Hordes of monkeys, the colour of dirt roads and honey, have invaded Delhi and become part of our lives, much like pigeons or flies. As metros stretch into villages and villages eat into forest land, the monkeys, ejected from their natural habitat and food sources, have swung into cities in large numbers and will not be evicted.
Unlike the “toon” monkeys urban kids are familiar with, these are not cuddly creatures. Exile has turned them into lean, hungry and aggressive predators and their fangs, when they bare them, appear yellow and fearsome. In many ways, they resemble humans in exile: constantly feuding, extended families that somehow calm down as soon as they see food, or unite when they sense an outside threat. Packs are usually led by a battle-scarred and fierce Alpha male who guides and guards the rest as they jump from roof to roof, tree to tree, uprooting plants, smashing flower pots, hurling down lids from overhead water tanks to drink and bathe, and grabbing whatever food they can lay their paws on.
All over Delhi, from Raisina Hills to the Indira Gandhi International Airport, monkeys have been terrorizing everyone, be it bureaucrats, army officials, school children, housewives or tourists. Some can even open refrigerator doors to steal food stored inside. When accosted, they’ll bite and scratch before they flee—a modern parable for Aesop.
For the past several months, 40-50 monkeys have laid siege to the Mehrauli police station and the adjacent police colony houses in South Delhi. They hang around because they have discovered the room in the police station where cases of illicit liquor seized during raids are stored. When they are not raiding gardens and homes in the police colony, the monkeys stake out at the gates of the station, waiting to enter the case property office room, should they spot an open door or window. Having forced an entry, if they find the liquor store locked, they tear up valuable letters, shred case files and damage personal property belonging to the policemen. If the door is open, they head straight for the liquor and get drunk. Inebriated simians snoring or stumbling about in a drunken stupor around this police station are becoming a common sight.
The police did petition the Municipal Corporation of Delhi (MCD) to help it get rid of the menace, but beset by countless?similar?demands, MCD had to plead helplessness. Its own deputy mayor recently fell to his death from a balcony after trying to fend off monkeys.
Some ministries and a few Delhi colleges have hired a man with a langur to chase away the monkeys, but faced with budgetary constraints, both the police and MCD can only pray to the monkey god, Hanuman, to protect them.
How much do the monkeys understand? Is a simian’s sense of loss and outrage when pushed out of its natural habitat any different from a human’s? We will never know for sure. What we do know is that all those who have been ousted from their native places by drought, hunger or joblessness and pushed into one of the sprawling, overcrowded metros of India, have unknowingly begun to display a certain ruthlessness, greed and aggression.
Is the person, who in a fit of rage, fires at another over a parking spot, or one who urinates in the bushes in his neighbour’s yard or kicks stray dogs into gutters, much different from the monkey who bares his fangs and shows his bottom to someone brandishing a stick?
Only some, usually the rural poor, may still demonstrate the fabled gentleness of the Indian people. Some 25,000 of them arrived in Delhi last week from Gwalior, half of them women. They had been marching peacefully for about 340km under the leadership of their Gandhian leader P.V. Rajgopal, when a stray truck driven by a drunken driver hit and killed seven of them and injured over a dozen. The marchers mourned their dead and having cremated them, continued the march. They wished to reach Parliament, stage a non-violent sit-in and plead for speedy land reforms. They couldn’t.
Quick parleys were held the night before and the Delhi police, defenceless against drunken monkeys, showed great skill. It moved in to barricade the marchers at Ramlila Maidan, where the minister for rural development addressed them and also assured them that a high-powered committee under the Prime Minister would soon be set up to “look into” their problems. The marchers listened to him with hope in their eyes. They were simple folk, worn down by their hard lives and the fight against hunger. The crowds hugged each other after the announcement and some spontaneously broke into singing and dancing.
The rally was relegated to the inside city pages in most dailies the next day. Instead, it was the Sensex touching the magic figure of 20,000 that made banner headlines. The dispersed rallyists were seen thronging Gandhi Samadhi and Indira Smriti museum where they queued up quietly, almost reverentially. By evening, they had dropped out of sight. At dusk, as the office crowds hit the streets, the monkeys around Central Secretariat filed past the buses towards the trees where they now spend the night. By 10pm, there was nobody around Raisina Hill fountains. A few tired men with ice-cream trolleys waited near the war memorial. Two soldiers stood guarding the area around South Block in silence, hunched up against the cold with guns in numb hands.
This is a parable of our times for Aesop. Like all timeless parables, you may make what sense you will, of this one.
Mrinal Pande likes to take readers behind the reported news in her fortnightly column. She is chief editor of Hindustan. Your comments are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org