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.
Hilarious! It’s a pleasure to read the words that flow out of your pen..or keyboard in today’s times 😉 I’ve experienced the terror these monkeys unleash first-hand, so can totally imagine it as you’ve described.
Oh, those monkeys can be mean! I feel proud to have fired up your imagination.Thanks for your kind words, Vibha!
So you’ve been etched as a valiant in the memories of your family! Kudos!
I’ve had some brushes with monkeys long back when i was in Gurgaon, but never got in their hands though…nor did they 🙂
No, we don’t gel well, the monkeys and us. It was not before another year or so before I confessed to the family.
Wow…what adventures you had! I think I would have left dear Cuz in the toilet once the door closed. He could wait out the hour or so there.
You are a brave one!
As for Cricket, are they nuts to play hour upon hour?
The thought of abandoning my Cuz didn’t occur to me at the time but probably was a sensible thing to do! The elongated (5 day test match) version of cricket has been witnessing a plunge in popularity in favour of One Day and T-20 formats.
What a fabulous story!
What a fabulously written story!
It’s the stuff of Greek legends, of Nordic sagas, of… Uma Prometheus bringing fire… delightful!
Bruce, that was a narrow escape! But for the providential intervention of the langurs, I could have been mauled beyond recognition that day! You have romanticised my misadventure irrevocable with your words. A million thanks to you! 🙂
This is a very entertaining story and awfully exotic from my point of view here in Illinois where there are no wild things coming out of the trees or ledges. You did a great job on building up the excitement. I absolutely love the picture of a little boy fitting shoe polish ca wheels on his cardboard tractor. That is something my dad would have come up with when he was a boy. It is quite a good idea. I looked up red-faced macaques and langurs to see what they look like. You’re right, those macaques have some piercing eyes. Are they naturally mean? Are they begging for food? If you have time, tell me what those monkeys wanted from you in case I ever come across any. I may use the same technique you used on the monkey with the crabby old man at the corner.
Ginene, those macaques can be devils incarnate. In the temple towns and places infested by these monkeys, you must be on your guard perennially. They are known to set up check posts where you will be frisked and shorn of edibles and occasionally even your camera.
Although the red-faced macaques are in a permanent dread of the langurs (leaf-monkeys with grey fur and black face) —even a pair of langurs is enough to set a whole clan of macaques scrambling for life—, they are mean enough to strike a weaker one should the opportunity present itself. The injured langur must have got separated from his group and had taken shelter in our toilet that day and the macaques were probably trying to put him down on the sly. It was providential for the hiding chap that my cousin felt the urge, and more so, that I decided to play the hero. The appearance of the saviour pair towards the end was equally providential but for which we would have had a vastly different ending!
I’ve been reading about macaques since I read The Battle of Outer Loo. I wanted to know why they were harassing two children and I read this:
Primatologists will sometimes send a macaque warning signal called the open-mouth threat. Basically, form an “O” with your mouth, lean toward them with your body and head, and raise your eyebrows. Female victims might seek protection in a group of men, since monkeys are somewhat afraid of males. But whatever you do, don’t freak out; those who scream, wave their arms, and run away are only going to make the macaques even more aggressive.
I’ve come to one conclusion and that is that your cousin was right to be afraid and you are very brave. I’m not going anywhere near those things AND I read how another person (a man) was pushed off a roof by monkeys in 2007. Note to self: don’t go on roof in monkeyland.
The story is even better now. Yikes.
Ginene, I enjoyed your research and the resolve that you derived from your efforts (and my story). I shudder even now if I close my eyes and remember the fat ones having a go at me. I have partially explained above why they were trying to harassing the two of us but I am sure our appearance would have compounded their fun. In the end, I am happy to have narrated to you my crazy little battle. Thank you, so very much!
Until now, I’ve retold a story about monkeys infesting the open bathrooms at Batu Caves near Kuala Lumpur. These heckling nuisances were so critical and judgmental as they peered at me in condescending laughter, I couldn’t overcome my performance anxiety. As bladder pressure exceeded simian pressure, I mustered the courage to defiantly share my message in a stream writ large and wet in their direction.
After reading this account of your truly dramatic journey to the Loo, I don’t think I’ll be telling my story any more. The impact has all dried up.
Yours, however, is a tale worth the retelling.
Hey, Gabe! You boost my confidence like my cousin!
You have drawn a telling picture of what these monkeys can be in a few crisp words. I am thrilled you watered down some of their arrogance at Batu Caves —they perfectly deserved the honour. Do keep telling your story: its worth every drop you can spill. 🙂
Uma Shankar, Good Lord! This was hilarious! So, my comments, not necessarily in any order.
