Beware of Monkeys

Alan Watts is one of my heroes. From his talks and writings, one can gain significant insight into the nature of the world. The World as Just So is a series of delightful lectures that I first came across on public radio. In them, he explores Indian thought – Vedantic and Buddhist. Trained as a Zen master, he made esoteric wisdom accessible to millions. A very deep bow in his direction. He used to live in Berkeley CA but passed on into the great beyond before I made Berkeley my home and therefore did not have a chance to meet him.

In one of his lectures, I came across a statement which has profoundly affected my thinking about the world. The context was, if I recall correctly, how to comprehend the world and live in harmony with it. In his inimitable style of talking infused with lighthearted laughter he said: Don’t be like the monkey who said to the fish, “Let me save you from drowning,” and put it up on a tree. When I heard that, I was enlightened. (I subscribe to the Soto school of Zen thought which holds that enlightenment is sudden.) The world, I realized, was full of monkeys. Look closely at any disastrous situation in the world and you will see a monkey’s hand in the background busy pulling fish out of rivers saving them from drowning.

For instance? The global disaster perpetrated by an advanced industrialized country which I shall not name. Examine the picture closely and you will see the hand of a chimp. (OK, I know that chimps are not monkeys; they are apes. But the point remains. And if you don’t believe me about the chimp bit, see some astonishing pictures of the guy and chimps posted on various websites. The resemblance is striking as if they were twins separated at birth.)

One is stunned by the realization that monkeys rule the roost pretty much wherever you have disasters. Even though some will loudly protest this, I claim that India is to a first approximation a disaster zone. By saying this I open myself to accusation of being an “India hater”. Whether I am or not is totally immaterial, irrelevant, and inconsequential. What is material, relevant and consequential is whether India is a disaster zone or not. Later we can argue about that but for now I seek the monkeys behind the millions of mini-disasters that add up to the mega disaster I call my motherland.

Mini-disaster #592: Free electrical power to farmers. Ostensible reason given: To support poor farmers. Consequence: depletion of ground water, water-logging of fields, billions of rupees owed by an already bankrupt State government to the electricity board, regular power cuts in most cities of at least four hours each day.

Surely, it has to be an incomprehending monkey that believes that free power to farmers will improve the lot of farmers. First, poor farmers and peasants have little use for free power. They don’t have the equipment to make use of power, free or otherwise. Relatively rich farmers have equipment and given free power they do what the average person does when you get free anything: use it beyond the socially and economically efficient level. As someone put it to me yesterday, the farmers “turn on the pumps in the field in the morning and go back to the village to spend the day and return in the evening sometime to turn off the pumps.” In the meanwhile, excess water has been withdrawn and today’s excesses will lead to more problems tomorrow.

Free power to farmers has the first-order disastrous effect of depleting scarce ground water reserves. It has second-order effects of creating power scarcity in cities. Cities which need power for commerce and manufacturing have to invest in costly alternative power supply such as diesel generator sets. This drives up the costs and generally makes us poor. On the supply side, the government owes money to the electricity board and in all likelihood cannot pay and so much needed capacity will not be installed leading to further shortage of power. Third-order effect: urban people who need power to produce non-agricultural stuff and do business don’t produce as much and so have reduced incomes. Reduced incomes means that they have less money to spend on agricultural produce. So the farmers receive less for their production. So they are poor. And the story comes full circle: the next election cycle, the monkeys will promise free fertilizers and power and water and we will be further impoverished.

I admit that free power is a move cynically calculated to win elections and it may not be that those who make these policies are as stupid as they appear to be. But they are still monkeys, really.

So what is the quintessential characteristics of this problem of monkeys intervening. It is this: monkeys, well-meaning perhaps, don’t understand the nature of the universe that they meddle in. We are all monkeys, in some sense. We make mistakes and are not always rational in our personal day to day dealings. Being a monkey is necessary but not sufficient to give rise to disasters; you need to have power. If you are a powerful monkey, you have what it takes to create havoc. The more power you are, the more death and destruction you can unleash. The most powerful chimp in the world is the most destructive today.

But then the question arises, how is it that monkeys get to be so powerful. I think I have a tentative answer to that question which I will go into in a bit.

What about Magarpatta City? Well, let me get to it as well in a bit.

4 thoughts on “Beware of Monkeys

  1. Smiley Friday May 13, 2005 / 6:37 pm


    Another good one. I am new comer to this blog. This is my second “comment”.

    “Free electricity” and things like that are like Pasmasura’s boon.
    Pasmasura prayed to Lord Siva to obtain a boon. The boon was “If I keep my hand on anyone’s head, they should turn into ashes”. Lord Siva gave him the boon and the next thing that Pasmasura did was.. he tried to keep his hand on the Lord’s head.

    I think free electricity was started in India, first in TN in 1989-90. Some 2 years before, the present state Government, in a financial crisis, wanted to do away with it. The EB engineers who were supposed to go to the farming lands and keep the “meter” had their own fears… of being beaten by farmer associations. (“These fools will sit in St.George Fort and pass all sorts of “Thuglaq” orders and sit in AC rooms. Only we have to bear their anger”). Then again parlaimentary elections came and till now it is “free”.

    Someone said, “India is a functional anarchy”. I know only the quote not the quoter.


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  3. Dr Abhishek Puri Saturday May 14, 2005 / 9:44 am

    Monkeys everywhere in India, Atanu.
    The electricity boards as yo gave the example. Interestingly it is all about the “aam addmi”( The common man). The Economics doesnt make sense. Politics does and so everything be damned.
    Oh the swinging monkeys-NASSCOM. We had a good discussion on the IT and their ilk.
    The “monkeys” in power and the ones in Bihar are a breed apart. All of us swallow our humble pride and let the charade go on.
    The quissential quality of an Indian to take insults, be degraded and vote the same people in power in the next election. This would have been an exception once or twice. 50+ years and it’s ingrained in our psyche.
    Keep up the good work Atanu.


  4. finnegan Tuesday May 24, 2005 / 11:53 pm

    I’ll bet; I’ll just bet that you heard Alan Watts via KPFA Berkeley. Am I right?
    I listened to him religiously on ‘Something’s Happening’ in Los Angeles on KPFK,
    which is a sister station on the Pacifica network.


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