First published in Himal Southasian: https://www.himalmag.com/the-astrologers-monkey/
Early in my youth, a slightly clubfooted man, whose parents had abandoned him – and not only for this defect – came to our locality. With a wooden crate slung over his shoulder, he entered Nawab House. He was invited there, in fact. The attention he attracted from onlookers, however, was not for his limp but for the strange attire he wore – an unwashed black caftan almost touching the ground, a densely-beaded chain with a pendant of obscure metal hanging from his neck and a dirty turban wound on his head like a woman’s bun. He also wore a pair of black shoes that he himself had made years ago.
He was received with the least hospitality in Nawab House. For it was known that the long illness of an old man in that house, whose death was awaited by every person living under its roof, had made them ill-natured. But they never spoke of this matter to anybody, not even among themselves. They gave the clubfooted man a tattered mat, and he spread it in the yard, fringed by a tall, mossy wall, after the onlookers – of varied age and sex – carried out the old man, who lay spread-eagled on a charpoy, bringing him under the autumn sky for the first time since his illness began.
The old man was determined to live at least twelve more years. Gossipmongers said that the more he understood that his progeny, a brood of eight sons and daughters, wanted him to die soon, the more he ignored his incurable suffering and the threat of lurking death.
He now watched the stranger who carried a mysterious crate. He didn’t believe in the fortune-teller and took the whole matter to be some sort of wicked conspiracy by his scions. He asked the stranger, resentfully, “What’s your name?”
The clubfooted man made no immediate reply. Rather, he stared at the old man with unblinking eyes. He was determined not to reveal himself so easily.
“The knowledge we receive forbid us to utter our names. It’s the work that speaks for us. I am the last acolyte of Ustad Bairam Shah, the one and only from Kamrup-Kamakhya in Assam. And the monkey I possess is older than this city and younger than your fate! He will read the hands of any mortal, and the past or future, bhut bhabishyat. And if there’s something bad, I’ll alter its course in consultation with my monkey. Please bring the person you want us to see,” he answered.
The old man was still under the impression he was talking to a charlatan. He boomed out authoritatively: “I’m the man! Bring out your stuff and look at my hands. You’re to cure my illness as well. If you can’t cure me, there’ll be punishment for both of you!”
The astrologer slowly removed the gunny sack from over the crate that held his greatest possession in life. Like his shoes, the crate was also his handiwork, with walls of wicker sticks to maintain regular airflow through the wooden geometry. And when the gunny sack was taken off, you could see the red face of an aged rhesus monkey who clasped the sticks and watched you unblinkingly. Sometimes, you could also hear the irregular thumping of feet on its plywood floor. It was then that its owner understood the signal from his meditative creature: the monkey was interested in sightseeing or wanted to breathe the fresh air outside. Then he had to bring it out despite the curious eyes of pedestrians and the throngs of school children.
Now, as he opened the crate’s lid, the monkey lunged forward, but the chain on its neck restricted its wishes. So it sat still. Its grizzled-brown fur disappeared from the waist down with patches of red skin visible here and there. It was not known if it was a result of age, disease or a lack of good care. However, the sore-like patches lessened the contrast of its flaming red buttocks that would have drawn more attention to its onlookers. Its head of short hair and curious humanoid face resembled a truant school boy. And despite its frail health, it was still known as a jaunty old monkey.
The entire household came down to the yard – grandchildren, daughters and housemaids. They craned their necks to watch and whispered and giggled. The old man’s daughters-in-law – some of whom considered themselves lucky to knot their fate with a former khandan, the old aristocracy of the area – struggled to keep their children silent before the old man. Their husbands – a pack of five brothers – did not wish to miss this strange spectacle, which was supposed to cure their father’s illness. The elders of our neighbourhood gossiped that the sons had bad intentions, for they wanted a share of his inconceivably big fortune on earth’s surface and in its hidden burrows.
The old man looked into the curious eyes of the monkey detestably. He stretched out his left hand and the monkey examined it closely before passing on its judgement to the master. The clubfooted man’s face turned grave and became graver still every time the monkey raised its brown head to make some sound.
The astrologer then proceeded to the second phase of his astral affair – removing the black shadow from his client’s future – by asking for some white thread and then chanting mantras, blowing on the thread regularly. The monkey, too, followed its master. Every time the monkey stopped blowing, the clubfooted man tied a knot in the thread until he reached number seven, perhaps to invoke the power of the number’s agreed value and luckiness. Then he asked for the egg of a domesticated hen, wrapped it with the incanted thread and put it under some hot ash while the housemaids burnt some sandalwood-paste-smeared logs, as dictated by the turbaned astrologer.
