Sunday, November 14, 2010

Giving Nature a hand

The ‘bandar ka tamasha’ (monkey show) has always been a central part of childhood entertainment in Pakistan. The sight of a man carrying a small monkey around the streets of Lahore is common enough. Sometimes, they are accompanied by a goat or a dog, which serves as something for the monkey to ride as part of its act. The troupe travels from car to car, knocking on windows, looking for people interested in watching their act. They don’t mind where you are, whether you’re parked in the bazaar, snacking, or on the main road stuck in a traffic jam, they’re ready and willing to perform.

For a few rupees, the bandar-wala will enthral young and old with a lively show consisting mainly of the monkey caricaturing humans in certain comic situations. Armed with the dugdugi and a light cane, he instructs the well trained monkey to go through the various routines and situations he has taught him, and the monkey obliges without protest. The act is more often than not quite entertaining.

But I have always been slightly uncomfortable with the whole idea of the bandar-wala. It always seemed slightly cruel in some ways. For one, the monkey has obviously been captured from its natural habitat somewhere in the wilderness of the north and been brought away to the city. This must have some effect on the psychological well-being of the animal; being taken away as well as having to adjust to captivity. Also, it’s always struck me as highly likely that the animal is mistreated. God knows what technique the trainer uses to train it, but if he is beating the poor animal, it’s not like he’s going to have some animal rights group on his tail (the trainer’s tail, not the monkey’s!).After all, in a country where human life and rights are of little consequence, what chance does a poor animal have.

There is the off-setting argument of the poor bandar-wala having to make a living, but it is not enough to quell this uncomfortable feeling.

I think there is a justification though. Look at it this way. Supposedly, we have all evolved, and are still evolving. These monkeys and humans most likely had a common ancestor at some point in the distant past. But what happened? We humans got our act together. We stopped swinging around, shouting and flinging faeces at each other (I’m actually not sure that these monkeys do the last part). We realised that the future lay in Yahoo and Google, and hedge-funds (whatever the hell they are!). We decided to stop picking berries and mucking about all day, and to get real jobs as writers and engineers. We also gained something called self-awareness, and started asking questions about where we came from, and why we are here, and whose winter collection is to die for this year. These monkeys are too busy stuffing their gut to be bothered with these profundities.

But, of course, what really separates us from our rather backward and rather distant relatives is our manners; our social graces, if you will. What it is to be human is the way we greet each other, the way we shake hands, or heartily slap each others backs; the way we laugh and joke in a way that shows good upbringing. It’s the way we say ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ and ‘LOL’ and those countless other phrases that demonstrates our superiority over the animal kingdom. These pleasantries may seem inconsequential, but are essentially what sets us above all others.

Well, I guess it’s about time we stopped thinking about ourselves and decided to help the less fortunate. So, if a few bandar-walas have taken it upon themselves to educate and civilize our boorish cousins, good on them I say. Yes, the poor brutes may feel hard done by, and yes, we too feel a slight sympathy for them, but this is the kind of tough love they need to get out of the squalor they have restricted themselves to for centuries.

Natural evolution, of course, is a very time consuming process, and it may take thousands of years before these creatures develop any sort of self-awareness or appreciation for these civilities. But, when they get there, they shall be able to draw on these experiences to know exactly how they should be behaving. The monkeys of the future will be fully trained to deal with awkward social situations.
‘I have to visit my in-laws today, how should I greet them?’ ‘My wife beat me up today, how should I react?’ ‘I’m going to a Bollywood themed disco tonight, if only I knew how to dance like an Indian actress’ – none of these situations need trouble the poor souls.
They will simply react with ‘O yes, I remember, we’ve been trained for exactly such a situation, it’s in our genes.’

And who knows, this training may actually result in acceleration of their evolutionary process. I’m sure it must have some effect.

Of course, we also need to be careful of the other possible eventuality of aiding monkey evolution; the dreaded ‘Planet of the Apes’ scenario. We must therefore set strict guidelines for monkey training. We must be vigilant and ensure we have the upper hand at all times, and inculcate monkeys in ways that ensure an uprising will never be possible. Implanting a deep need to watch inane soap operas, or reality television should ensure their brains are never developed enough to plot an overthrow of the current natural order, while also keeping them functioning socially.

Helping nature is the least we can do!

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