What is Ramadan?

What is Ramadan?

We are in the month of Ramadan Al Kareem. It comes with great goodness and blessings and the promise of Allahﷻ’s Forgiveness and Mercy.

Abu Sa`id Al-Khudri (RA) reported that Rasoolullah said, ‘Anyone who fasts for one day for Allah’s sake, Allah will keep his face away from the Hellfire for (a distance covered by a journey of) seventy years. (Al-Bukhari and Muslim)

Uthman ibn Abi Al-Aas reported that Rasoolullah said, ‘Fasting serves as a shield from Hellfire.”’(An-Nasa’i and authenticated by Al-Albani)

Abdullah ibn Amr reported that Rasoolullahﷺ said, ‘Fasting and the Qur’an will intercede on behalf of Allah’s servant on the Day of Judgment: Fasting will say, “O my Rabb! I prevented him from food and desires during the day, so accept my intercession for him. And the Qur’an will say, ‘O my Rabb! I prevented him from sleeping by night, so accept my intercession for him.’ The intercession of both will thus be accepted. (Ahmad and authenticated by Al-Albani)

Contrary to ignorantly romantic notions, fasting in Ramadan is not prescribed to teach the wealthy what it means to be poor. Poverty is about insecurity, lack of choice, lack of dignity, compulsion, fear and despair. Poverty is about living on the edge without any safety net. It is not about present hardship but of looking ahead at a life of unending and ever-increasing deprivation. Anyone who thinks that he can know what poverty is by merely bringing breakfast forward and postponing lunch with a fridge full of goodies and special foods to break your fast with, is delusional. You will never know what it is to be poor until you are poor yourself.

Ramadan is about recognizing that you are not Calvin

Ramadan is a month which Allahﷻ sends as a boot camp to reset our lifestyles to a way that leads to success in this world and the next. This is the beauty of Islam. Islam doesn’t demand renunciation of this life in order to attain success in the Hereafter. Islam shows us a way of life that guarantees us popularity, influence, love, harmony, peace and prosperity in this life and Jannah (Heaven) in the Aakhira (Hereafter). The key to that is the concept of Taqwa.

Allahﷻ said about Ramadan:

Baqara 2:183. O you who believe! Observing As-Saum (the fasting) is prescribed for you as it was prescribed for those before you, that you may become Al-Muttaqun (people of Taqwa)

What is Taqwa? Taqwa is the over-riding concern, never to displease Allahﷻ, who we love the most, over and above anyone and anything else. The love of Allahﷻ is not like the love of anyone or anything else. It is a combination of Khashiyyat (Awe) and Shukr (Thankfulness). This leads to the Hubb (Love) of Allahﷻ, which, as I said, is unlike any other emotion that we are capable of feeling. How do we develop this love? We do it by focusing on the Glory and Majesty of Allahﷻ and on His blessings.

About His Glory and Majesty, Allahﷻ described it in a way that nobody can equal or better. He said about Himself and His Glory and Majesty:

Baqara 2: 255. Allah! La ilaha illa Huwa (none has the right to be worshipped but He), the Ever Living, the One Who sustains and protects all that exists. Neither dozing, nor sleep overtake Him. To Him belongs whatever is in the heavens and whatever is on earth. Who is he that can intercede with Him except with His Permission? He knows what happens to them (His creatures) in this world, and what will happen to them in the Hereafter . And they will never compass anything of His Knowledge except that which He wills. His Kursi extends over the heavens and the earth, and He feels no fatigue in guarding and preserving them. And He is the Most High, the Most Great.

Al Ikhlaas 112: 1. Say (O Muhammad ()): “He is Allah, (the) One. 2. “Allah-us-Samad (The Self-Sufficient Master, Whom all creatures need and He doesn’t need anything from his creatures). 3. “He begets not, nor was He begotten; 4. “And there is none co-equal or comparable unto Him.”

Hashr 59: 21.  Had We sent down this Qur’an on a mountain, you would surely have seen it humbling itself and rending asunder by the fear of Allah. Such are the parables which We put forward to mankind that they may reflect. 22. He is Allah, than Whom there is La ilaha illa Huwa (none has the right to be worshipped but He) the All-Knower of the unseen and the seen (open). He is the Most Beneficent, the Most Merciful. 23. He is Allah than Whom there is La ilaha illa Huwa (none has the right to be worshipped but He) the King, the Holy, the One Free from all defects, the Giver of security, the Watcher over His creatures, the All-Mighty, the Compeller, the Supreme. Glory be to Allah! (High is He) above all that they associate as partners with Him. 24. He is Allah, the Creator, the Inventor of all things, the Bestower of forms. To Him belong the Best Names . All that is in the heavens and the earth glorify Him. And He is the All-Mighty, the All-Wise.

Allah reminded us about His blessings and said:

Ar-Rahman 55: 1. The Most Beneficent (Allah)! 2. Has taught (you mankind) the Qur’an (by His Mercy). 3. He created man. 4. He taught him eloquent speech. 5. The sun and the moon run on their fixed courses (exactly) calculated with measured out stages for each (for reckoning, etc.). 6. And the herbs (or stars) and the trees both prostrate. 7. And the heaven He has raised high, and He has set up the Balance. 8. In order that you may not transgress (due) balance. 9. And observe the weight with equity and do not make the balance deficient. 10. And the earth He has put for the creatures.  11. Therein are fruits, date-palms producing sheathed fruit-stalks (enclosing dates). 12. And also corn, with (its) leaves and stalk for fodder, and sweet-scented plants. 13. Then which of the Blessings of your Rabb will you both (jinn and men) deny?14. He created man (Adam) from sounding clay like the clay of pottery.15. And the jinn did He create from a smokeless flame of fire. 16. Then which of the Blessings of your Rabb will you both (jinn and men) deny? 17. (He is) the Rabb of the two easts (places of sunrise during early summer and early winter) and the Rabb of the two wests (places of sunset during early summer and early winter). 18. Then which of the Blessings of your Rabb will you both (jinn and men) deny? 19. He has let loose the two seas (the salt water and the sweet) meeting together. 20. Between them is a barrier which neither of them can transgress. 21. Then which of the Blessings of your Rabb will you both (jinn and men) deny? 22. Out of them both come out pearl and coral. 23. Then which of the Blessings of your Rabb will you both (jinn and men) deny? 24. And His are the ships going and coming in the seas, like mountains. 25. Then which of the Blessings of your Rabb will you both (jinn and men) deny? 26. Whatsoever is on it (the earth) will perish. 27. And the Face of your Rabb full of Majesty and Honour will abide forever. 28. Then which of the Blessings of your Rabb will you both (jinn and men) deny?

