This story has been updated.
If there is one area that generations of foreign correspondents in India have diligently covered, it is monkeys.
The New York Times started writing about the rosy-bottomed creatures in the subcontinent in the 1940s—and has not let go even seven decades later, even as India was transformed from a brand new republic to one of the fastest growing economies in the world.
On Jan. 23, the venerated American newspaper published an article titled “For Obama’s Visit, India Takes a Broom to Stray Monkeys and Cows.” The story is about how New Delhi’s city council workers tried to keep cows and monkeys off the streets ahead of Obama’s visit.
Ellen Barry, the author of the piece, wrote:
“Consider the monkeys, mainly rhesus macaques: Bold enough to climb in kitchen windows to check the contents of refrigerators, they are also viewed as a representation of the Hindu deity Hanuman, so they cannot be harmed without prompting a major outcry.”
But the story—and the “orientalist” coverage that it typifies—were mocked in India and abroad.
Update: “I cannot speak for the Times, but my own interest in monkeys goes back long before I was hired at the newspaper: This Gig Is a Real Grind,” Barry told Quartz in an email. “Previous to the piece I wrote this week, I did write one piece on monkeys while I covered Queens: A Taste of Baboon and Monkey Meat, and Maybe of Prison, Too.”
Yes, troops of monkeys can be spotted in many parts of the country. But it is hard to overlook the fact that the Times’ coverage of the subject has had the same tone for years now.
Nov. 14, 2007: Monkeys in the parks, monkeys in the palace
Sept. 29, 2010: Monkeys deployed to guard Indian games
May 22, 2012: Indians feed the monkeys, which bite the hand
The newspaper’s obsession with India’s fauna is not just limited to monkeys. From dogs and cows to snakes, few animals have been spared. In August 2012, the NYT published a piece on stray dogs titled, “Where streets are thronged with strays wearing fangs.”
“Packs of strays lurk in public parks, guard alleyways and street corners and howl nightly in neighborhoods and villages. Joggers carry bamboo rods to beat them away, and bicyclists fill their pockets with stones to throw at chasers. Walking a pet dog here can be akin to swimming with sharks.”
The story elicited some sharp reactions from people on Twitter.
Not too long ago, this was the Times’ reaction to India’s historic Mars mission—the cheapest in the world.
The cartoon was deemed outright racist on social media and on several other publications—prompting the newspaper to issue an apology.
The newspaper clarified that it was not “trying to impugn India, its government or its citizens.” However, even the apology underlined the sentiments of the West when it wrote that the intent was to “highlight how space exploration is no longer the exclusive domain of rich, Western countries.”
In 2008, the NYT published an article about “cow-catchers” titled “Urban Cowboys Struggle With India’s Sacred Strays.” The author of the story, Jeremy Kahn, wrote:
“There is perhaps no more stereotypical image of India than that of a stray cow sauntering down the middle of a busy city street, seemingly oblivious to the traffic swerving around it.”
Towards the end, he mockingly informed the readers that: “…they rarely socialize outside of work. There are no cowboy bars in Delhi.”
To be sure, the Times is not the only foreign publication to fixate on India’s animals.
The Monkey Inspector’s Report has a handy list of some of the monkey stories published by the foreign press over the years. Los Angeles Times, South China Morning Post, The Independent—all of them have played their part.
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