Nineteen-year-old Sahir Khan’s day often has him standing for hours, waiting for his simian foes to appear. When the bandars do come, Sahir runs after them, making a high-pitched clacking, chasing them away. He does this nine hours a day, seven days a week.
Not all heroes wear capes.
In 1998, Dilawar Khan (no relation to Sahir) was approached by his father and uncles with a unique problem--monkey attacks. The men in his families were banjaras, who danced and played music around India Gate, but of late had business disrupted by a troop of monkeys who would attack them out of the blue.
Dilawar, who was 18 then, quickly found a solution, Mangal Singh his pet langur. Dilawar began bringing Mangal wherever his family were performing, using him to scare away the brown monkeys. “Before getting into this, I didn’t even know what a job is,” he told us near his house in Delhi’s Khajuri area.
Dilawar Khan teaches 25-year-old Afzal Khan the ropes. Image: Parthshri Arora
“Mangal Singh was my favorite langur,” Dilawar recalled. He once handled around 50 monkeys in a single day. And on one memorable day in 1999, Mangal attacked 20 monkeys at once, kicking and screaming in excitement. Dilarwar caught some of those blows too.
With the 1990s seeing a rise in monkeys encroaching on city spaces, Dilawar’s success stood out. A policeman stationed at Vijay Chowk, who knew him, introduced Dilawar’s to power brokers in North and South Block. He then got official government contracts to chase away monkeys on several rooftops and open compounds. This meant he had to hire people from among his friends and family, stationing them in various parts of Delhi.
Business was booming until 2012, when animal rights activism meant he couldn’t use monkeys as a strategy anymore. Dilawar trained his handlers to imitate the scream of a langur, and furnished them with sticks to wave and tap threateningly.
It clearly worked, and now he has around 40 of his monkey handlers stationed across the NCR including the Delhi Legislative Assembly, the All India Institute of Medical Sciences, Sena Bhawan, Surajkund Mela, and even the rooftop of the co-working space where VICE worked out of in Delhi.
He picks up unemployed boys from his neighbourhood and gives them assignments where there is already a large contingent station to train. AIIMS currently has over 10 of Khans’ handlers employed. “No one learns anything while sitting at home. And this is not an easy job, it requires mental and physical agility,” he told VICE. “They should be at least 19, 20 years of age,” he added.
Each monkey handler makes around 13,000-15,000 rupees a month, out of which, after GST, Dilawar takes home around Rs 1,500-2,000 per employee. When they’re injured on the job, he has to pay them out of his own pocket. “Once, at Ambedkar College near Mori Gate, while trying to chase a monkey, one of my boys fell down a wall. This happens with the dumb ones,” he explained. If the monkeys destroy any private property, the chaser compensates it from his salary.
Sahir Khan getting ready for work. Image: Parthshri Arora
Sahir studied for a year at Ramjas College, and is one of the smart ones. He’s employed at the VICE co-working space rooftop in Central Delhi. “I work the 9 AM to 6 PM shift, and get around 50-100 monkeys a day,” Sahir told us.
One afternoon, we saw him chase away around 30 monkeys with his voice. “Usually they aren’t that much trouble, but if it’s about a female monkey, then they get absolutely furious," he said.
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