Once upon a time, a forest.

Trees that fanned the sky, streams that flowed with songs hidden in their hearts, waterfalls that endlessly called out to someone, birds that bathed in colours and drew pictures with their wings, flowers that became ecstatic straining their ears to listen to the breeze murmuring, animals of every shape and size that roamed about amongst the shadows.

A rainy night in that forest.

Lightning tore through the sky, illuminating the entire forest. Clouds roared, thunder loud enough to burst the heart. The rain was like a great army. The raindrops falling on dry leaves and breaking down. The wind was screaming itself hoarse. The entire forest was drenched and fearful of the thunder.

During that terrible night, under a tree, a monkey was experiencing birth pangs. Shivering in the wind, wet from the rain and her tears, she was moaning helplessly. She was struggling to bring the child she had protected in her womb all this while out into the world. Gathering all the courage in her heart, scratching the base of the tree trunk frenziedly with her nails, she let out a loud scream. The child touched the ground. The monkey shut her eyes for a while. Inexplicable happiness. Explicable pain.

The rain became less and less and hurled lightning on to the earth. In the light, the mother saw the tiny life that had come out of her. Hugging her bloodied mass tightly, she licked her child’s body. She stuck him to her navel. Not opening his eyes, the little one held on to his mother tightly. He drank milk to his fill, and soon mother and child were lost in sleep.

At dawn, while the birds cooed, the mother opened her eyes. The little one too opened his eyes and looked at his mother. Their eyes met, exuding love.

The little one kept looking at his mother and then asked, “Who am I? Where did I come from?”

The mother was a little surprised. She was happy that her child had spoken for the first time. “We are all monkeys, Bidda. I am your mother,” she said as she clutched the little one to her tummy and started climbing up the tree branch.

“Amma! Why is the world slanting?” the child asked again.

The mother looked suspiciously into the child’s face. She wondered if the child had gone crazy. She immediately set out to look for the monkey baba.

She found him sitting on the outermost branch of the tree, examining the ups and downs of the world. On seeing the mother monkey, he greeted her courteously and said as he caressed the little one, “Welcome to our new guest.”

The mother told him about the questions the child had asked.

The baba took the little one into his hands and kissed him. “If he is asking such questions so soon after his birth, the danger of his becoming a great soul cannot be ruled out,” he said.

“Is questioning wrong, swami?” the child asked.

The baba was startled. “In this world, there is nothing as worthwhile as keeping one’s mouth shut. That’s why everyone respects me as an elder. The world will continue to be the same world. You found it slanting. I keep seeing it upside down. Did I ask anyone why it is so? Questions like ‘Why?’ and ‘What?’ are unwise. With logic, the tongue might sharpen, but your brain will not bloom. The forest is full of luscious fruits. Go, eat them. You will realise that there is no happiness greater than eating.” Saying this, the monkey baba was lost in his examination of the world.

The mother took the child and went away.

As the child grew older, his questions increased. He would not mix with friends. He would sit alone. He would not go to school. Trees, leaves, fruits, rain, sun, mist, everything filled him with curiosity. He had the urge to delve deep into life and find out at least one truth.

One day, the wind swept a newspaper into the forest. The little monkey kept it under his armpit and went to the baba.

“Baba, I have a doubt,” he said.

“Tell me in one sentence,” said the baba.

“It says here that man was born from a monkey. Is that true?” he asked.

“Each one writes according to his own knowledge. It is not necessary for us to believe everything.”

“I am thinking of finding out the truth of this on my own.”

“What do you mean by that?”

“I am thinking of going amidst men.”

“It’s stupidity to find out everything through experience. You’re naïve. Men are very wicked.” The baba advised him.

“Please bless me, Baba. I am going ahead anyway.”

“Okay. If the tail is placed in the way of the explorer, will he stop?”

The baba looked pitifully at the child.

The monkey set out. The mother shed tears. “Nayana, don’t forget that you have a mother who is eagerly awaiting your return, heart in her mouth.” Saying this, she embraced her child lovingly and saw him off.

