Now I see the secret of making the best person: it is to grow in the open air and to eat and sleep with the earth.
— Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass
In May, the New York Times featured an article about the monkeys of New Delhi. The monkeys, according to the article, have “overwhelmed” the Delhi streets. They have become a “scourge.” Delhi’s monkeys are now regarded as bullies and thieves, entering homes, ripping out wiring from buildings, riding public transportation for free, tormenting children on playgrounds and stealing their candy. Delhi’s wildlife agency has been approached for assistance in controlling the monkey population, but officials have said that the monkeys of Delhi are no longer classified as wild and are therefore not under their jurisdiction. Other ideas have included chasing away the animals with the urine of larger langur monkeys and/or killing them, but such efforts have proved unpopular and/or ineffective.
“So we sit inside our house like caged animals,” Roopi Saran, a Delhi resident was reported as saying, “like we’re the ones in the zoo and they’re the owners outside looking at us.”
The battle between Delhiites and their monkeys has been going on for some time now. As frustrated Delhiites look for solutions, others are trying to understand the reasons behind the increase in monkeys and monkey chutzpah. Loss of habitat due to the vast expansion of the city is one. What now belongs to the streets once belonged to the monkeys. Others point out that the Hindu citizens of New Delhi have been feeding the monkeys on Tuesdays and Saturdays even as they complain about them on other days of the week. They do this to honor Hanuman, the monkey god and a symbol of strength and devotion. (Ironically, the langurs that have been employed to intimidate Delhi’s monkeys are called “Hanuman langurs.”) Authorities plead with Delhiites and threaten them with fines in the hope that this will curb the wanton public feeding of the monkeys. But it is to no avail. A few years back, food collection centers to regulate monkey feeding were set up near Hanuman temples. The collection boxes remained empty. It was not enough for Hanuman worshipers to know the monkeys would be fed in their honor. For it is the direct relationship between human and monkey that makes the act of worship meaningful. A spokesperson for the Municipal Corporation of Delhi told the Indo-Asian News Service that “religious sentiment” was the campaign’s biggest challenge.
There is thus a tension in Delhi between respecting religious practice and addressing the monkey menace. But the tension is not superficial. There seems to be ambivalence about how the modern city of New Delhi — capital of the second most populous and largest democratic nation on Earth, city of the future — relates to a natural world it still thinks of as ancient and sacred.
It wasn’t so long ago that monkeys and people cohabitated in Delhi like monkeys and squirrels or people and people. They competed for space and food. They shared the same sky. Their lives were fundamentally commingled. This commingling is still common in less developed countries, such as Sri Lanka, where I am presently living. Animals are everywhere in Sri Lanka — country, city it makes no difference. Sri Lanka is so dense with people and nature that these terms — “country,” “city” — are almost irrelevant once one leaves the capital. Tropical birds and giant monitor lizards stroll around gardens and on the side of the road. Ants parade around kitchen countertops in the daytime; geckos slither there at night. Cows and water buffalo are ubiquitous — you can often get someone’s herd to mow your lawn. The giant beasts simply chew the grass down to size. There are also the ever-present dangers of poisonous snakes and crocodiles. Every few months in Sri Lanka, the papers carry a photo of a house or car that has been smushed by an elephant. Sharing space with the animal kingdom in all its facets is part of one’s daily experience in Sri Lanka.
Yet as Sri Lanka continues to develop, as urban areas increase along with trash and the need for space, certain animal populations are increasing, too, tipping the balance. Like Delhiites, Sri Lankans are in a battle with ill-mannered monkeys who make it their business to steal whatever they can get away with and who display a general lack of decorum. The monkeys care little that they pick lice from their groins on the steps of a holy temple, or whether the laundry drying outside belongs to you. And, like Delhiites, Sri Lankans are growing desperate. Similar civic campaigns to control them have been enacted. Some have taken to shooting air rifles near monkeys to frighten them (which also frightens every surrounding human) and the more extreme measure of mass sterilization has been proposed.
Both New Delhi and Sri Lanka have tried something called “translocation,” which is effectively rounds up the monkeys and deposits them in less populated areas (in Sri Lanka) or into animal sanctuaries (in Delhi). But the monkeys easily scale sanctuary walls, easily defy most attempts to corral them, and escape to torment whatever neighborhood they are dumped in. It should also be mentioned that monkey round-ups are harmful to the monkeys themselves, physically and psychologically, and sometimes results in death.
