The Monkey God by Chandra Ganguly-Meyer

Narayan Bakshi came out of the bath with only a towel wrapped around his waist. His hair was already slicked back with oil and his moustache freshly groomed and as polished as his hair. His chest and his arms had little bushes of over growth that he did not bother to tend. These lent to his manliness, he felt. After his morning ablutions, he stayed in his towel for the next hour while he did his prayers. His family steered clear of him during this hour.


He began chanting the Hanuman Chalisa, ‘Shree Guru Charan Saroj Rajā€¦’ As his voice rang across the house, his wife, her head covered by the ends of her sari, ran to the kitchen to prepare a small plate of offerings that went to the god every day. Sweets, sugar pieces and water in a silver cup. She put a banana on a red napkin where it gleamed in the centre. First, he washed the statue of the god with a napkin dipped in rose water and then he dried it. He rubbed a piece of sandal on a slab of stone with a little bit of water and then mixed it with a pinch of vermilion to create a paste. His fingers were short and stubby with patches of dark, gleaming hair on his knuckles. These hands, rough, calloused and hard did not know how to make love to his wife. But when he prayed, they transformed and assumed a gentleness and delicateness, his fingers becoming those of a dancer and a lover.


He lit the incense sticks and the air filled with the fragrance of jasmine and smoke. He lit a lamp and placed it in front of the deity. Then he began the prostrations, repeatedly bowing in front of the gods, then lowering his whole body onto the rough cement floor of his house.


Money was hard these days. His job was not going that well. He was a typist in a government office. He had been working towards a promotion to a junior clerk. As a junior clerk, he would no longer need to stay bent over the typewriter the whole day, preparing land sale documents for the rich who bought and sold lands faster than he could buy a new set of clothes. He resented it. He hoped for the promotion. At least then he would be in charge of the stamps that were needed to register each sale. As a junior clerk, he would have a first pass at these stamps. Their ink would stain his fingers and he would finally not just be a typist but a person of some importance. Sometimes, he had seen the junior clerks in the office get a little baksheesh, not a bribe but baksheesh, a good-will gesture that they would tuck quietly into their shirt pockets or their desk drawers. He had added the full-body prostrations a month ago as an added measure to ensure the blessing of Hanuman.


He was beginning to get worried though. Another typist in the office seemed to be winning this particular race. ‘Hanuman, Hanuman, you know I am your perfect devotee. I will come to your temple on the hill. I will climb up on my knees and I will roll one hundred and eight times outside your temple. Please give me this promotion. Please solve my problems with money.’ He finished his last prostration and a flower fell from the head of the statue on the ground in front of him.


‘Lata, Lata!’ he cried out. His wife frightened at hearing her name called, came running out of the kitchen and remembered only at the last minute to pull her sari over her head. Her mother-in-law would never let her forget that she needed to keep her head under a veil in front of her husband and her elders.


‘What is it? What is it?’ she whispered. She was scared she had forgotten to prepare something crucial for his prayers. It had happened a few times before and his anger had disgraced her in front of her in-laws so much that no one had talked to her for a few days after. She could not afford to upset her husband or Hanuman.


‘The flower has fallen in blessing. Hanuman has spoken. We must go to Jakhoo Hill this Sunday. You shall pray with me. We will climb up the hill on our knees and then do the hundred and eight rolls around the temple.’ His wife paled. The logistics of having to keep her sari in place during such prayers required such exertion that she had fallen sick the last time she had done it. She bowed her head and waited for his instructions.


‘Make enough ladoos so that we can feed the old and disabled lining the temple walls. Do not use ghee, use dalda.’ His wife bowed her head a little further in agreement and went back to the kitchen. She would have to be up the whole night making those ladoos. At least her mother-in-law would help her. No act was as pious as cooking for Hanuman.


They left early that Sunday morning. The bus was crowded with weekend devotees on their way to the temple. Lata stood at the end of the bus. On the seat in front of her, her husband sat next to the window. Next to him covered in a blanket of gold and orange sat the big box of ladoos. Lata did not mind standing. She spent a lot of her days crouched in front of the chula, and sometimes just being able to straighten her back was a relief. She had worn two saris today. She wanted to make sure that today she had extra coverage during the prayers. The sweat trickled between her breasts and under her armpits before settling in a small puddle at the bottom of her blouse. She pulled out a little handkerchief from her waist- band and tucked it furtively in her blouse hoping it would help soak up some of the perspiration.


Jakhoo Hill was teeming in oranges and pinks this Saturday morning. Not only were they the favourite colour of the women, the men too donned these colours deemed to be the chosen colours of the monkey god who was himself painted in a bright orange at the top of the hill. Many had already begun the leisurely climb up. The steps were not steep but there were plenty of them and in some places, uneven. Narayan paid a few rupees to a porter to carry the box of ladoos. ‘Get a few sticks,’ he instructed the old man. Jakhoo Hill was infamous for its brazen monkeys. They were not scared of anything except for a stick or a stone. If you were not careful, they could snatch anything from your hands, scratching or biting you in the process.