Naba 78: 6. Have We not made the earth as a bed, 7. And the mountains as pegs? 8. And We have created you in pairs 9. And have made your sleep as a thing for rest. 10. And have made the night as a covering (through its darkness), 11. And have made the day for livelihood. 12. And We have built above you seven strong (heavens), 13. And have made (therein) a shining lamp (sun). 14. And have sent down from the rainy clouds abundant water. 15. That We may produce therewith corn and vegetation, 16. And gardens of thick growth. 17. Verily, the Day of Decision is a fixed time, 18. The Day when the Trumpet will be blown, and you shall come forth in crowds (groups); 19.And the heaven shall be opened, and it will become as gates, 20. And the mountains shall be moved away from their places and they will be as if they were a mirage.

When we reflect; that is the key – reflection; on the Glory and Majesty of Allahﷻ and all that He blessed us with, we begin to love Him. The more we reflect, the more we love Him. The more we love Him, the more concerned we become about never disobeying or displeasing Him. That is Taqwa and that is why Allahﷻ sent Ramadan.

But how is Ramadan a boot camp?

Obedience is about boundaries. It is about doing what we are told to do without question. Without question not because the obedience is blind but because we recognize and know the One who is ordering us. We obey because we know two things very clearly: 1. That Allahﷻ loves us, wants the best for us and knows what that is better than we do. 2. That what He ordered us to do is for our benefit, because nothing can benefit or harm him. This is basic logic. If Allahﷻ doesn’t know and if we know more than He does, then why are we worshiping Him? In Islam we have settled these basic questions and know that our Creator and Sustainer wants the best for us, knows what that is and has told us to do what is good for us and to refrain from what is bad for us and that to Him, is our return.

Ramadan comes to remind us about obedience by making what is normally permissible, prohibited during a specific time, from dawn to dusk. Why is something that is normally permissible, meaning that it is beneficial for us, prohibited during this time in Ramadan? To teach us a lesson that all permissibility and prohibition is for our benefit and is from Allahﷻ. Ramadan is not only about not eating or drinking. It is about abstaining from all negativity and negative behavior. It is about abstaining from backbiting, slander, lying, cheating, cursing and foul language, anger and arrogance. It is not only about not initiating but of not even responding in a negative way if someone abuses us. Rasoolullahﷺ told us to say, “I am fasting,” to someone who yells at us but not to respond in kind. Rasoolullahﷺ said, “If you can’t control your tongues and behavior, then Allahﷻ is not in need of your hunger and thirst.”

 Abu Hurairah (RA) reported that Rasoolullah said, ‘Fasting is a shield; so, when one of you is fasting, he should neither indulge in obscene language nor should he raise his voice in anger. If someone attacks him or insults him, let him say: “I am fasting!” (Muslim) 

Ramadan is about experimenting with total behavioral change. With making a new lifestyle choice. To choose to live a life of obedience and spread goodness around us. When we are ready to stop ourselves from doing what we normally do and enjoy, only because Allahﷻ ordered us to do so, then how much more important is it to stop ourselves from what Allahﷻ prohibited for us throughout our lives? This is the essence of Taqwa which Ramadan comes to teach us in a powerful experiential way.

That is why we need to ask if Ramadan entered us or if we entered Ramadan. If we entered Ramadan, we will exit it on the 30th of Ramadan. If Ramadan entered us, then it will remain in our hearts and lives, throughout the year. The spirit of obedience, which is Ramadan, is the key to success in this life and the next. That is what must enter our hearts. To obey joyfully and eagerly because we love Allahﷻ. That is Taqwa.

When the slave gets close to His Rabb, it is only natural that he asks about Him and wants to feel connected to Him. See the Mercy of Allahﷻ. He said, in the middle of the Ayaat related to fasting:

وَإِذَا سَأَلَكَ عِبَادِي عَنِّي فَإِنِّي قَرِيبٌ أُجِيبُ دَعْوَةَ الدَّاعِ إِذَا دَعَانِ فَلْيَسْتَجِيبُواْ لِي وَلْيُؤْمِنُواْ بِي لَعَلَّهُمْ يَرْشُدُونَ

Baqara 2:186. And when My slaves ask you (O Muhammad) concerning Me, then (answer them), I am indeed near (to them by My Knowledge). I respond to the dua of the supplicant when he calls on Me. So, let them obey Me and believe in Me, so that they may be rightly guided.

Ramadan is a month of dua. Of asking Allahﷻ, of telling Him your story. He knows it but you still tell Him because that is the essence of Uboodiyat. Learn to make dua.

Create your own style of asking Allahﷻ. He didn’t put any conditions on making dua. We can ask Allahﷻ in any language, in any state, in any condition, anywhere and anyhow. It makes perfect sense not to have any conditions about making dua because the slave asks when he is in dire need. And so he/she must be free to ask in any way and from anywhere. So, ask Allahﷻ. Remember however that Allahﷻ said, “So, let him obey me and have faith in me.” Obedience starts with making a choice to change our ways. To repent our transgressions, knowing that Allahﷻ promised to forgive every transgression, every sin of anyone who comes to Him with sincere repentance. He said:

قُلْ يَا عِبَادِيَ الَّذِينَ أَسْرَفُوا عَلَى أَنفُسِهِمْ لَا تَقْنَطُوا مِن رَّحْمَةِ اللَّهِ إِنَّ اللَّهَ يَغْفِرُ الذُّنُوبَ جَمِيعًا إِنَّهُ هُوَ الْغَفُورُ الرَّحِيمُ

Zumar 39:53.  Say: “O ‘Ibadi (My slaves) who have transgressed against themselves (by committing evil deeds and sins)! Despair not of the Mercy of Allah, verily Allah forgives all sins. Truly, He is Oft-Forgiving, Most Merciful.

Tell me, who but my Rabb, Allahﷻ has the Mercy to call those who have disobeyed and angered Him all their lives, “My slaves”? And then He says, “Despair not of the Mercy of Allahﷻ.” He promises to forgive them and says, “Verily Allahﷻ forgives all sins.” And then he reassures us and says, “Truly He is Oft-Forgiving, Most Merciful.” At each stage of this Ayah, one could say that the meaning is complete. But then my Rabb in His Infinite Mercy goes beyond what we can imagine and forgives us.

Remember however, that forgiveness of Allahﷻ is dependent on forgiveness of those you wronged, when it comes to transgressions against people. If you wronged someone in any way, seek their forgiveness in this life and compensate them and don’t carry that sin with you when you meet Allahﷻ. Rasoolullahﷺ said, “Allahﷻ will not forgive the slave until the one he wronged has forgiven him.” Remember that Rasoolullahﷺ didn’t distinguish between the Muslim and non-Muslim when it comes to oppression of others. A Muslim is prohibited from oppression or wronging anyone. Muslim or non-Muslim, human or animal, animate or inanimate. Muslims are supposed to spread only goodness around themselves.

