“On Wild Life”
an excerpt from
The best thing about our Pushkar digs was the band of black-faced white monkeys who hung out on the roof. Pushkar is India’s second holiest city and don’t think those monkeys don’t know it. Thanks to their address, they enjoy complete immunity. No matter how calculated and deplorable their antics, the devout must treat them as Brahma’s favored lap dogs. Many entertaining hours were spent watching the monkeys hurl fistfuls of tiny, white candy onto the heads of the pilgrims who had come to make puja on the banks of Lake Pushkar. I suppose it was a mitzvah of sorts, since the candy played a part in the religious ritual. They were made from sugar, rose essence and the water taken directly from the lake, according to the young Brahmin who made his living coaching backpackers through the puja ceremony. His friend helped Greg through a puja in honor of his late father, Stanley, who had nearly died of dysentery bumming around India some twenty years before his sons were born. I selected my maternal grandmother, Elva Brockway, to be the recipient of my bungling attempt at Hindu observance, mostly because the candies’ taste made me nostalgic for the violet perfume she gave me as a child. Laying aside the question of reincarnation, I couldn’t help thinking that Gran, a Hoosier Presbyterian whose most exotic excursion was a spin on San Francisco’s Rice-o-roni street car, would have been scandalized by these heathen ministrations. Picturing her clutching her pocketbook firmly to her chest, I launched a cardboard boat bearing a flickering candle across the surface of Lake Pushkar as behind me, a monkey the size of an outboard motor swiped more packets of candy than he could carry.
The monkeys weren’t the only creatures to share the ersatz patio outside our quarters, a small adobe-type cubicle built directly onto the flat roof. The family who owned this house, living in the rooms that opened onto the parquet-tiled courtyard, had a small, tan dog, a friendly-faced mutt whom everyone ignored. Homesick for Jambo, the contemptuous pet cat back home in Chicago, we adopted the eager-to-please little fellow, whom we called Doggiepants. I think Doggiepants was relieved to have some human allies, since the monkeys used him as their whipping boy. He’d be napping on the charpoy, a surprisingly comfortable wooden cot-frame with a mattress of criss-crossed strings, when three or four monkeys would bound over the wall and shamble over in the time-honored tradition of bullies the world round. While we watched, one of the simian toughs—always a medium-sized henchman, never the biggest one—would grasp Doggiepants by the ruff and fling him unceremoniously overboard. Like a terrified freshman unsure if he was free to go, Doggiepants would tremble at a safe distance as the monkeys lounged, chattering on the stringbed with a dozen of their pals. “It’s okay, Doggiepants,” we’d croon, gathering him into our arms. “They’ll go away soon and then you can have your spot back.” We weren’t foolhardy enough to challenge the usurpers on his behalf. We were three times their size, but they outnumbered us. If they whistled, hundreds of long-tailed, opposable-thumbed relatives would come flying from the neighboring rooftops. They were buff, aggressive, familiar with the terrain, and beloved to Brahma. They were unparalleled specimens of Grade-A-Prime ass-kicking monkey flesh. Greg and I adored them. We loved Doggiepants, too, but he was like us, weak.
Pushkar has a well-earned reputation as Rajasthan’s favorite backpackers’ haunt. While Jaipur has exquisite miniature paintings and Jodphur has the forts, Pushkar is easy. It’s easy to navigate on foot, its narrow streets all leading back to the lake. Restaurants are plentiful, as are stalls where even the most tentative bargainer can snag a silk blouse cut from a secondhand sari for less than a buck. Naked sadhus patrol the streets, as dignified as elderly lions. It’s an Indian vacation within India, a temporary reprieve from the big city baksheesh and the exhausting tourist hustle of other picturesque spots. Pushkar gets a fair share of Indian visitors, too, devout Hindus, some of whom are but cremated remains. Varanasi, the famous city on the banks of the Ganges is the primo ash-scattering spot, but according to both Lonely Planet and the Brahmin who conducted the puja for Gran-Gran, Lake Pushkar was good enough for Gandhi and that, my friends, is good enough for me, particularly if you toss in a couple thousand monkeys.
