Tuesday, 13 September 2016

Monkey business

I had just turned seven. Father had returned from his overseas assignment after spending almost a decade away from home. Our parents, after some deliberation, had decided to settle down in their hometown, in the suburbs. Though only a few kilometres from the city, it was a different world, a peaceful place away from the hubbub of the city. The construction of our new home had started and we all moved into our father's parental home only a short distance away. And life ceased to be the same.

Through the seven years, or what I remember of my very young life, I had followed the normal routine of a normal childhood - designated time to wake up, eat, learn, play, sleep, beach visits on weekends, occasional birthday parties and a few friends. Now, suddenly finding myself in the middle of a deluge of grandparents, uncles, aunts and cousins with everyone living under the same roof, I was ecstatic. But for our mother, it was complete mayhem! She found it impossible to pull in the reigns. We always seemed to find a way to escape from from the house, playing barefoot in muddy fields, ending up in sting nettles and thorny bushes, bringing home stray puppies and stealing guavas and berries from the grounds of a grumpy distant aunt of my father who lived next door. Though mother did manage to rightfully convince us, on health and hygiene reasons, to stay away from a variety of the most mouth watering street foods the local vendor came to sell every afternoon. It was a lesson in self restrain as our grandfather continued to smuggle them in, much to the anguish of our mother and aunts. A few bouts of tummy aches did help their cause though.

It was during these days that I came to anticipate the sound of the rattle drum. On a certain weekend every month, the rattle would  echo through the streets as kids ran out in glee, to be greeted by the familiar sight of this young man carrying a long stick as he chased away the street dogs, a sack hanging from one shoulder and a tiny monkey perched on his back. A second monkey, much larger, would be trotting beside him tied to a rope. The children followed them, clapping as he would march into our compound. Our grandfather would ask him for a performance and the whole neighbourhood would gather. It lasted about fifteen minutes. The monkeys were trained to behave like humans. Their master would narrate a story and on his cue the monkeys would walk, run, jump, shake their heads in affirmation or otherwise and dance to trending Bollywood songs. The best part was at the end when he would send the monkeys to collect money from the audience. It was nerve-rackingly exciting to put the coins in their tiny paws, while tempted to touch their soft hair we were too scared to do so.
In those days street performances with monkeys, bears, snakes and even elephants were a common sight (though I have never seen an elephant show, but my brother vouches he has). With entertainment as we know now, yet to take on (only a handful of households could afford a television), these shows topped the popularity list. Years have gone by, life has moved on, interests have changed. Nowadays performing animal shows are frowned upon, even illegal, and children have games and apps to capture their imagination. I have been staying away from home for a few years, returning intermittently and I can now barely recognise the place I grew up in this fast changing world.  

I was enjoying another lazy weekend when the long forgotten, yet familiar beat of the rattle drum sounded from the streets. Hopeful, yet unconvinced, I looked out of the window. It was indeed a street performer and surprisingly it was the same guy from my childhood, looking much older and his clothes shabbier. He still held on to his stick, sack hanging from his shoulder. A monkey perched on his back as another one followed. 

We started talking, about how his life has changed through the years. He was surviving, he said, mainly by the grace of the same kids he had entertained through the years, now all grown up adults. They haven't forgotten him. The monkey on his back was twenty two, no longer a performer now only an onlooker. The one walking beside him much younger at five years old and had replaced the older performer who was retired at the age of thirty. Don't know if he was garnering sympathy, or if his feelings were genuine, but hearing him speak about his monkeys with the love of a parent, it is difficult to judge what is right or wrong. With fast depleting wildlife habitat, perhaps the animals are better off in captivity where they wouldn't at least starve to death. It is like the story of the house dog and the wild fox, where the later chooses a life of freedom to that of comfort but in captivity. The twist to that tale however is that these monkeys help a family survive, a family who consider them as a part of their own.

The performance was short and lasted barely five minutes, the story same as I had heard as a kid but had been cut shorter. The Bollywood songs were from the eighties, no longer trendy. But I was still scared to put the money in their tiny paws. And, no kids came running.

Performing monkeys in Kolkata
Pep talk

Performing monkeys in Kolkata
The performance begins
Performing monkeys in Kolkata
Monkey business
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5 comments:

  1. Superb! When I used to live near the Calcutta Zoo, Nakur-da who supplied animals to the zoo once brought a tiger cub in his lap, which looked like a fat cat. For the first time (and perhaps the last!) in my life I could cuddle a tiger cub. Nakur-da too lost his profession...

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    1. Thank you for reading and your valuable comments :-)

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