This essay won The Fr. Cecil Saldanha Memorial Wildlife Writing contest 2020 in the College Category.
My battle with monkeys started at the age of four, when one of them snatched my 50-50 biscuit from my barely holdable hands. According to my dad, Tekkady monkeys were experts, so they climbed up the very next tree, casually tore open the biscuit packet, sniffed, crushed and ate the biscuit while the biscuit crumbs floated down like dust particles. Monkeys are adorable when the young ones cling on to their mothers, they flaunt their share of the civilisation when they sit in neat rows carefully picking out the lice and mites off one another but for me it’s mostly envy, majorly because of my 50-50, also because they were allowed to show their girl-part and walk around; whereas I was taught to wear a chaddi, keep my legs close together and each time I removed them unnecessarily I would earn a slight pinch on my bum.
As I grew up monkeys still managed to pick fights with me. Most of my life, I resided in this place called Velachery in Chennai. When we began to settle down in velachery after our short stay of one year in Kerala it was no more the marshland that people spoke about. The growing IT sector changed everything in a jiff, some call it development! Chennai was still the same with some extra fittings, the heat, hard water and beaches remained the same. Since I cannot rely on my memory too much, I still stick to the images from Alaipayuthey for before the 2000s version of Chennai and lay my complete trust on Gilli and Thiruda Thirudi for after the 2000s version. Girls in two plaits, romeos in cycles, PCOs and annachi kadais that served as the landline for the entire street, even though I did not get a chance to experience most of these images this is what my mind knits up when I think of Chennai. Things changed after Phoenix Market City (mall) came into existence in 2013, suddenly Express Avenue (also a mall) became invisible and the auto uncles in velachery priced up their auto charges. This is exactly how Spencer Plaza must’ve felt when Express Avenue sprouted on Mount Road stealing all its thunder after being in the reign for more than two decades.
Amidst all this, IIT still managed to exercise its power over the city through panic and chaos, parents dreaming about their children cracking the exam and entering into the forest-y campus. Engineers and scientists were not just the things the campus spilled out, it occasionally let out monkeys who scratched their heads in search of food and the spotted deers whom the dogs chased. One such monkey managed to jump out through the gate near the Gandhi Road junction and came to our backyard on a lazy Sunday. My parents though lived the last 10 years through the city’s hustle and bustle, still stuck to this very Malayalee thing of leaving the door open during daytime. Lazy Sundays are not so great, because of the high probability of being served with upma for breakfast then followed by the soupy maggi. As amma waited for the water to burst into hyperactive bubbles, the monkey sneaked in and took the opened maggi family packet on the kitchen counter. The packet being opened just made the monkey’s job easier, but this time my dad at least put up a fight unlike the last 50-50 incident. He tried to snatch the maggi packet from the monkey and successfully managed to do it. Although amma forced him to throw it, he was very glad that the score between him and the monkey was even.
School became interesting when these very human-like creatures paid a visit, causing a great deal of fun panic-sessions during class hours. The corridors would be filled with students screaming “monkey, monkey” and running into various classrooms, teachers trying to act calm and ending up increasing their paces before the class room doors got shut, the grilled windows being shut within seconds. Girls tearing up as the monkeys took their Tupperware lunch bags were a common sight, eager young adolescent boys trying to exercise their boyhood tried to fight the monkeys – some got bit, the other few got scared as the monkeys made terrifying faces. Monkeys always won, they seized the lunch boxes and threw the empty ones like frisbees at the tinted windows.
Mothers are very particular about their tiffin-boxes, they had to be brought back home safe with the correct lid. Vana Vani is a school inside the IIT campus, where we often went for sport tournaments. All those in the team got to bunk, wear the team jersey gathered around the bus stop with happy faces. As we squished into the IIT buses, that ran inside the campus we held onto our bags a little too tight. We formed circles to do our warm up, while keeping an eye on our bags. Yet the monkeys managed to grab on to a few of the bags and run straight up to the banyan trees. By the third time we knew the drill, we walked up to the banyan tree, watched them open the boxes, squish fruity packets – wipe the drops that fall on you and then wait for them to drop down the dabba. First the lid, then the dabba.
50-50s are still a part of my life, but here in these streets, between my failed attempts to comprehend overheard conversations in Kannada all I see are cows. Cows casually trying to lick their way through the vegetable cart, their fresh and dry cow dungs, some feeding them, some honking at them, the others crossing the roads avoiding an encounter with them. While I walk in the city, through the shadows of tree branches, staring at the passing clouds I hope to meet a Bangalore-based monkey. Maybe to try and put up a fight or just to see how they stand tall with their girl-part, envy them a bit and embrace my mine a little more.