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Shantaram and The Human Zoo

Desmond Morris is the celebrated author of such bestsellers as The Naked Ape, The Human Zoo, Manwatching, Intimate Behaviour and so on. They are powerful books that give deep insights into human nature, particularly the nature of the urban man. I remember reading and reading greedily The Naked Ape as a teenager and then The Human Zoo when it was published later. The books changed the way I looked at men and women and the world around me. The Naked Ape and The Human Zoo are the first books on what is today known as Sociobilogy and Desmond Morris, a brilliant pioneer in his chosen field.

In The Human Zoo Morris compares animals in the wild and animals in captivity, as in a zoo. He also compares people living in the openness of villages and people in big cities. He then compares people in these two different states with animals in the two different states. According to Morris, the neurosis and psychoses that the urban man frequently displays is akin to similar behaviours exhibited by animals in captivity. Morris ascribes human violence, his frustration and anger, his boundless aggression, his hysteria, the madness that often possess him and so on to his being captive to urban civilization.

Reading a passage from Gregory David Roberts’ international bestseller Shantaram, I remembered Morris. Roberts describes the sudden violence that erupts on a Bombay street – and I am sure those who are familiar with Bombay would agree that Roberts is doing no more than describe what happens in some part of Bombay or the other every day. In fact, in some part or the other of every metropolis in India and in many other parts of the world.

When the passage begins, Lin, who is the narrator of the story and Prabaker [Prabu], his friend and guide, are in a taxi. Prabu has promised Lin to take him to the ‘real’ Bombay, which European visitors rarely get to see. The taxi driver is reckless and rude and in an irate mood – apparently that is how this driver always is. An accident has just been avoided because Lin shouted a warning to the driver in time.


“The taxi driver—a burly, dark-skinned man with a bristling moustache—seemed to be outraged at my impertinence in saving our lives. When we first took the taxi he’d adjusted his mirror until he saw nothing in it but my face. After the near miss he glared at me, snarling a growl of insults in Hindi. He drove the cab like a getaway car, slewing left and right to overtake slower vehicles. There was an angry, bullying pugnacity in his attitude to everyone else on the road. He rushed to within centimetres of every slower car in his path, sounding his horn, then all but nudging it out of the way. If the slower car moved a little to the left, in order to let him pass, our driver drew beside it, pacing it for a time and shouting insults. When he spied another slow vehicle ahead, he sped forward to repeat the procedure. From time to time he opened his door and leaned out over the road to spit paan juice, taking his eyes off the traffic ahead for long seconds as we hurtled along in the rattling cab.”

Eventually an alarmed Lin and Prabu ask the driver to stop the car. But that only makes the driver more enraged.

“With the car hurtling along at top speed, he turned his head to snarl at us. His mouth was wide open, and his teeth were bared. His eyes were huge, their blackness streaked with rage.

“Arrey!” Prabaker shrieked, pointing past the driver. It was too late. The man turned quickly. His arms stiffened at the wheel, and he hit the brakes hard. There was a skating, sliding second ... two seconds ... three seconds. I heard a guttural gasp of air from deep in his throat. It was a sucking sound, like the lifting of a flat stone from the moist clay on the edge of a riverbed. Then there was the whump and crash as we slammed into a car that had stopped in front of us to make a turn. We were thrown forward into the back of his seat, and heard two thumping explosions as two other cars rammed into us.

“Shattered glass and chrome fragments rattled on the road like thin metallic applause in the sudden silence that followed the impacts. My head had hit the door in the tumble spill of the accident. I felt blood flowing from a cut above my eye, but I was otherwise unhurt.”

Prabu now shouts urgently that they must get out of the car. “Out! Out of here! Now!” he says.

But the door on his side is jammed shut, and he begins to push at it with his shoulder. He can’t budge it. He reaches across to Lin to try the door on his side, but sees at once that another car is jammed against it, pinning it shut. With great difficulty, after a nerve-wrecking struggle, they manage to get out of the damaged car. Lin tries to pull the driver out of the car, but Prabu shouts, ““Don’t touch him! Leave him and get out. Get out now!” Prabu takes a confused Lin to a safe distance, and from where they watch what is happening at the accident site.

“We stood, stretching the ache from shoulders and whip-lashed necks, and looked toward the wreckage some ten metres away. About thirty people had gathered around the four crashed vehicles. A few of them were helping drivers and passengers from the damaged cars. The rest huddled together in groups, gesturing wildly and shouting. More people streamed toward the site from every direction. Drivers of other cars that had been blocked from travelling further left their vehicles and joined the crowd. The thirty people became fifty, eighty, then a hundred as we watched.

