Lord of the Apes

Ram gawked at the monkey. The monkey stared back. The look it gave him was laced with equal parts calmness and confidence. It was obviously no stranger to humans, and did not move a muscle as it crouched on all fours, continuing to regard Ram in that ineffably confident manner.

Ram had stumbled -- literally -- upon the monkey at the entrance to his dorm room, as he returned from his morning classes. He had been so engrossed in his thoughts -- the Physics pop quiz that morning had caught him completely by surprise -- that he would have collided with the monkey, had he not seen it out of the corner of his eyes at the last minute. Ram and the monkey were now about five feet apart, two rungs on the evolutionary totem pole taking the measure of each other.

Ram was reminded of the climactic scene in old Westerns. That's what this is, he thought. A face-off at the OK Corral, a prelude to the actual gunfight. Keep yer hands where I can see 'em, pardner. His body tensed, his eyes narrowed, and his hands slipped to his gun-belt, ready to spring into action at the slightest twitch from the other, who had maintained its posture and its inscrutable expression through all this.

The essential incongruity of the situation hit him at that moment, jolting him from his Cecil B. DeMillesque reframing of the episode. This was no town square in a frontier town in the American West, but a narrow corridor skirting a row of college dorm rooms in the North Indian town of Kanpur. The protagonists were not Lee Van Cleef and Clint Eastwood, but an eighteen-year-old boy and an itinerant monkey.

As this realization hit Ram, he wanted to double up with laughter, wanted to chortle till he choked. But he bit his tongue, held his breath, and stood motionless in the corridor, watching his simian visitor. He had seen monkeys around campus, of course, but never one at such close quarters, never one right outside his dorm room. It was waiting for me, he thought, then immediately dismissed that absurd thought. He could hear the lazy afternoon drone of fruit flies in the background. Everything else was absolutely quiet.

"Ram!" A piercing shout rent the air. It shattered the quiet like a blasphemer uttering a profanity in a place of worship. Ram staggered back as if punched in the solar plexus. He stretched out an arm to the monkey, almost in a gesture of supplication. He desperately wanted it to stay. Please don't go, he thought fiercely. Please.

But the monkey was spooked. With an ease unattainable through anything but genetics, it scampered up the old mango tree next to the dormitory. It perched on a branch for a moment, looked down at Ram -- sorrowfully, almost reproachfully, as if blaming him for not letting it linger longer -- for an instant, then leaped easily from the tree to the roof of the building, and was gone.

- - -

Ram felt a sharp pang of anxiety -- will I ever see him again? he thought, noting that he had subconsciously assigned the masculine gender to the monkey -- as he unlocked the door to his room and stepped in.

It took his mind a few seconds to process the feedback from his eyes.

His side of the room was pristine. Well, not really pristine, but livably neat, just like he had left it. But the other half, his roommate Rahul's half, the half that Rahul kept fastidiously -- almost obsessively -- clean, looked like it had been ravaged by a small hurricane.

Ram's eyes zeroed in on the source of the disruption.

It was a box full of sweets. More precisely, it had once been a box full of sweets. The box itself was empty now, and its erstwhile contents, laddoos and gulab-jamuns and other delicacies too mangled to identify, had been uprooted from their neatly regimented positions in the box, crushed, the crumbs strewn haphazardly on the floor, in Rahul's bed, on Rahul's table, on Rahul's chair. It reminded Ram of a particularly frenetic scene from the movie Animal House.

Behind him, Ram heard a sharp intake of breath, followed by a stifled gasp. He did not turn around, because he knew it was Rahul, had known since Rahul had hailed him a minute ago.

"The monkey," Rahul croaked. "The monkey did this." He was now standing next to Ram. Both of them looked towards the open window, the likely site of ingress into the room, now merely a mute witness to the depredations.

Rahul turned towards Ram, eyes narrowed. "You let it get away." His tone was fierce, insistent, accusing.

