Creative Writing Weblog of Vikram Karve

Creative Writng, fiction, food, philosophy and my thoughts.

Wednesday, April 12, 2006

The Monkey Trap


“And what are we doing tomorrow?” I asked my uncle.
“Let’s catch some monkeys,” he said.
“Monkeys?” I asked excitedly.
“Yes,” my uncle said and smiled,” And if you catch one you can take him home as a pet.”

“A monkey! As a pet?” I asked in astonishment.
“Why not?” my uncle said. “The monkeys here are quite small and very cute. And once you train them, they become very friendly and obedient. An ideal pet.”

And so, next morning, at the crack of dawn we sailed off from Haddo wharf in Port Blair in a large motorboat. Soon we were crossing the Duncan Passage, moving due south; the densely forested Little Andaman island to our right, the sea calm like a mirror. I began to feel sea-sick, so I stood on the foc’sle deck, right at the front end of the boat, enjoying the refreshing sea-spray, occasionally tasting my salty lips.

I looked in admiration, almost in awe, at uncle who stood rock-steady on the bridge, truly a majestic figure. He signaled to me and I rushed up to the bridge.

“Vijay, it’s time to prepare the monkey traps,” he said.
“Monkey-Traps ?” I asked confused.
“Tito will show you,” he said. “You must learn to make them yourself.”

Tito, my uncle’s odd-job-man, was sitting on the deck, seaman’s knife in hand, amidst a heap of green coconuts. He punctured a coconut, put it to his lips and drank its water, then began scooping out a small hollow. I took out my seaman’s knife and joined in enthusiastically. The coconut water tasted sweet.

“Keep the hole small,” my uncle shouted over my shoulder, “and hollow the coconut well.”

“But how will we catch monkeys with this?” I asked.
“You will see in the evening,” he said. “Now get on with the job.”
We reached a densely forested island at five in the evening. It was almost dark. The sun sets early in these eastern longitudes. And soon we set up our monkey-traps. Each hollowed-out coconut was filled with a mixture of boiled rice and sweet jaggery (gur) through the small hole. Then the coconut was chained to a stake which was driven firmly into the ground. Then we hid in the bushes in pin-drop silence, waiting in anticipation.

Suddenly there was rattling sound. My uncle switched on his torch. A monkey was struggling, one hand trapped inside the coconut. In an instant, Tito had thrown a gunny-bag over the monkey and within minutes we had the monkey nicely secured inside.

By the time we lit the campfire on the cool soft sands of the beach, we had captured three monkeys.

My uncle put his arm around my shoulder and, “Vijay, you know why the monkey gets trapped?”

“Why?” I asked.

“Because of its greed.”

He picked up a hollowed-out coconut and said, “Look at this hole. It is just big enough so that the monkey’s hand can go in, but too small for full fist filled with rice to come out. Because his greed won’t allow him to let go of the rice and take out his hand, the monkey remains trapped, a victim of his own greed, until he is captured; forever a captive of his greed.”

“The monkey cannot see that freedom without rice is more valuable that capture with it.”

My uncle looked at Tito and commanded, “Free the monkeys.” And, one by one, the monkeys jumped out of their gunny bags and started running, with one hand still stuck in a coconut. It was a really funny sight.

“There is a lesson for us to learn from this,” my uncle said. “That’s why I brought you here to show you all this.”

I looked at my uncle. Ranjit Singh. A magnificent man. Over six feet tall. Well-built. Standing erect in his khaki uniform, stroking his handsome beard with his left hand, his right hand gripping a swagger-stick which he gently tapped on his thigh. As he surveyed the scenic surroundings - the moonlight sea, the swaying Causarina trees, the silver sands of the beach in between - he looked majestic, like a king cherishing his domain. Indeed he was like a king here. For he was the Chief Forest Officer, in-charge of the entire islands.

Uncle Ranjit was an exception in our family—the odd-man out. My father always said that he was the most intelligent of all brothers. But whereas all of them were busy earning money in Mumbai and Delhi, uncle Ranjit had chosen to be different. To everybody’s surprise, uncle Ranjit had joined the Forest Service when he could have easily become an Engineer, Doctor, CA or even a top business executive. For he had always topped all examinations - first class first in merit, whether it be the school or the university.

“So, Vijay. You like it here?” he asked.
“It’s lovely, uncle,” I answered. “And thank you so much for the lovely holiday, spending so much time with me. In Mumbai no one has any time for me. I feel so lonely.”

“Why?” he asked, with curiosity.

“Mummy and Daddy both come home late from office. Then there are parties, business dinners, tours. And on Sundays they sleep, exhausted. Unless there is a business-meeting in the club or golf with the boss.”

Uncle Ranjit laughed, “The Monkey Trap! They are all caught in monkey traps of their own making. Slaves of their greed. Trapped by their desires. Caught in the rat race. Wallowing in their golden cages, rattling their jewellery, their golden chains.”

As I thought over Ranjit uncle’s words I realized how right he was. Most of the people I knew in Mumbai were just like that. Trapped by their greed. Chasing rainbows. In search of an elusive happiness. Planning for a happiness in the future which may never be fulfilled instead of enjoying the present.

“Happiness is liking what you do as well as doing what you like,” uncle Ranjit said, as if he were reading my thoughts. “Happiness is not a station which never arrives, but the manner in which you travel in life.” He paused, and asked me, “Tell me Vijay, what do you want to do in life?”

“I don’t know.”
“Come on, Vijay. You are fifteen now. By next year you have to decide. Tell me what are your plans?”

“It depends on my percentage,” I said truthfully.
“I am sure you will get more than ninety percent marks in your board exams,” he said. “Assume you top the exams. Secure a place in the merit list. Then what will you do?”

“I’ll go in for Engineering. Computers, IT.”
“Computers, IT! Why?” uncle Ranjit asked. “Why not Arts, Literature? Something creative? Something you would enjoy doing.”
“Job prospects,” I answered.
“Oh!” he said. “And then?”
“Management. An MBA from a top business school. Or I may even go abroad for higher studies.”
“And why do you want so many qualifications?”
“To get the best job,” I answered.
“And earn a lot of money,” uncle Ranjit prompted.
“Of course,” I said. “So that I can enjoy life.”
Uncle Ranjit laughed, “My dear Vijay. Aren’t you enjoying life right now. At this very moment. What about me? Am I am not enjoying life?”

He smiled and asked, “ Vijay, you know what Maxim Gorky once said :

‘When work is a pleasure, life is a joy.
When work is a duty, life is slavery.’ ”

“Slavery!” I exclaimed, understanding the message he was trying to give me.

“Slavery to one’s elusive desires, one’s greed. Just like the monkey trap.”

“The Monkey Trap!” we both said in unison, in chorus.

And so, I decided to do what I really wanted to. To achieve true inner freedom and contentment..

And guess what I am today?

Well, I am a teacher. I teach philosophy. And let me tell you that I truly enjoy every moment of it. It’s a life of sheer joy and delight - being with my students, earning their respect and adulation, nurturing my innate quest for knowledge and feeling a sense of achievement that I am contributing my bit to society.

I shall never forget uncle Ranjit and that crucial visit to the forests of the Andamans, the turning point, or indeed the defining moment, of my life.

Dear Readers (especially my young friends on the verge choosing a career path); whenever you reach the crossroads of your life, remember the ‘Monkey-Trap’.



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