There are always a set of stories you tell people. Cocktail conversations, I imagine my old boss would have called it. The ones where nothing happens, and yet so much is revealed about who you are. Trivial conversations, per se, but ones memorialized by the slightly ridiculous, absolutely riveting garbage of vignettes those narrating the tales have parked in their brains as the highlights of their youth, which they then relate to you as the ultimate shock-factor to jumpstart a conversation. For me, it’s always been monkeys who take center-stage in this kind of effort.
My engagement with monkeys goes back a long way. I’ll spare you most of the stories, because we are neither drinking cocktails here, nor am I interested in getting you to like me, though I would have been, even a year ago. Instead, I have a confession to make: these monkeys made a damned nuisance of themselves, but they did change my life. Not in the fire-works going off kind of way, but the way your life changes when you encounter something you don’t quite understand until it is perhaps too late.
As most of the people who know me well would know, monkeys have occupied a prominent space in my consciousness, and the physical area of my house, for decades.
Billu and the two other rhesus cronies dominated the corner of the garden with their beady pink eyes, silly antics, and occasional hisses through their twenty by twenty cage.
That corner of the garden has always been cursed.
Its previous resident, my father’s supposedly pescatorian python was stoned to death by poor unsuspecting rickshawallahs who caught it slithering around the bottom of the hill at dawn.
Yes, I know what you’re thinking, that what I am describing is a bit demented.
Yet, some of you are probably wondering why I am describing Billu as I’ve probably never spoken about any monkey by name.
Billu was a big monkey. Bambola, we would call him, his pink torso so large that he could have probably exercised with my younger sister and I as dumb-bells.
The stories I often relate about monkeys took place much later- the rhesus and langoor varieties that maneuvered the hills of my boarding school days in Mussoorie, inciting some of us more agnostic teens to come to our knees praying to Rama and Allah and Jesus simultaneously, for deliverance from the monkeys that harassed us, pulling our jeans, chasing us around the chakkar. Yes, there are funny stories too, such as the time I lost a bet and had to wear white horn-rimmed sunglasses and stilettos and a tiny leather skirt up the half hour hike to school, only to be chased down the hill to the principal’s doorstep with the speed of an Olympian runner with a big fat monkey at my tail.
Unfortunately, not all the stories were so hilarious, and I relate this one now because the man who was the recipient of the lousiest monkey attack I know of died recently, and I tell this story because not all of us got to escape the monkeys, and some of us lost more than our dignity at their hands.
Guala worked for my family up until his death around Christmas, 2011. When my parents tried to coax him into a paid retirement about a decade ago, he went off gladly to his house around the Railway pahar, only to come back in a week with the request we rehire him, his reason being that his wife’s nagging would kill him faster than coming to work.
Guala started working for my parents within a year or two of their marriage. His role changed over the years, but then again, his role had never been static. He began as a shepherd for the cows my dad insisted on herding at the beginning. Towards the end, he was in charge of the store room keys- a great position of power at our house among the servants, and his sole responsibility other than this was to pick up the house telephone, which he did with great gusto, screaming hello into the phone until he had expended enough energy in this rather useless task. Few calls ever came through, given the frequency of the times he claimed he could hear nothing on the other end. Other than that, I know he took particular pride in dusting my mother’s extensive collection of Dutch ornaments, shining the blue and white porcelain till he could see his own paan-stained teeth reflecting back.
Guala in Bengali literally means someone who looks after the cows. Guala lived up to this name- he took care of the cows my father decided to bring home one day as pets. Our carnivorous existence as a family meant that we soon slaughtered and ate those cows, and with his previous role diminished, he came to care for the monkeys. Eventually this line of duty included all the artifacts of an old-school butler. I guess my parents must have reasoned it didn’t take the whole day to feed the monkeys. So in between cleaning the fish tank or feeding the turtle or the deer or whatever fancy came upon my father and my uncle as new candidates for pets, he took on the role of answering the door, and becoming the confidante of the several people who constantly came to see my uncle, but mysteriously missed seeing him, unless Guala intercepted.
When he was not feeding the strange host of animals who called our house home, Guala sat in the kitchen with Shahjahan, our cook, and the two of them sniggered over the world news Shahjahan read out loud from the fire of the afternoon burners, as they drank tea and smoked cheap Akiz bidis. They would stub out those bidis as soon as my sisters and I would come into their sight, our newly found purpose of banning smoking in the house emblazoned with a big red “dhumpan nished” sign on the kitchen counter that they quietly ignored.
Honestly, I don’t remember too much of the details. There was the white Mazda microbus- the 20 seater car that my father and uncle had recently acquired. Guala and Shahjahan sat discussing the car, how white it was, and how it was going to remain white for maybe ten days or something, given how dirty the streets became during monsoon. Shahjahan gave my younger sister and me sugar with powdered milk, our favourite snack, and we listened to their discussions of some new countries in Europe. Then Guala remembered he had not fed the monkeys that afternoon, and so off he went to feed them.
The problem was that those monkeys, with Billu in the lead, somehow managed to escape their cage. They took a great chunk of Guala’s leg out, bit it right off, and then danced around the trees. Guala had to be rushed into the hospital, his blood gushing over and covering the tan seats of the front of the white microbus.
He was gone for a long time. Several months, if I recall correctly, and when he came back, he walked with a limp. In the meantime the monkeys had been shipped off to Banderban (in Bengali this literally means Monkey Forest) after being tranquilized and brought under control. The white microbus was indoctrinated, and for me, this was probably my first proper view of a lot of blood, just gushing out of the body of a man who I thought was going to die.
I don’t have a really happy ending to this monkey encounter, but I like to think we tried to make Guala’s life a bit easier. Guala died of heart disease, and to this day, I don’t know whether I should feel bad that my cousins and I decided he needed to upgrade his bidi habits and actually bought him proper cigarettes to modify his habits. Or that we realized that he drank awful keru and instead introduced and supplied him with occasional beers instead.
I am not sure there is a moral, but I know that something more was lost than a portion of Guala’s left leg that long ago late afternoon. I remember the sun going down that night, and wondering if he would survive. This something is more than dignity, more than the respect gained from silly children who are in awe of one’s supposed immortality after seeing puddles of blood. In fact, I think he said it best when he said nothing stays white for too long, but I reckon his observation can be connoted to the world at large, and about all monkeys everywhere, both of the human and animal kind.