No sooner had the monkey reached the outskirts of human habitation than a noose fell around his neck.

A man materialised in front of him, and said, “I’m your boss now. Do somersaults like a cat.” Then, he gave him four blows with a thick rod.

The monkey could not comprehend the situation. “Ayya, am I not a monkey? How can I somersault like a cat?” he asked.

“Okay, then somersault like a monkey,” the man said, and gave only two blows this time with the thick rod. To evade it, the monkey jumped up and down four times.

Taking the monkey along with him, he made him perform somersaults in front of crowds, extracted money from the spectators and went home.

At home, he gave the monkey some morsels to eat. Then he ate, went to sleep and started snoring. The monkey tried to escape, but he could not. The next day, the man took the monkey on to the street again. He made him perform different kinds of tricks. He made him learn to keep coins in his mouth. He gave him just enough food to survive, and without fail, he gave him four blows with the thick rod.

“Why do you keep beating me? Like you, I too have life! Isn’t pain the same for everyone?” asked the monkey.

“I learnt through experience that this world will not listen to anything other than the rod. Even so, when I listen to you, you seem to be the ideal character for sympathy.” Saying this, he struck the monkey two more times.

A few days went by, and no matter how many tricks the monkey performed, they did not make any money. When men themselves were performing all kinds of tricks to survive, who would pay attention to a monkey? The boss was now exhausted. He reduced the monkey’s food and increased the blows.

One day, after roaming through all the streets in the area, they did not get any money. The boss was lost in his thoughts. After a while, he said, “It’s no use any more. Humour is dead in people.There’s nothing else to do now but invoke their pity.”

The monkey looked suspiciously at the man.

“Look, my friend! This is a wicked world. Because we have eyes, we can’t help looking at it. I put up with this pain. Do you think it is necessary for you to see this world?” asked the boss.

The monkey was perplexed.

“Understand what I am saying. Rather than die of hunger, it is better to live as a blind creature. People are kind-hearted. If they look at a blind monkey, they will donate to us generously. I’ll take out your eyes painlessly.” The boss said all this with a straight face.

The monkey looked at him in disgust. “Are you really human?”

“I have this idea only because I am human. You are an animal. Has your brain ever worked like this?”

In the meanwhile, a loud noise was heard. And then, people fleeing. Shouts of anguish. Shouts of pain.

The boss was terrified. “Friend! I am giving you an opportunity to look at this world. Goodbye.” Saying this, he ran away.

The monkey did not know where to turn. Wherever he looked, he saw people fleeing. Children who could not flee were being crushed. Stench of petrol. Smell of flesh burning. Women hugging their infants to their chests, screaming. Falling down. Burning away.

Four people surrounded the monkey.

“Who are you? A Hindu? A Muslim?”

The monkey looked amazed. “I am a monkey,” he said, trembling. ‘What does it matter who you are?’

Sticks rose in the air.

To escape the blows to his head, the monkey somersaulted. But he was hit on one leg. “Phut!” The sound of bones breaking.

His mother in the forest came to his mind. After that, he did not remember anything.

The monkey opened his eyes. He was surrounded by the smell of medicines. The smell of wounds. Infants were crying, unable to bear their pain. A two-year-old girl with a bandage round her head was going around searching, calling out, “Amma!”

The monkey’s head was splitting. There was a bandage on one of his legs. Unbearable pain.

A nurse came in and said, “You’re lucky you survived, but...” She stopped midway.

The monkey looked at her listlessly.

“You will never be able to walk on your two legs,” said the nurse. Looking at his leg, the monkey cried copiously.

After a few days went by, they gave the monkey a walking stick and said, “You can go now.”

“Where to?” asked the monkey.

“You can go wherever you desire.”

A sad smile appeared on the monkey’s lips.

In the meanwhile, a man came to the monkey. “I’m the owner of a circus. I’ll take you with me.” Saying this, he took the monkey with his walking stick along with him.

