Damn Dams and Macaque

A couple of days ago, I hopped on a motorcycle (my first in 21 years!) helmed by Saleem, and headed across the border of Kerala into Tamil Nadu. I hadn’t realized until this trip just how proximate the neighboring state was, and that I had actually walked into it several times without realizing I had done so.

Saleem had plans to take me through the measure of forest that extends beyond Kerala to the penstock pipes that carry water from the Periyar River down to Tamil Nadu and a hydroelectric plant. These pipes are an attraction unto themselves, and looking over the slope down which they run provides a scenic view of the lush farmland of this TN valley.

At that time, I didn’t know– and Saleem only hinted at– how fraught with political tension the very spot we were standing is (and has been) to the Tamilians and Keralans. The provenance of this conflict is a century-old treaty between the Princely State of Travancore (which is now Kerala) and the Secretary of State for India, representing what is now Tamil Nadu. Essentially, this treaty gave to Tamil Nadu, an otherwise arid area, the right to use water from the Periyar River for irrigation– for 999 years. This agreement, for all intents and purposes, created the Tamil Nadu you see in the picture above.

Several days after my trip with Saleem, I drove with Robin and a few other MCC staff members for tens of kilometers into Tamil Nadu, and all along I could see the effects of this massive redistribution of water resources. The upshot is that most Keralans, at least in this southeastern area, now buy produce grown in Tamil Nadu, produce grown in soil irrigated by water originating from Kerala.

The story gets more complicated because of safety concerns over the water capacity of the dams in the Periyar River. Of course, I’m not going to hazard an opinion in this debate, the ramifications of which are very real and controversial in this area. I just thought it was an interesting political and economic side note, one that contextualizes this beautiful vista and makes sense of some of the cultural attitudes harbored by people a visitor to Kumily might meet. If you’re also interested in this story, I recommend this short (and biased) documentary on the issue, as well as this detailed (and, as far as I can tell, unbiased) history from the Ministry of Water Resources.

On a less contentious and more personal note, the site of these penstock pipes is also a great location for running into some bonnet macaque– that is, if you haven’t already received your fill of them from their daily appearances on resort property. 

The bonnet macaque (or Macaca radiata, if you prefer) is an interesting, crafty beast. In this part of India it survives by ‘commensalism,’ which when referring to the macaque is a polite way of saying: it wants your potato chips just as much as you do and doesn’t care how it gets them. Early on, I learned several rules regarding the macaque that I advise all travelers to heed. The first of these: don’t offer them food. They have learned over millennia of interaction with humans (who have always had an interest in protecting their food from thieves of any sort) to be crafty, and they certainly don’t mind deploying their well-honed guile to obtain ends rather incommensurate with yours (namely, you’re out a bag of potato chips). Of course, it’s wise to hedge your bets and, when snacking, to avoid areas where they tend to congregate .

Equally important, though, is this bit of wisdom: if you stumble into a pack of macaque (or, as is equally likely, they stumble into you) while you’re scarfing, forget the aforementioned rule, ‘cuz all bets are off.

I should say, this is not because they’re dangerous. It’s just that they happen to lack scruples. I should also say that, seeing as running into the macaque was my first encounter with any sort of monkey, and due to the frequency of these run-ins, I’ve come to develop a sort of complex regarding them, the explication of which will probably reveal more about my personality and neuroses than is either professional or comfortable to disclose.

I will admit however, for the sake of a ‘human touch,’ that I’m afraid of them, and not, like, casually afeared, but, like, deathly afraid. This fear, which bears no relation to any sort of reasonable risk-calculus, has gotten to the point where, when I know they have me cornered (that is, when I can’t move from where I am without dealing with them) — and please forgive– I hide, sometimes, yes, with my breath held, until I no longer hear them scurrying menacingly around. And  in my heart-racing panic I imagine– no, I’m sure– that they can open doors, if only by sheer dumb luck, so (again, forgiveness, please) I press myself mightily against the only protection from them I have– and I swear I can feel them pressing back.

To be fair, they don’t deserve this treatment. They pose no threat, and they really can’t help that they have those black eyes, or that they travel in massive, intimidating groups, or that they’re so like human people but just…not, or that they want to rob me of my grub. I know I ought to be more understanding. But, for now, I hide, and pray for monkey mercy, and hope that no well-balanced human ever sees me at it. So anyway, analyze that.

5 thoughts on “Damn Dams and Macaque

  1. Pingback: Monkey Business, if you will « Raxa Collective

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