The Story about the Monkeys of the Big Forest

01 November 2014

ABOUT THE STORY Among the distinctive traits of Indian literature is the prominence given, from the Ramayana onwards, to monkeys—not just as chattering beasts, but as moral agents serving in different ways to take the measure of man, and sometimes as his fellows in folly. From our Darwinian viewpoint, this gives the literature an unusual piquancy, because it can seem the ancients already knew something that modern man took the long road to discovering.

What can the modern writer do with monkeys and men that keeps this tradition alive? In this story, Intizar Husain, the author of the essential subcontinental novels Basti and Aagey Samundar Hai, offers an ingenious spin on the theory of evolution with a fable about simian aspiration and mimicry. At every turn in the plot, we feel we have intuited Husain’s allegorical and moral scheme and that it is man who will end up, figuratively, as the beast, but his narrative cunning is such that the story is always one step ahead of us.

The story appears in The Death of Sheherzad and Other Stories, a recent collection of Husain’s short fiction translated from the Urdu by the noted critic Rakshanda Jalil, published by Harper Collins.

The Story about the Monkeys of the Big Forest


Translated from Urdu by Rakhshanda Jalil

THIS IS THE TRAGIC TALE of the monkeys of the Big Forest, the monkeys that have since disappeared without a trace. The place where the monkeys once lived has turned into a city full of human beings; where there were once tall trees there are now sky-scraping buildings standing in their place. It is said that, once upon a time, there was a densely forested tract here. There were monkeys on the trees, so many monkeys that they could scarcely be counted. The monkeys had sharp teeth, sharper claws and strong bodies. Their life was all about ravaging and pillaging the groves and orchards of far and near, lunging from the branches of one dense tree to the other, and eating the ripe and unripe fruits that grew on the trees. The monkeys were free-spirited and fearless. They spent their days jumping from tree to tree in the dense undergrowth, climbing the highest branches of the tallest trees to touch the skies and outdoing each other in jumping higher and further.

Those who tended the orchards and the fields were heartily sick of the monkeys. The monkeys were known to be so ferocious that those who tended the orchards and the fields did not have the courage to face them. Once, a wise farmer came up with a novel scheme. He brought some gram, a big chunk of gur and some sticks, and placed them under a large tree in the Big Forest. He came back and told the owners of the orchards and the fields that henceforth their crops would be safe and wayfarers would be able to travel safely through the forest because he had taken care of the monkey menace.

The monkeys saw the gram and the chunk of gur and came down from the trees and fell upon the gram. The gram, at least, they shared among themselves but one greedy monkey grabbed the chunk of gur and went off to eat it by himself. An alert monkey saw this and immediately leapt towards the greedy monkey, grabbed the gur and went off to a far side. A sturdy monkey saw this, pounced to grab the gur and made off with it. The other monkeys saw the gur disappearing before their eyes and fell upon their fleeing comrade. Soon, the chunk of gur was up for grabs—now in one pair of paws, now in another. In the midst of this melee, one monkey got a strange idea in his head; he picked up a stick and brought it down hard on the head of the monkey who held the chunk of gur. The monkey’s head split wide open and the chunk of gur fell from his clutches.

The monkey with the stick immediately pounced on the gur. At first, the pack of monkeys stood in fearful stillness at this strange sight but then they saw that more sticks were lying around under the tree. The sturdier among them picked up a stick each. The fight that now broke out among the monkeys cannot be described. Someone suffered a broken head, another a broken leg, still another a bloodied mouth.

When the monkeys were exhausted from fighting each other and paused to draw breath, they went and sat down far from each other. That is when they saw that the oldest among them was sitting on a high branch of a peepal tree; his eyes were closed and his head was bent. The old monkey was the wisest in their community. All the other monkeys respected him. Seeing him sitting with his eyes closed and head bent, they crowded around him, enquiring about his health and asking why he was sitting like that. The wise old monkey raised his head to look at them with his red eyes and, speaking in a sorrowful voice, mourned the plummeting standards of social etiquette among monkeys, their fall into the pit of human-ness and the fact that their unity was being ripped to shreds.

