By Sunil Sharma
The “animals” were happy.
The Ape was their chosen leader, as he was considered by the rest of the heterogeneous assembly, the nearest cousin of the people who had terrorized them for centuries but were now behind the bars, refusing to come out of their hide-outs, due to the pandemic.
Besides that, the apes were generally regarded as intelligent primates, almost rivals of the creatures that walked on the two legs. The apes understood the humans better but were repelled by their behaviour and action.
The meeting was essentially a stock-taking exercise in a locked- down city.
The animals were openly roaming the waterfronts and boulevards, earlier places of terror, capture and possible death. They enjoyed these outings, reclaiming the city from its architects. They were not afraid of being run over by the traffic or caught in a trap.
The Ape was young and confident. He was trained by a reputed scientist in a huge lab but had managed to escape captivity and gone on living in the woods that bordered the city, as a fugitive. The Ape was huge but gentle in demeanour, never hurting anybody in or out of captivity. He knew the ways of the “civilized” masters and was a painter and wore frocks in his earlier life in the camp, where labs were run by a crooked man — who owned half the burgeoning city — for developing serums for the biological warfare.
As an elected boss, The Ape was tasked to strategise and lead the campaign of the equality as the animals felt they were often mocked, called dumb in the zoo or hit on the streets, by the drunks and the kids alike.
He told the mixed gathering of different species assembled in the Central Park, “Friends, welcome to the New World Order. All the bipedal tyrants have been locked in their vertical cages, thanks to the COVID-19. What a joke! An invisible virus can stall the manic world of mad humans! We are free now.”
“And we thought the human masters were invincible, these spoilt and arrogant people, most ungrateful!” exclaimed an abandoned horse, in anguished tone, “Serves them right.”
“These guys called us animals! See their temerity. Always treated us as inferiors. Tortured us. In fact, they are the true animals,” an African grey parrot retorted.
“They kept us in the cages. For display. Fun. Small cages that almost killed us. Now they understand our pain,” a gold finch observed.
“And us, on tight leashes and muzzles,” joined in the German Shepherd Dog, barking ferociously. “Breeding us for business. Training us for their ways. Expecting us to obey their commands. We are their pets and slaves. Then shot dead by them. They must be punished.”
The elephants, lions, foxes, monkeys, squirrels that had escaped from circuses and menageries chorused a loud, “Yes.” And the wise wolf added, “Real brutes! Tormentors! Killers. They whip, starve and tame us for profits, always, everywhere. Keeping us all in cages and chains, the cruel raiders of the jungles. Shame on them! Now they are in the cages. Serves them right, the bastards.”
“Shh!Shh!” the old mama bear cautioned. “Mind your language, friend. There are many children and women here. We never curse like them. Bad manners!”
“The most cunning species in the world! They label us as cunning. Ironical! Is it not?” asked a hurt fox. “Always judgmental! Always treating those unlike them in dress, skin-tone, language, region and creed, as the perpetual Other. Never trusting each other. Killing their own for property or woman or money. We never kill our tribe.”
Everybody praised the fox for her “clever” observations and contrasts with the incarcerated humans that walked clumsily and dressed in outer skins and wore heads on their heads called hats!
“Now do not talk and act like the human masters,” cautioned the old bear. “Let us be ourselves. We must never imitate them. Never pretend to be like them, our oppressors. Mind it friends, we have our own code. Be natural. Be yourself.”
“Right. They term us as predators and kill us for hides and body parts and tusks,” said a senior tusker, towering over the gathering, trunk raised; one tusk missing, another broken. “Fact is they are the greatest predators on this crowded planet.”
“And looters and invaders,” replied the woodpecker. “They have destroyed nature and our nests.”
“Poisoned our rivers,” shouted an otter. “We cannot breathe regularly. We are dying along with the fish and other creatures. Plastic and garbage choke us. Oil spills worsen the living conditions. It is a watery hell!”
“Now,” commanded The Ape, “We must destroy their nests. Gardens. Streets. Vehicles. We must shake down the very ground underneath their feet. Show our strength to these brutes.”
The animals immediately agreed. They wanted to get even.
“Let us take back their spaces, as they did with us,” thundered the Orangutan, “Virus or no virus.”
The enraged animals first declared themselves as Free Species of the Quadrupeds and the Gentle Vertebrates and the city and woods as their New Republic.
Then, during the lockdown, they took over human habitats rising towards the sky like a hive of vertical columns.
The unexpected take-over by the animals filled the trapped inmates with fear and dread of another newly-arrived threat.
There were many scary encounters reported on the blogs or social media, with pictures or videos posted of the uncanny sightings.