And if they don’t, they are answerable to the Highest Authority from whom nothing is hidden and whose justice nobody can escape. That is why Allahﷻ called the taking of a single life equal to the annihilation of all humanity and the saving of one life equal to the saving of all humanity. He said:

مِنْ أَجْلِ ذَلِكَ كَتَبْنَا عَلَى بَنِي إِسْرَائِيلَ أَنَّهُ مَن قَتَلَ نَفْسًا بِغَيْرِ نَفْسٍ أَوْ فَسَادٍ فِي الأَرْضِ فَكَأَنَّمَا قَتَلَ النَّاسَ جَمِيعًا وَمَنْ أَحْيَاهَا فَكَأَنَّمَا أَحْيَا النَّاسَ جَمِيعًا

Maida 5:32. Because of that We ordained for the Children of Israel that if anyone killed a person not in retaliation of murder, or (and) to spread mischief in the land – it would be as if he killed all mankind, and if anyone saved a life, it would be as if he saved the life of all mankind….

Finally, the crowning glory of Ramadan is Laylatul Qadr – the Night of Decree. The worship in which is better than continuous worship for one thousand months. Not equal to continuous worship for one thousand months, but better than that. How much better? In keeping with the Glory and Majesty of the One who said it is better. He said:

Al-Qadr 97:1. Verily! We have sent it (this Qur’an) down in the night of Al-Qadr (Decree) 2. And what will make you know what the night of Al-Qadr (Decree) is? 3. The night of Al-Qadr (Decree) is better than a thousand months (i.e. worshipping Allah in that night is better than worshipping Him a thousand months, i.e. 83 years and 4 months). 4. Therein descend the angels and the Ruh [Jibreel (Gabriel)] by Allah’s Permission with all Decrees, 5.Peace! (All that night, there is Peace and Goodness from Allah) until the appearance of dawn.

May Allahﷻ bless our mother, Ayesha Siddiqua (RA) who asked Rasoolullahﷺ what dua she should make if she were to find Laylatul Qadr.

‘Aishah (RA) reported: I asked: “Ya Rasoolullah! If I get Lailat-ul-Qadr (Night of Decree), what dua should I make in it?” He () replied, “You should make this dua: Allahumma innaka ‘afuwwun, tuhibbul-‘afwa, fa’fu ‘anni (O Allah, You are Most Forgiving, and You love forgiveness; so forgive me).” [At-Tirmidhi, Book of Virtues].

I remind myself and you that all goodness comes from making thoughtful choices. Ramadan comes to enable us to do that. To recognize the Glory and Magnificence of Allahﷻ, to seek comfort and courage in His Mercy and Forgiveness and to remember that one day we will meet Him and answer to Him. On that Day nothing will be with anyone and nothing can help anyone except their deeds. Ramadan comes to enable us to repent, rethink, reset and reboot our lives to make them obedient to Allahﷻ, which means to live according to the Sunnah (Way) of Rasoolullahﷺ. Study his life and live like he did and die as he did. That is what Ramadan comes for. Let us remember that and use Ramadan to start a new positive, powerful, meaningful and fulfilling phase of our lives. I ask Allahﷻ for His help and Mercy.

Nations and Forest Fires

Nations and Forest Fires

It was 1984. The second and last formal employment of my career was in the tea plantations in the Anamallai Hills in Coimbatore District of Tamilnadu. I worked there for seven years, one of the most enjoyable and instructive periods of my life. Fires and estates are companions. Not surprising given the combination of people who smoke and don’t always bother to put out their cigarettes, and forests with semi deciduous trees that regularly carpet the floor with their leaves every summer. A forest fire is easy to start. One cigarette butt is enough. But if it catches, then it can’t be put out until there’s nothing left to burn. In the end, all that is left is ash. We used to take a lot of preventive steps including clearing fire boundaries where we would clear a wide swathe of ground of all undergrowth and leaves and keep it swept clean so that even if a fire started it could be contained. We had also constructed water tanks and dammed streams to create small reservoirs, which would be useful if we needed water in a hurry to put out a fire. These reservoirs were also very useful as watering holes for wildlife in the summer and a source of endless delight for me to watch animals as they came down to drink.

One day late in the afternoon someone came running to the office (days without mobile phones or walky-talky radios) and said that a fire had started in the Murugalli coffee area. In the plantations, emergencies were everyone’s affair. News would go to all those who could be informed, and they all rushed to the aid of the estate which had the problem. All who could go would go, regardless of whose estate it was.

As soon as the runner caught his breath, I put him on the back of my motorcycle to guide me and we were off. When I reached the place, I realized that this was a fairly large forest fire. There were about thirty of our workers and two supervisors who had been working in the area. I marshaled them all and got them to clear a belt and start a counter fire. The idea was to burn an area across the direction of the fire and clear it of all inflammable material so that when the main fire reached this place it would simply starve to death. We started the counter fires and once the dry stuff was burnt, we beat out the flames with green leafy branches that we had previously cut and kept at hand. The main fire was moving very fast as it was being pushed by a tail wind. As it came up to us it was our task to ensure that it did not jump the cleared boundary. Every time a flame jumped the fire boundary, we beat it to death. There was no water available where we were, otherwise, we would have also wet as much area as possible as a preventive measure. The story didn’t end here but for this article, this is enough.

The whole logic of fighting forest fires is about preventing them from starting. And if they do start, then trying to prevent them from growing. If this is not done, then once a fire grows beyond a certain size, nothing can put it out until everything that can burn has been burnt. The fire will die only when everyone and everything is dead. And all that is left is ash.

Today, as I reflect on global politics as well as its local reflection in my country, I am reminded of forest fires and my own experience of fighting one in the Anamallais. It appears that none of the leaders either on the global stage or the even more critical local ones, has ever seen or fought a forest fire. That is why they so blithely ignite and stoke the fires of hatred. Racial hatred, communal hatred and religious hatred. They know not what they do but regardless, we, every single one of us, will burn if we allow this to go on unchallenged and unanswered. Fire can’t be fought with fire. It must be fought with something that is cool and which is not inflammable. So also, hatred can’t be fought with hatred, but with love. Loving someone who hates you is not easy. It seems impossible. But the alternative is to burn in the same fire.

In human relations terms, ignorance is combustible. It is the substance that is used to ignite the fire of hatred and to stoke it by demonizing the object of hate. The real purpose is to sow discord and terror, so that we are all reduced to the same level, joined only in our fear of one another rooted in ignorance. Then we become malleable and controllable through fear. This is done by first focusing on the differences in our diversity and then teaching us that these differences are things to hate. In a society like ours which is based on caste differences that discriminate against other people based on their ethnicity (race), to get people to hate someone for something as ridiculous as what they eat, drink, wear or worship is very easy. We already live in a society where we are taught that some of us are superior to others for no fault of ours or theirs. It is just that we were born into this or that caste and so that not only makes us superior, but it means that we get to look down on others and consider them to be dirty, sub-human, unworthy of associating with and to always be treated with contempt. Since this entire edifice is built on an accident of birth, it means that it is permanent and there is nothing that anyone can do to change that. That leads to the logical progression of despising and hating the person and the entire group that he/she belongs to, because that makes me feel superior and good, once again free of cost.