“Ayya! What should I do there?”

“Entertain people, of course!”

“Ayya! If I feel sad, can I cry?” asked the monkey.

“You may cry, but soundlessly. You’ll always have that much freedom.”

At the circus, they put him in a cage. He saw many animals like him there. He asked them, “Where did you all come from?”

“Why would we come from somewhere? We were born here, we grew up here,” they said.

“Do you like it here?”

“Why not? They feed us four pieces of meat every day. By the way, where did you come from?” asked the animals.

“From a wonderful world of trees, birds, streams, sunrises. You wouldn’t be able to imagine it in your dreams,” the monkey said, recalling his shattered dream.

“Who provides meat there?” asked the animals.

Here, in the circus, the crowd would applaud the feats the monkey performed with only one leg. He would drag his leg and run; he would perform somersaults.

In a few days, the crowd got tired, and they stopped clapping. The owner thought food was unnecessary for the monkey, and he would get food only once a day.

One day, the owner came and took the monkey out of the cage. “No one appreciates his somersaults these days. Must teach him to play the flute,” he told his assistant.

They placed a flute in the monkey’s hand. He looked at it, perplexed. The whip lashed. He cried. Music flowed out of the flute. Only the monkey knew those were his tears.

There was a new sparkle in the circus due to the sorrowful melody of the flute. The more life became difficult, the more novel the flute songs became. His mother’s lullabies, the forest’s wind song, the waterfalls’ sorrowful song. The monkey would look for his broken life in these songs.

Being at the circus was a job without a break. They would wake him up at night and drag him away.

A short while passed by. He went to many places.

Once, when the circus was travelling from one place to another, it halted in a forest. The moment the air of the forest hit the monkey, endless memories sprung up from within. This was his motherland. The smell of the earth brought fresh blood into his veins and woke him up. He felt like screaming, and he felt like crying.

He gathered all his strength and broke the cord tied to his foot. He ran out, limping. Dragging one foot behind him, breathing hard, sweating profusely, wiping his tears, without paying heed to his body that was being scratched and to his blood that was flowing, falling, getting up, tumbling, he ran to the heart of the forest.

His forest, his earth, his smell – they surrounded him lovingly. He kissed the earth time and again.The earth that his mother had roamed on, the earth where there were no human beings.

All the monkeys in the forest looked at him in surprise, wondering who this stranger running to them on one leg, enduring such pain, was. Before anyone else could, his mother recognised him. She had known her child even from a distance. The minute the smell of her child touched her, her heart melted.

When she saw the child she thought she would never lay her eyes on again, her eyes clouded with tears. She ran to him and embraced him. Looking at his crooked foot, she cried her heart out. She caressed his entire body. She licked his wounds.

Seeing his mother who resembled a sorrowful river, the child embraced her tightly.

Overcoming the sorrow that had stifled his words, wiping his mother’s tears with the edge of a nail, without speaking to anyone, the monkey went straight to the baba.

“Baba!” he screamed.

The baba got off the tree in a single jump, came and embraced the monkey. He laughed sorrowfully looking at the monkey’s broken leg. “There’s no greater guru than experience,” he mumbled.

“Baba, I have discovered a truth,” said the monkey.

“One can see the price you paid for it too,” said the baba, caressing him affectionately, a trace of sorrow in his voice.

“Baba! If going from a lower state to a higher state is the process of evolution, then to say that the lower man was born from the higher monkey is a falsehood. The truth is that the monkey is born from the man. One who wants to find the truth in the world has to pay a price. I too...” A tear slid and fell on the hair of his broken leg and dried up.

The monkey, dragging his leg, went silently into the forest. After a while, the forest echoed with the song of the flute. The song appeared as if it were questioning all human beings on earth.

“The Primeval Song”, by GR Maharshi, excerpted with permission from Telugu: The Best Stories Of Our Times, edited by Volga, translated from the Telugu by M Sridhar and Alladi Uma, HarperCollins India.