Narayan lay down at the bottom of the stairs and his wife followed suite keeping a respectful distance between them. Then he knelt in front of the steps and began his climb to the summit, one knee after the other. He had worn two pants himself today to protect his knees. Lata waited for him to clear some steps and kneeling on the ground, she tucked her veil around her face and into the corner of her sari blouse before following him up. The sun was harsh this morning. She waded in her sweat. She was hungry. Narayan had not permitted them to eat anything in the morning before they left. He was not taking any chances with the God today. One by one, the steps seemed to fade up the hill in a haze of the morning sun. ‘Please Hanuman, please let him get this job. Please help us to have more money. Please, please help me not to faint. Please get us to the top of your hill.’ Her prayer was constant. He chanted the Hanuman Chalisa loudly. The monkeys came near them several times and they could hear the porter rattling his stick at them and yelling profanities, ‘Jao jao, maadher chod, mother fuckers scram.’ The monkeys knew that the chances of being beaten were rare. Very few devotees took a chance with upsetting the kin of Hanuman.


Narayan and Lata reached the top of the hill and they both lay on the ground in a stupor. ‘Can I have some water?’ she whispered to him. She had never said his name out aloud. It was not permitted. He turned and glared at her and was about to refuse when he realised that he needed to drink some too. He nodded to the porter who brought a bottle. Narayan drank a couple of mouthfuls and then handed it to his wife. She sipped tentatively trying to keep her head covered at the same time. She was grateful her in laws had not been well enough to come with them this morning.


Narayan instructed the porter to stay seated at the side and then he lay down outside the temple and started to roll on the ground. Lata went a distance away from him and lay down too. The cemented floors were already hot and she lay still for a moment letting the heat of the ground dry up some of her sweat and then she started to roll. She rolled sideways along the wall while Narayan, further along, rolled away from her. Pilgrims, tourists and even the beggars sitting on the sides averted their eyes. It is not an uncommon sight outside the temples but there was something humiliating in the sight of a human body rolling on the ground. The pain on the face, the grimaces, the glimpse of a bare waist, the forehead, lips and soft navel brushing the ground, it was an intimate prayer, an urgent appeal to the higher forces. Even children playing nearby instinctively turned away. The porter kept count. The vermilion on Lata’s forehead had spread across her face and mingled with her sweat making her face seem bloody. Or were those tears? Narayan’s face was streaked in grey as the dust from the ground rubbed across his own face. His eyes stayed closed in a trance.  ‘One hundred and eight!’ the porter shouted while swatting away the flies.


Husband and wife stopped immediately and together. They lay in a stunned silence. Lata would never have lain on the ground like this so close to her husband. Even the nights when he lifted the petticoats of her sari, she would turn away quickly from him when he was done. But now she did not rush. Her eyes hurt in the sun, sweat and tears stung them and she found herself reaching for the handkerchief that lay wet and limp between her breasts. She pressed it on her eyes and slowly opened them to look around. Narayan had just sat up himself and was busy wiping himself with a towel that the porter had given him. One of her saris had fallen open now and hung like a gown around her in pleats and folds. She hurriedly started to tuck the ends into her petticoat hoping Narayan would not notice.


Lakshmi, the wife of Jagandher MLA, the local politician recently convicted of embezzling funds from the election campaign, had come to Jakhoo Hill to pray for his return. She had not climbed up the mountain on her knees, nor had she rolled in prayer. After her husband had been jailed, she had gone through his cupboard and found, under his underwear, the packets of thousand rupee bills tied by a string, wrapped in newspapers. She had sat on her bed and cried for him. There was only one thing to do. She had to rid the house of the evidence. She had climbed up Jakhoo Hill that morning with no clear plan. She had been resting in the shade when the monkey snatched her bag and ran. She had chased it but could not yell, fearful of drawing any attention to herself. She watched helplessly as the monkey had leapt away from her, finally swinging to rest on a distant tree.


It had not taken the monkey long to open the bag. Enraged by the smell of ladoos nearby, it turned the bag upside down and started to shake it. The rupee notes escaping from the strings and the newspapers, floated gently to the ground.


Lata looked up and could not believe it. ‘Husband, husband. Are you listening? Please look!’ she screamed. He turned to reprimand her when he saw what he would later describe as ‘Hanuman standing over her head emptying money into the folds of her half open sari.’ ‘Ram, Ram, Ram, Jai Hanuman, Jai Hanuman!’ he yelled as he lunged towards her, trying to gather the money. He realised his mistake as everybody, every face, around the temple turned to them. That’s how the stampede started. Human bodies rushed towards them. Thousand Rupee notes lay on the ground in heaps. Lata ignored her sari and sat on the ground tucking fistfuls in her sari blouse. Some of the buttons on her blouse threatened to come undone. Narayan picked up as much as he could and thrust them in his underwear, in the front, in the back. Around them, everyone was doing the same. Some children got stepped on. An old man broke his nose. Lakshmi came upon the scene and watched in silence and awe. A monkey sat in the corner eating ladoos. Hanuman had taken care of the evidence.


That night when Narayan lay on top of his wife, he undressed her completely. He tore her blouse and underwear open. He made sure she had not hidden any money in them. The monkey god had answered both their prayers.



Chandra Ganguly-Meyer lives in Berkeley, California with her husband and three daughters. She has been a student of Michael Krasny, of National Pubic Radio, in America and done a writing workshop with Amit Chaudhuri and Ian Jack. She will be going to Bennington in the winter to begin her MFA in Creative Writing. She is now living in Pune, India from where she writes her blog, bloggingfromindia.