“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.
“But monkeys? Aren’t they dangerous?” I asked.
“The monkeys here are quite small and very cute. And once you train them, they become very friendly and obedient – ideal pets.”
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 seasick, so I stood on the foc’sle deck, right at the front end sea-sick, 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, drank the coconut water, and then began scooping out a small hollow. I took out my seaman’s knife and joined in enthusiastically with the other coconuts. 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 jaggery (gur) through the small hole. Then the coconut was chained to a stake, which was driven firmly into the ground.
And then we hid in the bushes in pin-drop silence.
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 threw 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? The monkey gets trapped 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!” he said.
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. His name was Ranjit Singh. And true to his name he was indeed a magnificent man! Over six feet tall, well-built, redoubtable; a truly striking personality! He stood 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 – after all he was the Chief Forest Officer, in-charge of the entire islands – and this was his domain.
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 achieving success and earning money in Mumbai and Delhi, uncle Ranjit had chosen to be different.
To the surprise of everybody else, uncle Ranjit had joined the Forest Service when he could have easily become an engineer, doctor or even a 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 late from office. Then there are parties, business dinners, and tours. And on Sundays they sleep, exhausted, unless there is a business-meeting in the club or golf with the boss.”
Uncle Ranjit laughed, “Ha. Ha. 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 – monkey-trapped, all of them, isn’t it?”
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 ever elusive happiness.
“Happiness is to like what you do as well as to do what you like,” uncle Ranjit said, as if he were reading my thoughts. “Happiness is not a station which never arrives, but the manner you travel in life.”
He paused, and asked me, “Tell me Vijay, tell me, 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 your plans are.”
“It depends on my percentage,” I said truthfully.
“I am sure you will get around 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, Software, IT,” I said.
“Computers? Software? IT? Why? Why not something more interesting – like Arts, Literature, Philosophy, History, Humanities?” he asked.
“Job prospects,” I answered.
“Oh!” He exclaimed. “And then?”
“Management…an MBA… 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. “I want to earn plenty of money 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? Remember – if you do not find happiness as you are, where you are, you will never find it.”
He smiled and asked me,” 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 material desires, one’s greed, slavery to the rat race, chasing rainbows. And then live a life perpetually trapped in a Monkey Trap of your own making.”
“The Monkey Trap!” we both said in unison, in chorus.
It was the defining moment in my life – my Minerva Moment…!
And so, I decided that I will choose a career I loved, do something I liked, and experience an inner freedom.
And guess what I am today?
Well, I am a teacher. I teach philosophy.
And let me tell you I enjoy every moment of it. It’s a life of sheer joy and delight – being with my students, their respect and adulation, my innate quest for knowledge and 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.