While roaring up the narrow highway towards that mountain resort last month, I saw a gaggle of tails skittering on a ledge. They belonged to prettier cousins of the langur. Those sand-colored rhesus monkeys, the ones without the mane, stood prancing about in the cool air, paper plates in hand. While the rhesus monkey’s natural diet consisted of fruits, seeds, roots, herbs, and insects, in areas of human habitation these wild creatures tended to devour crops and other junk.
As we snaked up towards Ooty—my late father’s man Friday, Vinayagam and I—we noticed how monkeys played peekaboo in the mist, right under signs that said “Clean Nilgiris, Green Nilgiris.” Langurs picnicked with party paraphernalia infesting the roadsides.
Towards evening we approached Mudumalai Forest Reserve and noticed the clean surrounds, the quiet and peace—a welcome change from the thoroughfare into Ooty where motorcyclists were jostling with trucks, cars and tourist buses. We made for the neighboring state of Karnataka negotiating more hairpin bends. Eucalyptus trees riddled the sky for miles. The weather became warmer as we careened toward sea-level. Teak groves rose where roads were being torn up for laying fiber optic cables. Now there were fewer billboards too and rarely, signposts warning passers-by to treat the animals kindly and to not feed them.
The following morning, we drove out of a resort at Musinagudi township inside the Mudumalai reserve. Cows grazed. The result of their breakfast showed up as dung on our path. Rhesus monkeys hung around trees by the resort’s cafeteria scouting for leftovers of their civilized counterparts. As we drove through forested road, spotted deer posed for us. The occasional peacock strutted on the grass. Vinayagam said that elephants had been out in the night.
“How do you know?” I asked. He pointed to the droppings on the side of the road. “Could be cows too,” I said.
He shook his head. “No way, that’s not the cow’s doing,” he said. “Elephant dung is round,” he said. “It’s like a mound.” A few minutes later, I saw that he was right, after all. Elephant dung did indeed have a form, like a clump of bread rolls at Panera Bread. A cow, on the other hand, left behind a disc-like dung. Vinayagam knew everything even when it all amounted to crap.
A half-hour later, we saw evidence to prove that he was right. A family of elephants was dining on one side of the road just before we crossed the border into Karnataka. The name of the forest had changed, too: Bandipur Tiger Reserve. A few miles in, the woodland thinned out and we passed through a gate and arrived at vast fields of bitter gourd between acres of banana plantations. In patches, sugar cane clambered up above ground and would be ready for harvest in January. Yellow-green beds of turmeric shoots colored the land all the way to the horizon where hills collided into the sky. Inching closer to Mysore, we saw carpets of green: rice, soothing to the eye, soul food for the stomach.
In time, we arrived at clusters of villages where people looked different. “These men from Karnataka,” Vinayagam said. “See how they look rough and tough?” He used English words in Tamil sentences with a fluidity that never failed to take me by surprise. He used the term “roughandtough” as if it were a noun in Tamil.
I noticed how the langur monkeys appeared yet again, the minute we crossed into civilization. Litter cluttered the roadsides. Karnataka had innumerable temples to the monkey god Hanuman and in keeping with that, my reference manual, Hobson-Jobson, noted that the langur was “the great white-bearded ape, much patronized by Hindus, and identified with the monkey god Hanuman.”
The monkey is an intelligent, lively animal, a survivor that is docile when young. It could be bad-tempered as an adult proving, once again, that the human is not that variant from the monkey. The lines blurred on occasion. After driving through the ridges of the Western Ghat mountain range and seeing the snarly, prehensile hands of tourism, it was not obvious anymore who the lesser being was: Man or monkey?
Kalpana Mohan writes from California’s Silicon Valley. To read more about her, go to http://kalpanamohan.com.