To continue to feel good, all I need to do is to perpetuate this lie from generation to generation and ensure that the hatred and contempt stays alive. For this there are some requirements; deny anything good that the target population may have done, no matter how clear and substantial the evidence. Mock and disparage their identity, beliefs, culture and customs and demonize them by interpreting them in negative ways. Re-write history in a way that removes all evidence of their contribution to the nation and world and replace that with cherry-picked or manufactured stories of their ‘sins’. Pick a time period that is ancient enough to ensure that nobody from the time is alive to defend themselves and do all this so aggressively that those who are alive today, are intimidated enough to remain silent and watch their heritage being trashed. The idea is to eventually have a situation where even the memory of the contributions of those people is lost and all sense of self-esteem is taken from them. It is an age-old tactic, the only thing remarkable about which is that it still works.

Once again, what is the solution? For a solution we must find and implement if we are not all to be consumed in the forest fire that we lighted or allowed to be lighted while we watched. The first part of the solution is to reject every ideology that teaches that you are either superior or inferior because of the accident of birth. All such ideologies of being the ‘chosen of god’, are an insult to humanity and God. All such ideologies are false, dangerous and destructive and must be trashed. For the record as far as my own religion, Islam is concerned, let me quote from the sermon of the Prophet Muhammad(S) during his last Hajj where he said, “All mankind is from Adam and Eve, an Arab has no superiority over a non-Arab nor does a non-Arab have any superiority over an Arab. A white (person) has no superiority over a black, nor does a black (person) have any superiority over a white; except by piety and good action.”  Now that is clear enough and needs no elaboration. We are all equal in our humanity and the only measure of goodness is the goodness we spread around us.

The second part of the solution is to give names and faces to the labels that we are confronted with. Labels seeking to create the ‘Other’ in our minds. Labels that if we don’t question and see them for what they are, make it possible for us to reject others. Labels are distant, disembodied and impersonal. That makes it possible to hate those to whom they apply. Names are known and personal; faces are recognizable. They make us stop to consider what we think, say or do about those people. Let me illustrate with my own example, how a name changes the complexion of a label.

I am Muslim. But when I hear the label ‘Agnostic/Atheist’, I see Aunty Mohini and Uncle Rama’s faces. The two people who were my mentors in childhood and youth and role models, lifelong. They enabled me to discover myself and opened my heart and mind to appreciate others. When I hear the label Sikh, I see the faces of Gurcharan, Gurveen Kaur, Anup and Sandy. When I hear the label Hindu, I see the faces of AMM Arunachalam, Renuka & Aditya Mishra, Purba & Sanjoy Sanyal, Nikoo Rawlley, Arun Menon and Gudducha (Jaikant Chaturvedi). When I hear the label Christian, I see the faces of Berty & Jenny Suares, Thambi Kurien, Ranjan Solomon, Norman & Lorraine Wood. When I hear the label Buddhist, I see the faces of Rose, Ivo and Alvito Baretto. When I hear the label Jew, I see the faces of Kathy, Dennis Goodman, David and Jeffrey Solomon. When I hear the label Christian Missionary, I see the faces of David and Miriam Ramse and Thurston Riehl. When I hear the label Parsi, I see the faces of Jehangir Ghadiali, Naushi and Mehru Tarapore. When I think of communal riots, I think of Uncle Raman Kumar who came with a police escort through the curfew to give us food grains. I think of Norman Lindie in Guyana who shielded me with his own body from a man who had come to attack me with a knife. I think of Peter Ramsingh, who was my constant companion in our innumerable camping trips through the rain forests, up and down the Berbice River. These are by no means the only people I know under these ‘categories’. There are many, many more. This is only to make my point that when you have a face to a label, it becomes personal. With each of them, I have many pleasant memories associated. Of happy times, helping one another, just being with one another and enjoying each other’s company and difference. So, deal with people, not labels.

The benefit of becoming personal is that I have a frame of reference when I hear or read something hateful about the ‘category’ which in my mind and life experience is represented by a name and face of a friend. I find it impossible to hate anyone, but even if this were not the case, I would have cause to stop and reflect, if I have a frame of reference against which to compare what I am being asked to believe. Without that and given the unique human tendency to believe the negative more easily than the positive, rumor becomes real and the lie becomes the truth. Today the problem is that thanks to our highly urbanized and apparently self-sufficient (but really isolationist) way of life, we manage to live in the same apartment building for decades without even knowing the name of our neighbor, let alone anything more. Our civic spaces are disappearing.  Hence civilized interaction and dialogue. Even schools are ‘segregated’. Not officially but children don’t seem to have friends, except among their own kind. Racist language is rampant and normal. Discrimination seems to be the order of the day. Even the question of a child going to the home of a friend, not from his/her religion or ethnicity, to spend an overnight or weekend with their family, doesn’t arise. Our conversation mentions other people, their religion and culture, but always in disparaging words. Never with respect and appreciation. Our world view has become totally color blind – black and white. We don’t even see the racist overtone in the term, Black & White. We have lost our frame of reference. We are blind, waiting to be led down the road of someone else’s choosing.

This must change. This is the fire-break that we must build. The essential fire prevention strategy if we want to protect ourselves from annihilation. We must open our eyes and ears, homes and hearts, to others. We must stop ‘Othering’ each other. We must learn to observe with respect and without being judgmental. We must learn to appreciate difference and not reduce all difference to good (like me) and bad (different from me). It is variety that adds color to the scenery. Variety is another name for difference. We must consciously examine the assumptions that we have become used to and treat as ‘The Truth’. We must face the fact that they are baseless assumptions, rooted in bigotry. As Reza Aslan put it very aptly, ‘Religion doesn’t make people bigots. People are bigots and they use religion to justify their ideology.’ The question each one of us needs to ask is, ‘Am I a bigot?’ I can imagine that in today’s world, the answer may well be, ‘Yes’, in all cases with a difference only in degree. As a starting point, I would say that it is enough to ask this question and then ask another one, even more painful. ‘Am I willing to do anything to change this?’ That is when we can start thinking of what we must do.

So, what must we do?

