Would you be able to beat a monkey with a stick? I mean really beat it. Hit it more than once, repeatedly in fact. Disable it. More than one monkey too. A handful. A gang. An army of monkeys?
These were the questions I had been asking myself since arriving in Shimla. Apparently, I had entered a world inhabited by aggressively territorial monkeys and people who sold sticks to provide protection against them. My mind constantly mulled over the key components of my quandary: A stick. A monkey. Beating the monkey with the stick.
Could I actually beat a monkey with a stick?
It was not a question I had ever considered before nor had reason to until this precise moment. In the remote Indian hill station there appeared to be a very real and pressing need to consider the matter of monkey-beating. I am not a violent man but I imagine that if it came to it – the loss of an eye, the peeling of a cheek, a rabid wound across the chest – that I could indeed beat a monkey.
Yet there was still an element of doubt in my mind. After all, I was a person who caught spiders in pint glasses and deposited them a carefully considered distance from my home. One that gave both the illusion of having permanently evicted them while knowing full well that they could quickly and with very little difficulty make their way back.
I had never been hunting. Never killed an animal. I avoided harming insects and flies as best I could, choosing instead to huff them, with coffee breath and good-will, along a new path. One time I carried a dying crow in the case of my tennis racket to a vet who “helped” the crow in a way that I could not.
I am a meat-eater, yes, but I avoid the murky moral issues around this choice by training my mind to spin dizzying distracting circles whenever they arise. I fear that deep down I do not want to eat meat. And whilst we are on a confessional tact, I will admit now to saying derogatory things about pigeons on more than one occasion; I have also insulted cockroaches and openly despised scorpions. I confess to feeding ducks bread, even though I knew it was bad for them, valuing my own enjoyment above their dietary needs. But on the whole, I am not a natural-born monkey-beater.
The townsfolk of Shimla sold monkey-beating sticks like newsagents in the UK sell white bread and milk. It was an every day need. To make the decision easier, I even had the option to hire a stick at a slightly inflated cost for a worry-free morning stroll or afternoon ramble. Most people, of course, had their own sticks, perhaps notching each attack-free day into their substantial girth with a pocket knife. Thicker than a thumb and impossible to snap without a rudimentary grasp of science and the act of jumping, these were serious sticks.
Despite being recommended to me on numerous occasions, by well-meaning and decent people and not just as part of a protracted sales pitch, I didn’t really want a stick to beat a monkey. The thought of raising a wooden staff and then striking down upon a monkey skull or a clawing arm was quite absurd to me.
Since arriving in India though, the whole language of my existence had rapidly unfurled. I needed to acquire new words to match this world, new grammar – the stick held aloft in two hands high above my head, permanently poised, was a perfect exclamation mark, wholly necessary but to be used sparingly.
I headed up the Ridge behind the church, making my ascent towards Jathu Temple, known commonly as the monkey temple. I had decided to not buy a stick, instead packing nuts, biscuits and a jacket of gossamer-thin optimism into my backpack. As I climbed there were yet further opportunities for me to correct the error of my ways and buy an increasingly expensive weapon. An old woman watched over a pile of sticks on a wall around five hundred metres from the town. It was getting serious; she was the last hope. I stubbornly ignored her and continued on. As I went higher and higher, further into monkey territory, I scanned the woodland but there were no sticks for beating monkeys or any other creature for that matter. The best I could do was a twig to bruise a shrew or give a dormouse a nasty fright.
Arriving at the Jathu Temple, I instantly regretted my decision to be so very defiantly stickless. The temple area was teeming with angry, predatory monkeys as intimidating and unforgiving as any street gang lurking in a subterranean walkway. I did my best to take in the gentle majesty of the ancient temple, taste the fresh mountain air and generally appreciate my surroundings but it was nigh on impossible to ignore the threat posed from all directions by the monkeys.
It didn’t help matters that the temple was overlooked by a statue of Lord Hanuman, the Hindu monkey god, that stood at an awe-inspiring 108 feet. His towering and very orange presence seemed to embolden the already frisky primates: a titanic hype-man, a watchful overlord egging on an army to run amok in his shadow, commit atrocities in his name.
They bared their teeth. They chewed fruit, spat it out and threw it in my direction. They circled me, sniffing, chattering, sharpening their claws on the hard ground. ‘Does he have food? Does he have anything sweet?’ They asked. ‘Does he have a stick? Does he have what it takes to beat a monkey?’
I thank Hunaman, and all the other deities, that neither party would ever need to find out.