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Of Monkeys and Men

January 6, 2012

The best-laid schemes o’ mice an’ men, wrote Robert Burns in his Scots poem “To a Mouse”, gang aft agley. They often go askew and leave us nothing but grief and pain in place of the promised joy.

He says nothing of monkeys (nor women, for that matter). And yet it is monkey-business that I had laid out plans to blog on, and my friend upstaged me in this excellent piece . I am still trying to figure out the monkey – or the cat, I am not sure which – that is not in the box, and not on the shoulder. Ya ma, sa maya (या मा, सा माया), as they would say. What is not, is Maya. Now say that backward. The Sanskrit, my friend.

The presence of the Indian cricket team in Australia has again reminded the fourth estate there of Harbhajan Singh and the monkey. I think Kiran More was more amused than anything or anyone else when Javed Miandad mimicked his monkey-dance behind the stumps. At least I was amused, and my friends (such as there are) were amused, and I see no reason why Kiran More should not have been amused, nor my non-friends.

Sledging, with its insults, profanities and obscenities, has long been a respected (?) tradition in cricket, especially the Australian variety. It would appear that the term was coined when a batsman was greeted by the fielders, as he came in to bat, with the Percy Sledge song When a Man Loves a Woman, suggesting that his wife was having an affair. Well, such insults seem okay, doubts on parentage seem okay, but not racial slurs. And “monkey” is definitely a racial slur?

The reference to a monkey could just be another insult on one’s parentage, which should be entirely acceptable to the sledging tradition. I speak with the force of historical precedent behind me. No less a person than the Anglican bishop Samuel Wilberforce famously (or is it notoriously?) asked Thomas Huxley whether it was through his grandfather or his grandmother that he (Huxley) claimed his descent from a monkey. Huxley was of course championing Darwin’s theory of evolution, and the clergyman was defending the Book of Genesis, at a debate at Oxford University as long ago as in 1860. And it need not sting so bad, as Huxley gamely said that he would be happy to be descended from a monkey, but not an obscurantist. It is not important that Wilberforce was known as “Soapy Sam”, after Disraeli’s contention that the good bishop was “unctuous, oleaginous and saponaceous”.

Steve Waugh maintained that sledging was legitimate “mental disintegration” of the opponent. Mohammed Ali used to float like a butterfly and sting like a bee. He was also a skilled practitioner of throwing taunts, as well as commending himself as the greatest, to mentally disintegrate his opponent before he proceeded to physically disintegrate him.

So why this kolavery about the monkey?

Tailpiece: It is possible that taunting someone’s parentage is acceptable in certain cultures, but not calling one a monkey, and vice versa. That is what Eric Berne said in his Games People Play: Belching at meals or asking after another man’s wife are each encouraged or forbidden by local ancestral tradition, and indeed there is a high degree of inverse correlation between these particular transactions. Usually in localities where people belch at meals, it is unwise to ask after the womenfolk; and in localities where people are asking after the womenfolk, it is unwise to belch at meals.


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  1. Girish Kumar permalink

    You are certainly not descended from a monkey but i am not sure about an obscurantist.

    • Is that not a worse sledge than Harbhajan’s?

      Like when I was at the hostel at what is now CUSAT, the agreed tradition amongst us was that the worst insult was to call someone by the name of the VC.

  2. Eeyore 'the obscurantist' Gladstone permalink

    I think what you – and several other Indian commentators on this subject – have missed is the cultural subtext associated with the word monkey in the west, whereby a black man, by virtue of his hue, is assumed to be more simian than a white man. In Britain and Australia, due to the more recent nature of non-white immigration,this phenomenon postdates Disraeli.

    I agree, however, given my understanding of our shared recent ancestry, that you are definitely of obscurantist stock.

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