What would you have me do, kill him? Ram thought. He remained silent.

"I'm going to get the monkey," Rahul whispered. "I'm going to get that bastard." He gathered the box, cradled it in his arms like a baby, and started picking up crumbs, one at a time.

"Should I get a vacuum cleaner from the front desk?" Ram asked. Rahul ignored him, kept prospecting for crumbs.

"I'm going to the mess for lunch," Ram said, to nobody in particular.

As he went out, he looked back. Rahul was on his knees, peering closely at the ground. Ram had always suspected Rahul was obsessive-compulsive, but he looked strangely pathetic in that posture, and Ram felt a twinge of pity.

Then Ram remembered what Rahul had said. I'll get that bastard. Any vestige of sympathy he might have had for Rahul vanished.

I'll get that bastard. The words kept ringing in his head.

- - -

Ram's imagination made him an excellent raconteur. Like a good cook, he knew which ingredients to leave out and which ones to embellish. At the mess hall, he narrated the story of how he had caught the monkey red-handed in his room, how he had confronted it, stared it down, how it had kowtowed to him, literally kowtowed to him, before he had let it go with a stern warning. By the end, he had both Yatin and Naren in thrall.

"It's Hanuman," said a voice behind him.

It was Cheh, the ancient mess server. No one knew his real name; he was called Cheh, six, because of the extra digit on his left hand. The sixth finger was indisputably stubby and vestigial; just as indisputably, it was a finger and not merely a lump of flesh.

There were those who whispered that there was magic in that sixth finger, that if Cheh touched you with it, you would -- depending on whether he whispered a benediction or a curse -- be made whole or be struck with a debilitating illness.

Cheh had been lurking in the background listening to Ram's story. As Cheh leaned in closer, Ram could glimpse his teeth stained red with betel juice, could see his sixth finger wrapped in heavy gauze (the mess manager was superstitious enough that he did not allow Cheh to touch food with that finger), could smell his breath, redolent with food grease and cigarette smoke.

"Hanuman?" Ram said.

"Hanuman," Cheh asserted in his cracked voice. "The monkey god. Your name is Ram, yes? Hanuman was Lord Ram's faithful servant. I think your little monkey friend is an avatar of Hanuman. That's why he came to you."

Yatin tried to drive the old man away, saying it was all superstitious baloney. Ram, however, wanted to hear more, wanted to hear the story of Hanuman.

Ram is astride a chariot pulled by four majestic white horses. His long hair billows in the wind, and he wears heavy gold armor on his upper body. A quiver full of arrows -- divine arrows, arrows that can produce lightning, arrows that can create mighty explosions, arrows that can strike a man deaf, dumb or blind -- and a longbow rest by his side.

He looks to his left, sees Hanuman, the mighty monkey-warrior, son of Vayu, the wind god. The two of them lead their army into battle.

And what an army it is! Monkeys of all shapes and kinds, orangutans and chimpanzees and gorillas, all assembled behind Ram and Hanuman, all adorned with battle-armor, all carrying weapons -- javelins, maces, swords -- all charging towards the demon-army that thunders at them.

This is the final battle, Ram realizes. This is the climactic battle between Ram, the seventh avatar of Vishnu, and Ravana, the demon-king who has kidnapped Ram's wife. It is Ram's destiny, and Hanuman, his ever-loyal warrior, is going to be at his side as he battles Ravana.

The demons are ogres from hell, a devil's nightmare. They have heads of dragons and snakes, bodies of horses and lions. Many have two heads; some have as many as six. Their eyes are blood red, their metallic fangs glisten and glint, and they belch fire and utter blood-curdling cries of war-lust.

There is a sudden lull; the army of demons parts ranks. And Ram realizes Ravana has finally arrived in his fabulous flying chariot. Ravana has ten heads, each more fearsome than the next. Through severe penance and austere sacrifices, he has been blessed by the gods themselves with otherworldly strength, intelligence and invincibility -- a benediction they now regret greatly.