Monitor conversations. At home, in the workplace, especially in our schools and in public. It is ‘domestic legends’ which shape our worldview from a very early age. We need to reflect on how we were conditioned and become conscious of how we are conditioning our children. Most conditioning is unconscious and extremely powerful and very difficult to undo, unless we make a serious effort. Monitoring conversations will give us diagnostic evidence of the degree of change we need to make. It is important to do this objectively with a no-praise-no-blame mindset. The idea is to see how serious the terminal disease which afflicts us is and see what we need to do, to cure it. For terminal it is. Hatred is fire. All fires burn and the result is always ash.

Then we need to create civic spaces to meet in and practice being civilized. We need to develop the skills to speak about each other, our beliefs, culture, customs and traditions with respect. We must visit each other, participate in each other’s lives and do it with respect and without being judgmental. We must ask questions, respectfully and strongly oppose all mockery of people different from us, even if and especially when it is done in the name of ‘humor’. Laughing at someone is not humorous. Reject outright anyone who preaches hatred or mocks others; whether that is your priest or preacher, teacher or political leader, uncle or mother. We need to become open-minded enough to try to understand the reason why other people do things differently from us and not only accept that but appreciate it as another way of life which has an equal right to exist. We must deal with the fear that if we do this, we will need to ‘convert’ to their way. We won’t. What will happen though is that our minds and hearts will expand, which is a very good thing for all minds and hearts. Even ours. We will become more understanding, accepting, respectful and impervious to manipulation by those who wish to fill our hearts with hatred for others, so that we become tools in their hands to achieve their own ends.

It was a very hot day in May, 1991. Very dry, at the peak of summer with the monsoon another month away. I was driving through Thirunelveli District on my way back from Madurai where I had gone to attend a Labour Court hearing. These were the days before car air-conditioning in India, so the car was a moving oven. Suddenly the moving oven stopped moving. A tyre was punctured. My driver Santiago pulled over to the side. I got out of the car as it was simply too hot to sit inside. Santiago didn’t need any help, he said, so I looked around. I saw that we had stopped by some fields which in the monsoon would be planted with rice, but which at this time were simply baked, dry clay fractured into pieces according to whatever natural law was at work. There was not a blade of grass or anything green in sight. Except that is, for two small Neem trees, which had been planted by the roadside. Beside the trees, with its back to them and facing the field was a mud hut. It must have been about twenty feet long and had a grass thatch roof. Between the trees, which were at either end of the hut, the ground had been swept clean and sprinkled with sand. Under each tree, in the scant shade was a stone bench. It was really a stone fence post laid flat on two short raisers about two feet in height. I was intrigued to say the least about how this whole thing was obviously planned and prepared. Who would bother to make this seating arrangement and why?

I sat on one of the benches to see what would happen. In a little while a young boy came out of the hut with a brass water pot and a steel tumbler and poured me a tumbler full of tepid water. I had many thoughts about the origin of the water and its hygiene but didn’t want to interfere with whatever was at work here. So, I accepted the water and drank it. The boy went to Santiago and poured some water for him also. Then he set the pot down and sat with Santiago to provide him with moral support in changing the tyre of the car. A couple of minutes later, his mother called him. He took his pot and departed, only to emerge with two glass tumblers of tea. His mother came out as he finished giving the tea to me and Santiago, with a plate of Murku – the twisted savory snack that is very popular all over Tamilnadu and South India. I thanked her and took one, thinking all the time that the mystery had been solved. We had been fortunate enough to break down near a tea-shop and so we were now being served.

We finished our tea and the tyre was changed. I got up and asked the boy how much money I owed them for the tea and snack. He looked at me in surprise and said, ‘Onnum illayingay.’ (Nothing, Sir.) He used the respectful form of address which given the difference in our ages, our mutual social positions and the culture of Thirunelveli was natural. I thanked him but told him to ask his mother. He went into the hut and the lady came out, her head covered with the tail of her sari (pallu) and said, ‘This is not a shop Sir. Your car broke down, so I thought that maybe you would like a cup of tea and made it for you. That is all. There is nothing to pay. You are our guest.’ I didn’t know what to say. There was nothing in my experience to handle this, except unless I went back almost 30 years earlier to my time with Gond tribals in Adilabad, where I also encountered such generosity of spirit from people who had nothing. In this case, it was Diwali next day. So, I took out Rs. 100 and folded the note and put it in the pocket of the youngster and said, ‘This is for Diwali sweets for you.’ His mother tried to object but I said to her, ‘I am like his elder brother. Please allow me to give him a gift for Diwali.’ She smiled and nodded. And we left. This happened in 1991. This is 2019. The memory is alive.

Our education and sophistication seem to build walls and teach us to despise one another. These people were among the poorest in the world, deprived, discriminated against, so-called lower caste. Yet their hearts were full of compassion, generosity and abundance. What is the secret? It is to see another human being as a human being. Shorn of our titles and labels. Just another human being. This is what we need to learn and teach. This is the secret of putting out fires and of survival. This is our lifeline.

It’s not about Sri Lanka

It’s not about Sri Lanka

It’s about me.

This is such a time

My mind is numb, my heart is heavy, the tears have dried,

Yet the day dawns and life must be lived,

Unanswered, unanswerable questions,

Actions, reactions, a vicious cycle that must be broken.

As I sit down to write this, my biggest struggle is with myself, ‘Should I write this or not? What use is it? Surely the next planner or executor of the next atrocity is hardly going to ask – Let me see what Yawar Baig has to say before I do this. So why write?’ It is easier to simply do nothing. Withdraw into my shell and hope that one day what happened in Sri Lanka yesterday, doesn’t happen to my own loved ones. How then did I break out of this stupor of grief? By reminding myself of one thing: Those who were killed in Sri Lanka were my dear ones, because anyone who is killed because of his/her religion, race or nationality is my dear one. So, I will speak. I will raise my voice. And I will do it, even if I am alone. Especially if I am alone.

In my view the real purpose behind these actions is not the elimination of any population. That in today’s world is literally impossible. The real purpose is to sow discord and hatred, so that we are all reduced to the same level as the perpetrators of these crimes. Then we become malleable and controllable and are controlled through fear. Fear of our own neighbors, brothers and sisters, fear of our own family members in the global family of humans. This is done by first focusing on the differences in our diversity and then teaching us that these differences are things to hate. That leads to the logical conclusion of hating the person and the entire group that he/she belongs to. It is an age-old tactic, the only thing remarkable about which is that it still works. This is what was used against the Jewish people for centuries in Europe and Russia which led to their ghettoizing and eventually to Hitler’s infamous Final Solution, which educated, moral and (presumably) kind people, watched in silence. Today Muslims seem to be in that boat. It is salutary to note that Hitler’s gas chambers were built by highly educated engineers and scientists. So, for those who think that large scale violence amounting to genocide is something that is left to Attila the Hun, it may be shocking to see that education as we know it is not the solution to our problem. Because our problems are moral and ethical. Problems of our humanity. Not problems of not knowing enough math and science. There are lessons in history and one of the most powerful ones lies in the Jewish Holocaust. It is essential to learn the lessons because nations that don’t learn from history are condemned to repeat it.

