Cover     Editorials    Editorial   Columns    Letters    Arts    Insights    Take A Look


After The Last Monkey Dance

by Rita Banerji
—Author of Sex and Power
—Director of 50 Million Missing

            As I sit down to write my last piece for the Word Worth Magazine, there is a bizarre silence outside.  It feels surreal, even though this calm, noise-free writing environment is what I have constantly craved in the last twenty years that I have lived in Calcutta.  But the city, by nature, is compulsively noisy.  Motorists honk, bicyclists ring their bells, and vendors and other pedestrians try to out-shout each other, even when there is no reason for any of them to.  However, for almost two months now, India has been in a total lockdown to control the spread of a global epidemic as we are told, as are other countries around the world.  And life as we have known it, with all its sounds and movements, has come to a complete and historical standstill.  I must admit though, I am quite enjoying this peace for as long as it lasts.

Yet every day, around 11 am, I hear a familiar sound piercing the silence of our neighborhood. It’s the monkey man’s dumroo, rattling rhythmically, as he comes up our street. I cannot see him, but every morning when I hear him, I am reminded of one of the first poems I had written when I came to this city, ‘The Last Monkey Dance,’ which Word Worth magazine had published eighteen years ago.  In my mind I see him, as I did then, sarong clad dusty feet, traversing the now silent streets, his pet monkeys on a rope, or straddled on his shoulders, as they look left and right to the shuttered houses and padlocked buildings, hoping somewhere a door will open.  But caught between the paranoia of death by a mysterious disease and the almost dictatorial government orders to self isolate, all windows and doors remain firmly shut.

Every day I listen as the dumroo’s dum-dum fades as the monkey man walks to the end of our street and turns on to another.  Every day I think he won’t return, yet he does.  Sometimes, I wonder why I wait. Perhaps, like an old friend, the dumroo feels like a sign of normality in a world that seems to have become frighteningly unpredictable at a very fast pace.  I remember once asking the monkey man why he continued with this profession, when most people turn to satellite TV, the internet and mobile phones for fast and instantaneous digital entertainment.  He sat on the dusty pavement, and ate a banana from the bunch I had given him and his monkeys. And as one monkey took a bite from his banana and then stood on his shoulders and nuzzled at his ear and picked lice from his head, he laughed and said, “I feed them and they feed me.”

At a time, when the world seems unreal as it rapidly embraces isolation as a social philosophy, and seems content to replace human contact with a virtual reality that is created anew, each day, the monkey man, walks the silent streets, and keeps the old world order alive. Every day, he reminds me that this disinfected, isolated prison I live in now, by dictate, does not have to become my reality. There still is a world out there built on personal relationships and free choices, which we need to survive. 

Indeed, that is the world I have known through my long and happy association with the Word Worth magazine. Dr. Marion Perry has been more than an editor and publisher to me.  She has been a friend and guide.  She has seen me grow as a writer, she reviewed my first book, and championed my campaign for women’s rights in India. I could turn to her for advice in my professional and personal matters.  And I am glad to have had this experience which the impersonal new world of publishing, dictated to by the formulaic, mercenary rules of an invisible digital world, does not offer. But what I am most grateful for, is how Marion took delight in all my ideas and creativity, and allowed me choice and freedom in however I expressed my world in writing.  She sounded the dumroo early in my writing life, and I am blessed the sound will live on in my head, long after her magazine closes.

Rita Banerji  —    Director, The 50 Million Missing Campaign —