I was in the Anamallais, just married a few months and a lowly Assistant Manager in Lower Sheikalmudi Estate. My wife and I lived in the ‘haunted’ bungalow near the tennis court and I was busy trying to make a career and stand out in a fiercely competitive environment. I loved my life as a planter, which had all the requirements for heaven on earth as I conceptualized it. It was almost entirely outdoors. Walking up and down hills along forest boundaries with the certainty of seeing at least three or four species of mammals and countless birds, was not just possible but it was what I was being paid for. I can still hear the joyful cacophony of the birds, which I would hear every morning as I rode my bike or walked along the fire line that was the boundary between the tea and the forest. I know how to make sense of the sounds, to identify the sounds and distinguish the alarm call from the political argument. The political argument was of little interest to me, but the alarm call could mean the difference between being a spectator and a meal.
The Anamallais rain forest are home to tiger, leopard, bear, elephant, gaur, sambhar, barking deer, mouse deer, king cobra and many other snakes and langur and lion-tailed macaque. This is by no means an exhaustive list but one of some of the species that one could expect to encounter on a walk on any given day and all Sundays. The rain forest is too thick to walk through. Also, it is home to poisonous nettles called Anaimarti which if you rub against it in your foolish attempt to walk through the forest, creates an extremely painful reaction with swollen lymph nodes, high fever, violent rash and if you are very allergic to it and don’t get treatment, even death. Add to this the incidence of leeches in uncounted numbers whose presence on your body you only discover when you have emerged from the forest and step into the shower and wonder why the water is so red. That is the color of your blood as it flows freely from the number of leech bites you returned with. Leeches are hematologists and inject heparin into the small wound they make as they bite you. That ensures that your blood doesn’t clog and stop flowing. Then the leech attaches itself to the wound and simply fills up like a balloon with your blood. Once it is filled, it simply drops off. It you try to pull it out, it rips out and leaves its mouth parts in the wound to fester and give you grief for weeks after. When you live in these parts, you learn to share yourself with your neighbors. That is why it is said that tea is grown with sweat and blood.
In all this bounty, the thought that stayed with me was, ‘What will I do when I retire? Or even before that, if I should need to leave planting for any reason?’ This was because like any highly specialized career option, planting was only good for planting. Meaning that the direct skills are not transferable to other industries. To make matters worse, recruiters in other industries have no experience of planting and have no idea about the daily challenges that a planter faces. Recruiters of non-planting industries have a Tolly+Bollywood impression of the life of a planter. According to them, planters spend most of their time being waited upon hand and foot by an army of servants presided over by a butler and their main focus is a round of golf at 4.00 pm every afternoon followed by propping up the bar in the local plantation club. That is why there are very few success stories of planters making it big in other industries.
A planter, if he utilizes his time properly, is training to be a polymath. I don’t know of any other career which provides this opportunity. Except that even most planters are not aware of what the career has the potential to provide. The challenges a planter faces, unremarked and unknown to outsiders, range from handling labor conflicts which can sometimes escalate to life threatening levels, negotiating settlements, building bridges, both real and metaphoric, surveying and laying roads, taking care of the welfare of workers and their families, running schools, creches, hospitals, temples and stores; and in my case building a tea factory. Dealing with government officials, contractors, labor union leaders, politicians, teachers, doctors, tractors, machinery, trucks and elephants who decide that walking on top of your aluminum water pipeline and making it crack, is such an entertaining activity. All this ends up making a highly competent and versatile personality but sadly the ‘outside world’ has no clue. So, planters plant until they can plant no more and then retire to two-bedroom apartments in a city and live out the rest of their days dreaming of days gone by. I was very sure that I was not going to be a part of that.
I loved every minute of my life as a planter. I became very good at what I did. I acquired a reputation for being effective especially in high tension situations with troublesome labor. This was thanks to my conditioning by fire in Guyana, which is another story. But that came in very handy in the Anamallais. But I knew that this couldn’t last and that if I didn’t prepare myself, I would have no alternatives to fall back on. The big question was, what could I do while remaining in planting, both because I loved the job and because I needed it. I had to train myself for another career while doing a full-time job in this one, with no money to pay for the training. Quite an interesting problem, if you ask me.
It was then that I attended a training session in the Clarks Amer hotel in Jaipur. It was a two-week experiential learning session conducted by ISABS (Indian Society for Applied Behavioural Science) where you sat on the floor and learned to get in touch with your feelings, observe your own and others’ behavior, give and receive feedback. Why sit on the floor? Well, we are Indian, you see; so, we sit on the floor, even when we never do that in ‘real life’. That was an expression I learnt there and so deduct two weeks from my age as that was not ‘real life’. However, what opened my eyes was the value of leadership development and how this could become a very satisfying career. The challenge for me was two-fold. There were (and are) no formal courses which one can take to qualify as a leadership trainer. And location wise, I was sitting in the hills while all the action in this line was happening in the cities. What I did and how I did it is another story. But for now, I want to talk about a very important lesson that I learnt; the real meaning of opportunity.