As I mentioned earlier, the main purpose of hate attacks is to cause chaos and disruption of society and turn one person against another. This creates a smoke screen which hides real issues. When people are immersed in grief and anger and are looking to hit back, they are not thinking clearly and all they need is a target. That is provided by implying that anyone from the community, religion, ethnicity, race or nationality of the criminal is like him and so can be made a victim in ‘retaliation’. That allows people to vent their anger on innocent people, creates an atmosphere of terror and buys time for those who want in reality to draw the curtains over their own faults and deficiencies i.e. the failure of leadership to solve people’s real problems of hunger, unemployment, lack of access to public health and education, lack of clean drinking water and housing. The issues vary from nation to nation, but it is always a mix of these. Don’t solve real problems, divert people’s attention to hating others, allow them to vent their anger on those who are helpless, and you buy some more time. Those who should really be held to account, voted out, removed from leadership and made to pay, are let off free to plan the next episode in this macabre horror drama called ‘Life in the Modern World’.

But all this will happen, only if we allow it to happen. That is the key and the reason we must ask ourselves, “Do I want this cycle to continue?”

Given that this is a no-brainer, what is the solution? Let me tell you about a unique experience I had just two days ago, on Saturday, April 20, 2019. I was invited to a Passover Seder dinner by some very dear Jewish friends. This was the first time that I was going to a Passover Seder and so I was very interested in what I would see and experience. To accommodate my inability to participate in a meal during which wine would be served, in a completely unprecedented and totally gracious gesture (very pleasant surprise for me), this family made the meal completely alcohol free and drank pomegranate juice instead of wine. This they did despite the fact that drinking four cups of wine is a part of the Passover Seder ritual. What amazed me even more was that the Rabbi who led the proceedings, also accepted this accommodation. Truly a most gracious gesture which left me feeling so very valued and appreciated.

The Passover Seder is about the Exodus of the Jews from Egypt, which is a story that as a Muslim, I grew up with. The story of Musa (Moses) and how he liberated the Jews from the slavery of Pharaoh, is familiar to every Muslim child. It is one of the major stories in the Qur’an as Musa (Moses) is one of the major prophets of Islam, believing in whom is a part of our creed. But what was new to me was the whole Seder meal and what is read during it. The overall theme of the readings was thankfulness. Thankfulness for all the bounties of God that He gave the Jews and of course all of us. What struck me the most was the song of fifteen stanzas each line of which ends with the word, Dayenu (meaning ‘it would have been enough’), but He gave more. This struck me because this is precisely the Muslim understanding of God (Allahﷻ) and His Grace, Mercy and Generosity, that He gives without counting. The overall and overwhelming sense that I came away with that night was that of belonging, not of difference. Strange thing perhaps to hear from a Muslim talking about a Jewish household and ceremony in today’s times. But that is how I felt, the warm glow of which remains with me.

Why is this important and why am I mentioning this here?

It is because in this lies the seed of the solution to hatred. Hatred comes from not knowing about each other, which leads to the situation among most people of being able to believe the worst about them. This is the way stereotypes are formed and strengthened until they become ‘THE TRUTH’, to be believed unquestioningly. On the other hand, when we take the time to learn about each other, we are often faced with some startling facts, which lead us to question our blind beliefs and stereotypes and hopefully allow us to change our stances. I recall my childhood where I grew up among Marwari Hindus as neighbors and went initially to a Christian (Anglican) Missionary school and began my day singing the Lord’s Prayer in the Chapel. I come from a family of practicing Muslims and so my own religion was always familiar. As a result of this eclectic upbringing, I didn’t convert to either Christianity or Hinduism but grew up learning a lot about both religions and communities, by living with them. We lived in each other’s homes, ate together (keeping to our own food laws strictly), celebrated each other’s festivals and didn’t feel that our own religion was threatened by this mutual understanding. I have written about this in detail in my book, ‘It’s my Life’ and so won’t repeat it here. Please read the book. You’ll enjoy it.

I am speaking of this here because the one big thing that happened thanks to this upbringing is that today, when someone tries to tell me about how bad and vicious Hinduism or Christianity are, I have the frame of reference of both from my own life experience against which to check what I am hearing. I reject these messages because I didn’t experience these religions or those who follow them, in that way at all. Ditto Judaism, from my experience which I described above. Therefore, the first and most important thing to do is to ensure that we get to know one another, personally, experientially and closely.

I am therefore able to distinguish and differentiate between the action of someone who professes to belong to a particular religion but does things that are prohibited in that religion. That, in my opinion, places that individual, outside his religion. He is not a representative of his religion and his actions are the result of his rejecting his religion, not of practicing it. So, I reject that individual and his actions, not his religion. In my view, in the case of those who are responsible for the mass murder in Sri Lanka that happened on Easter Sunday, April 21, 2019; those people are criminals and must be treated as such. They must be caught and punished to the full extent of the law. On no account must we accept their professed logic of representing this or that religion and on that account buy into the negative, toxic philosophy of hating that religion or its adherents, who are our neighbors and family. We must do this because we must defeat this hate-filled thinking that is sought to be imposed on us. We can only do this if we reject it. Not if we buy into it.

If not me, then who? If not now, then when?

 I am reminded of a story I heard in 1997, about the man who used to stand before the White House every night holding a candle, in his struggle to have the UN sanctions against Iraq, lifted. One night, it was cold and wet and windy. But the man was there in his place, holding an umbrella and trying to protect his candle from the rain.

The guard at the gate, who used to see him every day, came out to him and said, “Tell me why do you do this? Do you really think you can change them?”

The man replied, “I don’t do this to change them. I do it so that they won’t be able to change me.”

It is very important that we speak out. The time for silence is over. The time for action is here.


Rain forest days and nights

Rain forest days and nights

Peter and I would sometimes go fishing in the night. If you floated with the current down the river keeping to one of the banks and shone your torch into the water, you would attract fish to the light. Then it is a matter of spearing them. The spearing takes some skill because thanks to parallax error of refracting light in the water, the fish is actually not where you see it. But once you get the hang of correcting for it, it is a simple matter of spearing the fish and pulling it up flapping on the end of your spear. I have seen Amerindians even shoot fish with their arrows with great accuracy. They would have a light line tied to the arrow so that they could then haul it in.

