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     Volume 7 Issue 51 | January 2 , 2009 |

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Monkey Business in Old Dhaka

Syed Zain Al-mahmood

(Left) Wanna ride? (Right) With their natural habitat shrinking if is not surprising that they are at the mercy of humans.

If you were a monkey and lived in Dhaka, the term urban jungle would have taken on a whole new meaning for you. Forced to swap treetops for rooftops, you would be living in an uneasy alliance with your distant hominid cousins, and the aging buildings of Gandaria would practically be your last stand.

Marauding monkeys used to be a common sight in Dhaka. But with the city growing and natural habitat dwindling, the Simian hordes have been boxed into smaller and smaller areas. Today, only about a hundred monkeys cling to a precarious existence in parts of old Dhaka.

Morning at Dina Nath Sen Road in Gandaria. The area wakes to loud thuds as monkeys jump off taller buildings on to tin roofs below. It is breakfast time. Suddenly there are monkeys everywhere. They scurry about in search of food, swinging from rooftop to rooftop with an ease that would have made Spiderman proud. There are wise old ones and cute little ones. The primates exchange gossip in “monkey-speak” chattering and hissing at each other. Highly social animals, the females groom the males while keeping a benevolent eye on their gamboling youngsters. They seem completely at ease in the urban setting. After all, it's their city too!

It is a cute scene, even funny. But human residents of the area aren't laughing. “Ar bolen na bhai,” says Rizvi who was born and brought up in a tin-roofed house on Dina Nath Sen Road. “The critters tore a hole in my roof by jumping on it. I can't sleep in the morning. The other day a monkey snatched a ball out of my son's hands while he was playing in the yard. They take clothes from the clotheslines. I am fed up.”

All the houses in the area have wire mesh on the windows to deter unwanted visitors. But the monkeys are resourceful. “They sneak in whenever they find an open door or window,” complains Rizvi. “They open cupboards and take food. The pests have even learnt to turn on taps for a drink. But then they can't turn it off, or can't be bothered. So they leave the water running!”

It's often been said that an average monkey has the IQ of a two-year-old kid. That may or may not be the case, but there are plenty of monkey stories from around the globe which point to a remarkable cognitive ability. Monkeys have variously wowed and shocked the world by waiting tables in Japan, mastering sign language in the US, making lewd gestures at women in rural Kenya, and killing the deputy mayor of New Delhi. There are no credible reports of monkeys driving cars, unless you believe Hollywood. But the primates have certainly proved that they are smart, tough and willing to adapt.

Monkeys are wild animals, and contrary to popular belief you cannot domesticate them. But of all wild things they have probably been the most successful at getting used to city life. Dhaka's simian citizens are certainly highly urbanised. As humans and monkeys compete for space and food, sparks inevitably fly.

Jahanara, a housewife living in Distillery Road, was working in the kitchen the other day when she heard a scream. Her six-year-old son Ronnie was eating breakfast in the dining room. Snatching up a broom, Jahanara rushed to his aid. There were three large monkeys in the room. One of them had just picked up a banana from the table, and was pawing at it. The other two were nibbling at pieces of bread. All three Simians eyed her warily but refused to budge.

“These monkeys have lost their fear of humans,” says Jahanara. “They are particularly insolent towards women and children.”

As Jahanara advanced with the broom, her unwelcome guests backed off. They made it through the open door and jumped onto the boundary wall, still clutching their booty.

“They sat there making faces at me, showing their teeth,” recalls Ronnie, his eyes widening with fear.

These troublesome critters have certainly taken “monkey business” to a new level. But it's not as if they were going out of their way to be nasty. Monkeys believe in being good neighbours. When they see food, they think, 'Ok, you have food. Why don't you share it? Why can't we have some?' Sometimes they enter into what can only be called aggressive negotiations.

The monkeys of Dhaka are of the rhesus macaque variety. They are based in an old warehouse compound belonging to Sadhana Aushadhalaya, a herbal medicine manufacturer. Locals say monkeys were first brought by the owner of Sadhana, Jugesh Ghosh, who thought they would bring him luck. The monkeys soon multiplied and overran the area.

According to the Ramayana, Rama rescued his beloved from the clutches of the demon Ravana with the help of an army of monkeys led by the simian god Hanuman and the monkey king Sugriva. The monkey is revered by Hindus for helping Rama. But the demigod status does not ensure enough food for survival. So they have to raid nearby houses for supplies. The stolen food supplements what the monkeys are able to forage for themselves: leaves, grass and insects.

“These monkeys even know how to trade,” says Shihab who owns a grocery shop in the area. “They will take a piece of clothing, or some other object. But if you hold out food, they will return the item! Bloody brigands!”

Jahanara has a different take. “The neighbours are always returning clothes that have been taken by monkeys and dropped. It's embarrassing when everyone knows what size everyone else wears.”

Scientific studies have found that urban monkeys are much more aggressive than forest-dwelling ones. But scientists say humans are to blame for this. As our urban footprint grows bigger and bigger, monkeys see their diet and habitat shrink. Gradually their behavioural patterns change. Not only do they grow more aggressive, scientists are also worried about microbes that could make the jump from simians to humans.

Despite being terrorised by the monkey troops, the residents of Gandaria retain a kind of vexed affection for their simian neighbours. “Hitting a monkey is not the same as striking a rat or a stray dog,” says Rizvi. “You look into
the face of a monkey and you see…something.”

Could that something be a reflection?

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