The dark side of Pushkar’s legend, which in my case turned out to be absolutely true, is that you will get sick there. It caught me by surprise. Having remained relatively healthy for five years as a succession of traveling partners liquefied internally, dropping weight by the bucketful, I had decided my bout with malaria in Tanzania had left me impregnable to any number of bugs. It also seemed to be the origin of my insomnia, but whereas my nights are miserable, moth-eaten affairs to this day, my intestinal Get Out Of Jail Free card expired on the roof of the Brahmaputra guesthouse on the shores of Lake Pushkar. If I might be allowed a note of scatological explanation, all travelers undergo some transformation of their customary bowel function, otherwise how could they join in the lurid shit-story one-upsmanship that passes for polite mealtime conversation with others of their ilk? I was no exception, even after Africa laid me low. There is a difference, however, between the garden variety tummy trouble one encounters on the road and the miserable, cramping, Everything-I-Eat-Comes-Pouring-Out-My-Ass that I endured in Pushkar. It’s a testament to that city’s easygoing quality that I was still able to spend a couple of hours every day exploring its petal strewn streets. When it was time to stay within certain toilet range, I returned to our room on the roof of the Brahmaputra, to snuggle with Doggiepants and lean on the foot-thick windowsill, gazing at pilgrims prostrating themselves on the blue-tiled landing of the temple next door. Once, an enormous milk-colored ox found his way out onto the temple’s ghat and wreaked havoc by leaning on the faithful. They scrambled away shouting before he could crush them against an ornamental pillar, but no matter how hard they whacked him on the buttocks, he refused to leave. He reminded me of my stepfather’s dearly departed black lab, a loyal beast whose intelligence I always found somewhat overestimated. That dog used to lean against me so heavily on the dock of Art’s summer home in northern Wisconsin that I invariably wound up in Lake Superior, another paperback novel waterlogged to thrice its original size. Doggiepants aside, my temperament marked me as a cat person. If you ask a cat person to choose between cow and monkey, the bovine loses every time, unless the judging takes place in a barbecue pit and looking at that bull’s loose hide, I doubted he’d make good eating, even if his mental thermostat was set to poultry. A furious matron in a lime-green sari had him by the nose ring, screaming directly into his nostrils and the dumb ox just stood there, swishing his tail. Any one of the monkeys vaulting overhead would have torn her head off for such insubordination. Nandi the Bull might have been Shiva’s trusty vehicle, but Hanuman, King of the Monkeys, was Vishnu’s right hand man.
“Why do you think it is that there are a bazillion temples to Ganesha and barely any to Hanuman?” I asked Greg.
“A bazillion?” he questioned dryly.
“You know what I mean. Hanuman’s the coolest, man! When Rama’s brother-in-law kidnapped Sita, that monkey saved the fucking day! He flew around with an entire forest on his arm!”
“Remember those swimming monkeys in Ubud?” Greg interrupted. Non sequiturs like this are the norm when one person bears a daily conversational burden that at home is shared by at least a dozen. Beaming, I nodded, breast-stroking furiously in place. Greg, a far more accomplished mimic, upped the ante by climbing a tree, diving into a drinking trough, holding his breath for the underwater crossing, and popping up at the far end, his eyes wild, his wet fur plastered close to his body.
“How about Hanoi?” I giggled. Greg pretended to pedal a miniature bicycle around a circus ring. When his comrades broke ranks, he seized the moment to hurl his bike at his whip-cracking trainer, a valiant rebellion, considering that he was still chained to it by the neck. “Oh my god, I thought I’d die. We were the only ones laughing.”
“Or that juvenile who put his foot on me?” Greg recalled, returning to the Monkey Forest. Nibbling an invisible peanut, he planted a companionable bare foot on my upper back. Knowing my cue, I looked around slowly. Startled, Greg snatched his foot back, amazed that he had been so forward with a fully-grown male of the hairless species.
“Or the one who stole the cherries?”
“He was such a thug,” Greg remarked admiringly, having imitated both the rubber-faced bandit who helped himself to a heaping armload of fruit from a vendor’s cart and the victim, shaking his fists as the thief sat impassively on a telephone wire, spitting the pits onto the man’s head. “Where was that? Manali?”
“Dharamsala,” I said, wiping my eyes.
The whitewashed walls shook as our resident troop swarmed up the steep stairs that led to the roof of our rooftop cubicle, launching themselves toward some mysterious group appointment. “What time is it?” Greg asked, groping for his watch. “Four? How are your guts? Do you think you could handle one of those bhang lhassis your Brahmin guy was telling us about?”
I fished out the business card my puja master had handed me, The Sunset Café, his brother-in-law’s place, the most beautiful garden in Pushkar, he had vowed. “I think it’s worth a try, as long as we can we can walk very slowly.”
