Don't mess with the monkey

DELHI DAYS

If Rudyard Kipling were writing about India in the late 20th century, he might be tempted to change the Jungle Book around. Instead of having Mowgli, the man-cub, raised by wolves in the jungle, Kipling might be inclined to tell tales of the monkeys living in New Delhi who have become eerily human.

Monkeys and men have co-existed for so long in India that, inevitably, the primates have acquired some human traits. As Iqbal Malik, a primate specialist, explains, "In the forests, monkeys are shy creatures, but in the city they become very confident and quite aggressive. They will try to pull off a woman's sari."

You find monkeys riding public buses, like morning commuters. Wisely, they seem to mimic politicians in their choice of habitat and behaviour. While in Bombay they might take after businessmen, even a monkey is smart enough to figure out that in the capital, it is the politicians who are highest on the food-chain. You find thousands of monkeys living around the North and South Block bungalows used by the MPs.

Monkeys have even invaded the Rashtrapati Bhavan, the regal old viceroy's palace which is now used by India's president. They importune the president when he strolls through his rose gardens, and even his crack commando bodyguards, with their karate kicks, can't shoo them away. And - just like MPs in any country - the monkeys periodically swagger into the government ministries, ripping out long-forgotten files and causing much fuss in whatever office they visit.

Urban living affects the monkeys the same way it affects humans: they become more aggressive and short-fused. In other words, monkeys in New Delhi experience road rage.

You don't find monkeys driving - yet. But the commuting monkeys get just as exasperated with public transport as do Delhi-wallahs. Thus, one monkey hopped on the same bus every morning, chose the same seat and got off at the same stop. The other passengers were accustomed to this. One day, the monkey swung onto the bus as usual and found another commuter in his seat.

Using tact and gentle manners, the monkey politely tugged at the interloper and tried to get him to move. The man refused and committed the cardinal sin of primate etiquette: he looked the monkey straight in the eye. Never look a monkey straight in the eye. It's even worse than laughing out loud at their shiny, red bums. You are challenging his dominance, begging him to sink his teeth into your face. Need I say more? The monkey got his seat back.

This was not an isolated case of monkey road rage, either. A fortnight ago, bus number 260 pulled up outside the Railway Ministry near India Gate and, along with the other passengers, a monkey clambered aboard. The bus conductor happened to forget another rule of Monkey Dos and Don'ts: never resort to violence unless, mafia-style, you plan to exterminate the monkey and all its relatives, or you plan on leaving town immediately after. He messed with the monkey.

The next morning, the monkey was back at the Railway Ministry bus stop. Teeth bared, the monkey jumped onto every bus that halted until he found the one with his conductor. (There is a second version to this story, which appeared in the Indian Express, in which the monkey returns with reinforcements, a platoon of other male monkeys. This exaggeration could have been spread by the conductor himself. It is, after all, rather embarrassing to go one-on-one with a member of a squat, lower species and lose.)

This monkey did a very bright thing. He went for the driver first, knocking his hands off the wheel and forcing him to stop the bus. (I suspect that the the monkey picked up this trick from watching Keanu Reeves in Speed.) Once the bus was stationary, the monkey lunged at the conductor, who fled in panic. He took refuge in a jeep, but the monkey forced him out.

For the most vivid description, I quote the Indian Express: "The humiliated monkey went up to a cop, tapped him gently on the elbow and pointed at the locked car. Obligingly, the cop went to the locked car... and ordered the man to open up."

Experts I've spoken to say this is nonsense. Ms Malik, the primate specialist, explained, "Monkeys are apprehensive about men wearing uniforms and boots." Quite right. Monkeys, like people, have learned through bitter experience that asking a cop for help always leads to more trouble.

Anyway, this monkey slapped around the conductor, took bites out of a few painful places, and chased him into the railway ministry. From there, the injured conductor limped to hospital. Yesterday, the monkey was back outside the Railway ministry, pacing angrily. A betel-nut seller on the corner was sure he was waiting for the conductor

It's a different kind of jungle out there from Mowgli's.

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