Do you know that all our grandparents were, once upon a time, little girls and boys like ourselves? They used to run upstairs and downstairs, skipping one or two stairs at a time, just as you do now. Of course they had many friends at school, but at home, they had a lively group of cousins, all living together in a merry big house. When they grew up and left the house to live in other places to work and the sisters were married into other families living in other cities, they took with them loving memories of their childhood.

My grandmother Roma lived in such a household in a quiet old locality of Varanasi, during the early years of the last century. She was a little girl of eight at that time. They lived in a high roofed two-storied old house made of red bricks, with many nooks and corners and lovely places to play hide-and-seek. The huge terrace was a dear old place to run around and catch each other. Several chubby cats slept in obscure corners of the old house or basked in the sun on the terrace. A grand old parrot having a red and a black ring on his neck lived in an old cage which hung in the long corridor upstairs, and Roma’s cousin Nitin had an enviable collection of white mice.

The neighbourhood was often raided by monkeys, who were proud inhabitants of the ancient city. Monkeys crossing the road in a quaint procession were a common sight. No one was afraid of them, or, to put it in another way, it was not correct to be afraid of them. If anyone showed their fear by trying to get rid of the monkeys by any means, they were sure to be slapped by the mischievous creatures.

One sleepy summer afternoon, a greater and noisier band of monkeys than usual arrived in the locality. At least twenty five of them mounted a huge mango tree which drooped with ripe mangoes right beside Roma’s house, and another group was busy moving swiftly between the branches of a guava tree from which they could easily leap to a convenient corner of a first floor window and climb on to the roof. While this was quite a familiar event, the residents of the house soon realized that something serious had happened among the group on that day. All the monkeys were chirping wildly, and a mother monkey with a baby clinging to her was jumping from branch to branch in terror. She apparently tried to save her baby from the head of the group, a big, strong, male monkey with red eyes and flashing white teeth. The rampage continued for about two hours, till sunset. The monkeys looked and sounded so wild and violent that day, that no one could come out of their rooms and the children were strictly forbidden to venture to the terrace. At last, when it seemed that the fight was over for that day, Roma’s grandmother went upstairs for her evening rituals to the family puja room which opened into the terrace. When puja was over and she had blown the conch shell thrice, she came out into the terrace and put out her hand to the latch to close the door. Suddenly, a wild noise was heard around. A monkey appeared in front of Roma’s grandma, thumped something like a bundle at her feet and jumped away with great speed. The old lady stooped to pick it up. It was a tiny baby monkey! Its mother could think of no other way to save her baby and finally left it to the care of a human mother!

Soon, the members of the big household crowded round grandma to look at the baby monkey. It could not be more than seven days old. Just like a human babe, the poor thing clinched its fist and squeaked feebly. After the first attack of astonishment and excitement was over, grandma’s first duty was to feed the poor baby with a twisted piece of cotton wool dipped in milk. Roma and her cousins stood around their grandma eagerly, watching as each drop of milk fell into its tiny red mouth. It fell asleep immediately in a cozy little bed Roma’s mother had made for it with old clothes.

The baby monkey started growing up beautifully in human care, so much away from its mother and the monkey community. It could walk a little on its four legs now, and was the cutest little thing to look at. It was now the favourite of all the children of the house. Roma and her cousins Nitin, Usha and Amal wanted a name for the monkey now. After lots of discussions, Amal’s elder brother Bimal named it “Madhu”.

Madhu became as important as any member of the family. He fed on milk and rice from grandma’s hands out of a stone bowl, and could eat a banana with his own hands. The monkeys visited rarely now. Roma and her cousins could not bear the thought of Madhu being taken away by his mother or the other monkeys, but it was clear now that Madhu’s mother did not want him back as she would not be able to protect him from the powerful leader of her gang. However, Madhu was always kept hidden carefully whenever a monkey battalion was seen in the neighborhood.

