Once upon a time, not so very long ago, a baboon troop lived in a valley in a mountain beside a great savannah.
The valley was comfortable and fertile, well-provided with water for the baboons to drink and acacia trees in which to sleep at night, with fruit and insects aplenty for the baboons to eat and satisfy their appetite. The baboons who lived in the valley were fortunate, for they had all they needed, and were well aware of the fact.
Each morning the chief and priest of the troop would climb to the tops of the highest rocks of the mountain which bordered the valley and would gesture at the savannah that stretched, arid and brown to the horizon.
“We must be thankful to the Great Baboon,” the chief would intone solemnly, “because we do not live out on that terrible plain, where the lion and the cheetah roam, not to mention the Evil One, whose real name must not be taken; where the elephant breaks down the acacia trees, the spitting cobra coils through the grass, and the crocodile cruises the water-holes. We must be thankful to the Great Baboon that we are not like the troops which live out on the savannah, which have to fight amongst themselves for food and water and shelter in the tallest trees during the night, when the Evil One comes with sharp tooth and bitter claw.”
“We must pray to the Great Baboon,” the priest would continue, “to keep Him happy, that He does not send the Evil One to chastise us. We must be sure to propitiate Him and follow His dictates in all things.”
Then they would go down into the valley, and collect the fruit that each baboon family owed as an offering to the Temple of the Great Baboon, which was in the tallest of the acacia trees in the valley. It was half the food the baboon families could collect, but it was worth it, of course, for the blessings of the Great Baboon. And although, by the Rule of the Great Baboon Himself, the families of the chief and priest were naturally exempt from this imposition, they could not eat all of this fruit, so bountiful was the valley. Instead, the surplus would be thrown away on to the rocks, and the Rule forbade the ordinary baboons from touching it, even in case of hunger. And there it rotted in the sun, and caused some restiveness among the troop.
At night the young baboons would sit in their perches in the acacia, and shiver with delicious terror as they listened to the tales of the Evil One ghosting through the savannah, the starlight shining in his eyes, the moon sliding over his dappled pelt. Sometimes they would hear the shriek of other baboons, less fortunate than they, who had invited the wrath of the Great Baboon and been punished with a visitation by the Evil One. On such occasions the elders of the troop would be sure to lecture them in admonition and warn them to keep to the Great Baboon’s ordained ways.
One day, the priest of the troop, an ancient traditionalist, died, and was replaced by a young and fiery radical. “We,” this young priest said to the troop, “have been selfish too long. We have kept to the Great Baboon’s Rule, and have been suitably rewarded with food, water, shelter and prosperity. But those poor baboons on the plain – they have no knowledge of the Great Baboon, and so, for no fault of their own, they suffer from the lion and the cheetah, the cobra and the elephant, the crocodile and the hyena – not to mention the Evil One.”
The baboons of the troop looked at each other uneasily. Nobody liked the idea of being selfish, but nobody knew quite what to do about it. Fortunately the new priest had a plan all ready.
“We must,” he said, “immediately send out missionaries to the troops out on the plain, to convert them to the Rule of the Great Baboon, so that they too find peace in life and respite from the Evil One.”
And so the missionaries were selected and sent out, in twos and threes, and a hard time they had of it.
“The troops of the plain,” they reported back, “do not wish to hear of the Great Baboon. They claim that they have their own gods – or none at all – and they wish to keep to their own ways.”
That year the Great Drought struck the mountain valley, so that the water began to dry up and the food supplies dwindled. Soon, the baboons began to face hunger, for they still had to turn half of all they found to the Temple of the Great Baboon, and there was little enough to begin with. And still the Drought went on.
The sky by day was a burnished bowl of blazing brightness, and by night the stars were cruel shards of light, with not a trace of rain. The priest called for mass prayers to the Great Baboon, and still the Drought went on.
The leaves withered on the branches of the trees, the parched soil began to crack, and the troop faced starvation. In response, the priest called for the baboons to turn over two-thirds of all they found to the Temple instead of merely half, because the Great Baboon must have His share – and still the Drought went on.