We followed the map on the back of the card to a formidable whitewashed dwelling. A restaurant had been set up in the back, which as promised, was shady, green and very tranquil. We ordered fruit salad and, feeling a bit shifty, bhang lhassis. These yogurt shakes, the Indian take on hash brownies, got on the menu because of the sadhus, who sometimes find that an ascetic lifestyle and wandering around naked is not enough to induce spiritual visions. A holy man bellying up to the bar for a marijuana smoothie struck me as totally legit in a way that two obviously godless, backpacking Good Time Charlies calling for the same beverage did not. If our waiter was offended by our order, he didn’t show it. “Small or large?” he asked before disappearing into the kitchen. A half an hour later, he returned with our fruit salads, which were not the usual anemic specimens, but generous platefuls sprinkled with coconut and freshly squeezed lime. We spent the next hour wondering if he’d forgotten about us and wishing that some other travelers would show up, since after the initial appreciative shock wore off, the unnatural quiet of the garden felt oppressive. I made two runs, no pun intended, to the spacious ground floor toilet. Finally, our waiter reappeared, bearing two tall glasses on a cocktail tray, which seemed absurdly formal given that he was crossing his family’s back yard. Upon inspection, the bhang lhassis showed evidence of a chef’s touch. Thick and flecked with green, they were garnished with an attractive spoonful of chopped cashews. The long wait had dampened my madcap mood, but ever since puberty, when I got over my picky eating habits, I have been constitutionally unable to waste food, especially if I’m paying for it. While technically beverages, the lhassis served in this establishment clearly belonged in the meal-in-a-glass category. It was like drinking a pasture.
“Wow, it’s really grassy,” Greg choked. “You feel anything?”
“Not yet. You?”
The Brahmin who had knelt with me beside Lake Pushkar entered, noticed our order and gave me a big thumbs-up. I was confused. I didn’t know much about Brahmins, other than they were top caste, favored a particular shade of periwinkle for home décor, wore strings on their upper arms and weren’t allowed to clean their own toilets. I doubted that it was kosher for them to drink pot, or serve it to paying guests for that matter. Maybe this young fellow was just another ambitious, tourist-hustling, Western-fucker minus the beat-up guitar and groovy duds. “You have come to the Sunset Café,” he said, shaking our hands warmly. “Very good. You have met my brother-in-law?” The waiter waved from the doorway. “Is it not the most beautiful garden in Pushkar? Are you enjoying these drinks?”
“Yes. Very, uh, fresh tasting. Green.”
“Mmm,” he nodded. “This is because of the ganja.”
It smelled like the real thing, but neither of us were feeling the expected effects. Oh well, even if they threw the contents of their lawnmower bag into a blender, it didn’t matter. We had passed a pleasant enough afternoon and the Brahmins seemed like nice enough guys. I wasn’t all that hepped up to be rip-snorting high anyway. Promising to refer other backpackers, we pushed through the heavy wooden doors onto the street, where the mind-altering substance he had just consumed in the large size hit Greg like a semi barreling down the exit ramp, heading for Cracker Barrel. He turned to me, shifting his mandible demonically, his eyes brighter than embers. “Holy shit! Are you as stoned as I am?”
“No,” I said, steering him firmly by the elbow. He pranced alongside, alternately giggling at or flinching from the standard Pushkar scenery, the sandalwood beads festooning the bangle-wallah’s stalls, the open sewers, the savage white stripes painted across the holy men’s noses. “Keep it together,” I muttered as he clapped his hands at a monkey seated on a low wall. The monkey shot him the disdainful glance of a prom chaperone, disgusted by the student’s sloppy intoxication.
“This is some crazy shit,” Greg howled in amazement, ducking to dodge an airborne hazard visible only to himself.
“Okay, here we are,” I said, pulling him into Brahmaputra’s courtyard. The family’s grandfather, an intellectual looking fellow with long white hair and beard, horn rimmed glasses and a big, bare belly hanging over his sarong, gave us a dignified nod. “Greg. Greg, listen to me. Do you want to use the bathroom? Because we’re right here and once we get you up the stairs, I don’t know how easy it’s going to be to get you back down.” I pointed him into toward the toilet, playing with the little boy who lived on the premises while Greg whispered and chuckled to himself behind the door. I had never seen him like this before, though he did come close two years later on our wedding night. I was afraid that he was going to come out with his pants around his ankles. Apparently, the illustrious old man was used to such monkeyshines. He remained seated on the portico, gazing unflappably across the darkening water when a lesser man might have fallen all over himself trying to protect his grandson from the bad element. I managed to get Greg across the roof and into bed, where he jiggled and sang and generally behaved like someone higher than Sputnik. Finally, he started coming down. Just as he stretched out, exhausted, the bhang lhassi’s latent properties struck me. “Greg! Hey, wake up! I’m feeling it!” But Greg, spent, rolled on his side, unable to keep his eyes open after a wan bon voyage. I am unable to remember much about the next few hours, other than an impression of ripples on the lake and monkey tails flipping around in the moonlight. Compared to our psychotic meltdown in Saigon, it seemed to have been an agreeable couple of hours. At last, I, too lay down for sleep.
