Rhesus Macaques monkeys on the ancient stupas of Swayambhunath temple high above Kathmandu, Nepal's vibrant capital city. Image Credit: Agency

I was on a short trip to Mathura, a holy city in the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh. Being a Sunday, I ventured to a market nearby, which was overcrowded. Due to the monkey menace (for which the city had acquired infamy), shoppers were moving about tightly clutching their merchandise.

Suddenly, a monkey descended from a rooftop, jumped over a man, snatched his cell phone and swiftly went back where he had come from. Even as the man came out of the shock, he found the simian nibbling at his phone. He was shocked because it was an expensive gadget.

Some guffawed and others sympathised with him. A foreigner, who had come to the city for sightseeing, unaware of the endemic monkey problem, implored the locals to help him get his phone back and thought of buying some bait like bananas or roasted grams, but one wisecrack told him: “Gone are the days of these things as they do not settle for anything less than a tetra pack of fruit juice and the like.” The tourist, initially sceptical, followed the advice and eventually managed to get his phone back.

For the uninformed, this is an everyday story in Mathura.

The incident shows how monkeys are becoming choosy about what they should eat and what they should not. The pilgrimage city, which attracts thousands of Hindu devotees and foreigners, is a haven for the ever-growing population of monkeys. The simian, associated with Hanuman, the monkey deity in Hinduism, cannot be harmed in any manner due to strong religious sentiments and reverence for the deity. As a result, they have an unhampered run — not only in that region, but in many other areas in India. They abound essentially in religious centres where they get all kinds of delicacies and fruit without asking.

Monkeys holding people to ransom is not a new phenomenon in India. As a child, I have seen my elders throwing chapatis (hand-made flat breads) to lure a monkey into exchanging their shirt or trouser that it had taken away from the clothesline. The trick used to work. Times have since changed.

In Mathura, like many other holy cities, it is now blatant ransom. The simian knows what would bring better returns (after all, they are our ancestors from whom we have inherited tricks of the trade). They are sick of consuming bananas and other fruits day in and day out. So, the animal eyes for a victim with a mobile phone or eyewear — aware that this being the vital companion of today’s humans, it would virtually paralyse the person.

A visitor to a monkey-infested city may temporarily manage without a cell phone, but finding an ophthalmologist and acquiring a new pair of spectacles would be a stupendous task. So, he decides that succumbing to simian blackmail is a better proposition. That makes the shopkeepers in the vicinity to gleefully suggest buying a tetra pack of some fruit juice or a soft drink.

We have always known simians to be herbivores, but in recent times, I have seen monkeys taking eggs out of refrigerators and devouring them. This is a strange phenomenon.

Recently, a group of monkeys strayed into our housing complex in search of food. A couple of them managed to rummage through the shelves of refrigerators and ate and drank whatever they liked. On hearing about the invasion, I closed all the doors and windows of my apartment.

A hefty monkey ‘paid a visit’ to our abode through the open balcony. It waited for some time and on finding all avenues closed, apparently got annoyed. As if out of vengeance, it entered a bucket left outside and defecated in it! I was shocked. Was it an act of revenge? Quite possible — after all, they are our ancestors!

Lalit Raizada is a journalist based in India.