MY MONKEY TRAP
“Come, Vijay,” Captain Naik said, leading me into his study, “I’ll show you something interesting.” He opened a cupboard, pulled out a strange-looking contraption and laid it on the table. I looked at it, confused but curious. The peculiar apparatus consisted of a hollowed-out coconut attached to a solid iron chain, about two feet long, with a large metal stake at the other end.
“You know what this is?” he asked.
“No,” I answered
“I got this in Penang when I was cadet, almost thirty years ago,” Captain Naik said, picking up the coconut in his left hand, holding the chain in his right.
He looked at me and explained, “This is a monkey trap. The hollowed-out coconut is filled with some cooked rice through this small hole, chained to the stake which is driven firmly into the ground. Look at this hole. It’s just big enough so that the monkey’s hand to go in, but too small for his fist filled with rice to come out. The monkey reaches in, grabs the rice and is suddenly trapped. Because his greed won’t allow him to let go of the rice and extricate his hand, the monkey remains trapped, a victim of his greed, until he is captured. The monkey cannot see that freedom without the rice is more valuable than capture with it. That’s what happens to most of us. Probably it’s the story of your life too. Think about it.”
I thought about it and said, “Suppose I quit the merchant navy. What will I do?”
“Why don’t you join me?” Captain Naik suggested, “It’s a comfortable job. Professionally satisfying. And plenty of time for your family too. Besides, I need people like you. Of course, you won’t get your tax-free couple of thousand dollars, but the pay is good by Indian standards.”
Captain Naik was the director of a maritime training institute in Goa, running various courses for merchant navy officers. It was a lovely self-contained campus on the shores of the Arabian Sea. At first I wondered whether he had a vested interest, but I knew that was not true. Captain Naik had been my mentor and well-wisher; it was he who had groomed me when I had been a cadet on his ship many years ago. And later too, when I was a junior officer. That’s why I had made it a point to visit him the moment my ship touched Murmagao port.
For the next six months, as I sailed on the high seas, I could not forget the ‘monkey trap’ – in fact, it haunted me. And soon I knew what my decision would be. But first, I would have to discuss it with my wife. Truly speaking, that was not really necessary. She would be the happiest person on earth. For I could clearly recall every word of the vicious argument we had just before I left home about seven months ago.
It was our tenth wedding anniversary and we had thrown a small party. As I walked towards the kitchen door, I noticed my wife, Anjali, engrossed in a conversation with her childhood friend Meena, their backs toward me.
“Tell me, Anjali,” Meena was saying, “If you could live your life again, what would you like to change?”
“My marriage!” Anjali answered. I was stunned and stopped in my tracks, dumbstruck, at the kitchen door.
After the party was over, I confronted Anjali, “What were you doing in the kitchen all the time with that Meena friend of yours? You should have circulated amongst the important guests,”
“I feel out of place in your crowd,” Anjali answered.
“My crowd!” I thundered. “And you regret marrying me, do you?” I paused for a moment, and then said firmly, “Listen Anjali, you better stop associating with riffraff like Meena. Think of our status.”
“Riffraff!” Anjali was staring at me incredulously. “I was also what you call ‘riffraff’ once. And quite happy too! What’s the use of all these material comforts? And wealth and so-called status? None of it can compensate for the companionship and security of a husband. This loneliness, it’s corrosive; eating into me. Sometimes I feel you just wanted a caretaker to look after your parents, your house, and of course, now your children. To hold the fort while you gallivant around for months at a time. And that’s why you married a simple middle-class girl like me; or rather you bought me! That’s what you think, isn’t it?”
I winced when she said, ‘bought’. But in a certain way, I knew it was true. Which is why I lost my temper and shouted, “I don’t gallivant around - It’s hard earned money I have to slog and undergo hardship for! I do it for all of you. And yes indeed! I bought you. Yes I ‘bought’ you! That’s because you were willing to sell yourself. Remember one thing. No one can buy anything unless someone is willing to sell it.”
I instantly regretted my words realizing that they would only worsen the gaps in our relationship. Gaps I had failed to fill all these ten years by expensive gifts and material comforts. That’s what I was always doing. Always trying to use money to fill gaps in our relationship.
And now, almost six months later, I was flying home after handing over command – for the last time. My last ship. I had made my decision. It was probably the meeting with Captain Naik and the ‘monkey trap’ which clinched the issue, but my decision was final. I had even written to him and would be joining him at his maritime training institute in a month. But I did not write or tell Anjali. For her I wanted it to be a surprise – the happiest moment of her life! And mine too.
I didn’t hire a luxury air-conditioned taxi from Mumbai airport direct to my house in Pune like I always did. I knew I would have to get used to being less lavish in the future. So I took a bus to Dadar and caught the Deccan Express at seven in the morning. I was traveling light – no expensive gifts this time, and it being off-season, I was lucky to get a seat in an unreserved second-class compartment.
When I reached home at about lunch time, I was shocked to find Anjali missing. My old parents were having lunch by themselves; my children were at school.
When Anjali arrived at two in the afternoon, I was stunned by the metamorphosis in her appearance. Designer dress, fashionable jewellery, permed hair, fancy make-up - painted like a doll; in short, the works.
“What a surprise!” she exclaimed on seeing me.” You should have rung up.”
“Anjali, I want to talk to you. It’s something important,” I said.
“Not now,” she said, almost ignoring me. “I am already late. I just came for a quick change of clothes. Something suitable for the races….”
“Races?” I couldn’t believe it.
“Don’t you know? Today is the Pune Derby. Mrs Shah is coming to pick me up. You know her? The one whose husband is working in the Gulf. And you better buy me a new car.”
“New car?” I asked dumbfounded.
“The old one looks cheap. I hate to be seen in it. Doesn’t befit our status. We must have something good – the latest luxury limousine. I know we can afford it.”
The next few days passed in a haze of confusion. Punctuated by one surprise after another from Anjali. She wanted a deluxe flat in one of those exclusive townships. To send our children to an elite boarding school in Mussoorie of all places, membership to time-share holiday resorts, a farmhouse near Lonavala, and on and on – her demands were endless. And in between she would ask me, “Vijay, I hope you are happy that I am trying to change myself. It’s all for your sake. You were right. It is money and status that matter. Without a standard of living, there can be no quality of life!”
I did not know whether to laugh or cry. That she was once a simple domesticated middle-class girl whose concept of utopia was a happy family life was now but a distant memory to her. To ‘belong’ was now the driving force of her life.
I wish I could give this story a happy ending. But I’ll tell you what actually happened.
First, I rang up my shipping agent in Mumbai and told him to get me the most lucrative contract to go to sea as soon as possible. Then I wrote a long letter to Captain Naik regretting my inability to join him immediately. But I also wrote asking him to keep the offer open. Just in case there was a reverse transformation in Anjali – back to her earlier self.
I am an optimist and I think it will happen someday. And I hope the day comes fast; when both of us, Anjali and I, can free ourselves from the Monkey Traps of our own making.
Dear Reader. Close your eyes and ponder a bit. Have you entangled yourself in a monkey trap of your own making? Think about it! Reflect! And in your mind’s eye visualize all your own very ‘Monkey Traps’ which you have created for yourself.
What are you waiting for? The solution is in your hands. Just let go, and free yourself.
And do let me know what you feel – Which is more important: Freedom or golden manacles; standard of living or quality of life? And do help me free myself from my ‘Monkey Trap’.