The words of the wise monkey made a deep impact on the other monkeys. The next day, they did not fight at all among themselves. When the wise farmer came again to place the gram and gur under the tree, those monkeys who picked up the sticks also took possession of the goods. They distributed the gur and gram among all the monkeys. The other monkeys were happy: they didn’t get their heads bashed in and yet they got to eat the gram and gur.

The wise farmer turned out to be a canny man: everyday he would deposit a lot of gram and gur under the tree. The monkeys thought it was a good thing they got their daily sustenance without having to forage and plunder orchards and fields. But monkey business, as you know, is famous for a good reason. Some days some monkey would get a larger share and some days an especially good-looking female monkey would get a bigger share than the others. This would cause an outcry among the monkeys, who would climb the branches of the trees and create a raucous protest. Sometimes, one monkey would clatter its teeth and get into a scuffle with another. They would fight and grapple with each other but then, after some time, peace would be restored.

Once, it so happened that the gram fell short. The monkeys screeched and howled at each other. One monkey climbed down from his perch on the high branches of a tree and created such a din that his face grew red as a burning ember. But soon, like the others, he was exhausted and fell silent. The next day the gram fell shorter still and it so happened that while some monkeys stuffed their faces with the gram others could get no more than a few grains. On the third day it so happened that as soon as the gur and gram were placed under the tree, within a matter of minutes only the gram remained and the chunk of gur disappeared. No one knew who had picked up the gur or where it had been hidden. Soon, it became a matter of routine: the chunk of gur would disappear in the blink of an eye and the gram fell to the lot of some while most had to do without any. In the early days, this would cause great outrage among the monkeys and they would let loose a clamour, but soon their anger abated. Unfortunately, they had completely abandoned their practice of pillaging and ravaging orchards and fields. They were completely focussed on the gur and gram that was left for them under a tree every day.

One fine day, the monkeys created an uproar when they could get no gram. One young monkey appeared from among them, propped himself against the trunk of a tree and launched into a speech on the impermanence of gram. This was an entirely new move for the others. They looked at this self-appointed spokesperson with wide open eyes. When they could not understand what was going on, they closed their eyes. One monkey began to pick the lice out of his female’s head. A young female climbed a tree and hung upside down from a branch. When the young monkey finished his speech, the wise old monkey looked closely at him and announced in a sorrowful tone: “This monkey wants to become human.”

This announcement created a furore among the assembled monkeys. They looked closely at the self-appointed leader but they could not understand how he could have become human. The self-appointed leader furiously replied, “This is a completely false allegation against me.”

The wise monkey said, “Monkeys are supposed to eat gram, not give speeches on gram. If such a thing happens, let it be known that the monkey race has fallen into decline. Evidently, some members of this race want to change their form.”

The monkeys asked, “O Wise One, what is meant by changing one’s form?”

The wise monkey replied, “When a monkey acquires the traits of another race and for the sake of this mortal life changes his way of life, then that is known as changing one’s form. Have you not heard the story about a monkey named Jan-e-Alam?”

The monkeys expressed their surprise and asked, “Who was Jan-e-Alam and what was his story?”

The wise monkey told them, “It cannot be said with any certainty as to who was Jan-e-Alam. I have heard from old monkeys that he was a monkey like us but had changed his form and become a human. But it has also been heard that he was a human who had changed form and become a monkey. Be that as it may, monkeys and humans have always changed and exchanged forms to become one or the other. Sometimes humans become monkeys and sometimes it is the other way round. From my ancestors I have heard that there was a time once when there was large-scale slaughter of monkeys. Monkey blood became cheaper than the blood of humans. It was in the midst of this calamity that Jan-e-Alam was caught and paraded atop an elephant so that the populace would get a good look at him before he was slaughtered. Jan-e-Alam came up with a clever idea: he launched into a lecture.

