Sunday 15 July 2012

Monkey Business

Good evening, sar. Come in and sit down, please. No, not on that chair, it has a wobbly leg. Here – sit here.

Do the monkeys bother you, sar? Don’t worry, they won’t hurt you. They are trained very well, sar. Just ignore them.

Can I get you some tea and sweets perhaps? You see, I have no way to cook in this room, but my friend owns the tea shop next door, and he will...oh, you don’t want tea. That is also all right, sar.  I should eat fewer sweets, too. They are not good for the health.

You say you want to know about what happened. I will tell you, sar – not because I tell anybody who asks, but because you tell me you will not go to the police or the government. I am frightened of the police and government, even though I am completely innocent, I swear. Besides, I don’t think you would have taken so much trouble to find me if it were just to make trouble for me, sar.

So, yes, I think it is safe to tell you what happened.

My name is Raqibul – Raqibul Haque. If you were a policeman, I would tell you I am from Nandipur or Goshaiganj, or another of those small villages to the interior of Bunglistan. But since I swore to tell the truth now, I shall. I’m from Bangladesh, sar. I have been living here in this country for just over ten years.

I know a lot of people think life is easy for us illegal immigrants. But that is not true, not at all. It is a hard life, and we’re always looking over our shoulder for the police to come with their hands held out to be paid off. If they don’t get their cut, we get arrested and pushed over the border back into Bangladesh.

At first, after I came over, I found employment as a farm labourer near Murshidabad, and then as a construction worker up in Jalpaiguri, and similar jobs here and there. It was hard work, very hard work, and many times I was tempted to throw it all up and go back to Bangladesh. But then I came here to Callcutter, and I bought the monkeys, and learned how to get them to dance. After that at least I have them to think about, and I do make a better living than I might otherwise.

Yes, these are the monkeys. They are called Billa and Ranga. Nice names, sar? Billa is the one with the red face. You see, I sleep in the same bed with them and they eat what I eat. I talk to them, and tell them all my problems. They are like my children, not just performing monkeys, though I bought them for a few hundred rupees and trained them to dance according to my directions.

Why am I telling you all this? Because, sar, I want to explain what the monkeys mean to me, and why the whole thing happened as it did.

Yes, sar, I realise you are a busy man, a big sahib, so I will not waste your time any longer with pointless things. I will tell you what happened yesterday.

Now, yesterday was Sunday, which is always a good day for business with us. You’ll understand that on Sunday all the people are at home and nobody is in a hurry to go here or there, so if we can get an audience we put on a show and get some money. Some Sundays I’ve earned enough to feed the three of us for the rest of the week, but in recent months it’s been getting more and more difficult. Nobody wants dancing monkeys anymore, sar. They have their video games and satellite TV.

Yesterday I was walking through the lanes, leading Billa and Ranga on their leashes, my drum and stick slung over my shoulder. You’ve seen the old parts of this town, sar, so I need not describe to you those ancient buildings with their dingy, peeling plaster, their tiny, grimy windows and soot-stained walls. I wonder what goes on inside them, sometimes. You know, sar, I’m only an illegal Bangladeshi immigrant who can’t read or write, but I’m sure I’m better off than some of those people who live there.

I’d been out since morning yesterday, and it was already past noon, and I’d not yet earned a single rupee – not one. In recent weeks I’ve had to go much further than I usually did, to find customers, into localities I’d seldom been before, and this was one of the furthest I’ve ever walked – and still no business. I was thirsty and my feet were beginning to hurt, and I was growing tired of the packs of local dogs which followed us around from street to street yapping at my monkeys. But there wasn’t a lot I could do about any of it.

By mid-afternoon, I’d almost given up hope of earning anything for the day. In this business you have to target the children, they are the ones who have the curiosity to watch monkeys, but I didn’t see any children. They were all busy watching some cricket match on TV, between India and Australia or South Africa or somebody.

Now if India had won the match, I wouldn’t have had anything to tell you about. I’d just have walked the streets until darkness and then come back here to sleep. But India started to lose, so the kids all quit watching TV and began wandering out for some diversion. I saw them coming out and looking around, talking in little groups, and knew it was my chance. So I started tapping my stick on my drum, and moving the ropes so that Billa and Ranga knew they had to dance.

 I know there are some people in my profession who beat their monkeys, and the little animals dance not because they want to, but because they’re afraid of being beaten. My Billa and Ranga aren’t like that. If you want, I can put on a little demonstration for you, so you can see for yourself how well they dance, and how they look happy when they do, not afraid like those other monkeys.

Yes, sar, I am getting to the point. Now, as I said, I saw the children gathering and began tapping on the drum so that Billa and Ranga had begun to dance, just a little, just enough to get the kids curious. And I started on my patter, sar, of course. The patter is very important, and each of us has his own.