Commitment is the line you cross between wanting and doing. Unfortunately, most people never actually cross the line. They argue that they did not have the opportunity. This may be true in some cases, but in most it is commitment that they did not have; the opportunity was always there.
The reason why many people don’t seem to get enough commitment to accomplish large goals is rooted in two causes:
- Lack of clarity about the benefits at the end.
2. Impatience – giving up midway due to lack of immediate results
Clarity about the end
It is in the nature of extraordinary goals to inspire extraordinary effort. Nobody rises to low expectations; people rise to high expectations. It is essential that the final result is visualized clearly and is as real as possible to the person who sets out to accomplish it. The more desirable the final result, the more people will be willing to take the inevitable drudgery and the mundane, which is a major and essential part of all endeavors. It is the promise of great reward that drives the soul when the body has passed the boundaries of exhaustion. It is the expectation of that which is dearest to the heart that holds the hand when the night is dark and cold, and you are alone.
I became most aware of the power of the extraordinary goal when I was in Vietnam, fifteen feet underground crawling through the tunnels where the Vietnamese fought the Americans. I was doing the tourist routine in Cu-Chi where the tunnels are, wondering what it must have been to experience the real thing. The Vietnamese Tourism Authorities have widened one of the tunnels slightly and strung a couple of light bulbs so that it is not pitch dark. The tunnel is just about hundred meters long. You go down through a trap door at the bottom of which the tunnel begins. You have to lie flat on your belly and crawl. Does wonders for your clothes. Then at the end of the tunnel you come out into the pit at the bottom of the other trap door and climb out. And of course, you don’t meet a snake coming the other way, nor are there bombs falling overhead. I was drenched in sweat to the extent that my shirt was soaking wet. There were two-hundred-and-fifty miles of these tunnels at three levels. They had hospitals, ammunition dumps, sleeping quarters, eating quarters, meeting rooms, and even burial rooms. They were cold and dark and damp. And overhead flew the American B52 bombers whose instructions were to drop all they had after every bombing sortie in this area. The Americans tried everything from flooding, gassing, chemicals, and napalm.
Yet the Vietnamese fought back, often using discarded ammunition, booby traps made from empty Coke cans, nails, spring steel, fire ants, scorpions and snakes. Talk about invention and ingenuity. Talk about a very nasty way to die. Do that tour and then see the Vietnam War Museum in Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) and you will learn the meaning of determination and resilience. Read about these in the books that are for sale there. Read also about the Tunnel Rats – American, Canadian, and Australian soldiers who volunteered to go into the tunnels and fight the Vietnamese, working alone. Makes you wonder what motivates such people. Irrespective of what one may think about the justification of the Vietnam War, one can only admire the courage of the soldier who chose to go into a tunnel, often with nothing more than a knife or a hand gun. The tunnels were built for the small, wiry Vietnamese, not for big Americans. So, it was the small, short ones from the American Army who volunteered. Amazing stories of some very brave people on both sides.
What kept the Vietnamese going? The same thing that kept Nelson Mandela and Ahmed Kathrada alive and mentally healthy for eighteen years on Robben Island. The same thing that drives the freedom fighters of today wherever they may be; the drive for freedom.
Freedom is a very powerful goal. A very basic and intense need of the human being. It is something for which a person will sacrifice anything. That is what those who seek to enslave forget; the fact that paradoxically, enslavement strengthens the desire to be free. The more you try to enslave, the more people want to be free. And in the end, the slave masters always lose. It is the thought of freedom that kept the Vietnamese fighters alive and striving for their goal for twenty years. Thousands of them died and never saw the goal fulfilled, but in the end, it was their sacrifice that ensured that the most powerful nations in the world had to retreat.
Giving up midway
Have you ever seen a traditional weighing scale in a shop in India selling food grains? There is an extremely important life lesson to be learnt from this. The next time you go to buy rice or some other grain, notice what the seller does.
First, he puts the weight measure in one pan. Say twenty kilos. Then he uses a scoop and starts to put rice into the other pan. As the pan fills, even when he has put nineteen kilos in it, what change do you see? Nothing.
There is no change in the situation. The pan with the weight remains firmly on the counter top and the pan with the rice remains in the air. However, the man does not stop putting the rice into the pan. He continues to do that until he sees a small movement in the pans as the pan with the rice starts to descend. Once that happens and the pans are almost level, the man changes his method of putting in the grain. Now instead of the scoop, he uses his hand. He takes a handful of rice and very gently he drops a few grains at a time into the pan. And then lo and behold, the pan with the rice descends to the counter top and the pan with the weight rises in the air.
When I saw this, I learnt two essential lessons in life, both equally true:
Lesson # 1: Up to nineteen kilos, nothing will happen.
Lesson # 2: At 20 kilos, the pan will tip.
Believing in the ‘impossible’
Finally, if there is one thing that my life has taught me, it is the truth of the fact that nobody knows the best that they can do. This of course does not mean that you act with all passion and no planning. Passion is the key. Then comes the hard work of planning, scheduling, monitoring, measuring, taking feedback, course correction, and the final results. This is where the gap is created and enthusiasm fizzles out. However, if you plan well and make a good road map with milestones, then it helps to keep the passion alive. More importantly it helps to keep the passion kindled in the hearts of your followers.