One account said:
“Friends of the besieged city — here comes a fresh danger. Early morning, I opened up the French windows of my ground-floor bungalow…only to stare into the red eyes of a hungry tiger looking straight into mine! Believe me, I stood paralyzed, mind and body benumbed with cold fear, a trickle of sweat prickled down my spine, the bad hangover gone. I faced certain death. The tiger lazily yawned, baring deadly fangs, eyes glittering, this huge striped animal– one paw swung at me and I would be gone. My body stiffened. Never expected such a deadly morning guest on my porch! He saw my rifle and mounted trophy on the wall and emitted low roar. His eyes were filled with revulsion. Yes, I would never forget that look of hatred!
“Just then my grand kid walked in and smiled and said, ‘Hullo, tiger!’ She giggled and walked up to the ferocious beast, this six-year-old innocent. My old heart leapt into my mouth. I was reminded of a hunting expedition where, years ago, I had shot dead a tigress before her cubs! There was an instant transformation and the big cat dropped his head and did not growl.
“They played with each other and as her mom came searching for her, the tiger vanished! Disappeared into thin air. I thought I was dreaming the whole thing. The excited child said, tiger, tiger! Her mom could not understand her. She told the kid, ‘Okay, we will bring you a tiger soon.’ The poor child could not explain her joy of meeting a real tiger on the porch. Strange but true encounter with the beast, truly majestic—never thought it could happen and end like this, real time, in my house! Thank God we escaped death by mauling. It was Him who turned a ferocious beast into a lamb! A miracle only! Praise to the Lord.”
There were other interesting accounts of simian, reptilian and mammal surprise visits to homes. The most common experiences from the humans were utter shock, dread, intimations of mortality and a sense of deep disbelief from this unexpected rendezvous in most unlikely urban settings. Most narratives ended with the question: Was it real? Or, imagined?
As the animals gained confidence and COVID-19 pushed humans further into isolation, self-isolation and quarantine, the general fear of the animals spread like another contagion. People were bewildered. Infants wailed inside their little airless homes. The old and sick and the chained dogs were getting restless over the long summer days and hot-humid nights in that coastal city. Overpopulation did not help either.
And compounding their collective miseries was the daily appearances of animals in their midst, on their well-landscaped and maintained properties and other glitzy places.
The superstitious found indications in hostile stellar positions.
The religious chided the younger generation for abandoning faith and their dissolute ways — things that brought down the plague on a prosperous, modern city.
The youngsters called them hypocrites and blamed wars, famines and flooding to the older generation’s selfishness and indifference.
The city changed — an open-air zoo run by what they earlier called ‘wildlife’!
The only change: The previous spectators were behind the bars and the timings of activities. The new arrivals freely roamed any time of the day and the nocturnal ones, in the night, enjoying the sites.
The media blamed the virus and the country of its origin for this new mess. Others called it racism and dirty politics. Power blocks were formed. Politics played itself out along predictable lines.
Meanwhile, the capitalists sensed a good opportunity to fire half of the working population, citing recession and losses. Social scientists called it downsizing! Academia studied the development clinically and conducted webinars — mere sound and fury signifying nothing, as they used to quote often.
“One virus! It has overturned their world!” declared The Ape, during one of his meetings in the Central Park, now totally theirs!
As the days rolled down in flat succession — uneventful; dull; seamless stretch of darkness and light, and, one date followed another — the citizens felt breathless, stressed-out and despairing. They envied the freedom of the birds and animals moving around on the spaces once the privilege of the human race only.
And cursed foreign bats for the outbreak of the deadly virus!
It was a painful reversal of fortunes!
The masters were now slaves.
Slaves, new masters.
Each one of the citizens were afraid of the other and maintained social distancing. The class and caste persisted in the subtle play of power from earlier. It got more complex by the presence of this tiny virus that could not be seen by the naked eye. Corona — the general lament went on– had dramatically changed the communal life style of the people that were earlier unbeatable. Now, they cowered before the invisible threat. It was a leveler also. Elites were quarantined but were slightly better off than the others.
The Ape called his Council and declared, “We have no enmity with the masses. Our fight is with the Club that runs this city and the country. We will not spare them in case of a war against us. We will target the Club and its militia.”
“What is that Club?” asked the donkey.
“The Club is run by the wealthy and powerful– five-ten folks. Some of them are into drugs, weapons, prostitution, wars and other illegal activities. They enter politics and gain power, position and respectability. And decide the agenda for the rest.”
“The rogues. Ha!” exclaimed the donkey as the others of the Council hissed in sheer contempt for the shenanigans of the corrupt ten.
“The Club runs the politicians and public offices. Nobody can cross these raiders. Those defying get killed. It is a dirty world out there.”
The Council agreed with the summing up of the “civilised” by one of their best from the “wild” side of the divide.
