Thursday, December 08, 2005

The Monkey Man

The story I narrate here is a true one, though I have changed the names of the characters for reasons that should be obvious enough. I had thought of developing it, at some point, as a short story. Maybe I will some day, when I consider myself capable of being a full-time writer rather than a journalist who also writes. But for the moment I am happy sharing it here, because I feel an immediate urge to share it, even though it is going to be narrated here rather crudely.

The story begins in 2001, when I shifted to Chennai from Delhi. I had no friends in the city. Colleagues preferred to remain colleagues, not wanting to get familiar too soon, and the women there decided to put me on a probation period. They all seemed to be buying time before deciding whether I could be a friend or remain an outsider. But there was one colleague who, by default, had to be a friend: he was almost my age, and, like me, a bachelor. We liked women, we liked Old Monk rum. His name was Santosh. His name is Santosh, for he is still a colleague and a good friend.

Santosh lived in a mansion -- the bachelors' hostel kind of accommodation that is commonplace in Chennai. Usually we drank either at my place or in one of the wine shops around Mount Road, but occasionally I would go over to his room, which he shared with a fellow Keralite called Vinod who, as far as I recall, was studying business administration. It was a small room, eight by eight perhaps, and it had a smell that would tell you not only the marital status of the occupants but also the place they hailed from -- the lemony smell of soap and shaving cream and that of wet towels mixed with the odour of coconut oil and banana chips.

We drank there out of plastic cups, and the snacks and dinner would be delivered by a boy called Ramesh, who would get them from the hotel on the ground floor. Ramesh must have been in his late teens, a cheerful and energetic boy who could be recognised from a mile because of his shiny eyes and protruding teeth. But he was talkative, and when he sat through our conversations, would often be asked to shut up by Santosh. He would immediately shut up, only to open his mouth again. And the boy spoke four languages: fairly good English, broken Hindi, but perfect Tamil and Malayalam. Even though he had studied only till class eight, he had something to say about everything that Santosh and I talked about. Vinod would hardly speak: he would keep listening to us while having a textbook open on his lap.

Somewhere in between the cigarettes would finish, and Ramesh, the Boy Friday, would be sent to fetch a packet. His job was to help out in the hotel in the daytime: in the evenings he would hop from room to room in the mansion, striking up conversation with the inmates. But Ramesh, for some reason, had grown fond of Santosh, and would prefer to spend most of the evenings in his room. So much so that when Santosh and Vinod decided to shift out of the mansion to a tenement in Mylapore, Ramesh begged to come along. "I can't share the rent," he pleaded, "but I will cook for you and do whatever you want me to." My friend Santosh, who always hides his kind heart behind a tough face, agreed.

So I began to see more of Ramesh. In the common Indian setting, he would have been called the 'servant boy', but he wasn't really treated as one because he always opened his mouth and managed to contribute to the conversation. He even spoke on politics. He was almost like one of us, only that he did not drink and he was the one who was bound to do the cooking and clear the kitchen afterward.

One night, Ramesh was re-christened as Monkey Man. Those days, there was this rumour about a Monkey Man roaming the streets of Delhi who scratched people's faces and vanished. That night Santosh asked him to get the clothes that had been left for drying on the terrace but Ramesh refused. "What if the Monkey Man comes?" he pleaded. Santosh gave him a playful, but a tight, slap and renamed him as Monkey Man.

Delhi's Monkey Man might have been imaginary, but this Monkey Man had a history: he had run away from home when he was 12 or 13, after his mother ran away with another man and his father committed suicide. He had preferred looking out for an adopted father such as Santosh rather than accepting a step-father. And Santosh did behave like a father at times. He slapped Monkey Man every time he smoked a Gold Flake. "Monkey, I don't have a problem if you smoke a bidi. But don't smoke stuff you cannot afford." He also received slaps if he put too much water while cooking the chicken curry.

