On mobs, monkeys and migrants

A review of Prateek Vats’ film “Eeb Allay Ooo” which revolves around the life of a migrant worker recruited as a contractual monkey repeller in Delhi.

Eeb Allay Ooo

In his paper titled The Beautiful Expanding Future of Poverty, Ashis Nandy elaborated on the difference between absolute and relative poverty. While relative poverty is when one is receiving an income that is below the national or international income average, destitution or absolute poverty is when one is without the basic necessities that sustain one’s life like food, water shelter and clothing. You can sustain yourself in poverty through a low-consuming lifestyle, but destitution is antithetical to life.The common Indian doesnt ask for a lot, but just enough to get by. They aren’t dreaming of making investments on land or gold. They aren’t saving up for their old age or buying health insurance or planning to chase their passion after retirement. They leave the friendly neighborhoods of their native towns and arrive at the degrading urban slums only to manage the next day’s meal. They are hunters of jobs, gatherers of debt and the sweet fruits of civilization or technology or space missions are yet to trickle down into their lives. They do not know the meaning of heavy words like “socialist”, “free-will” or “fairness” which echo from the walls of Starbucks and Hard Rock Cafes, but had they been to school they would have surely wondered, why we have not yet outgrown grief by natural selection. They are the embarrassing heap of garbage interrupting the sophisticated view of a photogenic metropolitan exhibition. The journalists on TV address them as swarms, herds or flocks of migrant workers as if they live animalistic lives, unnamed and only relevant in populations like insects. To those who watch from the imperialist glass windows of sea facing apartments, the working class looks capable of living through indefinite famines since they are expected to be accustomed to hunger, acclimatized to disaster. When they perish from communicable diseases which are extinct in posh localities, the rich scratch their heads in astonishment and ask wide eyed, “Do people still get TB?”

In the palpable and harrowing loneliness of an unknown apathetic city, Anjani envies the hedonistic lives of monkeys. He is a Bihari immigrant who works as a contractual monkey repeller in New Delhi; his job being to mimic sounds of langurs and scare away monkeys. His friend Mahinder has mastered this peculiar art of chanting “eeb” “allay” and “ooo” and patiently trains him everyday, introducing Anjani to the prestigious and powerful corridors of Lutyen’s Delhi, Rajpath, Nirman, Udyog, Vayu and Vigyan Bhawan. The monkey menace is further aggravated with the help of the superstitious devotees of Lord Hanuman, who feed the monkeys everyday as these hunched-back “guest” workers pay with their sweat and time, never having the right to object. They knew there were always hundreds of other unemployed, desperate workers who were ready to do this job with zero interference in the feeding rituals of god lovers. In India, the incentive for daily wage earners to work harder was the will to stay alive. He lived with his brother in law who worked as a night watch-man, and his pregnant sister who sold fried snacks for an additional income. Their house was a little bigger than a car but their contentment flowed out and flooded the resentful, violent Delhi streets. While the idea of hanging out for the South Ex residents with fat inheritance was shopping for things they didn’t need, the humble displaced dwellers of Munger and Darbhanga were fascinated by bubble blowers and the spicy bhelpuri stalls in Rajpath. The insecurity of a migrant worker, in a country of surplus hungry youngsters and lesser jobs, is apparent. They are ready to work longer hours for lesser wages, try to profess even in a job as naive and monotonous as monkey repelling, come back to congested makeshift ghettoes after a hard day where the weather is always sunless and oppressive, to sleep beside cockroach filled gutters under a starless, smoky sky. They were the nameless, the shameless, the lifeless. The dirt of a developing democracy.

Disguised as a black faced long tailed monkey, Anjani finds his work getting easier. While Delhi celebrates another anniversary of this republic made of religion and rhetoric, a hilarious and insidious clown finds freedom he hadn’t found before in his evolved, homosapien avatar. Such a brave innovation of using a costume to scare monkeys obviously costs Anjani his job. However, we see him broken for the first time in the film only when he discovers that Mahinder is no more. “He had killed a monkey, so a mob killed him”, they tell him. A blank expression of disbelief and unintelligibility unfurled on his face. I recognised this look because I have seen it before.

At the government hospital where I work as a doctor, it’s on every parent’s face who has to discharge their edematous and epileptic children from the treatment only because they run out of money. Shame shrinks their hearts and their eyes bloat under the weight of withheld tears. These are the people who are held responsible for their own damned fates: as if they voluntarily chose the daily diet of rice and salt, the HIV and the alcoholism, the lifetime savings of a meagre three thousand bucks and unaffordable medicines.The nameless, the shameless, the lifeless, too anemic and worm-ridden to protest.These Anjanis and Mahinders are also part of the murderous mobs, trying hard to find an identity and significance in religion or nation or soldiers of culture so that they can mean something, become more than just shadows and silhouettes of living beings. Common men colonising common men to fractionally resemble the Gods.Things monkeys wouldn’t understand.

George Orwell wrote in his book The Road to Wigan Pier, “As we moved slowly through the outskirts of the town we passed row after row of little grey slum houses running at right angles to the embankment. At the back of one of the houses a young woman was kneeling on the stones, poking a stick up the leaden waste-pipe which ran from the sink inside and which I suppose was blocked. I had time to see everything about her—her sacking apron, her clumsy clogs, her arms reddened by the cold.She had a round pale face, the usual exhausted face of the slum girl who is twenty-five and looks forty, thanks to miscarriages and drudgery; and it wore, for the second in which I saw it, the most desolate, hopeless expression I have ever-seen.” While reading the book, a montage of grotesque events I had read in the newspapers ran in the back of my mind: a starved man feeding on a dog’s carcass on the highway, hungry children eating grass in the prime minister’s constituency, no one buying fruits and vegetables from Muslim vendors even as recovered Jamaatis donate enumerable units of plasma, a cycle twisting the neck of trees and locusts invading the rice fields of Rajasthan, tonnes of rice rotting in government godowns while the white-collared crib about stock markets. Last month a fifteen year old had to cycle 1200kms over five days carrying her sick father home, owing to the shutdown of public transport.Her helpless endeavour done at the risk of life was celebrated as “courageous” and “persevering”. It was entertainment for the privileged. The old trick of calling people heroes while standing on their capes and making sure they cannot fly.  The story of the Decathlon-deprived, DSLR-less wage earner fleeing starvation and death on her modest cycle was fetishized, romanticised and marketed as motivation porn while the entire nation watched silently, pretending to have a conscience. “It struck me then that we are mistaken when we say that ‘It isn’t the same for them as it would be for us,’ and that people bred in the slums can imagine nothing but the slums. For what I saw in her face was not the ignorant suffering of an animal”, continued Orwell. “She knew well enough what was happening to her—understood as well as I did how dreadful a destiny it was to be kneeling there in the bitter cold, on the slimy stones of a slum backyard, poking a stick up a foul drain-pipe”. I hope wherever Mahinder is now, he is having a better life.

Bijaya Biswal is a doctor and social activist based in Bhubaneswar, Odisha working for LGBTQIA rights since three years now. She also organises film festivals, reading sessions and the annual Pride of the state.



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