Three old monkeys, who had somehow managed to evade the vigilant eye of the minister’s sons, sat hidden on the branches of a tall tree. As soon as the procession came close by, they peered through the foliage and what did they see? They see a monkey riding atop an elephant. What is more, he is reciting an elegy on the declining world and the sorrowful times in Urdu, and the people around him are scratching their heads in befuddlement.

One of the three monkeys said in a tone of part-surprise and part-grief, “This creature of God appears to be changing his form. He is talking exactly like a human.”

The second monkey drew a long breath and said, “These are nothing but signs of the decline of the monkey race.”

The third monkey spoke in a tone laced with anxiety, “If this lad continues to exhibit these symptoms he will ruin our youth.”

The first one spoke in a disappointed tone, “He is hardly likely to return among us. He has learnt the use of alliteration in his statements. He will become a teacher at some college among them. He will teach literature or conduct research on the Fasana-e-Ajaib.”

The second monkey let out yet another long cold sigh and said, “Bad monkeys have a bad end.” And with this he closed his eyes.

The assembly of monkeys was much impressed by this story told by the wise monkey. But the young monkey addressed the wise one thus, “O Wise Monkey, one has to be educated to become a teacher, and in order to be educated one has to study books. If monkeys cannot read books, how can they become teachers, and how can they teach language and literature?”

The wise monkey looked closely at him and said, “O Young One, did you not get your gram today…?”

The young monkey replied, “I haven’t got any gram for the past three days.”

The wise monkey said, “No wonder you are asking such a question. If monkeys don’t get gram to eat they start asking questions. O Child of a Monkey, it is not necessary to be literate to become a teacher, or to have read and studied to be called a learned being. Have you not heard the story of the literate monkey in the qissa of Alif Laila*?”

The young monkey asked in surprise, “O Old One, what is the story of the literate monkey in the Alif Laila?”

Then the wise monkey said, “The story of the literate monkey in Alif Laila goes like this: Once there was a ship that could not reach the shore. When the ship’s captain could find no fault with the ship, he addressed his passengers thus, ‘Friends, there is one among you who has escaped from his master. All of you must write down your name and address and the one who fails to do so will be deemed the suspicious one and he will be taken off the ship.’ All the passengers wrote down their names and addresses with alacrity. The captain ran his eye over the list, then counted the passengers and found the numbers to agree. Then he ran his eye over the entire ship and espied a monkey sitting in one corner. He saw the monkey and was alarmed. He immediately decided that the monkey must be taken off the ship.

“The monkey was upset by this decision and, like a human, began to beg and plead. When his entreaties had no effect, he lunged and picked up a pen and wrote down his name and address on the paper. Upon seeing this, the people of the ship were much amazed and began to exclaim that even monkeys had become people of the pen!

“Then the monkey narrated his tale of sorrows thus: ‘Friends, I am a monkey of the poet laureate of your city. He raised me since I was a baby. He used to love me dearly. When he sat down to write a qasidah, I would jump into his lap and watch him closely as he wrote and whenever he went out, I would pick up his pen and try to write like him. One day he saw me writing. And he found the qasidah written by me was much better than his. This made him envious of me and he ran to kill me. I ran for my life and jumped on your ship in the hope that I could travel to another city where art would be appreciated and become a source of livelihood for me.’

“A physician, who was also a writer, happened to be travelling on the ship. He heard the story and spoke in a sorrowful tone, ‘Now monkeys too have become people of the pen! Where is the joy of writing?’ And so saying he broke his own pen into pieces and flung them into the sea.”

The wise monkey had narrated this incident to strike awe and terror into the heart of his audience but since it was the time of the decline of the monkey race, and every instruction has the opposite effect during an age of decline, this strange anecdote had the opposite effect on the young monkey, so much so that he began to dream of turning into Jan-e-Alam. And he asked, “So what happened to Jan-e-Alam?”

“Jan-e-Alam the monkey turned into Prince Jan-e-Alam,” the wise monkey told him.

