My earliest association with a member of another species was when I had pulled the tail of a monkey at the age of two.
As a toddler, I had crawled out of the house in Neyveli and had tried my hands at a fallen mango. Apparently a monkey too had been enamored by the fruit that he had climbed down the tree only to find that I was holding the fruit that he thought was rightfully his. He had tried to snatch the fruit from me, when, out of sheer necessity, I had pulled his tail. Luckily for me ( or for him I don’t know now), my grand mother had come running and chased him away. My regret in this whole episode was that the monkey had taken the mango with him.
Neyveli being a jack fruit tree dense town, monkeys were available in their hundreds. Father had planted, among many trees, two jack fruit trees in our sprawling garden – one produced fruit that tasted like rubber but was huge in size while the other was sweet but came about once in many years. The traders who bought the fruit from the first tree never came back the subsequent year for more. One bitten twice shy probably.
The first jack fruit tree had a friend – a mango tree. It was so huge that it resembled a banyan tree and produced the sourest mangoes in town. In due course, the tree became famous for its raw mangoes that were suitable only for pickle making. The famous ‘Aavakkaai-Urugaai’ that the world came to go ga-ga about emanated from this tree, I thought. While ‘Uruguaai’ meant pickle in Tamil, I am yet to find the meaning of ‘Aavakkaai.’
Appa, in his inimitable quest to fill the garden with trees, had planted gooseberry, grapefruit, lemon, tamarind, cashew nut , orange and a variety of other species. However his favourite was the coconut tree. There were two – both planted on the same day I was born. But I found to my consternation that the coconut trees had grown taller than me in no time.
I began to consider the two coconut trees as my siblings and took good care of them. Over a period of 17 years, the trees had given us tons of coconuts and lots of broom sticks. When I was in college I was often reminded of the Tamil proverb,’he is standing so tall as a coconut tree but not half as useful as the tree is.’
Once during a hot afternoon, I heard a hissing sound from the garden and found a huge king cobra coiled around my sibling tree. Somehow I felt so sad for the tree and threw a stone at the snake, from the safety of the C – Type house. The snake momentarily appeared to look for the stone thrower, and not finding one, vanished inside the bushes.
From that day on, I have always stayed away from snakes. Any snake charmer on the streets is enough to make me run for cover, for Grandmother had told me earlier that, snakes, especially king cobras, had elephantine memory. How could snakes, with such a small head and therefore supposedly smaller brain, have memories like that of an elephant? I have not yet mustered enough courage to ask this either to a snake or to an elephant.
My other favorite was the gooseberry tree, for it had several low lying branches which helped me to climb the tree without much hassle. Most of my study hours were on top of the gooseberry tree with a couple of monkeys keeping me company. They were a little uncertain when they saw me for the first time on a branch, for I didn’t have that essential attribute, the tail. However, they got used to me once they saw all my antics that seemed to make me one of them.
To this day, I have found that monkeys have been favorably aligned towards me. Even the caged monkeys in the Singapore zoo were friendly to me. My early days on top of the gooseberry tree should have ingrained the ‘brotherhood-of-the-monkeys’ stamp on my face.
It was no surprise to me when my Biology teacher also found striking resemblances between me and monkeys.