Free Bird T.V.: Episode 3 (Sharma, Baba, and the Monkeys)
On the back page of the menu at Sixth Sense, the restaurant at our guesthouse in Pushkar, which sat above an open courtyard with rope-swing benches and a fountain scattered with rose petals and blue domes that curved out from the ceiling, a paragraph caught my eye.
Countryside Walk, it said. Join Mr. Sharma, our neighbour from one of the oldest religious families in Pushkar. See rose fields, peacocks, and other wildlife through the hills surrounding town. 3 hours. 250 rupees.
After asking for more details at the front desk (“Good walk,” said the man, “I hope you like.”), Joe was skeptical.
“Sure, it sounds nice,” he said. “But do we really need a guide to walk into the countryside? We could just do that on our own.” We were sitting on a bench next to the fountain, the sound of its water flowing down behind us. Pigeons soared onto the stone, perching among the petals.
“It’s a gamble,” I said. “It could be a waste of money. Or it could turn out to be the best thing we do on this trip. But it’s only five dollars.”
At 4 pm the next day, we met Mr. Sharma in the guesthouse entrance. He wore a pale yellow button-down shirt and loose blue pants. His hair and beard were mostly grey and a line of red was painted between his brows.
“Now we go,” he said, “buy food for the monkeys. How much you can spend?”
Strolling through Pushkar (past the lake, where we’d been given blessings and petals and dye on our foreheads the day before–by disingenuous priests, it seemed, who demanded 300 rupees for a prayer they forced us into) past the chai shop with dreadlocked travellers and the owner in his dark pink silk shirt saying Sir, sir!, shaking Joe’s hand, you come here anytime, ice cold water only ten rupees, past the shops with bangles and threaded scarves, the neon-lit temple and the dogs and the holy flower sellers, we arrived at the nut and seed shop.
“One hundred rupees for the monkeys,” we told Sharma, and the shopkeeper poured the nuts from their mesh bags, weighing them on metal scales. He handed them to us in newspaper, and then, past the coin sellers and the row of men who sit and sit, selling nothing, their beards long, their knees bare beneath cotton sheet-skirts, past the bus stop and its herd of tired cows, we turned right, and the road quieted down. Here, in the muted light of late, late afternoon at the outskirts of town, the walk began.
“This,” Sharma said, pointing to a walled encosure, trees climbing upward amidst cement –“this is where the merchant caste cremates. Villages from 20 kilometres around,” he swept his hand, “can do this here.”
The road was long and mostly straight. Women bent in their fields, sarees glowing against the grain, harvesting long shafts of everything brown or green. To our left, rose bushes climbed up into the blue, which at this time of day was bright but clear, the sun’s glare diminishing so that the colour of the sky was revealed without the necessity of shade. Sharma led us past a metal fence and into a farm’s backyard. A woman–a grandmother?–held a baby, sitting on a wooden chair. Behind her, a goat was milked by a girl–the baby’s mother?
We walked past fields of chilli peppers. A farmer joined us, pointing out papaya and rows of sugar cane, then waved goodbye. Sharma strolled on, through the shade of mango trees, toward a leaning bush of bougainvillea. Beneath its shade, he pointed, “Monkeys!” Grey with black faces, a group of nine or ten langurs jumped across a high wall, their tails curled in wide loops. Our first time seeing the creatures up close in India, we whipped out our cameras, recording their leaps as Sharma walked on.
“Come, come,” he said. “There are more.”
In the hills to our right, cacti grew in clusters, their green arms extending from the dry, rocky ground. A lone peacock stood among the scrub as we climbed higher, the path widening. Sharma stopped, listened.
“My monkeys,” he muttered. “I can’t hear them.” The view gave way to a white-washed temple above, surrounded by taller, greener trees. Sharma squinted toward it as we stood still, waiting. A figure stepped out of the temple’s door and Sharma walked toward it.
Joe and I waited, looking back to the coloured roofs visible beyond the fields. The day’s heat had begun to thin. We heard Sharma’s voice mingling with another, and then he reappeared, descending from the temple. “Now,” he said.
Sharma stood beside Joe and let out a loud yelp. From the temple another voice called, “Hello, hello! Hello, hello!” Sharma nodded and said, “Now they are coming,” as we kept our bodies still, watching the path ahead.
From the hill the langurs leaped, first two, then four, then seven, then eleven, then more and more monkeys, 50 at least racing toward us, a rush of feet and hands and long, looping tails. Mothers leapt, their babies clinging to their bellies. Some paused on rocks before making a wide jump to the ground at our feet, where nuts fell from Sharma’s hands, showering their black faces and open, hungry mouths. He flattened his palms, showing Joe the correct technique (“Don’t close your hand,”he said,” or they angry.”) as they reached up on hind legs, grabbing handfuls of nuts and shoveling them into their mouths, the sound of their crunching eclipsing the bird song above us.
Safe in a pair of blue converse sneakers, my feet were shielded from those of the monkeys, which appeared everywhere I stepped. Up close their teeth looked fierce, their fingers limber–ready to snag the next stream of nuts that fell from our palms. Amidst the crunching, they emitted a choir of squeaks, leaping to the rocks, trees, and temple ahead.
A voice continued to call. It belonged to Baba, the orange-clothed, dreadlocked holy man who lived here. We climbed the steps toward him, dodging hands and tails as Sharma led us through his monkeys to the top of the temple, Baba and the view of Pushkar waiting.
*Baba–a Sadhu from Nepal who lives alone at this temple– is one of the coolest people Joe and I have ever met. Before checking out the video of our awesome encounter with Sharma, Baba, and the monkeys, see photos and read about Baba on Joe’s blog here.
Then come on back to Free Bird for the video!
As always, thanks for reading and watching. Please share if you enjoy!