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Sunday, June 10, 2001

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To catch a phantom


IT "surfaced" from no one knows where and "disappeared" without leaving much of a trail. But for an entire fortnight, the "Monkey Man" had Delhi in its grip; providing grist for the mill that worked overtime and consumed two lives.

And, it is not just the families of the two persons who died in their bid to get away from the "Monkey Man" who are having to live with the horror of it all. According to psychologist Prof. Aruna Broota, children are the worst sufferers. "I have had several cases referred to me of children bed-wetting, not sleeping and refusing to go out to play because of fear of the creature."

Strangely enough, most of the children who have been brought to Prof. Broota for phobia in the past fortnight are not residents of the areas that "sighted the 'Monkey Man'". "They belong to affluent families and had heard about the 'creature' on television. Such is their fear that they refuse to believe that there is no such thing as a 'Monkey Man'."

Of the view that the "Monkey Man" is a prankster, Prof. Broota says he cashed in on the sense of fear - particularly of the unknown - that people in urban areas live with. "The police added to the mass hysteria by calling it a creature; preferring to go by the stories of the suggestible people than the facts of the case. If it was a creature, would it have followed a pattern; attacking at night and only in poor localities?"

In fact, the conduct of the police has come in for severe criticism as it gave credence to the rumours. That they may have reacted in haste is a realisation that appears to be dawning on the police also. Today, the police - who were very generous with information to begin with - are tight-lipped and are awaiting the report of the special team set up to investigate the "Monkey Man" case.

"By sending out so many men in khaki to catch a 'phantom', the police officially and authoritatively confirmed its existence; promoting the mass delusion and panic rather than dissolving it," says the secretary-general of Indian Rationalist Association, Sanal Edamaruku.

The association's evaluation of recorded material and interaction with "victims" revealed that most of the people who came up with detailed descriptions had not seen anything themselves. "Those who claimed to have encountered the 'creature' gave very different and contradictory descriptions. We soon understood that the 'Monkey Man' 'appeared' in as many different shapes as there were 'eye-witnesses' to describe him. He seemed to come straight out of television, which has a host of serials of the 'X-Files' genre," is what Edamaruku has to say.

As for the "injuries", none, according to him, were serious. "Interestingly, there was no uniformity in them, though they were claimed to have come from the same source. With every single case, we were more convinced that all these injuries were self- inflicted - deliberately or unknowingly. In a hyper gullible situation, any casual injury could be taken as caused by the "Monkey Man" by people craving for attention. I noticed that people, describing how they had been attacked and injured, were more excited than sullen and traumatised; indicating their mental state."

While psychologists and rationalists are inclined to view the mid-May happenings in the city as mass delusion, primatologist Iqbal Malik sees it as the handiwork of humans out to give monkeys a bad name. "Some vested interests are cashing in on the reports of 'the monkey invasion' of the Capital to make people hostile towards monkeys who are generally revered," she argues, drawing attention to the growing population of monkeys in the city.

Having warned the authorities of a conflict situation between monkeys and humans way back in 1989 itself, the primatologist is keeping her fingers crossed in the hope that the "Monkey Man" scare will nudge the authorities into addressing the "long pending business of monkey management".

ANITA JOSHUA

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Section  : Features
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