A Storyby Shaily Menon
I had not intended to befriend you, but you looked younger than you were: a shy child with an infectious grin. What could it hurt to smile back at you? Until then, I had kept pretty much to myself. Seeking solace from heartache, it sufficed me to be alone in the rainforest. My task was to investigate the survival of an endangered species, a group of monkeys, which lived in a forest remnant. How did the group sustain itself in such depleted circumstances? Single-minded pursuit of the answer to this question was meant to sustain me during my exile.
I was forced to make one concession to the rule of being alone—a tracker had to accompany me in the forest at all times. Murugavel, the tracker recommended to me by my colleague A. J., was a study in eccentricity. I liked that about him. His limbs were stringy and he carried a rough-hewn machete at all times. He kept me from losing my way, and his swinging machete freed us when we got tangled in the underbrush, or in the remains of giant spider webs spanning the trees across our path. He spoke no English, and I had only enough broken Tamil to communicate the basics. Our language problems and taciturn natures, together with his refusal to bathe, meant that we kept our interactions to a minimum. Over time, he grew more sullen. Perhaps my dreary mood infected him. One chilly predawn, as I boiled the week’s drinking water on the stove, and the usual eggs for the day’s hike, he refused to go into the forest with me, violating the code of conduct for trackers. “Are you not well?” I asked. He shook his head. It was gloomy outside, pouring down rain. He didn’t want to get wet. “Rain!” he said, pointing upward, in case the incessant pattering of the heavy raindrops on the corrugated tin roof had escaped my notice. “I know, but I have to go,” I reminded him. “Why?” he asked. The insolence. How do I explain: I am a graduate student. Our motto? Give us data. Or give us death. Instead I said, “To follow the monkeys. Write down what they are eating. Why else?” Then he looked at me sadly and said something so profound, it took my breath away: “They are eating the same thing they were eating yesterday.” I stood brooding silently and watched the water boiling. All explanations—of statistical analyses and replication and evenly distributed, stratified sampling to capture seasonal diet variation—fell by the wayside. We had neither the vocabulary nor the inclination to understand each other at that moment. “Fine,” I said testily, and took off for the forest without him.