“Ho gentlemen and ladies,” I began, “little masters and mistresses, gather round, gather round. See the monkeys dance, see them worship Lord Hanuman, see them, there are no better monkeys on the face of the earth. Ho masters, mistresses, sar and madam, spare a moment, spare a moment, and watch the monkeys dance.”

Maybe it was because the cricket team got into even worse trouble right then, but some of the adults came out and began peering at us. Without the adults, of course, there wouldn’t be any show. They were the ones who’d pay, after all.

I soon had a quite substantial crowd gathered, maybe forty people in all. This is about the optimum size for these performances, sar. If there are fewer, and one doesn’t really earn enough to be worth one’s while, yet more than that and there’s too much shoving and pushing and the people at the back can’t see, and sometimes they turn nasty. So I thought I’d probably earn a fair amount after all.

At first it went fabulously. My Billa and Ranga dance very well, sar, better than any other monkeys I have ever seen, even in the circus which came last year. But it wouldn’t have mattered even if they couldn’t dance half as well, because, you see, not one of these kids had ever seen a monkey dance before. Even the adults hadn’t seen one in so long that they didn’t remember much about it. So they were almost all staring fascinated. Besides, my dance routine is very family-friendly. I am not like some of the others in my line, who make their monkeys do dirty things with each other for public entertainment. So I knew they’d all be satisfied.

And almost till the end, they were satisfied. I had just finished the final routine, where Billa and Ranga do a Bollywood-style dance, and was about to go around for payment, when I heard a screech. It came from a fat woman in a green sari. I’d noticed her earlier because she had such a disagreeable expression on her face, and because she was so obese that her features seemed sunk in her flesh. Now she was yelling out something, so loud and fast the words all ran together – you know how those Bunglee women talk, sar, like a machine gun in the movies – and it was some time before I understood that she was shouting that she’d lost her gold chain, and that she was accusing me of having stolen it.

Now of course this accusation was ridiculous. For one thing, I was at the centre of all eyes during the performance, and there wasn’t a single moment I could have sneaked away to steal her chain. But I knew that there was hardly any point in protesting my innocence – I was right there, I was an outsider, and they had to blame someone, didn’t they?

Still, I tried, sar, I tried. I looked around at all those faces growing swiftly hostile, and I knew I’d have to say something before they began beating me. I could even predict the one who’d start beating me first, a pear-shaped man with a hairline moustache. I’d seen his sort many times before, and knew he was the kind of physical coward who enjoyed violence when in the safety of a mob. In my line of work, one becomes sensitised to such things.    

“Please, sars and madams,” I said. “How can I have stolen anything? You were watching me all this time.”

“Shut up, you thief!” It was the pencil moustache man. His eyes were already getting bloodshot with anger. “They have accomplices,” he declared to the crowd. “While we were all watching, the accomplice came round and stole the chain.”

“Thief!” the others were muttering. They hadn’t been roused to the heights of anger, not yet – not to the point of physical assault. So, I thought, there was still a chance I could get away without violence. Besides, the kids were still there, and they mostly don’t start beating people in front of their children.

“I don’t have any accomplice,” I pleaded. “Sar, look, there are only your people from the locality here. I can’t have any accomplice, sar, since there’s nobody here but yourselves.”

That this was a mistake, I realised the moment the words had passed my lips. “He says we are thieves!” the moustache man screamed, spraying spittle. “He says we are all thieves!”

“Thieves?” I protested. “I never said...”

“Now he says I am a liar! You all heard, just now, he said we’re thieves, and now he says I am a liar.”

Oh heavens. The man jumped forwards, a hand raised to slap me. Now I don’t really mind being slapped around – over the years, I’ve been slapped a lot, mostly by cops for not being prompt enough with their pay-off – but this wasn’t just one fat man. If one of them hit me, the others would, too, and I might end up getting lynched. Such things have happened before, and of course the law does nothing.

I don’t know what might have happened next, but for Billa. Look at him, sar, sitting there; he looks harmless, doesn’t he? But he jumped on my shoulder and snarled at the pencil moustache man, baring his teeth and clawing with his hands. The slap never landed – the man jumped back as fast as he’d jumped forward. Ranga was also excited and screeching, and she charged at the people till the end of her rope. Oh yes, that lot was looking pretty yellow at that moment, I can tell you.

But then someone had another bright idea. “Call the police!”

You will of course understand, sar, that my heart sank even lower when I heard that. I was out of my own locality, as I’ve said. I’d no knowledge of the police in this area, I’d never paid them off, and if they got their hands on me I had no idea what they’d do. Most certainly they wouldn’t be happy at the idea of my working their turf without paying for the privilege. If I were lucky they’d only give me a thrashing and steal all the money I had on me. If I wasn’t so lucky they might frame me for a few burglaries or other petty crimes and lock me away, or even deport me to Bangladesh. And of course I had no idea what they’d do to Billa and Ranga.