“How did he suddenly turn from a monkey into a prince?” For a long time, the young monkey mulled over the wise monkey’s answer and tried to visualise how Jan-e-Alam would have changed form from a monkey to a prince. And he memorised the entire speech that Jan-e-Alam had delivered about the fickle, deceitful world from atop the elephant and understood all its intricacies of wordplay. He would climb the highest branch of a tree and, standing on two feet, begin reciting Jan-e-Alam’s elegantly worded speech: “This world of changing colours and double-faced people is a place for invoking awe and horror. It is a cause of a thousand sorrows that even the skies favour the wicked. As a result, a monkey becomes a human and a human becomes a monkey. Everyone is helpless before God’s will. It is the same for oppression and domination. Wherever you look no one is free. Everyone is entangled in some problem or the other. Such is His command that even a tongue-less nonentity such as me has been granted the gift of such eloquence. He has listed you among the listeners. The world is an old whore. Till yesterday, we monkeys jumped from branch to branch and plucked fruits from the high trees. Now our arms are feeble, our claws have become worn out, our teeth are like blunt knives. We live on the gur and gram given to us by man. Everyone is a buyer of worldly but transient commodities. No one stops to think what they are buying or selling.”

The other monkeys would listen to this speech with open-mouthed wonder. Then they would laugh loudly and call him a human copy. But the wise monkey would look at him with alarm. He would look at the monkey’s back and tail, for the hair on his back was receding and his tail was getting rubbed down to half its size. And the truth is that the tails of all the monkeys were getting smaller and the hair on their backs was shedding. Their claws had become dull, and their teeth had become such that even when they tried to close their mouths their teeth would not stop clattering and they found it difficult to chew gram with them. The wise monkey would look at them and think, “O Master of the Monkeys, will the monkey become so debased that he will turn into a tailless two-legged creature? Will the monkey race that once spun stories of monkey-hood in groves and forests be erased from the pages of creation?”

The wise monkey’s anxieties proved to be well founded. One day the young monkey came up with a new idea; he began to follow the wise farmer spouting his speech all the while. The wise monkey kept calling after him saying, “O Young Monkey, why are you bent upon losing your life? Why are you going after a human? Spare a thought for your youth. Save yourself from falling into the endless well of humanity.” But the young monkey did not heed the warning and kept walking on. Out of sheer curiosity, a baby monkey followed him for a long time. The baby monkey returned and told the others how the young monkey followed the farmer and entered a city of humans and began to walk on two feet and, as he walked on two feet, his tail kept getting smaller till it was reduced to a stub.

The wise monkey heard this and for a long time sat with his head bent. A fly came and settled on his nose. He sneezed loudly, saw the fly buzzing near his face and opened his mouth wide, then swatted the fly with his paw till finally he grew weary and shut his eyes, and said: “He went to be with those he belonged to.”

The wise monkey opened his eyes after a long time. And when he finally opened his eyes he saw that the baby monkey had a large piece of paper in his hand and several monkeys were bent over it along with the baby monkey. Concerned, he asked them: “O Children of Ill Omen, what is it that you hold in hand?”

The baby monkey answered with a lilt in his voice, “O Old Monkey, this is a newspaper. I brought this back with me when I went after the young monkey into the city. It carries the testimony of the young monkey.”

The wise monkey heard this and looked in terror at the faces of all the monkeys; he saw that the colour had quite gone from their faces. Then he looked at their tails. He stood up and addressed them thus: “You ignoramuses, no power on earth can save you from your fate now.”

And with these words, the wise monkey bounded up to the branch of a tree. And leaping from one tree to the next, he went very far away to some other forest. When he disappeared from sight, the monkeys of the Big Forest saw that their tails were becoming smaller and they could no longer walk on all four legs. And then they all climbed down from the trees.

*Refers to the stories contained in the Arabic work of fiction better known as The Arabian Nights.

Intizar Husain Intizar Hussain is one of the best-known writers of the continent, and author of the novels Naya Ghar, Aagey Samundar Hai and Basti. Born in 1925 in Uttar Pradesh, he emigrated to Pakistan in 1947 and now lives in Lahore.

Keywords: Urdu Intizar Hussain Rakshanda Jalil The Death of Sheherzad and other stories