Ice Cream and Monkey Business in Delhi

HE was one of those raggedy urchins, the kind you see all over New Delhi, selling newspapers for a few coins at traffic lights when the cars were stopped. He was quick and deft, slipping between the vehicles, ready to make a fast getaway when the lights changed from red to green.

But the sight of this boy stopped me in my tracks as I made my way down the sidewalk of a busy street. He had a small baby monkey on his shoulder, its arms wrapped tightly around the boy's neck. It was a very small monkey, not more than a few months old, and it wore no leash or string, only a bright red collar around its neck. The boy was perhaps eight or nine years old, and in spite of his thinness, traces of that appealing baby smoothness still remained.

Some of the drivers who seemed amused or touched by the sight wound down their car windows and bought a paper or two. And then the lights changed, and the boy dashed for the safety of the pavement, dodging between cars, which were ready and roaring to go.

He arrived right next to me under the old neem tree, a little out of breath, but well pleased with himself. Although Delhi was scorchingly hot, a haze hung over the city and made everything - the trees, the lampposts, the flowers - look evanescent, barely attached to the earth. The boy, too, seemed to have something of this insubstantial look. His bright brown eyes shone against his darkly golden skin, matching the brown fur of the monkey. Although the boy was wearing a tattered shirt and shorts slit up the sides, he was far from being defeated or cornered by the cruelties of a world he had not made. He was bright and cheerful and fully in control.

He smiled at me and I asked, ``Is this monkey yours? Where did you get him?''

``I found him huddled up under a bush, shivering and frightened. The monkey catchers had taken his mother and nearly all of the troop. I picked him up and brought him home, and since then he has been with me. I never tie him up or chain him, and he stays with me wherever I go. He is my chota bhai - my little brother.''

Just then a blue ice-cream cart came round the corner, ringing its bell. ``CREAMY ICE CREAM'' said the writing on the sides in bold blue letters. On an impulse, I went across and bought the largest cup of vanilla ice cream available and presented it to the child.

His delighted surprise was wonderful to see. His face broke into the widest possible grin. Then settling down under the tree, he opened the cup and scooped out a spoonful. The baby monkey watched intently, not once trying to snatch or grab. After tasting the ice cream, the boy handed the cup to his ``little brother.'' The monkey, using the same plastic spoon, took a mouthful, apparently delighting in the coolness as it went down his throat. Then to my astonishment, he gave the cup back to the boy. I watched fascinated as they shared the ice cream spoonful by spoonful till the cup was empty. The boy ran to put the cup in the garbage can and then stood before me.

`THANK you, Didiji,'' he said, using the Hindi form of address for an older woman. ``Thank you. Rikki and I never get a whole cup to eat.'' On his small bright face there was not a trace of regret that he had to share the ice cream. He was just delighted that he had been able to give his small friend a treat. Then he brought the monkey over to me.

``Say thank you, Rikki.'' The monkey stretched out his hand and closed it over mine. His palm felt very soft and cool, and his touch strange and confiding, but the look in his eyes was sad and searching.

``He looks so sad,'' I said to the boy.

``Monkeys can't smile,'' he replied. ``But inside he is happy.''

And as if to prove this, the monkey jumped on the boy's shoulder and began to chatter and jump about, clutching the child's hair and patting his face. The boy laughed, and I left them together and walked away.

I wondered where the boy lived. I had not thought to ask. Did he have a home, however humble, with a mother, father, siblings? Or was he one of those street children who lived under bridges, behind construction pipes, under some shady tree, alone and fighting to survive?

And I, who smiled and smiled - was I happy inside?

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