Flying with Monkeys


It’s 1991 and here I am in Delhi for the first time with my Indian lawyer, Mr. Ratnadatta, on the lookout for a likely fellow to name as our candidate on a three-man arbitration panel. Mr. R has suggested we approach Mr. Shiv Dut, the leader of the majority party in the Indian Senate, which is why we find ourselves driving into the Presidential compound, where Mr. Shiv Dut has a villa somewhere among the neem trees and monkeys.

The Presidential compound was built by the British in the twenties. Mr. Dut’s villa is a small affair of faded white stucco with a bored and shabby guard outside it. The man himself is in a large, scruffy room fixed up as an office. Bizarrely it has an enormous fireplace, though I’ve been to Delhi in all seasons and never seen occasion for a fire. Still there it is: and before now I’ve arrived in town at night in December in my shirtsleeves to find Indians wearing sweaters or squatting in shawls like rows of frozen pigeons. These things are relative.

We sit and accept a cup of tea and do the polite, which involves Mr. R fawning on Mr. D as if he were the Messiah. This is a feature of Indian manners that jars with Westerners but shouldn’t be taken seriously. And maybe Mr. Dut is the Messiah? Certainly he knows Henry Kissinger and Mikhail Gorbachev, as he tells us in a casual way as if we too are pals with Hank and Mike.

We drink our tea and eye our host and the room. Mr. D is tall and well made with a round face, very glossy and black. He seems to be wearing a dirty white nightie like Wee Willie Winky in the nursery rhyme. He is extremely intelligent with a polished manner, though Mr. R tells us in an aside that Mr. D was born an Untouchable and once worked as a boot boy (in that sense literally pulling himself up by his bootstraps). So what are we to make of his flattery of such a low creature? Mr. R is a higher caste: Kshatriya and therefore polluted even by accepting the cup of tea. I know he is to some degree religious because – he tells me on another occasion – he sometimes drinks cow piss for its holy qualities.

As for the room, unnoticed by anyone except me, a bird is flying in circles round the ceiling fan and a lizard is running up and down the wall. I am going cross-eyed watching them while trying to follow the conversation. The latter has turned to the subject of economic development (as discussed with Hank and Mike no doubt) and is about to take a bizarre twist.

“We want to get back to the high tech society we had in ancient times,” says Mr. Dut.

“Yes, you are so wise,” agrees Mr. R eagerly.

What ancient high tech economy? I wonder.

“At the time of the Ramayana we had flying machines,” says Mr. Dut, stating a fact known to everyone. “That is how Rama travelled with his army of monkeys to Ceylon to fight the Demon King.”

Ah! Conservatively, I estimate the Ramayana to be three thousand years old. And flying machines? They sure beat the hell out of Noah.

As far as I can tell, Mr. Dut is entirely serious and Mr. R responds in the same vein. If the proposition of flying monkeys, which seems so natural to them, strikes me as strange, it’s only because it isn’t in my tradition. For me it has no privileged truth-value and has to be proven by evidence like any other alleged fact, and the only evidence I’m aware of is an inference from a three thousand year old religious epic. I haven’t heard of any relics of a simian airforce.

In this respect, the Bibilical Fundamentalist and I are on common ground. Neither of us would accept this Indian account of history simply because of its antiquity and religious standing. Our difference is that the Fundamentalist doesn’t see that the Bible and the Ramayana have essentially the same value as historical evidence for the remote past. He doesn’t see that both have to be judged by common rules.

The Fundamentalist thinks that a man called Noah escaped from a Great Flood.

I think the Fundamentalist is flying with monkeys.