Ravana roars his fury and his rage as he charges to the head of the demon ranks. His roar would drive men insane, would turn them into cloudy-eyed babbling shadows of their selves. But then that's why Ram's army is made of monkeys, not men.

It will be a day of enormous bloodshed, a day when blood -- that of both demon and monkey alike -- will blot out the daylight, causing the battle to take place in an otherworldly blood-soaked twilight, a day when the sun god himself will be rimmed with blood before darkness falls.

Hanuman lets out a mighty battle cry that makes the demons stop for a second. Even Ravana pauses. And then they come at Ram and Hanuman and their monkey army, flying and running and charging at them relentlessly.

"Time to go, man," Yatin said. "The afternoon classes await." He grimaced.

Cheh looked dejected but nodded his understanding.

- - -

After his long afternoon, Ram was dog-tired when he got back to his room. The events of the day were still fresh in his mind. As he turned on the light, he instinctively braced himself for the carnage that he had left last seen in the room.

But the room was scrupulously clean. Rahul, that paragon of neatness, had assiduously -- crumb by crumb, Ram thought -- cleaned it up, and it was back to its pristine self again. Rahul himself was nowhere to be seen. This was not surprising; as a Computer Science major, Rahul spent a fair number of nights in the lab.

Ram lay down on his bed, wondering why Rahul and he, with their divergent personalities, were roommates in the first place. Then he remembered. His parents had won the whose-son-will-be-Rahul-Mehta's-roommate sweepstakes.

There had been a virtual stampede among parents for the privilege of their son to become Rahul's roommate, once it was discovered that Rahul was the only student with a perfect GPA after his first year. Ram's parents had won the contest that was equal parts lobbying and cajoling, with a little benevolent bribery thrown in.

Ram assumed it was a natural parental tendency to reason that rooming with a genius -- that's what Ram's parents had called Rahul -- would rub off on their child. You need discipline, Ram's father had told him. You need to curb that wayward imagination and channel it into school. Rahul will be a perfect roommate for you.

Ram wondered what his parents would say if they were to discover Rahul's obsessive-compulsive tendencies, his little cruelties to birds and small animals, his resolutely inward-looking mind. Ram suspected his parents would sweep it all under the rug of Rahul's intellectual horsepower. After all, who cared about the small things, who gave a crap about imagination when you were smart, right?

But wasn't it Einstein himself who had said that imagination was more important than knowledge?

All of a sudden, Ram found himself missing his roommate from last year, a quiet, introspective boy called Dhiraj. In the beginning, Ram had mistaken his silence for hostility, but a warm friendship had begun to blossom between them. And then, with a startling suddenness, the umbilical cord joining them had been cut, and Dhiraj and he had joined different dorms in their sophomore years, as required by the college.

Ram's last coherent thought was that he should try to buy Rahul a box of sweets. Maybe that would placate Rahul. Maybe then he won't harm the monkey. But he had gotten to know Rahul well. Rahul's character was marked by single-mindedness to the extreme -- he would go to extreme, almost absurd, lengths to accomplish things that he resolved to do. Being an obsessive-compulsive did that to you, Ram guessed.

Ram drifted off into a light, troubled sleep, but the words kept echoing in his mind. I'll get that bastard.

- - -

Ram woke up with a start. The phosphorescent display on the watch said it was 03:30, the utter silence confirmed that it was AM, not PM.

His pupils slowly started dilating to adjust to the darkness. Why had he woken up? He did not feel cold, did not feel the urge to go to the bathroom down the corridor -- at this hour, in this cold, it would have to be a really pressing urge indeed to make that trek -- so what was it?

Then he saw the monkey. Its face was pressed against the window, its breath misting the glass. It was crouched there silently, watching him. It had not made a single noise, but he had woken up nevertheless. Why?