Madhu grew up fast and was never tired of running up and down the staircase with the children. He played with them on the terrace by catching a red ball thrown to him in turns by Roma and her cousins. He chose his own time to sleep. He could eat many things now like rotis and biscuits, but loved fruits of all kinds. All his movements were funny to look at. When he played with the children or jumped about in the wide balcony upstairs, any visitor in the house could not believe his eyes that a monkey could be brought up in such a way in a human household.

Madhu always ate only whatever was given to him, but one day it was discovered that he had stolen potatoes from the kitchen. The cook found the potato basket upturned on the kitchen floor, and Madhu was discovered in the terrace, eating potatoes. He was brought in front of the children standing together, and grandmother raised a finger and said “O Madhu” twice in a stern voice. Madhu realized he had been doing wrong. Tears rolled down from his eyes for the first time to everyone’s amazement, and he clasped his hands in front of grandma as if seeking her pardon.

Madhu was a grown-up monkey now. His body was strong, his tail was long and strong, and his face was black. It was becoming difficult to keep him in the house, and relatives now started to avoid paying visits, especially with children, saying “it is so uncomfortable to stay with a monkey roaming about. He may slap or hit the children”. Roma’s father and other elders discussed of sending Madhu to the zoo or some other place, but put it off for indefinite periods of time as the children opposed strongly. At this time, an incident happened.

Madhu’s behaviour was changing for some time now. He kept to himself in remote corners of the terrace and did not come down even after nightfall. He was now too big to sleep in his old bed. He was moody and showed his teeth to the children when they went to play with him. Instead of the familiar “oop, oop”, he often responded with a ferocious grunt with an angry look in his eyes. One afternoon, Roma came back from school – she had also left junior school and was in the middle school now – and went in search of Madhu on the terrace with a banana for him. Madhu avoided looking at her and tried to jump away to the mango tree. When Roma tried to stop him and make him take the banana, he showed his teeth and hit Roma on her left hand, bruising the hand badly. He would have shown more violence, if the servants did not rush to the spot hearing Roma’s cries.

That evening, after a doctor had come and dressed Roma’s wound and given her medicines, a meeting was held in the sitting room downstairs. Madhu was not to stay in the house any more. The children could say nothing in Madhu’s support, as instead of being their friend like earlier times, he had started hitting them. Roma’s uncle spoke with the zoo authorities, and at last they agreed to take Madhu in the zoo.

A few days later, a cage was sent to their house from Varanasi zoo. It was a sad day. The children were tearful and Roma cried bitterly as Madhu had been dear to her from the first day. Madhu had been quiet for the last few days and had even taken rice and milk from his old bowl, offered by grandma. When two keepers from the zoo went to the terrace to get him, he cast a fearful glance at them and tried to escape. They threw a net on him and captured him in it, before putting him in the cage. Soon the truck drove away with the cage with Madhu in it, never to return in that house again.

After two weeks, Roma and her cousins went to the zoo with their uncle to visit Madhu. They could spot him with other monkeys in a huge wire enclosure with bars to climb and swing from. Though it was good for him to live in the zoo, they could not bear to see good old Madhu in captivity, as if behind bars. When they cried “Madhu, Madhu”, he suddenly leaped forward eagerly and came near them, the wire netting between him and the little friends with whom he grew up.

They visited the zoo in search of Madhu only once more, after about eight months. This time they were disappointed. At first they could not recognize Madhu, as each monkey looked the same to them in the enclosure now. Though at last Nitin and Amal agreed that one particular monkey in the enclosure seemed to resemble Madhu, he did not respond at all to their repeated calls and jumped away indifferently to the farthest corner of the cage.

All the children in that household grew up and took different courses in life. Nitin became a scientist and went to Canada. Amal was a government officer in Delhi. Roma, my grandmother, came to live in Calcutta after her marriage and Bimal practised law in their home city, Varanasi. But no one forgot Madhu who was an important part of the happy memories of their childhood.

Contributing Story Teller:  Aditi Ghosh, I am a resident of Kolkata. I work as a Secretary in a real estate firm and write in between my work. I have a daughter (9 years). My husband is also based in Kolkata and is a senior accountant in a medical equipment company. aditi321@rediffmail.com

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