“One man was the centre of attention. It was his car that had been trying to turn right, his car we’d smashed into with the brakes on full lock. He stood beside the taxi, bellowing with rage... His hand had been cut from the palm to the wrist. As the staring crowd grew more silent, subdued by the drama, he smeared blood from the wound on his face and beat the redness into the grey of his suit, shouting all the while.

“Just then, some men carried a woman into the little clear space around the man, and placed her on a piece of cloth that was stretched out on the ground for her. They shouted instructions to the crowd, and in moments a wooden cart appeared, pushed by bare-chested men wearing only singlets and short lungis. The woman was lifted onto the cart, her red sari gathered up in folds and wrapped about her legs. She may have been the man’s wife — I couldn’t be sure — but his rage suddenly grew hysterical. He seized her roughly by the shoulders and shook her. He pulled at her hair. He appealed to the crowd with enormous, histrionic gestures, flinging his arms wide and then striking his own bloodstreaked face...”

“As the semi-conscious woman was trundled away on the humble cart, the man hurled himself at the door of the taxi, wrenching it open. The crowd reacted as one. They dragged the dazed and injured taxi driver from his cab in an instant and flung him on the bonnet of the car. He raised his arms in feeble pleading, but a dozen, twenty, fifty hands punched and tore at him. Blows drummed on his face, chest, stomach, and groin. Fingernails scratched and ripped, tearing his mouth open on one side almost to the ear, and shredding his shirt to rags...”

“We’ve got to do something ...” I said lamely.

“Enough people are doing, baba,” Prabaker replied.

“No, I mean, we’ve got to ... can’t we help him, somehow?”

“For this fellow is no helping,” he sighed. “Now you see it, Lin. Accidents is very bad business in Bombay. Better you get out of that car, or taxi, or what is it you are in, very, very quickly. The public are not having patience for such business. See now, it is too late for that fellow.”

“The beating was swift, but savage. Blood streamed from many cuts on the man’s face and naked torso. At a signal, perceived, somehow, through the howl and shriek of the crowd, the man was lifted up and carried off at head height. His legs were pressed together and stretched out, held rigid by a dozen hands. His arms were splayed out at right angles to his body and held fast. His head lolled and fell back, the soft, wet flap of skin hanging from cheek to jaw. His eyes were open, conscious, staring backward and upside down: black eyes, scudded with fear and imbecile hope. Traffic on the far side of the road parted to let the people pass, and the man slowly disappeared, crucified on the hands and shoulders of the crowd.”

“What ... what are they going to do with him?” Lin asks Prabu.

“They will take him to police, I think so. Behind Crawford Market is one police station, for this area. Maybe he will have the luck—maybe alive, he will reach there. Maybe not.”


This is the hysteria that Desmond Morris is talking about in The Human Zoo. This is the aggression and violence, the brutality and mercilessness, the mad rage in the human heart that Morris talks about. Our crowded urban lifestyles and living conditions frequently reduce us to this.

In Munnabhai MBBS, a movie I love, there is a similar scene. It is again Bombay – one of the crowded railway stations, Churchgate perhaps, or maybe VT. Munna’s father [Sunil Dutt] is in Bombay to meet his son, and at the station he discovers that someone is trying to pinch off his purse. He shouts and the thief is caught. The next instant the public pounces upon the pickpocket, hitting him, kicking him, shouting at him abuses and giving vent to their blind fury in any way that comes to each. After a minute or so, Dutt interferes. Those who have seen the movie would recall what Dutt tells the pickpocket and the crowd is precisely what Desmond Morris says in The Human Zoo.

Metropolises are a fact of life. They cannot be avoided, they cannot be wished away. But it is also a fact that each of us needs more space for ourselves than these crowded metropolises permit us. Space in our life, and space out there. Without space there can be no serenity, and man needs to get in touch with his serenity every now and then, even if he cannot be always in touch with it. When that serenity, inner solitude, inner sanctuary, is denied to him, he goes berserk. It is this inner serenity that keeps man sane, and when that is denied to him, he goes insane. Without serenity and open spaces, man ceases to be an individual and becomes part of the mob.

Unfortunately, open spaces are fast disappearing. Both from our cities and from our lives.



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