Monkey Business

Excerpt from a Memoir in Progress, Bridging Worlds

Woodblock prints by the Japanese artist Hokusai often depict travelers crossing over narrow wooden bridges that arc high above the water, sometimes exposing them to high winds and inclement weather. Sometimes his bridges stretch tenuously across a gorge. It is difficult to blend in with a group while crossing over a narrow bridge. One generally feels more visible, and more vulnerable, than when on firm ground. Crossing over involves risk, volition, willingness to leave a known place—where we may or may not have been comfortable—and to which we may not return. It takes courage to cross over, although in truth usually no one is actually watching . . .

New doubts pop up, keeping us humble as we enter new territory, helping us to notice our surroundings, keeping us open to wonder, to possibility, to beauty, joy, and pain—to experiencing life more fully.

Our decision to spend a sabbatical year in India grew out of my own failure to find a way to get the family to Paris to research a project on Sino-European relations during the eighteenth century. When instead my husband received a grant to do research abroad in South Asia, I adjusted my need to be the motor behind our "five-year plans" and decided it might be kind of fun to go along for the ride.

The epiphany that I could be a passenger, a "free rider," came to me on Chicago's Blue Line one afternoon while being rocked back and forth on the noisy ride home from work. Gently lulled by the sideways motion of the car and the repetitive sound of the rails, my need to be in control gave way to another possibility: Our whole family could go to India for a year. We would settle in the small town of Mussoorie, in the foothills of the Himalayas. Our daughter, Naomi, could spend her fourth grade year at the international school my husband had once attended, where her aunt and uncle were on staff, and where she would have the company of several first cousins. Once we were settled Mark could then peel off to do what he needed to do in Nepal during the 6-month grant period and rejoin us in the spring. It seemed a perfectly reasonable plan to us.

In Mussoorie we rented part of a duplex from a retired Indian academic couple. As we approached the house for the first time on the wooded zig-zag path above the school, we spotted an arched black metal gate between two brick posts with a sign saying "Woodside" and "Bhatty's." We gazed ahead at an enormous white house with red trim. From the gate a path of stepping stones led through an immaculately manicured lawn to a verandah, another led around behind the house. Not wanting to mar the lawn we chose the back path, only to discover that we then had to circle the entire house to arrive at the front door. After showing us around, Mrs. Bhatty, our landlady, called for tea, but left us to have it on our own as we got acclimated to our new home.

Weeks before our arrival we had agreed to hire a housekeeper, Anita, on the recommendation of Mark's brother. She had good English and a reputation for being an excellent cook. More pressingly, she had been out of work for several months and desperately needed income. We had no idea that help already came with our apartment. The Bhatty's spent most of their time in Delhi, so their portion the house was often empty. But the compound was looked after year-round by a chowkidar--or care-taker, who lived in an apartment behind the house with his wife and four children. Mrs. Bhatty explained when showing us the house that, while we were of course under no obligation, Bina and Jagdish's domestic services would be available to us for hire. For the first time ever I found myself in the position of supervising a household staff of three.

Anita's bright smile and open and lively manner put me at ease right away--even if her high praise of the kindness and generosity of certain former employers made it clear that she had enjoyed high standards among employers in the past and that we too would be discussed long after we were gone. Mid-morning on her first day on the job she asked, "Should I offer Bina a cup of tea?"

"Yes. Please make tea for all of us" I replied, grateful for the cue. That night we enjoyed a sumptuous dal as well as greens with potatoes that we heated up and savored with fresh rice. She soon helped us to come up with a good division of labor for the staff with Bina, the chowkidar’s wife, doing our floors and laundry five days a week, while Anita took charge of the kitchen. Jagdish would run errands on an as-needed basis. Mrs. Bhatty had already explained that heavy laundry, such as sheets, would need to be sent out.

The next day when I returned from walking Naomi down to school in the morning I found Anita in my Birkenstocks. “Wet shoes," she explained as she brought them over to the entryway for me to slip back on.

Our house was located on a footpath half a mile’s hike above the school. Another half-mile’s climb beyond the house the main path reached the ridge of the hill and met up with the road, where on a clear day one had a breathtaking view of distant snow-capped mountains. Throughout the course of the year I often walked a long loop along this lightly trafficked wooded road known as the chukkar that formed a figure eight along the contours of the summit. When walking along this road or the many footpaths that traversed the hillside it was not uncommon to come across members of the resident populations of monkeys. There were two varieties. The smaller brown rhesus monkeys were more both more abundant—and more pesky—than their larger grey counterparts. The langurs, by contrast, tended to be rather shy of people, although they made an intimidating racket when crashing through the treetops.

I encountered my first rhesus monkey on the day we toured the school. It had gained access by climbing from a tall tree onto the second story balcony, and in through a window. Startled by the tour group it scampered off, leaving an overturned trashcan in its wake. A few days earlier the high school art teacher had been working alone in her classroom, doing a still life to check on the quality of the oil paints. Deeply absorbed in her work, she looked up to find that one of the apples had a bite taken out of it. Two more had gone missing. As her eyes refocused to take in more of her surroundings she realized a large monkey had intruded onto the scene, helping itself to the fruit.

