We—the monkeys and I—began our relationship on a bad note. In January 2020, I made a partial move from Delhi to Landour, a small town in the foothills of the Indian Himalayas, to honour a new year’s resolution to breathe cleaner air and write another book. Only a 20-minute ride up from the chaotic Mussoorie, this cantonment town promised fewer tourists and more trees, secret trails and heavy snow, fresh croissants and strong coffee—a writer’s paradise. Its Wikipedia page didn’t mention monkeys, though.
On my first day in my rented cottage which overlooks a line of hills and a stretch of valley, I brewed a pot of coffee, opened the windows and sat on my bed with a hot cup to see a wave of clouds wash over a row of deodars. Not a minute had passed when a hulking monkey came in through the window and jumped onto the bed. I ran out of the room, leaving the door open so he had more than one way to exit should he wish to. He left a quarter of an hour later, carrying a tube of sunscreen and a bottle of vitamins, practical necessities for a sporty life in the mountains. Many more of my things disappeared over the following days: a pair of running shoes left outside the door, a hoodie lying on a patio chair, a towel drying on the clothesline. Not long after, the whole clothesline went, along with nearly every garment, outer and inner, that I had brought with me from Delhi. It made the day’s news in Landour, a town of maybe 100 homes.
Over the following days, people approached me on the streets to tell me they had seen a monkey trying to fit into my FabIndia kurti or Uniqlo jacket. They narrated these scenes with straight faces; the locals in Landour are rarely shocked by monkey mischief. They have seen the monkeys do it all: sipping cappuccinos, holding a glass of Scotch (stolen from the maharaja of Kapurthala, one of many erstwhile royals to make a second home in these hills) and hanging from a headmistress’s silver-lined fur coat.
The cantonment area is carved like a figure of eight, rolling up- and downhill to give us the contrasting views of the Mussoorie hamlets and Himalayan peaks. Its highlight is a circular path called the Chakkar, which encompasses scenic churches, a historic cemetery and bucket-list cafes. This 3km circuit is the site of a daily turf battle between long-timers and travel influencers, but the winner is often neither.
Once upon a time, I am told, there were few, if any, monkeys in Landour. When exactly are we talking about, I ask, only to receive answers that contradict each other. With a typical lack of clarity, the locals tell me that at some point, when someone or the other was still a kid, their numbers began to rise, first slowly and then exponentially. Since I could trust no one on the streets, I turned to books. In a story from 2012 titled ‘Monkey Trouble’, Ganesh Saili, a writer and photographer who knows everything there is to know about Landour, traces the rise in primate numbers to a college professor who tried to boost his libido. Off to Moradabad he went, writes Saili, looking for a sweetmeat concocted by a snake oil salesmanwho claimed to cure sexual ailments. The professor brought this box of sweets back to his flat in Landour Bazaar. He ate no more than one, however, having made the mistake of leaving the box near an open window. A passing troop of monkeys devoured its remaining contents. ‘You have my word for it,’ Saili writes, ‘there was an immediate jump in the population of simians.’
One rainy day, I went to Saili’s house, which happens to be right next to mine, to ask him if it was a true story. He swore it was and almost fell over laughing while trying to recall the details for me. A professor it was indeed, a Mr Aggarwal who taught maths and lived above the Jain Cloth House. From Moradabad he had come back with a box of the famous Kushta barfis, packed with ghee, dry fruits and other rich ingredients. The year isn’t clear in his mind, but it had to be sometime in the ’90s. Whether or not Professor Aggarwal had anything to do with it, that’s when the local monkeys started breeding rapidly. Saili jokes that India’s economic liberalisation in 1991 emboldened them to live large.
The monkey trouble began shortly after, sparking off one crazy story after another. Some of them have made it to the large volume of literature on Landour, such as when a deputy director of Mussoorie’s IAS training academy jumped off a staircase to evade a group of monkeys chasing him up the steps, or when Ruskin Bond opened his bathroom door to see a langur perched on the pot. The rest of them remain alive through the tales the old-timers tell the newcomers. Smoking a cigarette on his mist-swept veranda, Saili recalls his friends’ first-hand experiences:‘Steve was patted down by one while jogging along the Chakkar. Prannoy was high-fived on his way to the Bakehouse. Vishal was chased right down his door.’ That most of his friends happen to be famous—writers, film-makers, media founders—makes the stories even more remarkable. Powerful men find themselves helpless in the face of monkeys.
Local attempts to fight back have flipped in the favour of our more athletic cousins. They have smirked at the ultrasound machines imported across continents and skirted the petty range of the common air gun. There was a time when estate owners used to shoot the monkeys down with real guns in the name of protecting their orchards—not that the monkeys always took this lying down. Once, a woman who went by Aunt Maisy, pointed a 12-bore gun at a langur trying to invade her cottage; he lunged at her in response, driving her down to her storeroom, her rifle cocked in the opposite direction.
Every other year, when the victim count gets out of control, the municipal authorities in Dehradun send up a monkey catcher armed with a trap. A few years ago, one of them was called to the neighborhood where I now live because it was taken over by a monkey who swung down from a tree every time someone walked by. He went right for the ankle, striking it so hard that the person toppled on the spot. Setting down his square-shaped cage in Mullingar, the catcher asked around for a brinjal—monkeys apparently love the vegetable. The troublemaker came for it right on cue and was never seen around the chowk again.
To be fair, I have also met people in Landour who love monkeys just as they love every other animal. I have heard of an army man living up in the woods who has only flying squirrels for family. I have hiked with a South African living in Landour Bazaar who would prefer to be torn up by a leopard in a forest than die in a car accident in a city. When a monkey catcher came to town 12 years ago, Mr Verma, a local book dealer, followed his trap to the end of the market. ‘He had an infant monkey with him, barely 15 days old. I begged him to give it to me,’ he says. Mr Verma took the baby home, fed him milk from a bottle and rocked him to sleep on his shoulder.
Not every monkey in the hills is out for mischief and petty theft. Some of them are known to politely knock on doors to ask for leftovers. Rajni, who cooks for me, says they have nowhere left to go for food because people are cutting up forests and deserting farms, so we had better share some of our own Maggi and cheese. However, she is not always sympathetic to them, especially not when they have just scampered off with her casserole of hot rotis. I too have lost at least two such casseroles in the last two years—but what’s the point of complaining!
Now in my third year as a local, I am a long way from finishing the book I came here to write, but I have become a lot better at living alongside the monkeys. When they throw me off my yoga mat, I quietly sign out of the Zoom class and go for a walk. When I can’t go to the kitchen because they are huddling at its door, I stay in the bedroom and eat protein bars. When they clamour for a box of fresh lemon tarts from the Bakehouse, I toss it to them and hide my tears.
On most days, I walk around in Landour looking serenely at the monkey mayhem unfolding around me. As a result, strangers have started asking me for help. The other day, a French woman walking to Woodstock asked me if I could shield her from a simian watching us from behind the rails. The next day, a schoolgirl beseeched me to escort her safely across another monkey hotspot. Mr Verma, who occasionally accompanies me, jokes that Landour has turned me from a Cosmo Girl into a Forest Queen. I tell him I never was the first but don’t mind becoming the second.