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Monkey business

This is an absolutely true story. I can vouch for it. It all began around six or seven years ago with the sudden arrival of a small female monkey in the shopping center of one of Delhi's more affluent areas. She was a small brown rhesus monkey with a lean and hungry look and dark, wistful eyes.

This might sound absolutely extraordinary in the United States, but in India monkeys do tend to appear from time to time in thickly populated areas.

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I first saw this one sitting mournfully on the high roofs of a cinema, blinking in the sun and looking both forlorn and pathetic. Other observers presumably responded as I did, because very soon she was eating a banana, shelling peanuts and even eating a slice of buttered bread. She still looked sad and lonely.

Two weeks later we were astonished to see not one but two monkeys sitting in the sun and blinking down at us from the high roofs of the cinema. This new one was a male, and he too looked lean and hungry, but there was a wicked gleam in his eye and a certain swagger to his movements.

The cinema garden had shady trees, a fountain, flowering bushes, and lawns. Now, instead of keeping to the rooftops, the two monkeys were more often seen leaping in the trees, drinking water from the fountain, and sunning themselves on the lawns. They caused a certain amount of amusement and interest, and foreigners were known to bring their children for an afternoon's outing to see the monkeys and to feed them peanuts, toffees, and fruit -- so much more entertaining than the zoos.

Both monkeys soon lost their lean and hungry look and became positively rotund. Fat and furry, coats gleaming gold in the sun, the female continued to look wistful but the male was smug and often aggressive.

Instead of sitting on the trees or at a distance from humans, they now began to approach them with great confidence. First they would simply sit and wait to be fed with handouts, but soon the male snatched packets of peanuts out of the hands of his benefactors, and even stuck his hand into their pockets.

One young man, in tight jeans, had his wallet sticking out, which the monkey calmly lifted and inspected closely. The young man gave an angry shout and made a threatening gesture at which both the monkeys fled, climbing rapidly to the top of the cinema canopies. Here they put their heads together and carefully began to inspect the contents of their booty. Money in notes and coins was flung down in disgust, showering the small crowd that had collected. The male then chewed at the wallet ruminatively, but not finding the taste to his liking, flung that down as well.

This was the beginning of a life of delinquency, which they embarked on with great gusto. Anyone eating chocolates or nuts was pounced upon and the food grabbed with lightning speed. The monkeys seemed fascinated by the parked scooters and often spent their leisure ripping up the leather seats and bouncing on the carriers. Close by was the office of the International Airport Authority, which the pair would raid, appearing through the windows and snatching at files and papers, and disappearing again like highly trained cat burglars.

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The end was approaching fast. Complaints came hurtling in, except from the children, who found the whole thing delightful. The municipal monkey catchers were called. The furry pair led them a very complicated chase, at the end of which the monkey catchers left, panting and exhausted, while their prey sat placidly in their favorite spot on the cinema roof and basked in the sun.

A senior zoo official was asked to come and help. He brought his tranquilizer dart, which he shot at the male, successfully hitting him in the middle of his back. The female ran squeaking in fright. It takes fifteen minutes for the dart to have effect and the trappers climbed up to the roof, hoping to find an immobilized monkey. They found only the dart, and neither of the two monkeys was visible. One of the two had obviously pulled the dart out and thrown it away. The next day they were again sitting in their favorite spot, looking down at the people.

Now expert trappers of a private company were called in. They set nets and traps with luscious tidbits inside, and both monkeys found themselves trapped at last. Safely inside a large carrier, they were taken to a distant part of a heavily wooded park and released.

Alas for the trappers! Before they could return to collect their fee, the monkey pair were back, sitting on the roof, a little ruffled and chattering with annoyance, but in full possession.

They are now an accepted feature of the place, and the only ones to attempt any ''shooting'' are the cameramen. The couple pose without any shyness, the female very fat, but still with a wistful expression, and the male even fatter, with an expression that can only be termed thoroughly triumphant.

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