Some Organs of My Primate Body

Primate hands. Photo by Teresa Gonsoski, 2009.

By Daniel Allen Solomon, De Anza College and Cabrillo College §

The “monkey temple” on Jakhoo Hill in Shimla hosts a rowdy but well integrated bunch of rhesus macaques. Though the monkeys graze upon the grassy lawns at Jakhoo Mandir, and eat a variety of plant foods from the adjacent city and woodlands, they take no small portion of their food from human hands. Through theft, begging, and even more complicated schemes that look more like extortion than anything else, the monkeys of Jakhoo make their living as commensal specialists, feeding from the same food pools that sustain humans and domesticated animals. While the mandir has ostensibly been erected for the purpose of adoring the monkey-like god Hanuman, and while the mandir also serves as a staging ground for festivities and pageantry around Dussehra and other holidays, the opportunity to associate with relatively amicable monkeys is what draws pilgrims and other kinds of tourists up the hill on a day-to-day basis.



Primate hands. Photo by Teresa Gonsoski, 2009.
Primate hands. Photo by Teresa Gonsoski, 2009.

I say that I love monkeys, and I am thinking of fine, dark fingers covered by furry gauntlets. I am thinking of these surprisingly mobile digits, animated with precision and crowned with perfect black nails, and I am thinking of the short distance from me to them. I think of the dawnings of co-recognition and maybe respect between individuals of different species. I think of how some of the rhesus monkeys at Jakhoo knew me, and I worry: familiarity breeds contempt. I doubt any of the monkeys liked me.



As I am writing, I am reaching back across years. I am gathering together notes and stories as old as a decade, but I am not summoning abstract images into my mind. I am grasping something. With the aid of photographs and text I am recalling the intrusions of the monkeys into the space of my body. I have been writing about monkeys’ political efficacy at Jakhoo as the product of a kind of affective labor – labor in the Marxist sense of building the world that builds you, and affect in the sense of a terrain of bodies that registers the effects of difference and modulates the possibilities of social beings. I am writing about something that is like proprioception: The world that my body expects, the degrees of freedom into which my body is capable of expanding; the zone of awareness wherein one learns how to parallel park, or to punch with the expectation of hitting. This is the space of practice, where I feel-through my home in the dark of night. It is also the space of play, wherein I learned to pet a cat and wrestle a dog, and wherein those animals acquired the ability to use their teeth and claws on me gently.[i]



I am thinking of the young monkey who sat down beside me on a bench halfway up the stairway that serves as the final approach to Jakhoo Mandir. I was snacking on the sugar prasad a vendor had cajoled me into buying. The monkey wanted some too: In the cold, he curled his fingers and toes into his palms and ever so carefully inched towards me on the bench. He glanced at me, but avoided eye contact – that’s good macaque manners. Conscious of my eyes and wary of my size, I moved slowly and did not look directly at him. I enjoyed his uncanny presence and his abashed but desirous affect – I enjoyed the ease and accuracy of ascribing to him emotions similar to my own – and I did not want to frighten him. What kind of deformation was I upon the terrain of his world? Did I loom over him, in the flesh, like the big mammal I am? Or did he have eyes only for candy? Which exerted more gravity over him?[ii]



When I say that I love feeding monkeys, I am expressing my pleasure in having acquired some monkey stories to tell in my monkeyless homeworld. I acquired most of my monkey stories head-on, by interacting with monkeys. But in the act of telling them – especially when I am doing so in order to make some kind of theoretical intervention – I am locating a sort of revelatory importance in the behaviors of animals who are pests, terrorists, and meal-tickets to many of their human neighbors.[iii] I am, in a general way, replicating the extractive relationships that have characterized economic relations between India and the West. My specific pleasure in recalling and communicating monkey stories coincides with material benefits I am reaping based upon my fieldwork: I have drawn upon the monkeys and their human neighbors as resources, which I have converted into fuel for a livelihood. My familiarity with the monkeys has granted me a certain legitimacy to claim that I am an anthropologist who can speak across cultural and evolutionary sub-disciplines. And because I have achieved the ability to make a living as an anthropologist, I now also reckon my distance from Jakhoo in rent checks, health insurance, and student loan debt, condensed into the shorthand of the four quarters and three semesters a year I spend introducing community college students to ethnography and human evolution on a part-time basis.


Hands and Mouths

Stories are also discrete remembrances of the body I used to have – the one that was acclimated to the altitude of Jakhoo Hill and capable of covering the distance from town to temple in half an hour; the one that was long-haired with more handholds for grasping monkeys. When I say to my students, “I like monkeys, but they can be jerks,” I am thinking of how I could not resist being integrated into their political structures and foraging methods even when it didn’t suit me. I am thinking of their “despotism,” and of the violence that the monkeys wreak upon one another, as well as their potential violence against me. What returns to me as I write are the stiff bristles and furry lips of the one called Sundarloo as he took hold of my hand in his own, and picked out the sugar candies that were stuck in the creases of my palm. I remember him holding my hand captive; I remember being conscious of those wicked-long fangs he kept in his mouth. I did not dare laugh nor smile as he tickled my fingers.

