Becoming one of them

by Anindya Sinha

While studying the monkey community, this researcher began noticing changes in how they were treating him

It was with great trepidation that I began to watch bonnet macaques on a chilly, Bangalore morning in March 1993. It was on the GKVK campus of the University of Agricultural Sciences, Bangalore; then on the outskirts of the city. I wanted to study them because I hoped that, one day, it would be possible for me to get a glimpse into their minds and I knew this was what I wanted to do most in life. But, here I was, completely lost in an apparent sea of monkeys, all looking like the other! How on earth was I going to make them out? How would a study of these individuals, each so different from the other, ultimately be possible when they all looked identical and every one of them, without exception, ran as I took a mild step towards any of them?

Monkeying around

But as the days moved on, life looked up, the monkeys habituated to me and I to them, and identifying individuals became easy. There were two troops in the GKVK campus and I began to study social behaviour and cognition across the adult individuals in both of them. Work flourished and I came to know each one of them as well as I knew some of the forty-one cousins on my mother’s side. Well, almost.

One lazy afternoon, I sat among the individuals of my first troop, named GKVK1, when suddenly Patch, a young, fairly aggressive male, who clearly aspired to rise up in the rank hierarchy, came and presented his rear to me. Now, this is a fairly common behaviour young or subordinate males showed towards their elders or betters, and it meant an acceptance of their superior status. I was astounded, but I attempted an expression that hopefully conveyed to him my gracious acceptance of his subordination. I couldn’t, however, work any more and rushed to my colleague and shorter half Kakoli to tell her what had happened. She looked at me and wryly said: “They think you are one of them.”

The encounter

Time passed, and I began to understand quite a bit about their lives, relationships and the decisions they made. My time was also running out – I had to finish my fieldwork soon. I was working furiously on both troops and a day came when I just had to finish a certain number of observation hours before I left for the day. And the two troops decided that very afternoon to have an encounter. Now, an encounter can be quite a messy affair with the males even going for one another’s throats. The two armies clashed, and I despaired to see that in this great war, the observer was on the verge of losing his own private battle. This would not do. Throwing caution to the winds, I plunged in. I took the side of GKVK1, the troop I was studying that day and the weaker of the two troops, and arms flailing madly, I drove away GKVK2. The deed was done – and having gathered my breath, I launched into my final bout of observations.


Later, in the evening, I narrated to Kakoli my shameful deed of the day. “I know it was unethical of me to have done it…”, but before I could finish the sentence, scathing came her reply:

“Even you think you are one of them”.

Three years passed and it was time to wrap up my work in GKVK. I had aged along with my monkeys and had perhaps become a bit wiser. For the macaques, however, life continued to be a constant flow of battling people and nature, for food or space. GKVK, like most places of men, was a not a comfortable place for monkeys and they were slowly, but surely, losing their ground.

I would often just wander around with my troops, wondering what would happen to them while I moved on to find a job and continue my own personal struggles. Our roads had begun to diverge. On one of these dusty evenings, I sat with GKVK1, next to Soldier, an old male macaque with one arm, who never appeared to mind my company even if I got too close to him. We were by the staff canteen. An old man walked up to Soldier and me. He held out a banana to my companion, who obliged him by accepting it, and then the man did something strange. He had almost turned to go when he looked back and came up to me. “You spend years with these monkeys, walking the whole day with them, and yet nobody bothers about you, do they?” He then reached into his pocket and before I could react, held out a banana for me.

That evening, Kakoli heard my story as we drove home on our little moped, along a narrow road, that has now proudly swollen to become the eight-lane highway to the new international airport, and she said:

“Now even the world thinks you are one of them”. My journey had truly begun.

This article appeared in the Hindu in School on 9 January 2013.