Monkey business

A 19th century Bengali business manual has much to say about training monkeys to do menial jobs

A great deal has been said about the lack of entrepreneurship in Bengal, and the flight of capital from what was once the incubator of business in this part of the world. Not everyone is riding on this bandwagon though—recently, an entrepreneur took out a nearly full-page ad in a regional daily detailing his plans to manufacture robot monkeys as well as train monkeys to fetch coconut from tree-tops and perform similar chores. Strangely, this is not the first time such an idea has been mooted. The same thought had struck one Sashibhushan De, who, in 1893, had complied what was arguably one of the first manual on entrepreneurship in the Bengali language.

Titled Byabsa Sikhsa (Business Education), the first edition of the book ran to 128 pages and was priced rather steeply at Rs3. It was published by B Brown & Co. of 344 Chitpore Road, and printed by S.C. Sen at the Great Town Press at 163, Musjeedbari Street. The volume covered a number of business ideas ranging from the more conventional agriculture and manufacturing to such innovative trades as fireworks making, magic, and fast foods of the 19th century kind. The fireworks section is particularly instructive, with exact measures given for fountains and crackers. It was with a thrill that I later realized that the exact same paragraphs had been quoted by writer Nabarun Bhattacharya in his cult “fyataroo” stories over a century later.

But it is on page 102 that the manual enters bizarre territory. What follows is a rough translation of the business possibility titled “Income from Monkeys as Punkah-Puller”’: “If you are lacking in capital, then craftily trap monkeys by using nets in marshy areas... After trapping about 14 monkeys, bring them to your house. Feed them with vegetable peel, aubergine, cheap fruits, pumpkin, gourd etc. After five to seven days, the monkeys will become obedient. After this, plant two upright posts in the ground—such as those used for tying ropes—and suspend a plank between them transversely, just like a punkah. Then run a rope from the plank and hand the ends of the ropes to the monkeys. Tie the monkeys to separate stakes in the ground arranged in a row so that they cannot escape.

“Now pull the plank towards yourself. This will create pressure in the rope and the monkeys will start pulling the rope. Within a fortnight, the monkeys will be well trained in pulling the punkah. Then take these educated monkeys to the house of some sahib and let them display their skills. The sahibs and the memsahibs will immediately buy the monkeys. The sahibs are usually in the habit of cooling themselves by punkah air between the months of March and October. So, during this period of eight months, one has to pay the wages of two punkah-pullers on an average, working out to a minimum Rs 96 for a day and night shift. Now instead of Rs 96, one may sell the monkeys for Rs 80. A saving on wages but something completely new, so doubtless this will catch on among the sahibs, so much so that within a short period, it might be possible to export monkeys to countries such as England, America, France, etc. etc.”

Strangely, Sashibhushan De was not the first to think of using monkeys as punkah-pullers. Among the proceedings of the Asiatic Society of Calcutta in 1880, there is an entry under “Zoological Notes” by one L. Schwendler. Schwendler was informed by his “trustworthy informant, Babu B. Pyne” of the government telegraph department, about a langur that he once possessed, standing at 2ft, 6 inches and whose savagery was cured by teaching him to pull punkahs. According to the Babu: “He always kept in first rate health, enjoyed his work immensely, and did it equally well, if not better, than a coolie. During the rains he suffered from fever and ultimately died. Putting now this monkey in the place where the man used to pull the punkha, and a new langur in the place where the trained monkey formerly sat, I attempted to teach successively four more monkeys, two of which were females. I succeeded perfectly in teaching the males, but was quite unsuccessful with the females.”

Endpapers is a monthly column on obscure books and forgotten writers. Abhijit Gupta teaches English at Jadavpur University, Kolkata, and is director, Jadavpur University Press

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