Month: July 2011

The caricature monkey

The caricature monkey

The road points like an arrow towards the hills. Amidst fallow fields and coconut farms, flanked by rows of grand tamarind trees, it takes a curve at a little rise. From here, the wide panorama of hills ahead is blue-grey and inviting. From the city, the vehicles stream in with loud gaggles of people talking and laughing above the din of DVD players or stereo music. They carry packed food and personal effects, electronic gadgets and favourite toys, in vehicles like metal cocoons bringing along a piece of their city. The people share an anticipation, almost unconscious, of something different—an experience above the mundane, which might yet shake the city off them. As they draw near, they watch the hills, through tinted glasses.

First, there is the mandatory stop at the inevitable dam at the foothills. Here, one can pick up soft drinks and colourful balloons, or fill one’s face with cotton candy. Manicured lawns and clichéd blossoms ornament the garden. For a while, the open expanse of water of the river-that-was piled up against stone and concrete seems somehow refreshing. But soon, it is time to move on.

Natural food: a bonnet macaque eating Sterculia fruit (Photo: by Kalyan Varma)
Natural food: a bonnet macaque eating Sterculia fruit (Photo: by Kalyan Varma)

The forest troop

The bonnet macaques are some distance away in the forests of the hills. Draped over branches of a Sterculia tree, they pick fruit from crimson pods and stuff them into their cheek pouches. The distended pouches store their take-aways for a leisurely meal. Adequate it may be, yet the macaques are alert for more. The troop, for there is a full twenty of them, walk and leap across branches with little effort, along their three-dimensional path towards the road. The road, where for young and old, there are easy pickings to be had.

Stuffed into cheek pouches
Stuffed into cheek pouches

They pick at the young leaves of a tree, pluck remnant ripe figs from a grand Ficus, and stop to groom each other. Two females—one with an infant clinging at her breast, nipple to mouth, eyes luminous and glancing sideways—sit in a close huddle, grooming. They are friends perhaps, or relatives sharing a close bond. Nearby, a young female, red-faced and in oestrous, is followed by a male with apparent disinterest, as the larger scar-faced alpha male sits on a rock nearby. The troop appears watchful, but relaxed. The forest around is a myriad of tree species, shade upon shade of green, flushes of colour of leaf and blossom.

Bonnet macaque on flowering Cassia fistula tree.
Bonnet macaque on flowering Cassia fistula tree.
Nibbling on Stereospermum pods in the tree canopy
Nibbling on Stereospermum pods in the tree canopy (Photo: MD Madhusudan)

Now, through the canopy and over the ground, the troop arrives at the browned roadside, and the steel-grey asphalt of the highway.

Family by the road: sisters or friends?
Family by the road: sisters or friends?

Meeting the monkeys

In the approaching tourist van, the driver is thumbing the incessant horn and slowing down. The vehicle stops. There is a bridge and a little cascade of water from the forested slopes. A board proclaims this a tourist spot, the name ‘Monkey Falls’ linking the monkey to the water, but obliterating for the moment, by its sheer superficiality, a deeper appreciation.

Aware and alert, the macaques on the sidewalls and the road watch the people emerge from the van. The passengers are weary and strained. The men stretch and rub their faces and sides, the women straighten tousled hair and crumpled sarees, the child is clamouring that he is hungry and wants something to eat. The woman reaches into a handbag, gives the child a packet of biscuits, asking him irritatedly, over the noise of the stereo music, why he is shouting for his snack. The men are arguing, too.

A few macaques converge upon the vehicle. The mood of the people changes instantly. Wide-eyed, they gesticulate and point. Look, monkeys here! One of the macaques stands on its hind legs, arms outstretched, looking into the vehicle, and the handbag on the woman’s shoulder. The people watch two macaques that are still on a tree—boisterous youngsters, pulling at each other’s tails, playing tag on the branches, like the monkeys of caricature. The child is absorbed in eating his biscuit, locked eye-to-eye with a macaque on the road. The latter approaches, nervously, looking around at the other people, the other monkeys, and the biscuit packet.

And then, in a game-changing instant, the little boy flicks a biscuit to the monkey.

Killing with kindness: feeding monkeys is harmful in many ways and may lead to their death.
Killing with kindness: feeding monkeys is harmful in many ways and may lead to their death.

Tension and troubles

The macaque rushes to the biscuit, but even as it darts forward, even as it picks it up with one hand, two other macaques rush at it. There is a tussle, snarls and grimaces, as one drops and another picks and runs aside with the biscuit, stuffing it into its mouth to evade another challenge. The boy is delighted by the encounter, he is clapping his hands and laughing. Smiles dawn on the other human faces.

With another flick, the boy tosses the remaining biscuits on the road, and there is chaos. Now, there are more monkeys rushing for the snack, reacting to each other, posturing and flashing their signs of dominance or submission, intelligible only to each other. They dart this way and that, narrowly avoiding speeding traffic.

Bonnet_banana
Escaping traffic

They are merely monkeying around as far as the people are concerned, if they are indeed concerned. The people are all laughing now, their weariness gone, their tension evaporated. The macaques are tense, having to face the momentary attrition of well-worn relationships.

With a flick of his little wrist, the boy has transferred the social tension from his family to the family of the macaques.

A while later, refreshed from the encounter and from the cleansing of city grime in the cascade, the family boards the van. With a spume of black exhaust from the tailpipe, they leave behind the squabbling and scattered troop, and the soap and foil and plastic of their passing.

Garbage and waste by the road near Monkey Falls in Anamalai Tiger Reserve
Garbage and waste by the road near Monkey Falls in Anamalai Tiger Reserve

The macaques on the road and in the trees watch them depart.

One imagines them later, in the city, being asked by a friend how their trip was. One imagines the answer, heartfelt and honest, “Wonderful! It feels like we left all our troubles back in the hills.”

* * * * *

If you like monkeys…

…don’t ever feed them. If others are feeding monkeys, politely stop them. Feeding monkeys affects their health, stress, and social relationships. Monkeys are then increasingly killed on roads by speeding vehicles or hurt badly when they enter houses or shops. Instead of literally killing them with kindness, learn to enjoy watching them in their natural habitat, eating wild foods from the trees. Feeding monkeys and throwing trash around is the root cause of the so-called monkey menace. It is the menace of tourists and trash that really needs to be controlled.

A version of this article appeared in The Hindu Magazine, Sunday, 10 July 2011.

f you like monkeys…

…don’t ever feed them. If others are feeding monkeys, politely stop them. Feeding monkeys affects their health, stress, and social relationships. Monkeys are then increasingly killed on roads by speeding vehicles or hurt badly when they enter houses or shops. Instead of literally killing them with kindness, learn to enjoy watching them in their natural habitat, eating wild foods from the trees. Feeding monkeys and throwing trash around is the root cause of the so-called monkey menace. It is the menace of tourists and trash that really needs to be controlled.