Soft October is back and a mother and a baby monkey have taken to visiting my balcony. The baby enjoys eating the portulaca and swinging from ficus to ficus. It is Dussehra month and perhaps they have been sent to test my epic commitment?
Some people seem to get along well with monkeys and I don’t think I’m in their happy number; although I love going to Vrindavan where the monkey menace is so strong that the only way to deal with it is to treat it as a game, as a lila within the lila.
That puts you on an epic footing and perhaps a century later when they’re making a new recension or critical edition of the kathas, somebody might incorporate your story as a plausible legend. So I walk myopically down the kunj gali with my glasses off my nose, for the monkeys of Vrindavan love to read and snatch at eye-crutches. I’m swathed in the most voluminous dupatta I own to hide my flowers and offerings on the way in to the temple and to hide the prasad on the way out.
It’s important to avoid eye contact with monkeys looking to mug you, and to wear your bag aslant, wear chappals to shed easily at the temple door and to walk purposefully, not like a hick on his first visit to the big city. These rules are similar to the instructions I got on my first visit to New York in the 1990s. So Darwin had a point, you think as you follow your nose to where the smell of roses grows stronger with every step. Inside the sanctum and well away from the monkeys prowling outside, you can make eye contact for as long as you like with Banke Behariji who lives to look at us and whom his priests ritually pull a curtain across every few minutes to keep him on his pedestal.
Otherwise, they say, he may jump right off to sing and dance in our midst as he did before he took the road to Mathura and plunged us into Kalyug.
I don’t think I’ll shoo away the baby monkey, after all. Not because I’m scared of ‘force majeure’ but because of a true story from the 1920s. I heard it from the Carnatic violin duo Lalitha and Nandini of their guru Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer (1908-2003), the grand old man of Carnatic music whom Ustad Amjad Ali Khan described as a fakir aadmi.
Lalitha and Nandini, who played for the great Western violinist Yehudi Menuhin and passed western classical music exams at Cambridge with honours, told me that when he was a young man, their guru stayed in Thiruvarur in Tamil Nadu. This town is the birthplace of the three saintly Carnatic composers Thyagaraja, Muthuswami Dikshitar and Shyama Shastri. On the thinnai or sit-out of a little house across the street, an old lady would recite from the Ramayana every morning with her eyes closed.
A baby monkey would appear from nowhere, quietly lie on her lap and scamper off just before she opened her eyes.
I wonder; did Kalyug overlook Thiruvarur?