“It is the Wrath of the Great Baboon,” the priest declared at last. “He is consumed by anger, for we are selfish, and we have not persevered in our duty towards our brothers and sisters on the plain. We must educate them in the One True Path, so that the Great One is appeased and sends the rain back again.”
“But,” a couple of the baboons argued, “the troops out on the plain have no desire to know of the Great Baboon. They have made that clear.”
“Then we must send out armies in a Holy Crusade,” the priest said, “to convert them by force, lest they persist in their sinful ways and displease the Great Baboon.”
“Are you quite sure,” one of the dissenters argued, “that the Great Baboon will be happy to have other troops made to follow Him by force, especially taking into account all the bloodshed it will entail?”
“The Great Baboon has told it to me with His own voice,” the priest replied. “Do you dare raise your voice against His authority?”
“How can we know,” the other dissenter asked, “that the purpose of this Holy Crusade is to convert them to the Rule, and not merely to seize their food and water, for the plain is less affected by the Drought than we?”
“How dare you impute such base motives to the Priest of the Great Baboon?” the chief of the troop snarled. “He speaks to the Baboon Himself, and knows all that is in His holy Mind. He has also told me that there are Heretics and other Servants of the Evil One amongst us. Keep strict vigil against them.”
Then the chief of the troop organised armies and sent them out on the plain to do battle with the baboons who lived there. And the armies had a hard time of it.
“You had told us,” they complained to the chief and the priest, “that the baboons of the plain would recognise that we had come to bear them the Holy Word of the Great Baboon, and would, as soon as we had overthrown their chiefs and priests, welcome us and convert to our ways. But instead they fight us tooth and nail.”
“It is only the deluded amongst them,” the priest and chief replied, “those that hate the Great Baboon and worship the Evil One. You shall triumph eventually, for the Great Baboon is on your side, and blesses this Crusade.”
Then the armies sent back to say, “We no longer understand what we are doing out on the plain fighting baboons who do not want us. They continue to resist us, and at night the Evil One stalks our encampments, and drags us off one by one into the wilderness to consume us. None of us is safe.”
Then the priest and the chief said, “You are fighting because if you do not, the Evil One will come to our valley, and consume our own children. You are fighting to preserve the Rule of the Great Baboon against the barbarity of those who will not believe, and those who worship the accursed Evil One.”
Meanwhile the Drought intensified, and the water in the valley thinned almost to a trickle, which was reserved for the use of the chief and the priest. The baboons of the troop began to starve almost to death, especially because they were now compelled to give over virtually all the food they could collect to the Temple of the Great Baboon. And at last some of them had had enough.
“We no longer wish to give the fruit of our labour to the Temple,” they declared. “We were once content and well fed, and we were the envy of the baboons who lived elsewhere. Now, we are poor and starving, and we are held in hatred and contempt by those whose lands we have invaded for reasons which seem more and more a lie. We want our fruit and our water back again.”
“You are lazy, you are lazy,” the priest said. “It’s simply that you don’t want to look for fruit and nuts, berries and insects for the Temple. You are parasites.”
“There are no fruit, berries, nuts or insects to be had,” the protesting baboons declared. “They have all gone to the Temple and to the armies fighting out on the plain.”
“It is a conspiracy,” the chief countered. “A conspiracy, hatched against us by baboons who are envious of our food and water, our prosperity and our Rule, baboons who live even further out on the plain. We must at once raise fresh armies, and send them out to make war against those baboons, who are slaves of the Evil One. Meanwhile, for speaking out against the Great Baboon, you are traitors, and the Rule of the Great Baboon specifies that traitors must be destroyed.”
“We never spoke against the Great Baboon,” the baboons said. “Our grouse is against the Temple, and the priest and the chief who misuse it for their own benefit – not against the Baboon Himself.”
“Who speaks against the Temple speaks against the Baboon Himself,” the priest said.
“Does the Rule say so?” the baboons demanded. “We do not recall the Rule saying any such thing.”
The priest showed all his teeth in a yellow grin, and clasped hands with the chief.
“It does now,” he said.
Copyright B Purkayastha 2011