On these excursions, if you shone your torch over the surface of the river, it would appear as if the water was sprinkled with diamonds. Shining stars, eyes of Caiman, young and old, out fishing, floating on the river with only their eyes and nostrils above the surface. Like alligators and crocodiles, the Caiman is a fish eater but not above taking the unwary to add variety to his diet. They also eat turtles and so their jaws are adapted to taking in broad prey and exerting tremendous biting pressure to crack their shells. You definitely wouldn’t want to go swimming with one especially as a big one can grow to 6 meters (20 feet) in length. Caiman are seen as a nuisance by riverside dwellers as they destroy fishing nets and sometimes attack cattle. I hate to think of little Amerindian children playing in the water all day jumping in and out of it – I expect when one did not show up at home at night is when you know that something had happened. But at night, the shining eyes used to be an amazing sight and I loved to shine our torch and look at it. During the day you would almost never see Caiman as they lie up in the mouths of creeks that flow into the Berbice in the thick shade of riverside trees, waiting for the night to descend. What we would see a lot of in daylight was Terrapins; little turtles taking the sun on any available rock, log, tree root or even floating debris. They would sit there with their necks stretched out and a quizzical expression on their faces. If you got too close, in a flash they would slide into the water, much faster on their feet than you would likely give them credit for.

It was a beautiful idyllic existence doing all that I loved to do and doing it all for free. I know that you could spend thousands of dollars to take a trip up one of the major rivers in the Amazonian system, camp on a sandbank by a fireside and spend the night in a hammock gazing at the stars over the river. And I did all of this and more at will, free of cost. I am indeed very fortunate and most grateful to Allah for it. Early in the morning, well before dawn Peter and I would wake and take our boat to check the nets which we would tie at the entrance of several creeks that flowed into the Berbice. Fish go up into the creeks to feed in the night and a net across their path is an easy way to ensure that you don’t come away empty handed. We would float on the current or paddle and pull in the nets and haul in our catch. Then as the sun rose we would return to our camp to cook our breakfast.

One day as usual we went inspecting our nets while it was still dark. We floated silently down river to the first creek where we had tied a net. Peter steered the boat and I sat at my station in the prow looking ahead. The night was very silent, waiting for dawn, when all hunters and prey are at rest. The Howler Monkeys are not awake yet, nor have the Macaw flights started. Everything is waiting for the sun. At that time almost nothing moves except hunters like us, checking on their traps, snares, and nets. We reached the creek mouth and Peter pulled up the net. The boat dipped with the weight of what he was pulling. “Man!! Looks like we got something big!!” he said. That river at that place was home to the largest fresh water fish called the Arapaima and so I was very excited. But what came up was something totally unexpected and unwelcome.

Looking at us intently was a flat triangular head with sharp bright eyes – a full grown Anaconda which had got himself entangled in the net. He went after a fish that was caught in the net and having swallowed it along with the part of the net that it was entangled in, he tried to get out and managed to get himself into such an unholy mess that he was completely entangled. He was definitely not amused at his plight and hissed at us to tell us what he thought of us. He was so big that pulling him into the boat to try to free him surely meant sinking the little boat. Leaving him as he was would condemn him to a slow and painful death as he was so entangled in the net that he could never free himself from the nylon mesh. So reluctantly we decided to shoot him. While Peter held the net out on an oar raising the part where the snake was entangled, I shot his head off with a 16-gauge shotgun that I always carried on these trips. The snake went into such a convulsion that had Peter not wisely dropped him back into the water he would have upset the boat and dumped us both into the Piranha infested waters of the Berbice in the darkness of pre-dawn. A decidedly unpleasant prospect.

From left: Me, Leon, Fridolin, Rudolf, Peter Ramsingh

Once the snake was dead, we tied the net to the side of the boat and rowed back to the camp. We pulled the boat up on the sand and cut the snake out of the net, completely ruining it in the process. I was definitely not amused as nets were valuable. Then we measured him. He was 22 feet long and both Peter and I together, could lift him only with great difficulty. I was very sorry to have killed such a fine animal but we had no alternative. We took off his skin and I had it with me until I met a young man called Fridolin Stary who came from East Germany to Guyana on holiday and liked it so much that I gave it to him. Fridolin told me how he helped his girlfriend to escape from East Germany. Today with the wall gone, I hope they are living happily somewhere. Sequel to this last sentence: Thanks to the power of the internet, I actually found Fridolin, who was a top manager of a chemical company in Germany until he retired in 2017. He remembered the time we spent together and we exchanged some mails and met in 2011 when Fridolin came to India. It was a lovely meeting, as if all those decades had not intervened at all. Fridolin came home and we had a typical Hyderabadi meal, which he seemed to love. We discovered that we share many core values, respect for the environment, love of the wild, importance of justice, and owning responsibility for our actions. Small world, made smaller and flatter by the internet.

The water of the river changed complexion throughout the day. Early in the morning it has, what looks like steam rising from it. So you would be floating through this cloud of vapor looking ethereal and ghostly. As the sun rose and it got hotter – we were sitting close to the equator, remember – the mist would disappear and you would see the colors of the trees reflecting in the river. If we were planning to stay another day we would spend a couple of hours walking in the forest, following some track or the other simply to enjoy the experience of being in the rain forest. We were not hunting seriously and only the unwary animal with suicidal tendencies achieved his objective at our hands. We were more interested in watching Humming Birds flit from flower to flower looking like moths more than like birds. They beat their wings so fast that you can’t see them and they are the only birds that can actually fly backwards. They fly up to a flower and hovering before it on buzzing wings, insert their specialized beaks deep into it for the nectar, then fly backwards to get out of that flower and go to another one.

Mornings would be announced by the booming call of the Howler Monkey answered by his cousins everywhere and so for a while there would be cacophony in the forest. Macaws taking off for their daily commute would also be talking to each other and you would hear their calls. Toucans would call to each other as they hunted for fruit in the tops of giant figs. You would hear the crash of branches as Sakiwinki (Spider Monkeys) took off on their highway a hundred feet in the air, throwing themselves from one forest giant to another with gay abandon. They would be followed by others, heavier than them and the branches would crash more loudly. Ah! The difficulty is in trying to describe what the eye sees, what the ears hear and what the heart feels in mere words on paper. It is the whole atmosphere of the forest when you become one with it, when time has no meaning and the daily grind and work pressure feel like a bad dream that you woke up from.

Some weekends Peter and I would drive into the Backdam (bush, veldt, outback – depending on the country they all mean the same thing – uncharted territory) and camp and hunt on land. That had its own interest and excitement. These lands were not truly uncharted because people, mostly Amerindian hunters and loggers, had long gone along the trails that we drove on. I have no idea who made these trails originally but they were ideal for the small yellow Land Rover that Peter drove. So we would load up the car, which had a cab and an open back, and off to the jungle. Peter had a great sense of direction, so we always got back safely two days later even though I had no clue where we were going. I would just concentrate on the driving or on watching out for game. Hunting in the rain forest is very tough because though it is teeming with wildlife, the forest is so thick that you can’t see more than a couple of feet on either side of the trail. So you had to concentrate on the trail, watch for tracks and when you did see something, be quick and accurate if you wanted to eat.