Later the same day we saw a large langur in our yard eating rose buds straight from the bushes. Bina soon appeared wielding a wooden imitation rifle to scare it off. We would soon learn that a fondness for flowers was common among monkeys—as were antics that annoyed people. One morning when the agile creatures still held some charm for us we saw one plucking the little red flowers off the potted ornamental plants on the verandah and sucking out the nectar.

Whenever Anita was late for work, the stated reason was inevitably “monkeys.” As for many of the local women, her prudence dictated that she not continue down a path when they were present. Instead she waited for them to disperse. In their unpredictability they served somewhat the same role as Chicago’s ubiquitous traffic. Both were a real problem as well as an accepted, if overused, excuse for late arrivals.

You never knew when monkeys might surprise you on the path. One morning not far above school I noticed a large male with a red bottom and swollen testicles perched on a retaining wall above me. I debated retracing my steps down the hill, but didn’t want to show fear. In the yard of a large house I had just passed, a boy of about 12 or 13 was wielding an air rifle. “Don’t shoot!” I teased. But he didn’t say anything. Keenly aware that I was now surrounded by monkeys, I started to head up the path again.

Suddenly the male at the top of the incline let out a loud “SSSSSssss” and came scrabbing down the hill toward me, his arms framing his body on either side making him appear even larger than he actually was. I let out an involuntary shriek. In a fraction of a second another male monkey came up from below. The two of them grabbed hold of each other just next to where I was standing. In a flash they were skittering off together up the side of the hill, tussling. I’d had enough.

I headed for the boy with the gun, asked him if the path around their house went through to the back (was again met with dumb silence), and then asked the same question of a school employee who had appeared behind him. This man was playing with a friendly tan dog we sometimes saw when taking a short cut down to the school. He nodded and I went through with a nod at Goldie.

Mrs. Swanson, the high school counselor’s wife, had a theory about the monkeys. Basically it was “Monkey see, monkey do.” She found that if one approached them gently, eyes averted, and spoke to them softly that they never caused any trouble. On the other hand, if you picked up a rock and made threatening noises and gestures, they would do the same. As a pacifist I liked Mrs. Swanson’s theory, but was never entirely confident that it would work. I did occasionally pick up a rock in self defense, but it was usually a tentative gesture, and I’d try to keep it hidden.

One afternoon when I returned to the house Mrs. Bhatty and her friend were out on the verandah taking tea. Their talk had turned to monkey business. Apparently the scent of langurs is supposed to keep rhesus monkeys at bay. Her friend told us about a man who could be hired to visit with his langurs for 10,000 rs. “That’s a lot for us Indians” Mrs. Bhatty added. Since there were both rhesus and langurs on the hillside, I was rather skeptical that the langurs’ scent would actually keep the others at bay. But it sounded like a good racket, and since culling the monkeys was not a culturally acceptable option, one had to find other ways of dealing with them.

One beautiful May afternoon while walking along the chukkar I got a good look at an Aqua Verditer flycatcher on a wire above the trash heap just past a small cluster of shops. Where the road forked I decided to take the front/low road by St. Paul’s and do a loop rather than sticking to the back side of the mountain as I usually did. Continuing past the open-air teashops I realized that it might not be such a good idea to advertise the fact in that little population center that I would be soon walking by myself around the most deserted part of the road. Not that I’d ever had reason to be scared. A recent fatal beating of the groundskeeper at one of the remote estates made me a bit uneasy, but I assured myself that I lived in a pretty different universe from the chowkidar.

Not long after I had this thought, I rounded a curve and noticed out of the corner of my eye a man walking behind me who was carrying a long thick stick. I looked back a second time to size up the situation and decide whether I should walk more quickly. I opted for a steady pace, planning to smile at him and greet him should he approach me. Betraying fear (whether to monkeys or humans) is always a bad idea, and maybe there was nothing to worry about. I did look around and was happy to see a house below me down the hill, and another with servants out front in the distance. Just then two women came into view. The younger one was carrying a young infant in a blanket at her waist. I called out “Namaste,” a greeting they returned.

Oddly enough, just as I heard the man come up behind me I also saw two langurs in the road, and became aware of a smaller one down the hill to my left. The ones in the road were humping. Lovely.

As if were the most natural thing in the world, the man came up beside me and said “I just starting carrying this stick a week ago.” Maybe he had seen me eye him a second time and felt he owed me an explanation. “Most langurs are peaceful,” he said, “but there is a very big one who has been attacking people. He probably weighs more than you. He’s not afraid of stones, either. If you pick up a stone he’ll also pick up a stone and throw it at you. Get to this side” he said, putting himself and his big stick between me and the monkeys.

I mumbled something like “they seem pretty interested in each other just now.” As the man approached them, the male pulled himself out of the female, and they went off to a tree by the side of the road.