You are Ram and he is Hanuman, that's why. His mind told him. His brain dismissed this as nonsense.

He got out of bed, and as if propelled by an invisible force, walked to the window and unlatched it. The monkey entered the room, went directly to the foot of Ram's bed, and crouched there, watching him.

Ram noticed that he did not feel an iota of surprise. He latched the window, got back in bed. The monkey curled up at the foot of the bed like a dog.

"Good night, Hanuman," Ram said.

He slept better than he had in months.

When he woke up, it was broad daylight and sunlight was streaming in through the window. The monkey had gone. It had unlatched the window -- again, Ram did not feel the slightest twinge of surprise that it had the dexterity and intelligence to accomplish the task -- gently closing it behind itself as it left.

- - -

Over the next week, Ram fell into a routine that, though new to him, seemed as familiar as a well-worn piece of clothing.

He would get a plate of food from Cheh each afternoon and place it in a well-hidden spot behind the dorm before leaving for his afternoon classes. Hanuman -- Ram had adopted the name whole-heartedly -- would consume the food in the early evening. At night, the monkey would show up at Ram's window just as Ram would be about to turn in. Whether it was eleven or midnight, it somehow appeared at his window right when he had all but given up trying to keep awake, waiting for it.

Ram and the monkey would sleep just like they had the first night, the monkey curled up at the foot of Ram's bed. The monkey would slip out of the room when the first sunrays hit it, always before Rahul returned to the room, ponderous and sleepy-eyed from his all-nighter.

Ram was an only child, and he had never had a pet, but he realized instinctively that the monkey was not his pet. Their relationship was one of mutual respect. Hanuman served Ram, but he was his own master. He loved and respected Ram because Ram respected him back.

The only person Ram confided in was Cheh. Part of it was necessity -- he needed to justify the extra plate of food each day -- but the other part of it was the feeling thatCheh would understand. The old server stood there nodding as Ram told him about the monkey. His eyes glinted and he gently put an arm on Ram's shoulder.

"This is rare," Cheh said. "Very rare -- I have never heard of a monkey doing this. You must share a very special relationship with that monkey. Make sure you do not violate the trust it's placing in you."

Never, Rahul nodded. But then, I'll get that bastard, and he shuddered.

- - -

Ram came into his room, all agog. It was the eighth night since Hanuman had appeared, and he had a special treat for the monkey, a little laddoo. Monkeys loved sweetmeats, and Hanuman was no exception, polishing off any sweets Ram would keep out for him on the plate.

He stopped short as he saw Rahul in the room. Rahul was looking into the distance. His eyes were dreamy, contemplative.

"Feels good to be sleeping in my bed again," Rahul said. His voice was cheerful. "That project was a real back-breaker."

Ram's heart sank. The sinking feeling was accompanied by something approaching dread -- how would he warn Hanuman?

But the monkey had either intuited that it would be unwelcome that night, or had spotted Rahul from a distance. Either way, it did not come that night, though Ram kept a vigil till midnight, just in case.

Ram was thankful for this, though his dreams that night were an uneasy mélange of bloodthirsty ogres, warrior monkeys, and vengeful undergraduates.

- - -

The next morning, Ram went behind the dorm building to pick up the plate that he normally placed out for the monkey. As he neared the spot where he hid it, he stopped short.

The plate was full. It hadn't been touched.

On closer inspection, the dessert -- rice pudding -- had been consumed (Hanuman loved desserts), but everything else was untouched.

There was some reddish brown gunk next to the plate. Ram bent, touched it, immediately realized it was dried blood. There was more of it a little farther way, and a little more, and then some more. It created a trail that he followed unresistingly, his mind uncomprehending.

The trail of dried blood ended behind a small clump of trees. He found the monkey lying in a fetal position on top of a hillock. He had been foaming at the mouth. His eyes were bugged-out, staring into space in a weirdly human way, and his teeth were set in a feral snarl. It was almost as if he was confronting a demon in battle.

