Monkeys in my Life

First Published in Different Truths

When I tell you stories of animals, never for a minute think I like them. But they mostly like me. They sit near me, follow me, chase me and one even tried to share my cardigan.

I remember, we were visiting my maternal uncle, an artist in Simla. In those days, back in 1970s, Simla was a quieter proposition. You walked to places. It was not so crowded. Therefore, one found many animals that grazed, birds that fluttered living amicably with humans. We all shared the same place, even plants. There were hills around the house one could explore. That, to a curious youngster who was from a town with orderly gardens in homes, in itself was an adventure.

The day we reached, I stepped out into the wilderness that fringed the garden with its fecundity. My aunt and uncle lived in an old colonial bungalow with huge lawns. Simla, after all, had been the summer capital of the Raj from 18641. The house might have been younger than that. I am not sure. It was partitioned into different units. One of the units on the ground floor belonged to my uncle and aunt. I do not remember meeting the other mysterious residents, but I do recall the house had a tennis court, a small clearing surrounded by the most interesting looking plants by the side of the lush garden with bird baths.

The garden gave way to uneven wilderness. Within a few hours of my arrival, to stretch my horizons, I had stepped out to explore this fascinating jumble of greenery. One of the plants had such beautiful leaves with spikes on them, that I had to touch them, feel them, caress them. I was, like any town-bred of that time, curious. In Delhi, my friends and I would make regular forays into parks and vacant lots to play and look for natural adventures. A heap of rubble could become our next Mt Everest. As I touched the leaves growing in wild abandon on hills, my hand burst into painful red sores. I ran back home, learning never to touch all plants, great or small, without knowing their properties. It made for an amusing anecdote for the family!

Against this backdrop of wonder, I found myself trekking up to the Jakhu Hill Temple2 one day with my mother and aunt — we called it Jacko3 after the colonials. The highest peak at that time housed only a temple of the Hindu Monkey God, Hanuman. This was almost three to four decades before the Bachchans of Bollywood invested in Jacko with a 33metre statue of the simian divine (2010), which is said to have beaten the Brazilian Christ the Redeemer’s statue in height, though I do not understand why such a comparison has to be made. Perhaps, comparisons and confusions contribute to human lores. In China, I found people from outside Asia confuse Hanuman with the Monkey King of Chinese descent. This was no stranger than Indiana Jones (acted by Harrison Ford in the 1984 movie) eating monkey brains in the Temple of Doom4 where Indian actors who acted in the film, Roshan Seth and Amrish Puri, went with this strange portrayal of local cuisines!

I, of course, told the expats in China that Hanuman, the progeny of the wind God, originated in the Ramayana (written somewhere around 100 to 500BCE5) and was the giant monkey who followed Rama and set the whole of Lanka aflame with his bandaged tail. The Monkey King6 was born in the sixteenth century Chinese story called Journey to the West by Wu Cheng’en. Sun Wukong or the Monkey King was born of a stone, became powerful practising Taoism and was imprisoned under a mountain by Buddha. Eventually, he was freed five hundred years later to travel with a monk to get Buddhist scriptures from the West — probably India. New Zealand and Australia recently made a serial on the same Monkey King in Netflix7 — that is how interesting it was. The story had travelled from China to a popular Japanese serial8

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