Sunday, May 4, 2008

The old friend

“Pawan’s special! That’s why I wait for him here, every Sunday” said Raghu. Short, muscular and without a whisker on his young face, Raghu looked wiser than his years should’ve allowed. He was sitting on his haunches on the grass, waiting for Pawan. Some children and a blue bird twittered nearby; hawkers hawked, thrusting packs of stale popcorn under our noses till I waved them away…and Raghu waited. “Pawan and I lived on neighbouring farms in Ferozabad,” Raghu said. “The people he was staying with wanted to throw him out. They said he was a lecherous lout who stared at women, groped and teased them…and then the master of the house caught him masturbating. He was thrashed black and blue and they might’ve killed him if I hadn’t offered to bring him to Delhi. They just misunderstood him. He can’t think like us and there are times when he can’t help his passions…but his heart is good and kind…and brave, very brave.”

“In Delhi,” Raghu continued, “Pawan and I stayed with my maternal uncle – a taxi driver. Pawan and my uncle would often go out together and both grew very fond of each other. I worked in the garage downstairs while Pawan helped clean the taxi. He slept in the garage at night. One night, woken by the sound of a window being broken and the screams of a man, uncle and I rushed to the darkened shed. There, lying on the floor was a crowbar and a man bleeding from his ear. There had been another, for we could hear the sound of heavy feet beating down hard and fast on the cobbled lane outside. And Pawan? Where did he go? We called out his name again and again...but nothing…the shed seemed empty. The commotion had woken up the neighbours. They poured in with advice and assistance. Some trussed up the bruised burglar, others were reassuring uncle, but almost all of them were shocked at the ghastly gash on the burglar’s ear – Pawan hadn’t held back! And there he was…I’d gone out to close the door and saw him sitting in the corner…shivering. His head was on his knees. He looked up at me with eyes that said ‘I didn’t mean to do this’. He held my hand and I helped him to his feet. As we walked in, hand in hand, tongues wagged. ‘Pawan drove the other one away’, ‘he is a brave one’, ‘but did you see that wound…he could’ve died’, ‘dangerous…, can’t trust Pawan.’ But uncle did, always...”

“He was in love once, you know. And then he was dangerous – your typical she’s-mine-and-I’ll-hook-your-eyes-out-if-you-so-much as-look-at-her kinda bully. Jealous, violent and madly in love! The girl couldn’t care less. Beautiful and vain, she hated Pawan. She even hated me for being his friend. A pity really…she was very pretty,” said Raghu wistfully.

“But something happened two winters ago…we’d gone to uncle’s village in Haryana. That morning, uncle was cycling through the fields. Pawan was pillion riding. While cycling up a slope leading to the highway, Pawan got off. He could sense uncle straining under the weight. On the highway, Pawan jumped back on. Almost immediately, uncle lost balance; the cycle crashed and uncle collapsed on top of it, right in the way of a speeding truck. He’d had an epileptic fit. As he lay there, twitching and frothing, Pawan could see the big orange shadow growing big on them. Pawan heaved and pulled uncle onto the shoulder as the truck thundered past. The villagers took him to a hospital, where Pawan sat by him through the night. Next morning, a stranger walked up to uncle... Uncle called Pawan and after stroking his back for a while, handed him over to the stranger. We never saw him after that day…until now…”

“My uncle ha…” Raghu stopped abruptly. Leaving the sentence hanging, he ran past me; as I turned, I saw Raghu reach out and touch a dark little outstretched hand that reached out from across the wire mesh of a dinghy cell. We’d been standing in front of it all this while but it had been empty. Perhaps while we’d been talking, the tiny wooden door at the back opened and Pawan would’ve entered unnoticed.

The children and the blue bird were still twittering, the hawkers still hawking, but for me, my Sunday at the zoo had come to a stand still as I watched a man and a monkey talk; their hands told each other of love even as their eyes told each other of pain.

Pawan, the Hanuman langur, had been sold by Raghu’s uncle and on that fateful day, was being taken to his new owner. His uncle needed the money. Raghu knew it but couldn’t help it. Pawan was then used by langurwallas to drive away macaques in the Delhi University area until an NGO confiscated him and handed him over to the zoo. Because he was so strong and stubborn, the langurwalla had pulled out his canines with a plier.

Bruised, battered and betrayed, Pawan was living out his last few days in the zoo…that infected wound in his gums was killing him…slowly.

“And to think he’d been free on a tree in a forest once…” Raghu said, his eyes misting over…Pawan reached out through the mesh with both arms, as if to comfort him.

Abducted destinies

Monkeys (Rhesus macaques) have been a menace in Delhi and other cities in India for a while and Hanuman langurs are often used to drive the marauding hordes away from areas where they can come into conflict with humans. Unfortunately, the langurs for these ‘langur patrols’ are trapped illegally in the wild and then smuggled in bags across borders. Then they reach handlers who train them either for patrolling or for begging. Gentle and sensitive, langurs succumb to stress and disease and usually die within four years of being captured. Renowned primatologist, Dr Iqbal Malik, raised her voice against this practice, “Langurs are brought in from the forests of Rajasthan. They are protected under Wildlife Protection Act 1972, which means chaining them and using them for these purposes is illegal.” The langurs only provide symptomatic relief because the macaques always return and in trying to solve one problem, the government (whose ministerial offices are prime employers of langur patrollers) has added to the misery and necessitated the torture of this free spirited leaf eater. Once revered by devotees of the monkey-god Hanuman, trapper tribes now use inhuman methods to capture entire troops to supply langurs for the patrolling trade, unmindful of the Rs. 10,000 fine. But then as long as the protector (the government) resorts to short sighted exploitation of the protected, monkeys will roam, and so would langurwallas, with battered, bruised and betrayed langurs in tow...


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