“Be prepared!” The Ape warned. “These guys can attack us any time. Very deceptive!”
“How?” asked the donkey again.
“They attack their own. Family. Community. Nations. They fight and kill each other. We never do that. We follow our herds and never kill for money, land or profit. Or sex.”
The donkey brayed in full agreement, “I have seen this with my mistress many times, this digression.”
The animals laughed at the un-satiated appetites of the humans.
Few days later, the fox woke up The Ape.
“The Club is meeting in the Town Hall. Planning to hit us. Let us give them a visit.” The fox said, “One of the humans sympathetic to the animals and their rights told one of our mutual friends. They are meeting after midnight.”
The Council agreed to pay a sudden visit.
The humans were completely taken by surprise as the animals entered the Hall by disarming their police outside. In fact, the cops quivered and ran away after seeing the real brutes coming towards them. They stood no chance.
“What do you want?” The Chair asked, surrounded by his body guards who cowered before the Ape and the Gorilla and Lion and Tiger. The quadrupeds could smell fear in the stale air of the large Town Hall—and relished it.
The Chair was tall, wiry with bulging eyes. He began aggressively: “Yes. What do you want, you a bunch of intruders?”
He tried to act brave, but the bluff was called-off in a minute; in fact, his raspy voice croaked and he gasped for breath, hands shivering, as the mighty animals surrounded his gilded high throne.
The other members of the Club hid behind the chairs, eyes closed as the Lion filled the chandeliered room with a blood-curdling roar that shook the silver ware and lamps and windows. The Tiger growled and the Gorilla screamed a waaaaaaah. That scared the entire assembly of the two-legged creatures. Many bipeds shouted and fainted, so terrified they were of their new guests and their controlled aggression.
The Chair got disoriented by the general racket but willful as he was, recovered fast and said in a softer tone, and with a false smile, “OK. What do you want? Tell me, pals.”
“You tell us, Boss,” mocked the Ape. “You run illegal mining and extortion and killing of wildlife operations. Tell us what do you want? A campaign to finish us off permanently? Finish off the jungles and the life there?”
The Chair grew very friendly, “No, Mr Ape. Never, ever. You are our distant cousins, remember? We are all related. Ha. Why would, er, should, er, I think of mass extermination?”
“Then, what is the problem? Why this clandestine meeting in the night?” demanded The Ape, hairy hands clenched tight, nostrils flaring.
“We want you beasts to leave our land, please. That is all. LEAVE us ALONE.” The Chair almost commanded.
That was a terrible mistake.
“Who is the beast here?” asked the Gorilla as he stood up and thumped his chest. “You are the beasts. Leave our land. You beasts of the two legs.” And the Gorilla did his chest-thumping again and released a wave of the classic sound: waaaaaaah.
The humans shrank further by this dual assault — aural and physical –in that closed space. Some searched for the exits but those were blocked by the animals that were enjoying the discomfiture of their former tormentors.
The air was getting thick with the stench of urine and sweat.
“And what land you are talking of? Is it not our land also?” asked the Ape. “It belongs to us as well. Not your monopoly. It is our land now.”
“But…,” whined the Chair.
“But?” asked The Ape.
“We have…I mean…hmm,” stuttered the Chair.
“OK, Mr. Ape. We have cleared the land and invested millions in developing the land, you know, the infra, you know…”
This time the Gorilla spoke: “Developing or destroying the land, hills, rivers? You call it development? You have totally ruined the planet by now. Understood? Time to payback now.”
“Made extinct many species. Destroyed rain forests. Created a hole in the Ozone layer,” added The Ape furiously. “And you capitalists and leaders never cared! Never listened to the saner voices!”
The Chair was taken aback. “How do you know all this, big and brainless monkey…I mean, Mr. Ape?”
The Ape stared hard. “I was trained by one of the top scientists in your labs only. One of the best minds. Later on, he went mad, feeling betrayed by you and your greed for more and more. In that notorious virology lab, he committed suicide for betraying ethics of science and applied research, that fine mind duped by your glib talk of patriotism and all that shit.”
“Oh!” the Chair grunted, going slightly pale. “The poor man! Most scientists are mad anyway.”
The Ape did not like this, “You are a bastard!”
Both the sides faced each other now.
“You speak our language well. Even the cuss words so well,” fawned the vice-chair, “How come?”
He sounded condescending, despite the efforts to be otherwise.
“Learnt your language but you have forgotten our language, you, the hunter with a rifle. The language spoken by nature. Sad! That is the cause of the present crisis, this imbalance.” retorted the Tiger. “You killed many of our species, but I spared your cub that day. Remember, hunter?”
The hunter said nothing. He was past that emotion of contrition or feeling sorry for his wanton acts of destruction and cruelty.
