A Monkey's Babyhood

Two kinds of monkeys lived their uninhibited lives at Matheran. There were the shameless little ginger-haired ones, with comical Irish faces, noisy, chattering, thieving manners; and there were big, white-furred, black-faced ones, dignified and melancholy. Great troops of both varieties overran the hill station, where mankind intruded for only a few weeks each year.

The Grand Hotel was almost part of the jungle. From my bathroom door I could have thrown a stone into a thick, glossy, sinister greenery which I never saw penetrated. At the front were noble old trees, mangoes and ant-infested fig trees, and there was nothing to prevent the monkeys from bounding from tree to corrugated-iron roof and beyond to tree again. A corrugatediron roof when a band of eighty-pound monkeys lands on it gives off a series of resounding booms that can be heard for nearly a mile, though the best effects are reserved for those sleeping beneath it.

Their arrival soon after dawn was like a general alarm clock and brought my early tea, and I would go to drink it on the verandah and watch them settling down for a day in the fig trees. In the chill of early morning the monkey babies clung to their mothers, trembling and crying with cold, and the mothers would fold their furry arms over the little bodies and hold them close, rocking back and forth as any mother might do, a brooding, faraway look in their eyes.

Then the sun came up from the distant horizon in the plains, the air grew warm and golden, and a little monkey’s day began. He didn’t like it in the least. He whimpered and burrowed into his mother’s fur and had to have a sharp cuff or two before he’d mind. First came his toilet, with quite as tender a ritual as for any baby’s bath. The scanty fur is combed and sleeked, the ears well looked into — and woe to any vermin that land on Baby! A good half hour of loving chatter and fuss and he is ready, with his hair beautifully parted in the middle and a distinctly self-conscious look on his baby face.

He sits on a branch, tidy and good, while the young matron puts herself to rights. She makes herself more and more attractive and soon has a collection of amorous young bucks waltzing about in the near-by branches. So long as she is nursing her infant, however, she carries a badge which says ‘Keep Off!’ (that is, if she is one of the ginger-haired variety) — a bright orange or cherry-red bottom; and if any of the young gentlemen become really impertinent down comes one of the snarling, long-toothed elders. At that the young chaps scatter — but all this has put ideas into the old fellow’s head. He sidles along the branch to the winning, bright-bottomed young matron. She knows her rights, however. She turns and faces him, shrilling out loud shame upon him, dancing up and down on all four feet, showing her teeth and making terrific faces. All the tribe come swarming up to see what is going on and the old man swings back to his lookout place with an ‘Oh, well —’ expression, trying to save what face he can.

This goes on in the ginger-haired tribes. One never saw the melancholy black-faced monkeys quarreling or making love; neither did they steal, nor would they accept anything from a human hand. This last was not instinctive, but part of a deliberate code they had.

There was a tree within arm’s reach of my verandah, full of monkeys all day. I used to pass most of my breakfast along to my Irish brethren there. If it was Blackface day and I offered an orange a youngster might start for it, its sensitive little face docile and mild, to be caught by the tail and pulled back and cuffed by the grown-ups.

I am sure those monkeys had an exact language. I used to put oranges on the railing and hide and watch the argument that went on: —

‘But look! It’s a lovely orange.’

‘No, and no, and no!’

‘But why not?’

‘Because we say so! ‘ Cuff!

Baby monkeys cling to the mothers’ sides when the tribe travels and both are fiercely guarded then by the males. And the intense, passionate love of the mothers for their babes was touching to see. I often felt ashamed at having looked on at some tender, intimate little scene. No child ever grew up more surrounded with love and approbation and protection. But they had to learn to climb, and they were all afraid.

Mother sits in the comfortable crotch of a tree and puts Son down on the branch in front of her, holding him firmly by the end of the tail. He looks round at her, trembling and pleading. ‘Not now,’ he squeaks; ‘tomorrow!’ ‘Go on,’ she says; ‘Mother won’t let you fall.’ Son stirs a little, but doesn’t actually move his feet. ‘Go on,’ says Mother, a little more sharply.

Often there are scenes and Mother has to spank, but oh, how proud she is when little son has run the full length of his tail along the branch! She catches him up in an ecstasy of love and joy, petting and praising him for a brave little monkey. Next day he must go a yard or so up the trunk of the tree, with Mother’s hand under his small behind at the start. Then comes the cruel day when he must scramble up the tree trunk quite alone. There’s a lot of wailing and spanking that day — but in a week our little coward is chattering cockily at his mother from a branch far above her head. He is nearly weaned by now, the colors are fading from Mother’s bottom — and in no time he is indistinguishable from any other young hooligan, and Mother just one of the girls again.

JEAN DE VASS