“You have to stare them down, look them in the eye. Whoever blinks first loses and the other one has the power. If I hadn’t had the stick they would have won and could have attacked me.”

“I just look the other way,” I said “and don’t catch their eye.”

“How long do you usually walk?” He asked.

“Oh, 45 or 50 minutes. Usually I don’t make the loop, I just stay on the back side. Then if you reach monkeys you can turn around and make your way home without having to get by them.”

He seemed to lose interest. I noticed he had thick cataracts over his blue eyes, although he didn’t look older than about 60.

“If your pace is faster than mine, it’s fine for you to go ahead. Thank you for helping me past the monkeys.”

He sped up and was soon out of sight, although I noticed he turned around when he got to Lal Tibba, the estate where the groundskeeper had been murdered. Perhaps this was so he could stay in the shade. I had to think of Ruskin Bond’s description of the famous “walkers” around Mussoorie who walk just to walk, and not especially for enjoyment.

The respect, or at least restraint, demonstrated toward the monkey relates to the presumed connection between monkeys and the Hindu divinity Hanuman, also known as the Monkey King. In one story I heard, a monkey got into the house where a long-anticipated newborn lay and softly stroked her face and hand. Afterwards the parents went to make an offering at the Hanuman shrine. They still think of her as their gift from that particular divinity. After a monkey was accidentally electrocuted on some power lines in Delhi, flowers appeared in the location within half an hour, and its body was taken to the burning ghats, usually reserved for human cremations.

The monkeys clearly had a sense of fun. At least one family told me they couldn’t use their clothesline because the one time they had hung clothes out they returned to find them strewn about treetops. Another family told a story about a monkey walking into the house, helping itself to a loaf of bread in the kitchen, and then walking out. One time when we visited a bird sanctuary we left the motel room for a moment a monkey brought its strong scent into the room and left with the bag of bananas we had bought, but also my husband’s prescription sunglasses.

Being social animals, the rhesus monkeys were often found in intergenerational groups. One time when we returned after an outing we discovered monkeys around our house. We had to wait it out while a big male loped around the gate and sat on the wall nearby. Eventually it lumbered off after a female with a baby. When we got into the yard Naomi was ahead and I spied another one up on the front wall. I just said “uh, you might want to come this way,” and headed for the path behind the house.



“Don’t run.” Then we saw one on the wall near our gate again. We headed around the back of the house for the stairs leading up to the chowkidar’s quarters and took shelter near the mongrel Mastiff’ berth. Pasha could be fierce; the monkeys left Mark alone when she ran with him. Jagdish heard barking and came out to check what was up. “Big monkey,” I said. Once the groundskeeper spotted the monkey he chased it off for us.

Naomi ran inside and got a popper-type fire cracker—the kind that goes BANG when you throw it on the ground—and offered it to Jagdish to scare away the monkey (they always come back a few times). Later I threw another, and he asked if we had more. Naomi gave him five, and he used them all.

The poppers were a treasured gift Naomi has received from her uncle. Delighted with her present, Naomi had counted them all out (originally 37). She was rather disappointed when we got home from school the next day and there were only 15 left instead of the 30 she expected.

One cold winter day while I was in the kitchen, all of a sudden I heard a huge clatter. A monkey had gotten into the large compost bin outside with the metal sheet for a lid. I opened the door and banged it shut, then ran for some of Naomi’s remaining poppers. My initial surprise attack succeeded in making the interloper flee as far as the garden wall where it faced me in a posture that was at once both threatened and threatening. I then opened the living room door and threw a popper down, hard, on the verandah. The first one exploded and sent the monkey racing over the precipice into the oak tree. It was soon back, however. In the interval I righted the compost and put the makeshift lid back on. Soon the scenario was repeated.

How many times was I going to go out and right the bin, I asked myself. Then more monkeys showed up. I was searching in my mobile for the number of the caretaker’s eldest daughter when she showed up, broom in hand, boldly sending them scurrying. She picked up rocks and hurled them at the monkeys in the trees. Naomi was a little worried for her, but I said that she knew what she was doing. She grew up here and knew how to handle them. I had to admit that when I was chasing off the first one I felt a little badly for it. It was a mother monkey, judging by the long nipples, and undoubtedly hungry and cold. What did I need the compost for? Couldn’t I spare a few banana peels?

About the Author

Laura Hostetler

Laura Hostetler grew up in Southeastern Pennsylvania where she regularly bridged the worlds formed by her Mennonite community, secular prep school, and Old Order Amish extended family. She attended the College of William and Mary and Goshen College, and studied abroad in both France and China before earning her Ph.D. in Asian Studies from the University of Pennsylvania. Currently Professor of History at the University of Illinois at Chicago, she specializes in ethnography and cartography as practiced in eighteenth-century China. Her current project, a spiritual memoir of a sabbatical year spent in India, is leading her to explore another part of Asia, a new genre of writing, and different ways of knowing.