With climate change and environmental conservation on many minds these days, it’s only fitting that the late Manindra Gupta’s 2016 short novel, Pebblemonkey, told from the point of view of an adventurous monkey, has recently been translated into English by Arunava Sinha. The story takes on magical realism and weaves it into a cautionary tale about humans who exploit nature and think nothing of it.
As the story begins, so does the origin of the pebblemonkey high up in the Himalayas.
The ibexes are wandering about this afternoon. Several pebbles with circular lines etched into them are scattered around the mouth of the tunnel. Suddenly, the pressure from the hoof of the leader of the mountain goats dislodges one of the peculiar-looking pebbles. It is thrown up in the air, and when it falls it bounces into the tunnel. Soon afterwards, someone can be heard swimming in the water, cutting through it with strong arms. And, how absurd this is, but as the pebble swims through the water bearing the ancient elixir of life, it is transformed into a living creature.
This living creature is a monkey; its folkloric origin could have taken place at any time in history, but this particular story is set in contemporary times. The monkey meets other animals in the mountains, but about halfway into the story he comes across three women travelers—a Norwegian, Bengali, and Japanese—who have set out to climb the many peaks in the area.
The pebblemonkey can speak to the women, which naturally surprises them. Although taken aback at first, they then figure they can trust him since he knows the mountains even better than their two Sherpas. The women ask the monkey to join their small group of five. Other humans that join their group later on end up harassing him, despite his having saved one of the women from an avalanche. Tensions heat up between the humans and animals on the mountains.
What can possibly happen after this? The two sides become sworn enemies. Each one ambushes the other whenever possible. The war has passed from the insects into the hands of clawed carnivores. Snow leopards have turned into maneaters, lying in wait behind the folds in the mountains. Maneating tigers have moved upwards from the lower forests.
Some humans hunt the tigers, leopards, and bears, which are seen as prizes. But when humans die at the hands of these animals, they are seen as victims.
The monkey eventually figures out where he’s most happy and at ease, and Gupta’s story, as told by the monkey, is sympathetic towards environmentalism and conservation. But a passage in which the narrator explains the difference between humans and animals may raise eyebrows if not hackles, and not just at the odd repetition at the end.
… but now men are marrying men, women are marrying women. Humans have the advantage of enabling what is relatively rare by passing a law. All it now needs is a law to sanction married relationships between humans and deer, between humans and fish, between humans and deer.
Despite this reminder that diverse voices aren’t always progressive, if one can overlook this section—and it is a very small part of the story—this novel seems timely in our era of climate change and a pandemic that was caused by disrupting animals in their natural habitat.