I have always been intrigued by the flippant, often careless manner with which we use the terms ‘monkey’ ,’ monkey business’, ‘monkeying around’, ‘make a monkey of him’, to describe human behaviour. Except when we use them affectionately, to describe a little boy, they are always used derogatively. There is nothing in the behaviour of monkeys to suggest that they deserve these derogatory references.
If anything, I have come across monkey behaviour which is praiseworthy.
Bhabani Bhattarcharya in ‘ Mere Monkeys’ tells us of a huge male monkey who joins a group of monkeys and is soon regarded as a stud by all female monkeys - all except our heroine, who is too busy nursing her baby to pay any attention to the newcomer. Feeling hugely insulted, the male monkey, finding a suitable opportunity, hurls the baby into an unused well, to certain death.
Much to the surprise of the author, the mother monkey wastes no time mourning for her child but begins to play up to the bull with extremely coy and coquettish behaviour. What can you expect from mere monkeys? Bhattacharya thinks in disgust.
Then the female monkey starts a game. She jumps across the well and waits for the stud to jump across after her and rewards him with a hug each time.
The next day when the stud jumps across, the female monkey jumps back to meet him halfway across the mouth of the well. She draws him into a tight hug and pulls him down to certain death. She ensured that the murderer was punished adequately, even if she had to pay for this with her life.
My friend, Rita Bhatia, told me of another incident which occurred years ago. Her family lived in Shimla at the time. It was the birthday of one of the girls from her school, a girl all three sisters were good friends with.
As a result, in addition to the formal birthday present, they vied with each other to add to the gift hamper. By the time they set out for the party, this included two fruit cakes, some fruit buns, a bunch of bananas, a tin of jam, two tins of canned peaches and six cans of Coca-Cola, which were a rarity in India at the time.
All went well till a group of monkeys came scampering down the hillside, intent on attacking the girls. But then the biggest monkey, who was in the lead, stopped, held up his hand and all the others, like disciplined soldiers, stopped behind him. He held out his hand to Rita, and she handed over the bag to him. He divided the cakes, the buns and the bananas carefully and equitably among his ‘soldiers’.
Then taking each of the cans up in turn, sniffed at them, banged them against the ground in an
attempt to get at the contents. Having failed in his attempts, he returned them, one by one, to the bag and handed it back to Rita. Then the group turned and scampered up the hill.
Next time you are tempted to use the term ‘monkey’, think of these two incidents and do not use it derogatively.
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