The Saviour of South Block

The South Block, as the reader knows, is a magnificent edifice located on New Delhi’s Raisina Hill on the southern flank of the Rashtrapati Bhavan.  Across the road stands its twin, the North Block.

It is indeed a beautiful panorama as one stands before the grand entrance to the Rashtrapati Bhavan and looks away at the India Gate, with the Rajpath stretched across the manicured lawns on both sides going down in a gentle slope.  Very soon this wonderful vista may become history.

This piece, however, is not about the beauty of the buildings atop the Raisina Hill.

While the mandarins of the Ministry of External Affairs, the Ministry of Defence, the top brass of the armed forces and advisers to the Prime Minister, who share the property called South Block, grapple with crucial foreign policy and defence issues, another set of dramatis personae is busy with their lives right outside the solid sandstone building.  These are the groups of monkeys who have made this huge building their home.

One can spend a whole day watching them, perched rather precariously along the narrow cornices 40 ft high from the ground.  From those vantage points they execute guerrilla-style attacks on babus with their lunch boxes dangling from their hands, or lady officials carrying a bag full of fruits or some other goodies.  A moment’s carelessness and one’s home-made roti-sabzi is gone along with the lunch box!

Their jurisdiction is not necessarily restricted to the outer peripheries of the building.  In fact , at one time it became outright dangerous for us to move from one room to another or walk up and down the grand staircases as these four-legged cousins could be waiting in ambush in any dark corner or crevice.

We have seen, not without some amusement, senior colleagues – feared by the lower and middle ranking babus for their fits of rage and flinging of files – slowly tracing their steps back as a particularly belligerent monkey bared its canines at them.  Perhaps the fellow knew that these big bosses tormented their juniors, and thought it fit to have some fun scaring the hell out of them.

After the offices close for the day and when even the last workaholic has left the building, it is taken over by the monkey brigade, and is shared with the security men pacing up and down the corridors.

Those who man the Control Room of the External Affairs Ministry at night will tell you how scary it is to visit the toilets in South Block after nightfall as one is afraid of being taken as an intruder either by the human guards or their hairy companions.

The simians provide a variety of entertainments – not always of a refined kind. Couples would be seen in amorous embraces  anytime during the day under the canopy of one or the other of the beautiful Jharokhas! It was not uncommon for one to see even Ministers stealing a coy glance at our distant cousins’ romantic frolics right atop Gate No. 4 of South Block.

There also were occasional fiercely fought turf wars between the North and South Block battalions right on the middle of Rajpath, at times holding up traffic till one side would decide to retreat.

The Central Public Works Department, entrusted with the upkeep and maintenance of the building surely spent a lot of time and energy to figure out how to get rid of the monkey menace. I wonder how many files were “opened” whose titles could be “Clearing the Central Secretariat of Monkeys “.

At last someone came out with a scientific solution to the problem.

Devices looking like CCTV cameras were fixed at strategic points inside the entire building.  These, I learnt, would emit some kind of sound wave – inaudible to us –  which would scare the  apes away.

The contraptions worked.  For a few weeks the monkeys actually stopped coming inside  the buildings and everyone was happy.

Sadly, the relief was short-lived.  Somehow the brainy chaps soon located the source of the peculiar sound that was bothering them.

Then it was only a matter of time before their “snappers”  systematically knocked down the machines, or bit off their connecting wires, making them ineffective.  The CPWD beat a tactical retreat.  Normal life returned to South Block.

Embarrassed, the “authorities” then tried a traditional method to get rid of the monkeys.   The Government of India – funny though it may sound – actually outsourced the job of scaring the monkeys away from its properties. Where modern science had failed, tradition had some success.

The ‘professionals’ who were hired for the job brought in a couple of langurs, natural enemies of the smaller monkeys, with long ropes attached to collars tied around their necks.

The langurs chased the monkeys away whenever they saw them in the vicinity of the building. Occasionally, one had a glimpse of this great hide and seek game of the primates.

The last three years that I spent at South Block, before being transferred, the insides of the building were relatively free from the monkey menace.  But I cannot imagine South Block without the monkeys walking in long files along the cornices or  grooming one another, sitting under the ornate windows.

Before the ridge was cleared to build the Raisina Hill edifices, the place was thickly forested.  It was the natural habitat of many animals, including the primates.  Beginning with the Raisina HIlls, over the years humans have encroached into and destroyed almost the entire ridge.

Deprived of their natural and original habitat the monkeys  have been forced to make the Secretariat buildings their home. Devotees of Hanumanji feed them, and if there is a shortage, snatching remains the only option.

Do we see a parallel here with our tribal communities, similarly sacrificed at the alter of ‘development’? Maybe we do, but that is another topic for another day.