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The Monkey Boy

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By Savitri Narayanan

When the lunch-bell chimed, as usual, there was a rush towards the mid-day meal corridor. Students from all classrooms headed there with their plates and spoons, had their fill and rushed to the playground. Someone or other would surely have a ball or a skipping rope. If not, hide and seek or kho-kho could be played anytime anywhere!

As the children got engrossed in various games, from somewhere came a loud whisper,

“Monkey boy! Monkey boy!”

Those who heard paused to look around. Since they could see neither a monkey nor the one who called out the taunt, they went back to their games.

“Mahinder, have you ever been to the Shivgiri mela?” asked Vinayak as he cleaned his nose and put away the handkerchief back in his pocket. “Huge crowds, much fun! We came home past ten o’ clock last night”

“Monkey boy! Monkey boy!” came the taunt again. It was Ajaykumar with Tarun, clearly targetting Vinayak.

“Monkey boy, where’s the monkey today?”, Ajaykumar didn’t look at anyone in particular  yet a small crowd had already collected, all eyes on Vinayak.

Vinayak looked around, left Mahinder’s hand and walked to Ajaykumar. He stood straight facing his classmate and asked, “Ajaykumar, you know my name, don’t you? Why are you calling me a monkey boy?”

Ajaykumar laughed aloud, “I didn’t call you anything, you’re calling yourself a monkey boy!” he said. “But where’s your monkey? How come it isn’t following you around?”

Ajaykumar made some monkey movements, squinted his eyes and scratched his head. The gathered children laughed aloud.

Vinayak’s father owned two monkeys who were trained to do many tricks. Daily Aju chachu would go round the village with his monkeys. On the roadside, near the tea-stalls, outside the barber’s shop or wherever he could get an audience, the monkeys would do their tricks. At the end of the show, one monkey would go around with a bowl to collect money. Some would drop coins and chat with Aju chachu while some walked away. As madaaris, that’s how they earned their living. On weekends and school holidays Vinayak too went along. For one thing, he was fond of the monkeys Rani and Mala. More than that, the monkeys would follow his instructions, too, so having Vinayak around helped Aju chachu.  Of late, after school Vinayak would complete his homework fast and go with his father and help him with the monkey shows.

“Did any of you go for the Shivgiri mela last evening?” Ajaykumar continued, “A fantastic show by our dear monkeys!”

Once again he repeated the monkey movements and the children giggled.

All eyes were on Vinayak.

“Monkey boy, dear Monkey boy,” said  Ajaykumar as he took a somersault.

The children laughed aloud at this free entertainment.

As a sob rose in his throat, Vinayak walked away quietly looking for a quiet spot. Once he reached the peach tree at the far end of the playground, he burst into tears.

***

On Tuesdays, the 6th period was Games period.  Instead of coming to the classroom, Sports-in-Charge Pandey Sir met Class VII in the playground itself. Surprisingly Pandey sir was not there today. The students looked around and started playing.

In a short while sounded a whistle and within seconds the class abandoned their games.  Pandey Sir stood there under the peach tree, the commanding look in his eyes and the cane in his right hand. Surprisingly, Vinayak was standing beside him!

There was tenderness in Pandey Sir’s voice when he said, “Sit down, there’s something special we’ll talk about today!”

When Sir pulled his chair and settled down, the students too sat down around him on the grass.

They were all eyes and ears, curious to the core to know what the special thing was that they would talk about!

Coming to think of it, there was something special about Pandey Sir! A proverbial sports-in-charge he was – a hard task-master with clearly defined rules, goals, precise instructions and a non-compromising attitude. At the same time, there was something in him that evoked trust, a faith that he would stand by you if you’re right, would never let you down in a difficult time.

“You’re grown up enough to understand this, if only you’ll listen with an open mind,” he introduced the topic. There was a touch of kindness and caring in his voice as he continued, “A while ago, coming here at the 6th period bell, I saw Vinayak standing there all by himself,” he said and put his left hand around Vinayak’s shoulder. This public show of affection was very rare, not in Class VII, not from Pandey Sir but somehow it seemed OK, not at all out of place!

“I heard about the ‘monkey boy’ taunt; no Ajaykumar, I’m not here to scold you or anybody else! We’re here to talk about caring for animals; let’s talk about pets; those who have a pet tell the class about it!”

In the class of thirty-five, there were only three who owned pets; Vijay and James had dogs and Angela had a fish.

When they finished their sharing sessions, Pandey sir said, “I’ve known Vinayak’s father  Aju chachu for years! When I was a student like you, I loved watching him with his monkeys; we children just couldn’t have enough of them! We would follow them around to the Panchayat ground, to the bus stand, to the market – everywhere just because the show was delightful! Last evening in Shivpur mela when I noticed Vinayak helping his father it struck me how much effort goes into training the monkeys to do all those tricks, and looking after them. Vinayak, now it’s your turn to tell the class about your monkeys!”

Then he turned to the class and said, “By the way, being a madaari  is a profession; I am a teacher, my mother was a tailor, my father was a farmer; you know masons, carpenters, shopkeepers and doctors in our own village, all these are professions, so is being a madaari!”

Then he signaled to Vinayak who started to share his experiences.

The class grew more attentive and Vinayak grew more enthusiastic as he told them about how they kept the monkeys well-groomed and            well-trained.

“They need a lot of care! We bathe them every morning, we check their body for insects or injuries, we feed them at the right time and if they fall sick, we take them to a vet,” he concluded.

“What’s a vet?” asked Stephanie.

“A doctor who treats animals,” said Vinayak. “Dr Elizabeth near the Shiva temple is a vet.”

“I know Dr Elizabeth!” said James, “She’s our Toto’s doctor too!”

Pandey sir looked at his watch and said, “I’m proud of Vinayak the way he helps out his father without losing his focus on his studies; his grades are good, his homework is done and his behaviour is OK. At the same time, he’s picking up a skill and helping his family to earn their livelihood! Keep it up Vinayak, you’re a good example for many students who waste their time or don’t know what to do!”

When the bell chimed and the students returned to the classroom, Vinayak walked taller, with his head held higher!

“May I too come along with you this Sunday?” asked Ajaykumar rushing to walk with Vinayak. “Would love to go along to see how you and your father manage the monkeys!”

“Most welcome but you’ve to take permission from your father; better ask him to talk to my father!”

They walked along hand in hand, a bond of friendship growing stronger with every step.