“No, sar,” I said. “Don’t call the police, sar. I will find you the chain, sar. But don’t call the police, please sar.” I don’t really know what I was babbling – I just talked without thinking for a moment, or else I’d never have put in that bit about finding the chain. But once I’d said it, of course there was no going back.

“All right,” the one who’d thought of calling the police said. He was a thin old bald man with a face like a date, and tufts of hair growing from his ears. He was clearly enjoying himself, and looked much more evil than the moustached bully. “Find the chain. Go on.”

I was nonplussed. I wasn’t even sure there had been a chain – maybe that woman had left it at home or dropped it elsewhere. Hell, she was so fat the chain might be lost somewhere in the folds of her neck and she wouldn’t know. But I couldn’t say that, of course.

Nor could I suggest the other logical option – that everyone be searched. No, I’d already got into enough trouble over my big mouth, and I’d no wish to make things any more complicated. So I was looking around the crowd helplessly, wishing some idea would come, when I suddenly noticed something.

You know that old Bunglee proverb, sar? “You can tell the cat which has swallowed the mouse by its face”? Well, at the back of the crowd, peering over someone’s shoulder, I saw a face with exactly that smug, self-satisfied expression. It belonged to a pudgy young man with glasses and a wispy little moustache, and he was smiling slightly to himself. And right away I knew – don’t ask me how, but I didn’t guess or imagine, I knew – that he’d stolen the chain.

The question was, of course, how to prove it. I couldn’t waste time, because at any moment the smug little bastard – sorry, sar, but that’s how I thought of him – as I was saying, at any moment the smug little bastard might simply choose to slope off and I couldn’t do a thing about it. I don’t know why he’d not disappeared already. Just enjoying his triumph, perhaps.

And then I had an idea.

One of the things I’ve learnt over the years about people is that middle-class Bunglees are absurdly superstitious. Yes, they are educated and employed and all, while I am only an illiterate labourer, but we poor people don’t have the luxury of believing in nonsense like they do. Our needs are far too immediate.

“I know a way,” I said. “Maybe the chain has fallen down somewhere here, on the ground. Maybe it hasn’t been stolen at all. Sar, madam, I have a mantra which can find it if it’s still here somewhere. Please stand where you are, and I will walk round your group, a few times, chanting this mantra.” Without pausing to let them think about what I’d said, I began walking round the edges of the crowd, striking the ground with my drumstick and muttering under my breath. What did I mutter? Just a little ditty in the Noakhali dialect of my village back in Bangladesh, too low for them to distinguish words:

“Ki korium khode zaiyum
Ăi to kisu buzi paino
Hayte aare dori mare
Ăi haytere marte arino.”

I muttered that, and others of a similar bent, all incomprehensible to the Bunglistanis. They must have thought I was chanting magic charms. The mothers were clutching their kids tight, and many of them were sweating. I went round the group once, very slightly brushing against the back of the smug little thief, and then again, and a third time.

It was after the third time that I pointed with my drumstick at the ground. “Oh, look,” I said, loudly. “There’s the chain!” And there it was, a thin gold chain, lying among the legs of the crowd.

“It must have fallen,” I said, while the fat woman was slobbering over it. “That’s all, it fell there, sar, madam, master and mistress. You see that I did not steal it.” And all the while the thief was patting his pockets at the back of the crowd, an expression of panic on his face.

How did I do it, you ask? Well, sar, the first time I went past, I brushed slightly against him, and I felt the chain in his back pocket. I could see it, too, a little bulge. The second time, I pointed it out to Ranga. And the third time, she stole it.

You see, sar, it pains me to say this, but I bought Billa and Ranga from someone who hadn’t been too scrupulous about training them. To be exact, he’d trained Ranga, who’s smaller and much more dextrous than Billa, as a pickpocket. His technique would be to use Billa to put up a solo performance at one point in his routine, and Ranga would work the crowd and steal what she could. Of course, I’ve never used her for anything like that, but she hasn’t forgotten her skills. If I’d ordered, she’d have taken your wallet from your pocket, right now while you’re talking to me, and you’d never have known, I can assure you.

And so she stole the chain, and palmed it to me, and I threw it on the ground as I came to the front of the crowd, as close to the fat woman’s feet as I could. And that was that. Those people were all very astonished and grateful. They even paid me!

That’s the whole story, sar. That’s exactly what happened. And that’s why I can’t help you locate whatever it is you lost, and tracked me down to help you find. No, I’m sorry to disappoint you, but I have no magic skills, and however much you offer to pay me, I just can’t do it.

Why, sar, you are looking quite unhappy. Maybe my two can put on a dance for you after all? It might help take your mind off things.

They really do dance very well, you know.

Copyright B Purkayastha 2012

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