As my lips and tongue learned new phonemes so that I could speak a version of Hindustani, my limbs, my mouth, and my eyes had to acquire distinct sensibilities in order to associate with monkeys. The positive sentimentality that I am calling “my love” for monkeys is now, for me, a yearning to once again exercise the competencies which I acquired in their company, to reactivate the deformations that monkeys and the other denizens of Jakhoo wrought upon my foreign flesh. I have been affected by monkeys, and by the possibility of living in the same world as them.



This is a somewhat romantic point of view that derives in no small part from the fact that monkeys are strictly exotic to my North American homeworld. The teeth of cats and dogs had left me with no skills appropriate for rhesus macaques. For me, a big monkey’s mouth was most reminiscent of the large, searching lips of horses, animals with whom I am still generally unfamiliar. My curiosity about monkeys must be marked as a foreigner’s curiosity, as the curiosity of an angrez, of a suburban, American, white, working class, and masculine person. The relationships I’m expressing with these categories are consequential and constitutive of all my possible relationships with humans; in similar ways they can delimit my possible relationships with monkeys. Even as I eventually became familiar with some rhesus, I was never able to achieve a perspective from which monkeys could appear before me as totally mundane, as creatures who were totally of my world.



But the denizens of Jakhoo society – monkeys, humans, dogs in particular – are flexible enough to jack almost any visitor – Indian or foreign, pilgrim or secular tourist – into the mechanisms of their subsistence. My niche at Jakhoo was exploitative, or at least interested, all the way down. As I filled the cheeks and bellies of rhesus, I helped to activate a system of exchanges, a collusion, that also filled the coffers of the municipal government of Shimla (who use donations to the mandir to maintain its grounds and infrastructure) and the pockets of the vendors and cafe owners (whose livelihoods are made around the mandir). I had a role in an economy and ecology, and my role ramified into relationships that I could not always accurately track.



I think of sitting on the northeast side of the hill, away from the other humans, and looking up from my notes, and seeing that I was surrounded by monkeys, and then going back to my notes. Not just going back to my notes as if nothing was happening, but looking down and away; that is, not-looking, just like a polite monkey. I re-imagine the shrieking and huffing I heard as a battle broke out a few meters away, practically on the next knoll. I remember that I did not look at the fuss as I carefully, carefully skootched away from it without standing. I am not a part of this, I am not a part of this was the message I wanted to convey to the monkeys, because violence can spiral so easily through the channels of scapegoating, resentment, and randomness. The irony is that in trying to send this signal to the monkeys, in my fear of them, I was acknowledging to them and to anyone else who might have been looking (the crows and koels, perhaps some tourists with a view high on the hill), that I am part of this (in a different way), I am part of this (in a different way).



When I evoke my sentimentality in the course of telling a monkey story, I am grasping at a means to recover “a feeling for the organisms” who participate in Jakhoo society.[iv] As I attempt to speak through the body I acquired in collusion with monkeys, I am also trying to express something about that body’s place at Jakhoo. This is worthwhile because the shape of my sentimentality is, if not typical, then at least analogous to some of the kinds of embodied feeling through which places like Jakhoo become and remain possible.


[i] Flesh, the affective body; the space of a living thing’s relation with the world; after Maurice Merleau-Ponty, “a sort of incarnate principle that brings a style of being wherever there is a fragment of being” (139). Merleau-Ponty, Maurice. The Visible and the Invisible. Claude Lefort, editor. Alphonso Lingis, translator. Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1968.

[ii] Co-presence, the sense that there is “someone home” there in that other being sharing the bench with me. Smuts, Barbara. “Encounters with Animal Minds.” Journal of Consciousness Studies 8.5-6 (2001): 293-309.

[iii] Cf. Gandhi, Ajay. “Catch Me If You Can: Monkey Capture in Delhi.” Ethnography 13.1 (2012): 43-56.

[iv] Evelyn Fox Keller writes that biologist Barbara McClintock “took the time and looked” in order to develop “a feeling for the organism” (206), which would allow her to develop insights in proximity to the organisms she studied, rather than in a state of detatchment from them. Keller, Evelyn Fox. A Feeling for the Organism: The Life and Work of Barbara McClintock. New York: Hold Paperbacks, 1983.

Danny Solomon received his PhD in anthropology from the University of California — Santa Cruz in 2013. His scholarly work is upcoming in Macmillan Interdisciplinary Handbooks: Gender: Animals and in the journal Humanimalia. His poetry has been published in Brain of Forgetting and is upcoming in Turtle Island Quarterly. He is working on a book-length ethnography about the political and ecological relationships between humans and rhesus monkeys in Shimla and Delhi. Danny teaches physical and cultural anthropology at De Anza College and Cabrillo College in California.

This post is part of our thematic series: Multispecies Anthropology: Becoming Human with Others.