The canopy was so thick that more often than not we would be driving in semi-darkness. But that didn’t mean that it was cool. It was more like a sauna with very high humidity and almost no breeze. Sometime if you got lucky you came into a forest clearing when you would feel the breeze as the jungle was open enough to allow for airflow. That has to be one of the most pleasant experience of mankind – the feel of the cool breeze on hot sweaty skin. The thick cover resembling a green ocean as you fly over it in a small plane, is very deceptive in that the trees have very shallow roots. Most rainforest soil is very poor with all the nutrients largely remaining at surface level. Because of this rainforest trees have very shallow roots. Some very tall trees have developed ways of obtaining much needed additional support by forming buttressed roots, which grow out from the base of the trunk sometimes as high as 15 feet above the ground. These extended roots also increase the area over which nutrients can be absorbed from the soil. The forest floor is carpeted thickly with leaves on which grow mosses and lichens. Roots of trees take from this thick carpet and go very little into the earth. The soil beneath this thick cover of leaf mould is sandy and loose. As the trees grow they literally hold up one another with their intertwined branches and the many creepers and vines which climb up the trunk of one giant and across the canopy of another.

A clearing is created usually when one of these giant trees falls, either the result of logging or when with age and disease it succumbs to the wind. When that happens it usually takes down a few others with it and an opening is created in the thick canopy of the forest. The open soil gets quickly washed of its nutrients with the almost daily rainfall and is taken over by grasses and other secondary growth. A piece of rain forest is thereby lost forever. This is the problem with the slash and burn agriculture so common in these parts as well as with the indiscriminate logging that takes place everywhere. For every tree that is actually harvested, there is a huge swathe of forest that is laid bare, never to regenerate; gone forever. The rainforest is a very fragile and delicate ecosystem, easily destroyed and impossible to repair.

Forest clearings however, are good for hunters because herbivores come to eat the new grass and where trees have been burned, to eat the ash, and if you sit quietly just inside the forest bordering the clearing, you can usually get a clear shot. Clearings are also where you can get a breath of air as there is space for airflow and so if you are walking in the rainforest you welcome a clearing when you come to it.

Driving on the forest tracks also threw up a unique challenge, which when it happened for the first time, was very shocking. We came around a bend and without warning Peter stopped the Land Rover. Right ahead was a deep gully about 20 feet across at the bottom of which flowed a stream. Land Rovers, for all their excellent qualities, can’t jump or fly. So what do we do? Peter was having a laugh at my expense, I could see that. He got out and stretched and then said, “All right! We gaffa build a bridge.”

The bridge we built across Crocodile Creek

Build a bridge? This I had to see. Peter took out the chain saw and we went hunting for trees of the right thickness. We wanted something with a straight trunk and thick enough to have the strength not to snap with the weight of the vehicle. We needed eight logs; four for each wheel track. Once we had cut the eight trees, we trimmed the branches off with our machetes and cut the trunks to size ensuring that we had a good length on either side of the gully. Then we laid the first set of four logs across the stream, standing each one up and dropping it across and then fixed them together by hammering in thick wooden pegs on either side so that they wouldn’t slide apart when the Land Rover wheel ran on them. Then we went across the little bridge and pegged it on the other side in the same way. Once we had one track in place, we drove the Land Rover up to the track to get an idea of how far apart the other track needed to be and repeated our bridge building. Then I went across to direct Peter over the bridge and he drove across. Took us about an hour of sweaty work, but then we were off on our journey. This bridge building is a very important activity to be able to do and the main reason why anyone driving in the bush would always carry a chain saw or axe and machete. If you couldn’t build a bridge you would have to turn back because thanks to the thick forest on either side of the road, there was no way of going around the gully. Another important survival lesson I learnt is that whenever you come to a bridge, you always stop and carefully inspect it to ensure that it was strong enough. Green wood doesn’t last too long in the rainforest and a bridge built a few weeks earlier can be seriously damaged by insects such that if you drove across it without checking you’d most likely find yourself in the gully head first. So we always inspected each bridge and when necessary strengthened it by cutting new logs and replacing any doubtful ones.

One day Peter and I decided to drive to the Corentyne River on the Orealla Trail. Orealla is small Amerindian village on the Corentyne River, overlooking Suriname. It is a lively and friendly place and we intended to drive there, spend a night, look at Suriname across the river and return to Kwakwani. The trail itself, if you walked would take about three days but since we were driving, we didn’t expect to take more than the day. What we didn’t bargain for was the condition of the road. For one thing, we had to build bridges in two places and that took a couple of hours out of our schedule. Then we came to a place where the road was deeply dug up by timber trucks so that the two tracks were more than three feet deep and the center was high up. If we drove the Land Rover into those tracks, it would hit the oil sump and either smash it or jack up the car with the wheels spinning uselessly in the air. Peter came up with a solution. He put the Land Rover in 4×4 drive and rode one wheel on the center median, the whole vehicle tilted and tipped over to one side where the cab rested on the high side of earth bank that bordered the road. Two wheels on the opposite side were up in the air. And slowly the vehicle moved, with two wheels in the rut, two occasionally touching the median and the cabin sliding along the earthen bank. I can tell you that it didn’t do much good to the cabin but then that Land Rover was already so beaten up that it didn’t matter. At the end of this track I stood on the runner which was in the air to tilt the vehicle back onto all four wheels and off we went on the trail. As always, our rule of eating what we shot was maintained and I shot a couple of Curassows and at midday we decided to take a break and cook our lunch. I made the fire and prepared the camp while Peter cleaned the birds. As always, first the tea, then the rest. By the time the tea was ready, the birds were also ready for the pot and while we drank tea the birds cooked. Then we both had hot Curassow stew with potatoes and red pepper, with bread which we had brought. A good lunch, a bit of a stretch, and then off again to Orealla.

We reached Orealla late in the evening and found a place to stay. There was a guest house and we took a room. Then we went out to get something to eat and ate some very fine fresh Corentyne fish curry and bread. The water front was like all Guyanese water fronts, with very noisy bars which got noisier as the night progressed and people’s spiritual levels increased. Mercifully, there was no violence the night we were there but tempers tend to run short and it is a matter of an instant for a bottle to be smashed on the edge of a table and then used to carve up the opponent in the argument. Dominos, as always, seemed to be popular with the people – probably because of its amazing noise making potential – slamming the dominos on the table with great force accompanied by a huge shout. Peter and I walked to the bank of the river and watched the lights across in Suriname for a while. It would have been illegal for us to cross over as we didn’t have visas. In any case this place was famous for smuggling and so it was not safe to be caught on the river in a small boat at night by the Surinamese and Guyanese patrol boats which cruised the waters.