Poetry for monkeys

Humans often exhibit similar tendencies, especially when arguing against things they have no blasted clue about.

Bilal Tanweer July 14, 2011
Do you know Mr Javed Chaudhry? You should if you don’t. He’s amazing.

Recently, he was invited to speak to some students on ‘Relationships’(?). He kicked off the discussion with the claim that he is smarter than Aristotle, Socrates, Plato, et al. simply because they lived 5,000 or 3,000 years ago (both dates are wrong, actually). He said:
“If we are not wearing 5,000 year old pants or using nail-cutters from so long ago, then why are we bothering with what those people thought or wrote?”

After this hatchet job on Aristotle & Co’s longstanding reputation, Mr Chaudhry laid it into Darwin and his theory. He made a devastating observation:
“agar insan waqa’i bandar se aaya hai to yeh baaqi bandaro’n ka kia qusoor hai? yeh kyun bach gaye?”

He further observed that if evolutionary theory is indeed correct then why haven’t we seen monkeys in zoos exhibiting human traits? Like, why haven’t the monkeys started wearing pants (he’s big on pants, for some reason), or sipping coffee or smoking cigs? (Full video: sciencereligionnews.blogspot.com)

While it is true that Mr Chaudhry has systematically disproved any possibility for monkeys acting as humans do — like donning pants, as I mentioned — he has, let me submit humbly, overlooked the opposite scenario, i.e. humans behaving like monkeys. And there, if I may say, lies the rub. You see monkeys have a tendency of hurling things back at you without really understanding what they are. A monkey in a funny mood (or in any mood, really) cannot tell a DeBeers diamond from a turnip, or a volume of Plato’s Republic, for that matter. Also, monkeys take jeering at their opponents as definitive proof that they’re right. Humans often exhibit similar tendencies, especially when arguing against things they have no blasted clue about. And that’s just for starters. To tell you the truth, my view is that monkey-human kinship runs even deeper. Take poetry for instance.

Curfew Summer

By Maki Kureishi

Summer clocks in at eight. By now
Most plants have dried to a rasping brown
And the grass burns to its roots.

Only the bougainvillea flags
its violent colours – dissident
in a brutal summer.

No one may walk next door.
Yet from house to house the grapevine runs:
Arrested! Bombed!

Two hundred shot! Long used
to a seasonal withering, each summer
we die nearer the root.

Envy the sparrows! They forage
without a Pass, shrieking all over the city
reckless, uncensored opinions.

This is a wonderful poem, you’ll agree, for how well the metaphor of summer is alloyed with the imagery of the plants (grass burned ‘to its roots’; bougainvillea’s ‘violent colors’; plants ‘dried to a rasping brown’). These images convey the atmosphere of the ‘curfew summer’ the poem takes for its title. (Interestingly, the images here are also strongly reminiscent of Faiz’s ‘roshniyo’n ke shehr’; recall: sabza sabza sookh rahi hai pheeki zard dopehr/ deewaro’n ko chaat raha hai tanha’ee ka zehr.) The weight of this metaphor shows most effectively in the word ‘grapevine,’ which sits perfectly well in the poem’s imagery of plants, while playing on the figurative meaning of the word to convey the atmosphere. In the final stanza, the poem introduces sparrows with an exclamation — a moment of surprise, of discovery, a break from the bleak setting of the poem. It’s also a moment of epiphany in the poem: of the freedom in flying: birds shall fly without a Pass and shriek their opinions uncensored — even when the most violent form of dissent in the world is of bougainvillea’s colors.

As far as commonalities between men and monkeys are concerned, consider the fact that the above poem or its explication would be utterly meaningless for all monkeys and most humans. And there, I rest my case.

Published in The Express Tribune.
Bilal Tanweer A writer and translator who teaches creative writing at LUMS.
The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necassarily reflect the views and policies of the Express Tribune.

Facebook Conversations