn’t geared to jump up and run as soon as the crowd on top dispersed. Thus I found myself alone in a few seconds as the others were already running up. I got up and picked my bag, blissfully unaware of the big primate, keeping guard at the entrance to the sit-out. I heard a strange animal sound and looked up to see bared yellow teeth, and eyes warning me to stay where I was. I screamed, which agitated him more. The scream had alerted the other people around, who took in the situation and immediately responded; I was bombarded with advice; Do’s and don’ts and ill-timed humour.
“Sit down. Don’t move.”
“Stop screaming, you’ll scare him.”
“Don’t look him in the eye. Look away or down,”
“Don’t worry, he won’t harm you.”
“Hey, you got a monkey admirer.”
“Don’t monkey around...hahaha.”
“You picked the alpha male...”
It must have been a few minutes but to me it was eternity, before an old man who lived in the area rescued me from this siege. I laughed nervously as everyone broke into loud clapping and cheering.
The girls filed into the temple to offer their prayers to the deity. One of them left her purse, unattended, on the low wall that surrounded the compound. A very foolish thing to do in monkey territory. ..finders keepers, losers weepers it was, as a female monkey proceeded to investigate the contents. What didn’t catch her interest was tossed all over the place; and there was a lot that did not interest her...especially money. Then she came across a compact. For some reason it intrigued her enough for her to throw the purse aside and give her whole attention to the compact. While she turned it around and figured a way to prise it open, I hurriedly retrieved whatever I could, including the purse. All of a sudden, I heard a shriek. She had managed to flip open the compact and saw herself in the mirror. It was hilarious. She would glance into the mirror, look away, then shriek and jump up and down. Finally she tossed the offending compact away...I wonder if she disapproved of her image or the perceived competition.
The girls paid their obeisance to the deity and came out with prasad in their hands. We had to hurry back as it looked like rain and we did not want to get caught in a downpour. The way in and out of the Mandir was very narrow at one point, at that time. It had a wall or something, I can’t recall that, on one side and the other side went down in a slope, so people had to single file through that way. As usual, I lagged behind with a couple of girls who were intent on eating the delicious prasad. As we made our way back, we discovered we had to pay “tax” before we could pass through to the other side via the narrow passage.
One monkey out of the lot that surrounded this little pathway, was sitting right in the middle of the passageway. It would hold out its open hand ( or fore leg or whatever one calls it) and each person would put a bit of prasad into it, only then would it move aside and let the person go. All my friends paid up and passed through except for me and another girl. She was ahead of me so she was handed the remnants of prasad from the other girls. This left me with none to offer. I thought I could slip through but I sure had another think coming. Our big hairy friend would not budge. It sat staring at me and so did all the others that were squatting on the wall and all around. The moment I took a step, it would stick out its open hand. It was absolutely unbelievable! The only thing in their favour was that they were not aggressive or hostile. Finally I conceded when I realised there was no way I was going to get past that blockade. I went back and begged people to part with a bit of Prasad, which I paid as “tax” and got through.
Many years later, I worked in a residential school in the hills and there were instances of ‘monkey pranks’ all the time. But the worst was when they would attack in a group. This usually happened when they wanted food or when they were angry because someone had pelted them with stones. There was a particular gang of ‘food thieves,’ that used to hang out on the ‘dinner’ route, where an ambush would deliver a meal. A few of us did not go to the dining hall for dinner, so the maid would carry our packed dinners back to our cottages. Although she took care to avoid this notorious gang yet she got waylaid, twice or thrice. The dinners were snatched from her and she even got a few scratches in the bargain.
Monkeys are interesting creatures to watch but they can be a menace too. I suppose it is all about us folks taking up their space and habitat. We have forced ourselves upon them, encroached on their land and imposed “civilisation” on them. Well, if they ‘ape’ us must we complain?
Mandir..........temple, place of worship
Prasad..........Anything, usually edible, that is first offered to a deity in his name and then distributed to others.
Rehri (pro.. reh-di)............a hand-pushed cart with four wheels