On my first day in New Delhi, I look up through the window of my hotel room. Something is wending its way through one of the trees on the far side of the complex, making all of the leaves flutter in one go like a fan. It’s a monkey, I decide brightly, before dismissing the idea outright. Although my eyes tell me that it is a monkey, my brain overrules them, on the grounds that somebody who has just set foot in India should not be able to look out of their hotel window and be rewarded at once by seeing a monkey. It cannot be this easy.
It’s probably a cat, my brain proposes. A calamitous, anarchic cat, travelling in a diagonal wave upwards through a tree. It’s a monkey!, my eyes sing. Cat!, my brain snaps back.
There are no monkeys roaming loose in the UK. Indeed, the idea is horrifying. Monkeys are locked up in iron houses in zoos. They are only ever allowed freedom within these bare, controlled interiors.
I get to work on New Delhi, trying to find Edinburgh at the bottom of it. I visit pizzerias and shopping malls and approximations of supermarkets; I use Uber and food delivery apps. I insist in walking the ten thousand steps even when it is over 40 degrees Celsius. So we are not so unalike, the monkeys and I. Local media reports maintain that the monkeys have invaded New Delhi, marauding and not compromising on an iota of their destructive monkey nature. And I am still refusing to be absorbed.
When I next see a monkey outside my window, the mysterious, spectral stage of getting to know them is definitely over. This monkey is real, without a shadow of a doubt. It is now shepherded into the rest of my known reality and, uneasily, it settles down there. It has two black eyes, so deep as to bore all the way down to Australia. It is otherwise unkempt and scowling – rather frazzled looking, in fact. It drifts indifferently over the rooftop area and then stuffs its mouth with handfuls of seeds from a terracotta bowl (for birds). Later, when I look again, the bowl has been broken clean in half.
All the time that I have been touring New Delhi, I have been wearing a face mask, thinking that this will help me cope with the magnitude of the city traffic. There are more mopeds in the typical New Delhi street than there are animalcules in a drop of water. Yet stupidly, when I get back to my hotel room, I immediately open the window, to let in “the fresh air.” Supposing I had let in a monkey?
I present myself at the front desk. “I have been opening the window to my room…” I say.
The man behind the desk blinks in gentle amazement. “You don’t open the window,” he tells me. Why would anyone open the window? There is a ceiling fan and aircon.
I am undeterred. “Just out of curiosity, would a monkey come into the room? Or would have? – now that I shall keep it closed, of course.”
This is clearly an exceptionally stupid guest. “You don’t open the window,” he repeats steadily.
“I mean, would it take my phone – would it have taken my phone – or my passport? Would I have had to chase it all around the rooftops?”
No, they don’t come into the rooms, he assures me.
You might question why I am writing about monkeys and not about the art and antiquities that are so laid out so lavishly across this garden city. After all, I have seen the Qutub Minar and Humayun’s Tomb. But descriptive writing cannot make these things more beautiful than they already are, just as (to paraphrase Ernest Hemingway, I think) it cannot make skiing any more exciting. For now, all that my writing can do is slap the word “beautiful” over Humayun’s Tomb like a sticker. The monkey, on the other hand, reflects various exploratory little lights back into my own psyche.
The monkey outside my window seems to be only loosely aware that it is a monkey. By this, I mean that it doesn’t caper about and flaunt its extraordinary mobility, as one who is unfamiliar with monkeys might expect them to. It is a rhesus macaque and so maybe these lie on the gloomier end of the monkey spectrum.
Strangely, I find that I am far more interested in natural things in India than I am by the aesthetics or by social questions. I go around thrilling over every weirdly-hooting bird. And then I realise that India’s fauna retains such charisma for me because it had somehow always represented luxury throughout my childhood reading. India had seemed like a country where Nature was grander, wilder and more beautiful than it ever is in the UK. Or simply more imaginative than anything that the UK can put up, with our mild spiders and our piddling songbirds.
Many people my age would have been introduced to monkeys with Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book (1894). Actually, the most haunting thing about the monkeys in Kipling’s writing is their soullessness. There is a kind of political allegory underway here, which conforms rather to Bernard Mandeville’s line about the bees that “were not slaves to tyranny/Nor ruled by wild democracy.” Shere Khan, Kipling’s tiger, represents the tyranny of absolute monarchy whereas the Bandar-log monkeys are scatterbrained parliamentarians. The waiting ideal is the Rule of Law, or the “Law of the Jungle,” which is supposedly calm, impersonal, disciplined and in everyone’s interests.
This is clearly Magna Carta surprised in the natural world or written structurally into the ornateness of the jungle wallpaper. And the monkeys never bat for Britain. Indeed, it is never possible for us to connect with them within Kipling’s anthropomorphic system, as we do with Baloo the bear and Bagheera the black panther. They are always in a Robespierrean uproar, always distant, unthinking and soulless. (Walt Disney had later cancelled this horror by creating an avuncular singing monkey, voiced by Louis Prima.)
Perhaps Kipling continues to have some hand in how the media writes about monkeys in New Delhi today. They are said to surge over government buildings and to swarm destructively into innocent people’s houses. All that I can say is that my brief encounters with the city’s monkeys do not corroborate this. I found them to be greatly less aggressive than the seagulls that are their obvious Edinburgh counterparts.
I came across a troop of them on Simon Bolivar Marg. Rather like a Clint Eastwood character in a hostile town, I walked slowly through them all. I didn’t give them any food (there is a 5000 rupee or around a £50 fine for this) and I tried not to make eye contact. It is admittedly pushing against the magnet to look into a monkey’s face and to not make eye contact with it. Once I made an accidental connection with a small or young monkey and it yelped and scrambled, as though I had fired a pistol. Another time, a bigger beast stared back hard. So you begin as an invisible man and you only step out into visibility for them when you find their eyes.
Simon Bolivar Marg seems to be an agreed urban space or rather like the monkey-feeding equivalent of a red light district. People were throwing bits of fruit out of their cars to the monkeys here. There were also clusters of pseudo-wild cows and bulls along this road, another animal that possesses a special aura within interpretations of Hinduism. A young man had a cart stacked high with bananas, presumably to be bought to feed the monkeys. But those around him remained far back and they did not show any interest in the cart.
I am becoming more absorbed into New Delhi too. I can ride the metro now and I have been given a plastic card for it that is like the keys to the city. I am bored with the shopping malls and you are more likely today to find me dining on chilli paneer in middling restaurants. I have persuaded myself that one mosquito bite does not a malaria make. So the monkeys and me, satellites of New Delhi, are perhaps today slung a little lower in our respective orbits.
[For visuals see Insta.]