We readers of the New York Times shake our heads at these faraway concerns. We can’t imagine a New York City covered in animals, as Americans successfully rid our cities of most animals long ago. Birds, beavers, bears, snakes, moose, stray cats and dogs, insects, weeds — all threatened the manageability, and thus the proliferation of urban American environments. So, we exterminated as many as we could. After that, we built walls and fences around us to keep out the strays. We then paved our paths to make them uniform and unfriendly to insects and beasts, sprayed everything we could with pesticides, and, finally, designed public parks, where the indomitable pigeon and other ineradicable species could have their place. We corralled animals, shot them, sterilized them, or simply drove them into extinction. All of this took its cue from the colonialists who had done the same across the ocean in the cities of Europe. The lines of demarcation were etched on the land the moment settlers arrived.
The great Indian writer Rabindranath Tagore spent a lifetime considering the differences between “Western” and Indian civilizations. He felt that the West had an anxiety about the natural world that was intrinsic to the modern Western understanding of humanity as something separate from the rest of the world. This Western concept of civilization was quite different than the much-older Indian concept of civilization. For Indians, dividing man and nature was a foreign idea. In an essay called “Relation of the Individual to the Universe,” Tagore illustrates this thought by comparing the “first invasion of India” with the “invasion of America by the European settlers”:
They [American settlers] also were confronted with primeval forests and a fierce struggle with aboriginal races. But this struggle between man and man, and man and nature lasted till the very end; they never came to any terms. In India the forests which were the habitation of the barbarians became the sanctuary of sages, but in America these great living cathedrals of nature had no deeper significance to man. They brought wealth and power to him, and perhaps at times they ministered to his enjoyment of beauty, and inspired a solitary poet. They never acquired a sacred association in the hearts of men as the site of some great spiritual reconcilement….
Tagore’s point is that American settlers never thought of the forests as sacred in the way Indians did. Majestic perhaps. Useful. But not sacred. Nature was viewed as either a tool for or an impediment to human progress. As such, wild majestic nature had to be contained.
In the 19th century, America developed a national park system that has since been adopted internationally. These wildlife reservations separate animals entirely from urban spaces. With the establishment of protected wilderness areas, everyone lives independent and free. In the parks, animals can be monitored and studied, or viewed for pleasure. They can do their animal things there and we can do our people things everywhere else. This specific relationship to nature is a civilizational ideal in America, an ideal that most Americans take for granted. “National parks are the best idea we ever had,” wrote author Wallace Stegner. “Absolutely American, absolutely democratic.” Many Americans have never been to a national park. But they can imagine the bounty of nature that exists there, unmolested and well preserved, like a giant open-air museum.
National parks were fairly successful in keeping wild animals, like bears, away from cities. But cities remained filled with stray cats and dogs that, like Delhi’s urban monkeys, were neither wild nor domestic. How to approach them was conceptually challenging. Creating sanctuaries for free-roaming strays seemed absurd. The risk of rabies is real (if unlikely). Even when strays pose no obvious danger, they are aesthetically unappealing, covered in mange and dirt and sores. The strays are probably the most confused about their in-between state of being, having held on to just enough instinct to feed themselves but not enough sense to run from rather than toward moving vehicles or keep themselves clean.
Thus, Americans created whole government agencies tasked with rounding up cats and dogs and driving them to animal extermination centers far from the public eye. But the cat and dog extermination method was never quite as satisfying as Americans hoped. So private no-kill animal shelters were developed as an ethical compromise. These shelters feed stray cats and dogs, give them medical attention, and sterilize them to control the population. No-kill shelters are usually staffed by people who love animals and do not like to see strays suffering on the street. They are an urban version of the reservation, a place where animals can be cared for but kept away from the public. Even the handful adopted as pets must exchange the freedom of the street for domestic comfort. To earn our care, strays relinquish any remaining pretense of belonging to the natural world. The very evolution of the word “stray” is telling — where it once meant wandering it now means homeless. These strays drift through American cities like ghosts, reminders of a natural landscape that was strangely transformed.
Even as the decision to extricate animals from our lives was resolute and proud, American literature is shaped by lamentations for a lost natural world that few Americans ever experienced. “Three times walked round the grass and sighed absently,” Alan Ginsberg wrote in “A Strange New Cottage in Berkeley.” “I think I could turn and live with animals,” Walt Whitman wrote in “Song of Myself,” but he never quite believed it, dying in a Greek revival home in Camden, New Jersey and entombing his body in a fancy mausoleum shaped like a house. Maybe the poets are onto something. Maybe we felt it was best to keep animals invisible because they made us feel like strays ourselves.