The next thing I knew, someone punched the heavy double doors to our room wide open. I bolted upright, too disoriented to wonder why the medieval-looking bolt hadn’t been fastened the night before. A giant monkey strode in on his knuckles, testicles swinging, contemptuously surveying the scene. “Greg,” I peeped. Groggily, he lifted his head a quarter inch off the pillow and went back to sleep. “Shoo! Heeyaw,” I ventured, clutching the sheet to my unclothed bosom. The monkey strutted over to the windowsill and knocked a packet of incense to the floor, as if to say, “Fuck you, girlie. I saw you out there fumbling through your stupid American puja.” Oh no, he was a hood! The door gaped open, admitting a pearly pre-dawn light. How long until the others of his band came streaming through? All quiet next door at the temple. No signs of life from the family downstairs. It was up to me to defend our territory. I grabbed one of Greg’s rubber flip flops from under the bed and chucked it toward the monkey, missing by a mile, thank god. I don’t like to think about what he would have done to me had I scored a direct hit. “Go on, get out of here,” I pleaded, lobbing the second flip flop. The monkey scratched his ass, seized both shoes and loped out of the room.
“Greg! Greg! He’s got your shoes!” I screamed as Greg finally woke just in time to see the monkey’s powerful hindquarters disappearing through the door.
“What the fuck is going on?” he demanded over my shrill instructions to get his clothes on, a giant monkey had made off with his shoes. Still not understanding what had transpired, Greg leapt to his feet, pulling on a pair of white, elastic-waist trousers as he stumbled outside. I sat for a minute stunned, then rifled through my backpack for something I could throw on quickly. Naked beneath a wrinkled sundress, I tripped to the threshold in time to witness a tense stand-off between Greg and his adversary, who squatted on the charpoy, gnawing a flip-flop. Doggiepants cowered in the far corner. Greg took one step toward the charpoy, looking I must say very lean and handsome in his casual, beachy bottoms. The monkey sprang from his perch and Greg tottered backward, crossing his arms in front of his face. The monkey streaked past, not slowed down for a second by the rubber sandals clenched in his black paws. Greg started laughing in disbelief as he headed up the steep, banister-less stairs, following the monkey to the flat roof over our room. Doggiepants and I rushed to the center of the lower roof, but Greg and the monkey had disappeared into our blind spot.
“Be careful,” I tittered, just as Greg reappeared, running as if his life depended on it. He kept his arms out like a tight rope walker as he started downstairs, his knees pumping past his waistband in his frenzied effort to get away. To his left, it was a sheer two-story drop to the tiled floor of the family compound. Awareness of that danger slowed his descent. Fangs bared, the monkey gained on him with the effortless muscular coordination of a natural predator. In the quiet before sunrise, the sounds of the chase were weirdly amplified by the painted cement stairs: the panicked slap-slap of Greg’s bare soles, the monkey pushing off with his hand-like feet, the macho rippling of those simian gluteals. “Run!” I shrieked, unable to stifle my laughter. It would have looked less funny had Greg’s pursuer been a cheetah or a ferocious hippo, but even in the moment, there was something great about that monkey’s indignation. Boy, you think you’re evolved just because you’re wearing pants? I’ll show you who’s the boss around here! Greg leapt the final three stairs, thudding flat-footed to the roof. For some reason, the monkey drew up short. He probably reckoned it was beneath him to polish off such unworthy opponents. He held his ground, glaring, as Greg and I raced hand in hand to the safety of our room, Doggiepants hot on our heels. We remained, bolt firmly in place, until we could hear the family stirring below us and the legendary Pushkar sickness reasserted itself. Miraculously, the bhang lhassi had worked temporary tonic effects on my motility, stoppering me up for an entire night. Cautiously, I stuck my head out. All clear. Scuttling toward the loo, I noticed Grandfather still racked out on a charpoy positioned in his favorite lake view spot. I was glad the scuffle upstairs hadn’t disturbed him. He’d probably grown accustomed to overhead brawls between monkeys and the guests who paid to sleep on his roof.
We headed out to shop for a new pair of thongs to replace the ones the monkey had stolen. This was the second pair of shoes Greg had had nicked in India. He complained that he felt conspicuous galumphing around in white socks and the bulky black athletic footwear from home. Could it be that India was pushing Greg Kotis towards something resembling fashion consciousness? Oh strange and wonderful country …
When we returned from our expedition, we found that the monkey had left a calling card, perhaps a warning of the kind of misfortune sure to befall anyone foolish enough to tangle with him twice. The mangled upper portion of a flip-flop lay on our doormat, chewed well past the instep. Greg leaned down to pick up his souvenir, cradling it gently like the sacred relic it was. “Look,” he intoned, “You can see the teeth.”
We examined the ruined shoe, whose twin would be discovered later that evening, abandoned in similar condition on the upper roof. I fully believed that the missing part had been eaten. “God,” we chimed in unison. “Monkeys are cool.”
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By Ayun Halliday © 2003
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