The other day, I attended a birthday party in the extended family, complete with hi-tea, a magic show and a performing monkey. The ‘hero’ of this last item looked more like some alien creature from a Star Wars movie and less like a member of the ape family. Its head was shorn into a pattern that reminded one of a character out of an A Team episode and what hair was left had been dyed black. The nails were painted a deep brown and the stubby tail had been trimmed like a garden ‘topiary’. As I watched the act, I was transported back to another time and another place, many years ago.
Mohammad Nazir always announced his arrival by beating a nifty tattoo on his dugduggi, as he entered our gate. A middle-aged man with uncanny wit and no schooling, his sparse figure would soon loom into view, past the curve in the drive, with an improvised cloth bundle hanging from a shoulder. One hand clutched a dugduggi, while the other held a stick and two leashes, the other end of which trailed a pair of monkeys.
Bagaroo and his mate Mung Phali were stars down to the last hair on their tails. This pair of Rhesus monkeys had roguishly comic faces that were not disfigured like the beast in the birthday party. The high point of their show was, when Mr Bagaroo returns from London dressed in a hat and dark glasses. He then proceeds to impress Mung Phali with his ‘Gora Gentleman’ act. The entire family, including my grandfather, would burst out laughing, as the sahib went for his ‘Charlie Chaplin’ style morning walk with hands clasped behind his back or when he sat down with a philosophical expression, to have his afternoon tea with one leg draped over the other. It was often that we would ask for an encore, to Nazir’s great delight, as this meant a bonus added to the generous remuneration for the entire performance.
Life in a college hostel is never dull, but if you add a monkey to the scene, it tends to become a never-ending source of mirth. The little rascal in our story belonged to a young man studying medicine and living in the hostel of his well reputed alma mater. Notwithstanding the fact that getting a medical degree involved long hours of study, preparation and preoccupation, this young genius had trained his monkey to perform two tasks - switch off electrical power from the main panel on the ground floor and ‘commandeer’ delicacies that some hostel residents kept in their rooms. Frequent and mysterious power shutdowns and disappearance of eatables from rooms, even when residents were present, caused a rumour to be generated that the premises was haunted. The innovative owner of the ‘ghost’ is now a very successful surgeon somewhere in the United States.
My mother often narrated the tale of a troop of monkeys that made life miserable for the residents of Dharamsala, a hill station in the Himalayan region of Kangra. None could venture outside their bungalows with these rascally creatures in the vicinity, as they would come swooping down from the trees to grab caps, turbans or food items from unsuspecting passersby. The situation took a serious turn when some young children were attacked and bitten by these beasts. The whole affair ended when, the Army Gurkha Unit stationed in the nearby cantonment was tasked to shoot down the offenders.
As one drives from Sunny Bank in the Murree Hills towards Jhika Gali, one passes Kuldanna and its well known army training establishment. It is said that a British officer once lived here along with his pet monkey in the days before independence. For whatever reason, this officer committed suicide by shooting himself and was buried in the local cemetery. For days after the tragic incident, the monkey was seen waiting outside his master’s bungalow, until one day he was found dead at his post - loyal to his friend till the very end. A few days later, residents walking on the road past the bungalow became concerned when they found their road blocked by an extraordinarily large monkey that threatened to attack them. Locals insist that the threatening phenomenon still continues, but I am not sure whether it is an aggressive troop leader defending his territory or if it is the restless spirit of the dead monkey still waiting for his master to return.
The writer belongs to a very old and established family of the Walled City. His forte is the study of History.