He then prepared a talisman with the charred thread and tied it on the old man’s right arm and gave away the egg white to his monkey. Unfed since noon, it gobbled the food quickly and then entered the crate with a posh gait, having received a secret signal from its owner after a few minutes, as though proud of its loyalty to its master. Neither the monkey nor the owner revealed that this elaborate ritual was only a modified version of an earlier spectacle that they had created together.
“When will he be cured?” asked the moon-faced wife of the old man’s eldest son.
The astrologer looked up at the sky and down at his interlocutor and replied confidently, “Tomorrow, I hope, if I’ve invoked the power of mantra correctly.”
This was usually the point at which his clients offered him some banknotes, often one or two hundred takas. And if fortune favoured the day, even a whole five hundred taka note! And also some household goods like glasses, chinaware or cooking pots (he had even got a damaged TV once), as well as animals or food items like chicken, duck, onion, garlic, etc. He sometimes even received vegetables – drumsticks, peas and yams – especially for the monkey. And so he always carried an additional sack in case he was rewarded with a pile of items but wouldn’t be able to carry them all. There was a wheel of fortune for everyone – a truth he had learnt from his profession.
But things were different today. The old man whispered into the ear of the moon-faced lady and she ordered that the astrologer and his monkey be kept captive as houseguests until their patient convalesced. He also ordered that both the monkey and its owner must be fed and tended well.
The monkey’s owner was not a man to be cowed very easily. He remained unaffected by the news and, in the evening glow of late autumn, began to look on the two-storey edifice of Nawab House. He could see that it was old and probably of historic value, given its raised pilasters with floral intricacies, the purely ornamental stone columns around the porch, the distinct traceries of the windows that were now rusted with age and the small balcony full of flower tubs and wicker chairs, which overlooked the riverscape that had long vanished. The new high-rise buildings almost obstructed the sky from the house on all sides and it stood like a stranger in the middle of a concrete heap.
When night fell over the house, a servant opened the garret for the astrologer and his monkey. It was at the end of the stairwell that also led to a limestone roof and mixed garden. Through the window of his room, he saw a hall room with a large chandelier. A magnificent carpet with a wide border, floral decorations in a regular arrangement and a repeated hemistich in Persian, and a scene of a king’s men hunting wild animals in a forest at its centre, lay on the floor. Tughras of beautiful letters hung on the wall and a big wooden table was replete with porcelain wares, ceramic plates, platters and oval jars. Two big Chinese vases – with handles shaped like dragons with bunches of flowers and gryphon mouths projecting in relief along the sides – stood to a side, while in a corner of the room, an old rusted cuirass leaned like a ghost’s chest.
He realised the house must be owned by a very wealthy man, a zamindar of sorts, and hoped there might be a big reward awaiting him. If only his occult knowledge improved the health of the old man anyway!
The clubfooted man worried about his family and the monkey that needed to be fed nuts and peas and maize. It needed regular exercise so its limbs wouldn’t become stiff. It had to remain active round the year so it would, in turn, also keep its master alive and active. The monkey was an asset he couldn’t afford to lose.
He no longer felt good in the house. By now, he should have been at his slum house on the other side of the river that was peopled with ill-fated individuals of varied professions – poor, luckless people who had come to Dhaka following a flood, a river erosion or an incurable dream of city life – who ended up on the fringes of cities.
The astrologer thought of his wife Anguri with her bird eyes and raven black hair, who gave him hope to live, and his two sons, who wallowed in mud and dust all day until their mother found time to take them home after cooking the meals, collecting fresh water from a distant tube well, and her basket-weaving, without which the family would have starved from time to time.
It was Anguri, who, fearing the threat of eviction from their stuffy one-room tin house facing the tarry water of the Buriganga, had first come up with idea of a street show with the monkey. She had persuaded him to train the monkey, and from the very beginning, the monkey seemed to understand its owner perfectly, the threat of hunger twining their fate so that they didn’t need the cumbersome exchange of words. This was to be an asset when he turned into a fortune teller with mystical skills.
In the street shows, the monkey, which he named ‘Bahadur, the Valiant’, had shown varied skills.
He would say: “Bahadur, show us how leaders walk before elections, especially when they beg for votes,” and the monkey would walk on just its hind legs, stooping a little with its hands placed on its back, just like an old, power-obsessed leader.
“Now, will you kindly show us how Shahrukh Khan dances?” he would then ask.