I can empathise with you about cousins getting undue attention from one’s parents – especially if the cousin is from the maternal side. You were a brave eight or nine year old and ingenious too. Matt Renshaw is not unusual in being traumatised by a “tummy bug”, some of us naturalised Aussies suffer this fate in India ( and like your cousin we do not over eat), I’ve only ever seen monkeys in a “madari show” and as for cricket in India! The team must not be idolised, the adoration goes to their head. And my late mother, who was an ardent cricket fan, would have been very disappointed at the team’s performance and would have said of the players ( they are the age of her grandchildren), in the context of your story, लोटा parade चल रही थी
I am glad you liked it, Shubha. I am happy you empathised with my jealousy too. In hindsight, i think I was quite the fool (as in fools rush in where angels fear to tread). I am grateful to Matt Renshaw for being the human he was, and puncturing the cockiness that had swept over the Indian team, and not the least in reminding me of what happened in what seems to be another life to me now. Beware of the red-faced macaques (and the Indian cricketers)!
Haha, you gotta go when you gotta go.
I’m scared of monkeys, so for me you were Genghis Khan in that moment. This was such a refreshing read first thing in the morning.
There, there! You echo my sisters who are still afraid of them and who keep telling me the same! I am overjoyed at being of service to you.
Beautifully and humorously written. Uma. Your language is so skillful. During a London Marathon in the mid ’80s the joint leaders were neck and neck. As they ran through an underpass about four miles from the end one announced that he was desperate for a pee. “What shall I do?” he cried. “Stop” replied his rival. He didn’t…….
The story of the marathoners is amusing! I reckon in a battle between the belly and the brain the more distressed of the organs has to win. That said, people have their priorities. Many thanks for the approval, Derrick.
Wow – what a story of you versus the simian mafia!
Sometimes, when you run out of alternatives, unforgettable things happen.
And I thought my childhood was thrilling….
Thank you for transporting me to a truly fascinating time and place.
I believe most childhoods are worth remembering. Thanks for enjoying a slice of mine.
Quite a remarkable memory and story from your youth, Umashankar! You written this in such wonderfully vivid detail building suspense and I was captivated reading it. Those red-faced macaques sound very mean and demanding. Of course, where I am in the U.S., I have no experience with monkeys (I’ve only seen them in zoos or in TV documentaries) but I think having to encounter them like that especially as a child just trying to use the toilet can be very frightening. Frightening even if you were an adult so I think you were a very brave little boy! I must say I also love the part where you protected your toddler sister from an obnoxious monkey trying to steal her candy. That’s a caring (and brave) brother! 🙂
Madilyn, I was quite the Gladiator my sisters! If ever I was down with fever or something, my sister who went to the same school, skipped going too. I realise I have lost my fire and sting as I have grown older —I try to avoid the uber naught species now to the extent it is possible. Thanks for enjoying the memory from my younger days.
What a hilarious story! 🙂
Glad you liked it! 🙂
Uma, this really needs a wider readership than the post…You are a brilliant writer, my friend! What a pleasure to read…
Thank you for the encouragement, Molly. I think there is much politics to getting traditionally published, murkier and seedier than I can afford. So, I will keep crooning in the desolation of my blog here, feted occasionally by friends like you.
Ha! Ha! I can empathise with you.I remember afternoons spent at my grandparent’s house in Nainital, where you could set your watch as the whole troop descended from the hills bouncing off the roofs Or at my in-laws place in more recent times as fruit trees were attacked while we watched from the safety of the house. Though they say the summer heat turns a monkey into a dreamy languor 😉
Now with memories like those you’d be knowing the pesky macaques well for what they are. I have a feeling the species has migrated to the urban jungles and feel more at home with terrorising the bipeds now.
It’s not really their fault. We have encroached upon their habitat too.They have figured out it is easier to raid the humans for food.
Very interesting read. Your cousin appears quite ungrateful, not to give you your share of Fame though 🙂 didn’t know that the average monkeys are scared of Langurs.
The lout is ungrateful to this day. I am sure if he were a witness to what I had to put up with he would have discoloured his nickers. As suggested by some of my friends above, I should have left him in the loo to chill out.
That was a lot of action. I was literally on the edge of my seat while I was reading this very-happening anecdote. 🙂
And quite a commentary that was.
I have had several encounters with the red-faced gremlins in my life but the one at Outer-Loo beats the rest of them hands down —it makes me shudder even now. Thank you, Divya!
When you gotta go, you gotta go, a la Renshaw. End of story. Monkey or no monkey.
Yes, sir! Monkeys come and go talking of Michaelangelo.
What a story! Reminds me of some of my own childhood escapaded. And as always brilliantly narrated.
I would love to read about your childhood escapades. Thanks for showing love to my archives.
Reading your stories is such a pleasure. I can literally picture the scene.
Hope all is well.
Thank you ever for those kind words. It’s time I woke up from my sad dreams.
Every day is a fight and a victory I guess. Just keep going.
That is so true! Thanks again.
Hang in there.
I am speechless! I have someone who I’ll be sharing this story with. Never in my wildest dreams….well maybe in my wildest.
The way I was raised, I was, and still can be, overly concerned with toilet issues in public. Too modest and too worried about it. I plan outings around it, and will be late rather than have to deal with it away from home.
Never has monkeys entered into my vision in any way shape or form, and you are quite the warrior. Great descriptive passage about your cousin. Do you know him as an adult??
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