Killing gave him a libidinal high, as money did to the capitalists.
There were tense moments. The confrontation was becoming inevitable.
Both waited for the other to blink first.
Finally, the Chair coughed discreetly.
The Ape looked at him hopefully.
“We apologize, friends for our foolish acts of the past,” said the Chair. “We mean no harm. We can share the same spaces with you guys. Now leave the Hall as there are some women here who have fainted and need hospitalisation.”
The Ape agreed to withdraw, after seeing the plight of the fair and pale women, mere appendages of the wealthy.
Before leaving, the Ape said to the Chair, “If you break your promise, there will be mayhem.”
The Chair promised on his holy book never to attack friends who did not look like them, as the words beast and savage and brutes were found offensive by the guests radicalised by the human language, and therefore, banned.
“I do not trust them,” said the fox, once outside.
“Let us see,” said the Ape. “Let us give them a last chance.”
Three days later, the animals were brutally attacked.
A family of deer were sitting in the park when they were killed by the bullets of hunters.
More attacks followed on the animals roaming the streets. The Ape met the Council.
They launched a counter attack on the humans and destroyed their vehicles and labs and released animals from zoos, private and public.
Many humans were badly mauled. Some died of fright and shock and bleeding.
The pitched battle continued for the control of the territories during the day and night.
The hunters and the army used tranquillizers, guns and darts. But the primates were smart and dodged these tactics. Their agility was superb and might, matchless. They climbed the trees and buildings swiftly and could immobilise the militia by their screams and swinging fists and flinging trees at them.
Throughout the night, the battle went on.
The Chair was keen to trap The Ape, but the latter was as evasive as a trained assassin.
Next morning, the Chair and his goons adapted a new tactic to capture The Ape, the leader of the animals: They used a baby chimp from a private zoo as bait and asked The Ape to surrender or they would roast the baby alive on the live coals for its tender meat.
“Barbeque the babe!” That was their chant over the public address system.
“Surrender! Surrender, you beast!” They taunted The Ape.
Despite the Council’s reluctance, The Ape decided to surrender in order to save the baby chimp as he could not bear the hapless wailing of its young mother. The Chair was jubilant and put him in the shackles and lashed the big guy mercilessly and then something strange happened.
It began raining heavily. The skies darkened. As the hunter aimed to kill the shackled Ape before the mass of cameras — the ritual killing was to be televised live as some kind of reality TV, with the commentary by the triumphant Chair, as the vindication of the superiority of the homo sapiens over the dumb, witless brutes of the lower order before an audience of millions lusting for blood, as done earlier, in the Roman era, by the wild crowds— a troupe of baby monkeys sprang into view. The hunter was astonished to see his granddaughter, the six-year-old, leading one of the simian babies, and, hold your holy breath; the teenage daughter of the Chair and other school children formed a human chain and moved forward.
What the hell! The Chair shouted over the public address system.
The teenage daughter named Gaia by his third wife looked straight into the cameras and said, “Dad, shoot us before you shoot The Ape!”
And hundreds of uniformed kids and old women stood around the shackled Ape and shouted in unison, “Kill us! Kill us, first! We will not allow you to murder such a fine creature.”
The hunter’s grand kid shouted, “Tiger! Tiger!” as the same tiger came out of shadows and joined the human protestors, all unarmed. The kid said, “Tiger! Come here!” He did and nobody panicked. They all stood still, linking arms together, facing the hunter and his goons, as it rained.
The hunter and his killers were stunned by this turn of events.
Gaia said, “Today, it is a virus. Tomorrow, more pandemics will follow, if you kill the wildlife so brazenly. Learn to respect these creatures of God. Beware. We are wild, not them. If they are destroyed, we will be totally annihilated.”
“Kill us! Kill us!” The children and women shouted, daring them to shoot.
More animals joined the protestors in the main plaza as millions watched on their TV screens.
The children hugged the wounded Ape and patted him lovingly, applying turmeric and herbal medicines on his wounds.
The Ape cried for the first time in is life of struggles and humiliation.
The militia waited.
The chain of humans increased in length.
So did the chant: “Respect them. Respect Nature, our mother!”
There was thunder and lightning.
And the rain beat down furiously on the players on that open stage, witnessed by the rest of the world, on that memorable day…
Sunil Sharma, an academic administrator and author-critic-poet–freelance journalist, is from suburban Mumbai, India. He has published 22 books so far, some solo and some joint, on prose, poetry and criticism. He edits the monthly, bilingual Setu: http://www.setumag.com/p/setu-home.html
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One reply on “New Masters”
Man-animal bonding gets an imaculate fictional touch. Dialogues are impressive, setting is perfect. 🙏