Hanuman lets out a mighty battle cry that makes the demons stop for a second.

He appeared to have been dead for at least half a day.

- - -

Ram staggered back to his room, his mind a welter of emotions.

It is not supposed to be like this. Hanuman does not die this way in the story, cannot die this way. He is a warrior. This is not a warrior's death.

Rahul was gone, but there was a note on Ram's desk. It read, "I got the bastard, didn't I?"

Ram's face clenched, his jaws worked. It was so blindingly obvious now. Rahul must have found out about the plate of food -- probably from one of the mess workers -- and must have slipped in a little poison yesterday. He had probably stayed in yesterday night to make sure Ram's suspicions were not aroused when the monkey did not show up.

Knowing Rahul, he would have used a slow-acting poison. The monkey would have lain in agony, fighting his last battle, for at least a few hours before he died.

Hanuman procured the magic Sanjeevini herb for Ram's brother when he was poisoned. When he couldn't locate the herb on the mountain it was indigenous to, he carried the entire mountain back with him. Why could I not do anything for you when you were poisoned, Hanuman? Why could I not save you?

- - -

Ram forced himself to go back to the hillock where the monkey had fought his final battle with life.

He gathered mud and leaves, covered the body as best as he could. He added some white flowers on top. He wanted to give it a proper cremation, but the burning pyre would raise far too many questions.

He emptied the plate out and took it back to the mess. Cheh wasn't there, which was just as well.

- - -

An hour later, he was walking to class when he heard a rustling in the trees above. Lifting himself from his despondency, he looked up.

It was a monkey. No, it was the monkey. It was not, could not be, the same monkey -- had Ram not just performed its last rites? -- yet it was. It had the same look in its eyes, the sorrowful, faintly reproachful, look that Ram had come to interpret as Why am I wasting my life here on a college campus when I could be out fighting demons?

It bounded nimbly from branch to lower branch, till it was finally on the ground. And then it crouched in front of him, just like another -- no, it was the same -- monkey had done an eternity ago in front of his dorm room, the one that had made him think of Clint Eastwood and Lee Van Cleef.

Ram began to laugh. He threw back his head and laughed big bellyaching gales of laughter as the monkey regarded him in its inscrutable yet oh-so-knowledgeable way.

Hanuman is the lord of the apes. He lives in every monkey. Killing a single monkey will kill Hanuman just as little as killing a single human being will kill God. Oh, Ram, you did not believe earlier. Now do you believe?

He believed. And he kept laughing.

- - -

She looked at her watch. It was time. She got to her feet, groaning a little at the arthritic pain as she did so.

"Time to feed him?" her husband asked.

She nodded.

It had all been going so well, she thought. Her son was finally turning his grades around, thanks to that nice Rahul Mehta. She and her husband were so relieved, so proud of him.

But then this whole messy business. Her son had always had a fervent imagination, but this was a little too much even for him. Accusing Rahul Mehta of murdering a monkey! A monkey! And then, on top of that, insisting that it was the monkey god.

Of course people would think he was crazy.

She knew he was not crazy, just a little stressed out from the pressure of classes. A little rest would do him good.

The college had agreed, had given him a year to take off. We look forward to having you be part of our community again after you have recuperated, the official letter had said.

It had been two months now, and it was not getting any easier. She sighed as she climbed the stairs to his room.

Ram heard her approaching. He was lying in bed, a beatific, blissful smile on his face -- an after-effect of all the drugs in his system.

He could see the monkey curled up at the foot of his bed. "Hanuman, we got them, didn't we?" he muttered.

Hanuman said nothing, continued regarding Ram with his beady expressionless eyes.

About the author:

Gokul Rajaram lives and works in the San Francisco Bay Area. A native of India, his stories have been published in online literary magazines including Eclectica, Scrivener's Pen, Mid-South Review, Wilmington Blues, Inkburns and Fuzzynet.