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     Volume 5 Issue 85 | March 10, 2006 |

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Food For Thought

Monkey Business

Farah Ghuznavi

For those who thought that the title of this column referred to the simian attributes of certain world leaders (as well as the nature of their policies), I must clarify that my problems with monkeys pre-dates all that!

It all started when I was still at school. We were busy planning our projects for the annual Science Fair, and I was discussing this with a group of friends, when one of the nuns came up and asked us in encouraging fashion, what we were planning to do as our science fair projects.

My friends quickly ran through the subject matter for their projects - constellations, energy sources, the ubiquitous sprouting of the mung bean (highlighted through all its glorious phases of development, after being placed in water). After they had finished, Sister Marie looked at me expectantly, waiting for my contribution. "I'm going to do Evolution", I said proudly.

Being an unusually dense child, I failed to recognise the danger signs that followed. "What do you mean by "evolution"?" Sister Marie said in an ominous tone. "How humanity gradually evolved, and its links to other species," I clarified, "especially the primates." "You mean that you're going to say that humanity has some link to monkeys??" cried the scandalised Sister Marie. "But Sister Marie, that's what the theory of evolution is about…" I faltered, trailing off into silence.

But the damage was already done! Although Darwin's theory of Evolution was part of our syllabus, as far as Sister Marie was concerned, I was already halfway to damnation (at least, according to Catholic dogma!) Those monkeys got me a week of detention, and a harangue that stayed with me for quite some time…

Nor did it get much better when I came into contact with monkeys outside my academic explorations. My grandmother had two pet monkeys named Chichi and Chimi, with whom she shared a relationship of mutual adoration. Alas, neither of the two little beasts was in the habit of extending their affections to the rest of humanity - particularly me!

While the younger one, Chimi, tended to ignore everyone apart from my grandmother, Chichi was a different kettle of fish. She was extremely jealous (and very clever), so would wait for Nanu to look the other way, before making hostile gestures or hideous grimaces at me! No matter how hard I tried, I never managed to prove to anyone else that she had this malevolent side. Instead my grandmother spent a lot of time trying to reassure me that the monkeys were essentially harmless, even as Chichi mocked me behind her back…

Nor was this the first time that my grandmother's love of monkeys had led to trouble. As a young woman living in Calcutta, she frequently incurred the wrath of her aunt by insisting on giving away kitchen scraps to the monkeys that roamed around their neighbourhood. Gradually, one or two of them became regular visitors to their kitchen, much to her aunt's displeasure. Each time one of these monkeys came to collect their rations of vegetable scrapings and the occasional choice morsel that my grandmother had saved for them, her aunt would unleash a torrent of complaints. Neither grandmother, nor the monkeys paid the slightest bit of attention.

Until one fateful day, when it all became too much. One of the monkeys, which was sitting next to my grandmother and taking the food from her hand, suddenly stood up on its hind legs without warning, and walked across to where her aunt was standing. The torrent of abuse suddenly dried up, as the aunt looked at the monkey in sheer terror. Raising its hands, the monkey suddenly slapped her on both cheeks, casually strolling back to my grandmother to pick up its titbits, before disappearing through the window!

Although I didn't hear that story until much later, my early experiences with Chichi had already taught me to have a healthy respect (and maintain a safe distance) from monkeys, in general. So some years ago, when I went on safari, I was dismayed to arrive at the camp and see a number of baboons running around quite freely. I was only partly reassured, when one of the staff told me that the monkeys performed an important function: because the camp was in the middle of the National Park, the absence of boundaries meant that sometimes wild animals (including lions and hyenas) would make their way through the grounds - on such occasions, the chattering of the monkeys served as a useful signal of danger...

With some trepidation, I asked the camp staff about whether the baboons ever approached visitors. No, they reassured me, not unless you are carrying something that they want i.e. fruit or such like. There was no way I would do that, I thought, trying to reassure myself. But my confidence was shaken a little bit when one of the guides pointed out that it wasn't only a question of whether you were carrying something of interest to monkeys, but also a question of whether they thought you were carrying something! After that, I made sure to be carrying absolutely nothing in my hands.

Despite that, one afternoon a lone baboon suddenly appeared on the balcony of my cabin, where I had been happily relaxing with a book. I don't think I have moved that fast in a long time! In a flash, I was safely behind the wire-mesh door of the cabin. The baboon, which looked quite taken aback at my sudden movement, was not reassured by what followed. Determined not to be trapped in the cabin on my own, and terrified by the prospect of a closer encounter if I went back outside, I yelled at the monkey in a desperate attempt to scare it off. The startled baboon, quite rightly divining that this wild-eyed human making primitive sounds was not to be trusted, made itself scarce, bounding off the balcony at a fine clip…

This mistrust of monkeys has also made me less adventurous when it comes to exploring places like temples in South Asia, which sometimes have resident monkey populations. While the drunken rampage of monkeys at a hill station in India (after tourists were foolish enough to give them alcohol!) may be rare, I have yet to be convinced that temple monkeys are necessarily benign…

Indeed, some time ago, visiting Kathmandu with friends, I was glad to have turned down one particular sightseeing opportunity. A monkey at a nearby temple took a dislike to one of my friends, and chased after her, screaming loudly. Luckily, someone managed to distract the monkey, but she was quite shaken by the experience.

Apparently, there is also a temple near Calicut, where the temple priests feed monkeys regular meals. Each day, they sit and eat together, using banana leaves as plates. Most of the monkeys show excessive deference to their leader, and that leader changes quite frequently. There is speculation that the leadership contest of the temple monkeys is decided by some trial of strength (no doubt also involving a degree of cunning). It all sounds suspiciously familiar, and may well explain my mistrust of monkeys - they behave too much like human beings...!

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