Languorous Noons


Like relatives, the monkeys would show up at a time we least wanted them to drop in. On Sunday afternoons at the only ladies’ hostel on campus.

Sarayu was the official residence of close to 400 young women studying science and technology at Indian Institute of Technology, Madras . Many of them were pursuing their PhDs. They’d work through the day and get back to the labs, post-dinner to run experiments. Or go to the library to read journal articles.

Whatever be the time of the time least a few people seemed to be awake in our hostel. There were research projects to complete. Exams to study for. Besides, sleeping seemed like such a waste of time even if we were not doing research or studying for exams. If the entire hostel did take one collective break — it was on Sunday afternoons.

And that’s when the monkeys would chose to drop in, en-masse. Their entry was always marked by the piercing scream of some hapless soul awakened by a hairy apparition. And that scream just seemed to spur them on to more.

They were a noisy lot out to forage. Emptying the trashcans along the corridor, sampling everything, including the cake of soap set out to dry on the windowsills and chucking it in apparent disgust – it all was part of the ritual.

On their most fruitful outings, these zany creatures would find a room with unshared goodies from home. If a window had been left open for a breeze to waft in – they’d find their way in and the party would begin.

The monkeys always hung around at breakfast time, clutching their little ones to their bosom, but they had never descended on the dining hall. Nor had they ever plundered the mess storeroom. It did not seem as though their survival was at stake. Or maybe the security was better around the mess.Who knows?

And they would vanish in a trice after waking the entire hostel up on Sundays. And we’d troop down to the mess for an inadequate  tiffin – a cupful of spiced sprouts.

Sometimes, the monkeys showed up on weekdays too, which was good.

In my department there used to be one particularly strict professor who wouldn’t let you in were if you were even a minute late for his hour-long lecture. Only one excuse that gave him pause: “Sir, there was a monkey in the corridor.” Most of the time, this was true also. One  brave person would peep out to see if the troop had left, give the all-clear, and then Sarayu would roll on again.

In his new book, A Primate’s Memoir, scientist Robert Sapolsky talks about the time he spent in Kenya’s Serengeti over the past 20 years, researching a troop of baboons.

We never did work up the courage to study primates in our own backyard. Did they have a complicated social hierarchy or were they a democratic bunch? Could they see their reflections as they stopped to check themselves out in the mirrors along the corridor? Why did they hang around only the girls’ hostel?

A pity none of us Sarayu residents went to do research about these simians.

Now, that would have been a fun PhD to do.