With its hazel-blue eyes, the monkey would look at its owner and the audience before cartwheeling like a frenzied dance star. He would play a small tambourine, while his monkey performed, to keep the show as charming and amusing as possible although the music had no effect on the creature.
Then, just like with an acquaintance in a restaurant, the clubfooted man would strike up a conversation with the monkey.
“Should I see a bride for you, Bahadur?” he asked and the monkey would nod its head positively, seriously considering the need of a wife.
“You have any dowry to gift your wife?”
It would nod negatively and stoop, revealing it was truly sad for its inability to possess any wealth. The conversation would then continue.
The monkey also accepted handouts from its audience and fans. When young boys and girls wanted to take photos with the monkey with their smartphones, the monkey would not pose until they paid ten taka for each photo. Things had been going very well until one day the monkey injured its back while cartwheeling like a Bollywood hero and started limping like its owner. It couldn’t walk properly for a month afterwards.
He spent the last of his wife’s savings to have the monkey treated by a mystic-cum-vet. Although he was an expert only in cow and goat diseases, the mystic vet had healed it. When it had recovered, the clubfooted man had decided to turn himself into a fortune teller, inspired by the affluence of the mystic vet, who lived in a house with corrugated tin sheets, and a gas stove, latrine and electric water pump that supplied water to the house in all seasons.
At the old man’s house the fortune teller looked at his dear animal and felt uneasy. They both strained their ears to listen to a muffled groaning from the house owner. A few moments later, someone asked the astrologer to visit the old man in his bedroom. The monkey rode on his shoulder, grunting in mounting anger. It wanted to go home to the slum and be tended by Anguri or play with the children who taught it to smoke cigarettes in the absence of their father. The fortune teller saw a bevy of whimpering faces attending to the patient who was lying on an ornate bed. The old man was motionless, staring at the monkey and its owner, as though emitting the last of his wrath.
Then suddenly, the old man stirred and said in a clear voice: “It seems you have all failed to cure me. I’ve done everything to save this house, my house, from my greedy sons who want to destroy it for more money – for a wretched new mansion of muck! Now, listen to me you bandy-legged man! I’ll ask you only three questions. If you or your monkey can answer them properly, I’ll give you all my wealth!”
His sons said nothing. There was a murmur of protest in between the whimpering of the women. Some couldn’t bear the old man’s whim and caprice anymore, especially when it was apparent that he had finally realised the inevitability of his death and was now playing this nasty game before his departure. The astrologer wanted to leave the house as soon as possible. But before he could open his mouth, the old man on his deathbed said, “There’s a negative reward, though. If you can’t answer my questions, I’ll kill one of you!”
The old man then pulled out a pistol from under his pillow before loading it and pointing it at – in fact, we would never know at whom he had pointed the gun: was it at the monkey or clubfooted man? And it was also never known what questions he had asked or what had compelled him to even want to ask such questions. Some say he had been extremely delirious and asked things like: What is worse than death? Why does life have to be lived from birth to death? What is the greatest wonder on earth? It might be a completely different set of questions – we would never really know.
But it was enough for the ill-fated astrologer, who now cared for the life of his dear creature more than anything else. The snaggle-toothed elders of our neighbourhood still say that the clubfooted man was able to answer all the questions, but before the old man could bequeath his large fortune to this stranger, his family members raised a great ruckus and, in that turmoil, the old man threw his pistol at somebody. He hadn’t fired it though. But taking it off the ground, the monkey pointed it at the old man’s chest and shot him.
And then, overwhelmed by the commotion of the men and women, the strange smell of lemon flowers and gushing blood and the melancholic expression on the dead man’s face, the monkey leaped through the door before anyone could catch it, glancing at its master for the last time. Some say it wanted to return to him but that the owner himself motioned it to flee.
The monkey jumped down on to the wall that separated Nawab House from the newly built Japan Mansion, and headed towards the western gate of the Fort. Dangling on some mahogany trees in the darkness, it finally scampered towards the deep south, where its last clan roamed the roofs of derelict buildings and vegetable bazaars of a rapidly vanishing city. Perhaps, in its heart, it still wanted to return to its birthplace, to its clan, to show it true loyalty.
However, the clubfooted man – the last acolyte of Ustad Bairam Shah – was apprehended by the police soon after the death of the old man. Newspapers and TV channels gave him a big headline the following day, calling him “a charlatan and the owner of a killer monkey”. His clubfoot, his strange attire and his beaded chain with a mysterious pendant all replaced his monkey’s notoriety. Nobody could really tell whether the monkey had received instructions from its owner, or whether the owner had received money from the family of the old man.