“I lost a world the other day,” Emily Dickson reported.
Has anybody found?
You’ll know it by the row of stars
Around its forehead bound.
Though it may appear otherwise, Rabindranath Tagore was a great proponent of civilization; he was an artist, after all. But he didn’t believe that everything “civilized” was inherently good. Tagore tried to identify aspects of civilization that are the best expressions of humanity. Civilization, Tagore said in a 1924 speech titled “Civilization and Progress,” “cannot merely be a growing totality of happenings that by chance have assumed a particular shape and tendency which we consider to be excellent.” It must be the expression of “a guiding moral force,” a philosophy of life and the art of living.
For Tagore, this art of living was holistic. He felt that man — and hence a civilization — was actually made greater when connected to the whole universe. Likewise, man was made smaller and more fragmented when he disconnected human nature from all nature.
In the essay “Relation of the Individual to the Universe,” Tagore begins with a reflection on walls.
The civilization of ancient Greece was nurtured within city walls. In fact, all the modern civilizations have their cradles of brick and mortar. These walls leave their mark deep in the minds of men. They set up a principle of “divide and rule” in our mental outlook…. We divide nation and nation, knowledge and knowledge, man and nature. It breeds in us a strong suspicion of whatever is beyond the barriers we have built, and everything has to fight hard for its entrance into our recognition.
Western civilization has taken pride in subduing nature, Tagore wrote. But subduing nature presumes that humans are living in a hostile world, “where we have to wrest everything we want from an unwilling and alien arrangement of things. This sentiment is the product of the city-wall habit and training of mind.” Within the city walls, humans turn inward and focus only on themselves, creating an artificial dissociation between the human world and the natural world. For Tagore, however, this split is a false dichotomy and one destined to drive us crazy. It alienates us from our world, from ourselves, and thus has negative consequences for civilization.
Viewed in this light, it makes perfect sense that the people of Delhi are exasperated by regarding their monkeys as both sacred and sinister. As such, Delhiites are performing an impossible balancing act. It is exhausting to be, as Tagore wrote, “merely man” rather than “man-in-the-universe.” We create “bewildering problems, and having shut off the source of their solution, we try all kinds of artificial methods each of which brings its own crop of interminable difficulties.” Man teeters nervously on the tightrope of humanity then “fulminates against Providence and feels a secret pride and satisfaction in thinking that he has been unfairly dealt with by the whole scheme of things.”
But, Tagore wrote, this cannot go on forever — “[man] must know that hard as he may strive he can never create his honey within the cells of his hive.” Meaning, every step we take to control nature, to reproduce it, to replace it with something human, heightens anxiety about it, makes us feel like aliens on Earth, makes us prisoners inside the walls we built against the world. We sit inside our houses like caged animals, like we’re the ones in the zoo and they’re the owners outside looking at us. To bring ourselves back into the world, “we have to be fully alive to it and establish a conscious relation with it,” wrote Tagore, “not merely impelled by scientific curiosity or greed of material advantage, but realizing it in the spirit of sympathy, with a large feeling of joy and peace.”
Here in Sri Lanka there is a pond. The pond is just outside my studio window and for many months, it was uninhabited. There was a little water, some moss, a lotus flower that bloomed erratically depending on the phases of the sun. And then, one day, about two months ago, a frog appeared in the pond. It wasn’t doing anything, this frog; it just floated silently all day and night with its unblinking eyes above the water. At first I thought it was dead. For reasons that are hard to describe, I found this behavior charming, and soon enough I became attached to the frog that was there morning and night just outside my window. The frog is not mine, is not a pet — I don’t feed it or try to hug it. But I feel I can depend on its presence — for now. I have started calling it “Frog,” which I think is a fair compromise, knowing that, though it is there all the time, residing in my home, the frog is still not mine to name. “Good morning, Frog,” I will say in the morning, or if I think about the frog in the afternoon I might look for it out the window and greet it in the same manner. Hello, Frog. Looking nice today, Frog.
The frog does nothing for me and somehow coexisting with it makes me happy. One day, it will go float in someone else’s pond, or the lake, or be eaten by a seabird. In the meantime, my love for the frog endures, remaining both unnoticed and unrequited. And some days I wonder—if a crocodile scaled the short fence that holds the lake away from my home, and landed in my pond, I could love it just the same. • 10 July 2012