I remember telling Santosh to let such a nuisance go away, lest Monkey Man became a pest. But Santosh always said: "Where will he go?" Besides, he would always remember to get six idlis packed for Monkey Man on days no cooking was done at his place. But at the same time Santosh badly wanted to get rid of Monkey Man because he was tired of him: the Monkey Man spoke too much, besides goofing up with the cooking. Santosh's room mate Vinod, however, remained unaffected. He ate when he wanted to, he ate whatever he was served, and often he ate when the two of us were still drinking. We forgave him because he was still studying, but behind his back we called him "selfish".

Then one day Vinod got a job, with a mutlinational bank. And soon after, Santosh, my friend, got married. Their Mylapore house got vacated, and with it the dreams of Monkey Man. I did not hear about Monkey Man, the boy with shiny eyes and protruding teeth, for months and months. "Good for you," I told Santosh, "or else he would have latched on to you. You would have kept playing his father."

Then one morning Santosh told me: "Ghosh! You remember Monkey Man? He called me today. He is selling credit cards. Do you want one?"

A few months later, one morning, Santosh called: "Ghosh, remember Monkey Man? That bastard, you know what he did? He himself got a credit card and spent all the money. He came to my place just now. His wallet was full of money. I saw it with my own eyes. He is now selling credit cards for another bank."

A year later, one morning, Santosh called again: "Ghosh, do you know Monkey Man has joined that bank?! He is a full-time employee, that same joker!"

Another year later, one morning, Santosh called again: "Ghosh! You know what? Monkey Man is getting married! He just came home to give me the card."

About ten months later, one afternoon, I got a call from Santosh. "Ghosh! You know what, Monkey Man is a father now! He called me this morning, saying, 'Santosh anna, you are the only person I could think of calling and giving the news.' I almost cried."

And this evening Santosh told me about his recent visit to Monkey Man's home -- a home that is equipped with every facility that a man can think of. Monkey Man's wife served him bondas prepared, as they say, by her own hands. And while she was in the kitchen, their child slept, peacefully, on their luxurious bed. Monkey Man is a big man today, even senior to Vinod, Santosh's old roomie, who happens to be working in the same bank.

Sometimes, happiness does come to the people who really deserve it.


Sangeeta said...

Life is so full of interesting surprises :) Well usual Bishwanath

Sharmishta said...

The human spirit is strong. When a life has to be carved out, it will be done, no matter what it takes. I don't know about the 'deserving happiness' part, but life and destiny is what you make it, we all have the same choices.

Beautiful story, and very well written.

Anonymous said...

My initial reaction for your “Monkey Man” was of awe. He is indeed an epitome of determination and will; and his zest for life is truly contagious. And also he reiterates the fact that life is full of surprises; pleasant or unpleasant; well, depends! How he made money later is of course open to speculation, but the fact that, despite all odds, he did carve out a place for himself in this ruthless, BIG world is commendable. Well done “Monkey Man”; many people can “ape” you.
And thanks Bishy for providing food for thot! :)

Anonymous said...

Your story was built beautifully. A story that kept me engaged throughout A close observation of life intricately drawn.

Pradeep Nair said...

A really gripping story. Good to see that today's India gives opportunities for someone to grow to this extent. Of course, it happens to people with 2Ps: Patience and Perseverence. And, obviously Monkey Man was one such.

Bishwanath Ghosh said...

Sangeeta, Sharmishta, Anonymous, Janani, Pradeep: Thanks a lot for sharing my story and sharing your thoughts on it.

Usha said...

Everyone deserves happiness and when it comes to people who have not had it most of their life you feel good to see it.
I feel as though I know "monkey man".

The ramblings of a shoe fiend said...

Lovely story! Brought warmth to my heart through the 2 degree cold.

Visithra said...

beautiful isnt it this bloodless bond - there are 2 heroes here - the one who seeked and the one who gave with an exterior that said otherwise ;)

Anonymous said...

beautiful story. happened to get your link on sunday express. i like some of your pieces :) keep writing.

SR said...

oh that's a heartwarming tale for a cool windblown day :)

Medicine said...

Colleagues preferred to remain colleagues, not wanting to get familiar too soon, and the women there decided to put me on a probation period.