The Bastard Monkey Kings of Bundi


He watches, and he waits.

We woke at our haveli as sunlight poured in through our barred windows. I untangled myself from yards of mosquito netting, bathed in a cold shower, and emerged into the courtyard of our guesthouse. We overlooked the central pool in town, and a tiny concrete escarpment jutted from the grassy, verdant property into the water, creating a rocky island on which to eat breakfast. The cook took our order, disappeared into the kitchen; we sat under the shady boughs, basking in the warm mid-morning air, and wondering why this haveli run by several old Indian people had such an enormous German Shepherd milling about in the backyard.

Preparation for breakfast took longer than expected, because the long-suffering cook would have to regularly emerge from the kitchen. He would snatch up a large staff from the stairs and begin snapping it against the walls, against the ground, fighting off a swarm of devious interlopers.

The chef was also the property’s primary monkey security officer.

The macaques that stalked the property came in two varieties, some with red faces, and some with black. Another guest indicated that the darker-visaged monkeys were more pleasant and docile, and generally spent their days lazing about in the shade and contemplating Derrida. The monkeys with red faces, though, were avaricious, violent and cruel, and whiled away the hours stealing food, breaking into homes, and spreading as much tetanus and monkey feces as they could.

We began eating our thin crepes and our piles of fruit, sucking pomegranate and papaya from our clasped fingers. Monkeys were roaming the courtyard at a middle distance, eyeing our meal, looking for paths towards us. They scaled the high wall around the property, they snuck across the roof of the kitchen, they attempted to stealth through the brush. Their fiendish eyes held plans, held schemes, held all the things they wanted to do to us and our food.

Suddenly four limber, simian paws slammed down on our table, inches from our fruit platter. A monkey had sauntered across the thin branches of the tree above us, had decided to attack from above in an attempt to take us by surprise. A grin spread across his smarmy little monkey face and he began reaching for the pineapple.

The German Shepherd, as it turned out, was around for exactly this purpose. As soon as paw met table the dog was up, barking, and lunging towards the furry intruder. The monkey dog chased down the invader until he had shimmied back onto a roof and began making slow, loping circles around our table, creating a monkey force-field to repel any other would-be breakfast thieves.

Much of our time in Bundi was spent thinking about monkeys and how best to contend with their rascally presence. The rickety, ancient elderly who ran our haveli warned us vividly to lock and bar our doors when we left and also when we were inside and also always, as the dexterous and clever local pests would find a way in and wreak havoc upon our stuff. Even in the absence of food, the macaques would apparently decide in favour of chaos and simply muck about with your furniture and gear. Businesses and homes, restaurants and hotels, everywhere was covered and locked and thoroughly monkey-proofed.

Of course, we did not learn our lesson quickly enough. As we approached Bundi Palace where we hoped to spend the day, there was a man running a fruit stand. In a wide basket astride his cornucopia were a number of heavy wooden sticks, each several feet long, like a collection of discarded wizards’ staves. They were rentals for 10 rupees (roughly 20 cents), and the man who offered them gave no hard sell, just a general implication that maybe we wanted one.

Palace parking

The palace parking lot.

Unmoved, we entered the empty palace without a monkey stick between us. The lower grounds were an overgrown field of yellow grass, of structures in decaying brickwork and masonry, of doorways and lonely motorcycles. There weren’t living things down here, and we forged our way into the quiet halls.

Courtyards and bedrooms were silent and still, and everywhere were signs of opulence run asunder by time and neglect. The palace felt like constant discovery: we climbed dark stairways and entered cluttered and dusty old rooms, moved around great pillars, saw the beautiful, abandoned murals that grew across walls and ceilings. A lone photographer had established himself in one ancient room, far away from the light, capturing the work of hands from decades and centuries before.

As we ascended, it became clear that the palace was being reclaimed by nature, that the wild had taken residence. Bats clustered like breathing chandeliers from high ceilings and slicked the stairs below them; spiders and insects crept around every corner. On the rooftop, around a great garden, hundreds of monkeys had staked a claim, had declared themselves raja. The murals here were kept sealed and barred in wrought-iron cages, away from the loping, skulking trouble-makers that scaled the walls.

Beyond the palace was Taragarh Fort, also empty and arid and free. The ramparts stretched deep into the hills, as dark earth and drying grass swayed under a hot sun. We ran into friends here, two Scots and one Korean, who had rented a monkey stick for protection.

But this high up, this far away from town and people and food and the world, we needed no monkey sticks or monkey dogs. We needed nothing. We scaled walls and scampered across battlements, we wedged through and around the crenels. There were halls and holes and rooms in this fort, towers and tunnels, darkness and light. We explored the stepwells and the lightless hallways, we split off and heard our voices echo against the valley below. The fort grew below us, as we claimed it with our feet, like it belonged to those who forged new paths through the brush and the thorns and the brick. Every new explorer in this territory was a temporary king.

And when we descended from the fort at dusk, while the sun set behind the Aravalli Range, we felt like no one could take this fort from us. Even the monkeys, who had massed into a great army and blocked the path and hissed and spit when we approached, could not take this from us. We formed a chain, sent one of the Scots forward with the monkey stick as a vanguard, and blasted through the wall of furry soldiers. The monkey monarchy had no power over us.

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