It happened when I was eight or nine.
What refreshed the memory this past month was the hurried confession of a rookie Australian batsman to his captain, as he scrambled for the loo, “When you need to go to the toilet, you need to go to the toilet.”
They can’t come simpler than that, the primordial truths.
The orchestra of Indian cricketers was on a rampaging spree, salivating at the prospect of roasting up the Kangaroos; they could already catch a whiff of the barbecue. Naturally, the lords of the Baggy Greens were livid. What is an Australian who can’t hold back a bit of a tornado in his belly? One had to only recall Dean Jones who retched and peed in his pants and nearly went into coma due to dehydration but stayed put in the crease to score a double century. But, in a bizarre reversal of fortunes, the joke would boomerang on the Indian contingent who would promptly make a beeline to the pavilions to eject their parcels of shame over the next two days. In the end, the Matt Renshaw’s wee lavatorial jingle would pale into insignificance by the saga of collective incontinence oozed by the batsmen of India. But then, as they say, that is another story.
The protagonist of my memory was my cousin who had come visiting us from the village. Not only he was the guest of the house, he was the alleged underdog too, who must be fed and feted as if his sordid life in countryside was a direct outcome of the bad karma of the spoilt brats of the town. Gloating over the attention of my parents, which surely bloated his money pouch, he began haunting the row of eateries down the street, slurping syrupy jalebis and spicy samosas right out of the huge boiling pans simmering perennially at the shop-fronts. Before long, he was hogging the only toilet we had, access to which could be tricky in moments of emergency, courtesy a detour through an open terrace, two sharp right turns about a tank used for storing water.
It was a particularly pleasant summer day and father was not yet home. Our mother was out on her weekly trips along with my sisters to replenish the stock of provisions and vegetables. The younger ones were busy tending the rag dolls with discarded feeding bottles. I was trying to fit new wheels to my carboard tractor with empty shoe-polish cans of Cherry Blossom. I noticed his shadow before I saw him framed in the window, clutching his bowels with both his hands. As my eyes adjusted to his face from the brightness behind, I realised he was rather bemused.
“What’s up?” I asked.
“I need to go the toilet.” He declared.
“Then go to the toilet!” I said.
“There are monkeys!”
Learning the art of dealing with monkeys was a basic necessity of life in that quarter of the city by the Ganges. All my sisters lived in a permanent dread of being bitten by the red-faced gremlins who kept materialising from every crevice and corner, plopping down barely visible ledges and terraces. I had mastered the art of ignoring them till they were really up close and when they must be discouraged by staring back squarely into their eyes. I had even curled my lips once, bared all my teeth and let out a bloodcurdling howl in the face of a rather obnoxious goon when he tried to snatch a candy from my toddler sister. My people knew I was good at that but they all played it down lest it went to my head and I ended up in a serious fracas with the simian mafia.
“All right!” I said, marching resolutely towards the island that hosted the toilet. My bravery was short-lived as I was greeted by ululations that could have frozen the heart of Genghis Khan. About forty red-faced macaques leaped at me like missiles fired from a multi-barrelled launch vehicle. Boy, it was time to run for all my skimpy derriere was worth!
“Look here,” I hissed at my cousin, “your toilet can wait for an hour or two. They will clear off in a while.”
He seemed ready to burst, his eyes a collage of emotions. “You are a coward!” they seemed to say, or perhaps they just wanted to convey what Mr Renshaw echoed the other day. My cousin sobered up momentarily to tell me how our common ancestor once lit up a jute-sack at a bamboo tip and burst out in the tar black night to rescue a lost calf even as a pack of wolves watched him from the shrubbery.
A stout cane was easily found in the cellar under the staircase but not even an ounce of jute could be traced in our house. Soon, we were rummaging the big trunk packed with winterwear and fished out the muffler that father had been planning to discard. Together, we tied up the muffler to one end of the cane and doused it liberally with kerosene. Striking a matchstick was the easiest part. The torch flared up with an intensity that threatened to burn down an entire planet of apes.
It was a pivotal moment of all my living memories up to that point in my life. I could feel the blood thrumming in my fingertips as the door was opened and I stepped out in the middle of an infantry of sorts. A furious stampede ensued as I moved ahead step by step holding aloft the blazing torch, my cousin clinging tightly to my back. He was shuddering like a peepal leaf and probably shrieking too but his voice was drowned by the deafening chattering. Halfway to our destination, I pivoted so that I could keep my eyes at the milling blur of red and brown, and completed the rest of the journey walking backwards, yelling at my cousin to not start running. I heard him slam the door of the toilet after what seemed like an eternity and I took the last few steps towards the wall at my back.
The monkeys gathered at the other end of the terrace and toned down their war cry in a reassessment of our moves. Suddenly, an oversized male waltzed to the middle and broke into a mad sprint towards me. It was no doubt the leader of the troop and had a fierce reputation in the neighbourhood, credited to have toppled an old woman to her death from a rooftop. All those thoughts were a mix of flashes in my mind, as was the terrible creature who was darting sideways over the wall, aiming straight for my face. More than courage, it must have been the fear for my soul that made me leap in the air and thrust the flaming end of the torch into the advancing shape. The fellow ricocheted like a bullet into the flank of the waiting monkeys. It seemed hurt but also incredibly angry. After the briefest lull in activities, it was joined by two to three large monkeys and the group began advancing towards me in a tight formation. Realising I was going to be mobbed from all sides, I began waving the torch in a pattern of eight as madly as I could. It brushed hard with the wall to my right and the burning head separated in a burst of sparks. Left with the mere handle, I kept whirling the cane every which way I could. My eyes were closed already, as I expected to be shred apart any moment now by the furious monkeys. But curiously, everything became silent. Everything came to a standstill.
The cane was no longer in my hands when I opened my eyes. Nor was even one monkey to be seen. Instead, my eyes rested on a grey figure with a black face. Light as a feather, another langur descended from the wall at the far end, its tall tale arched like a bough. They quietly marched right up to me and turned towards the closed door of the toilet. One of them knocked at the wood with his knuckles and I heard my cousin bleat from within. In that apocalyptic moment, the noise of the tap running assured me of thing: at least I had helped him consign his load to the drains.
The langurs didn’t waste time as my cousin opened a sliver in the door. They entered the cubicle gently but firmly, and returned with a young one of their own who appeared injured. They vanished as quickly as they had manifested. The gang of rhesus monkeys wouldn’t be seen for a week or so.
In the end, my cousin managed to hijack the story of my daredevil skirmish with an entire clan of macaques and garble it with a farce of how he relieved himself in the plain sight of a langur. Forced to keep under wraps my own suicidal idiocy, I suffered in silence the version of the account dished out to the neighbours, in which a bunch of silvery langurs ran amok in our backyard and tried to lay siege to the bog but my intrepid cousin hung on valiantly to fulfill his urge.