Any great enterprise needs people. People who you can share your vision with, people who resonate to your tune, people who can hear the drumbeat to which you are marching. This is the biggest challenge that any leader faces. How do you make others dream your dream? Like most things in life, this also involves a paradox. On the one hand, as I have said earlier, the goal must be big enough to make it worth the effort. But a big goal is scary, and it can scare away a lot of people. On the other hand, if you water it down, then it will attract the wrong kind of people and fail to arouse the interest of those who can potentially share your dream. So, the goal must be big and exciting, even scary. Then it must be reduced into steps on a plan that will convince people that it can be accomplished. It is possible that you may end up with a plan that does not completely add up and leaves some room for a leap of faith but remember that if the gap looks like the Grand Canyon, it is unlikely that you will find any takers for your vision. There can be a gap, but the gap must be reasonably feasible. This is the beauty of a real stretch goal. It is big enough to excite and energize, yet not so big that it scares people away into not trying at all.
A good plan with graded steps plays the role of bringing the stars within reach. It also indicates that enough thought-share has happened in the genesis of the plan. Potential supporters look for this consciously or unconsciously. For example, when venture capitalists are listening to a business plan, more than looking at the numbers, they look to see if there is enough passion behind the idea, if enough due diligence has been done, and if enough alternatives have been generated and answered.
Generating alternatives is all about thinking outside the box in terms of what you do. Of using your creativity to approach problems from a different angle, which often opens doors that you did not imagine, existed. Taking advantage of opportunities is therefore more about commitment than about some unique, inspirational idea.
For more, please see my book, ‘It’s my Life’.
If liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear. ~ George Orwell
India has changed. I hate to say it, but that is the truth. It is no longer the nation I grew up in. The question is, ‘Do we want to continue to remain silent and allow this to happen? Or are we going to do something about it?’ The greatest strength of the corrupting forces is the silence of the good people.
As Martin Luther King Jr. said, “Cowardice asks the question – is it safe? Expediency asks the question – is it politic? Vanity asks the question – is it popular? But conscience asks the question – is it right? And there comes a time when one must take a position that is neither safe, nor politic, nor popular; But one must take it because it is right.”
That time has come. It has come for each one of us in India and for each one of us who calls himself or herself, ‘Indian’. We are not at a crossroad. We are at the brink of the precipice. If we go over, there will be no return. I am not sure that we are, even now as I speak, able to reverse what we allowed to be started. But I don’t want to die without having tried. I debated long and hard with myself about writing this article. ‘What is the use? Who cares about what I say? Let people choose whatever they want? Who will change because of one more article? After all there are several people today who are writing more or less the same things.’ I said all these things to myself and then concluded that it is not about them. It is about me. In that place, my heart is at rest.
Today the plight of the Muslims, Dalits and Christians is that they seem to have been all but abandoned by the three pillars of democracy, the Legislature, the Executive and the Judiciary. And this, for no fault of their own, except that they happen to believe in a religion different from the dominant one, i.e. Hindutva Hinduism. The final nail in the coffin is the Press and Media, which is supposed to be the conscience of the nation. It is the single most powerful force of civil society which can raise a voice against government action or apathy and ask questions to the highest offices of power. In India today, both (with honorable exceptions) have reduced themselves to the role of being ad agencies for the corporation-bureaucracy-politician nexus. They sing their tune. They don’t report news. They state opinions as fact. Their entire effort seems to be to support the divisive, hate filled mindset, that is being propagated and is being used to win elections. Hate sells. And is being bought by our society in general. The general profusion of hatred and its open expression with impunity is to be placed squarely at the door of our so-called national media.
Finally, we have an opposition which busy in fighting among themselves. An opposition which is tainted by corruption, nepotism and partisanship like everyone else. Yes, there are minor exceptions. But they are minor. They show what can be done, if there is a will. But is there a will? In the last four years we have not seen any evidence of the opposition parties coming together on matters of principle to push strongly for change. Much more energy and heat seems to be expended in fighting for seats and shooting themselves in the foot in the process. Their chief claim seems to be, ‘At least we are not as bad as them!’ That is not a particularly inspiring slogan if you ask me. I know someone needs to be voted in. I know I must say, ‘VOTE FOR………………Because they are so inspiring.’ But sorry, I can’t. No wonder I am not a politician. I am a simple fellow trying to make sense of a world that seems to have gone insane. My point is, if you want to lead, you must differentiate. You must be able to say, ‘We are different for this wonderful reason.’ Is that the case here? Sorry to be undiplomatic.
Another very disturbing issue is that this is eroding our co-existential culture. This is as true in our cities as it is in rural India. Segregation in South Africa was an officially endorsed policy under Apartheid. So, it could be fought and was eventually abolished. In India our Apartheid is not officially endorsed but unofficially supported by what is in our hearts and it is equally effective. With one big benefit; that because it is not ‘official’ it can be conveniently denied when challenged. You can’t fight against something that doesn’t exist, can you? But proof is easy to find. Go to almost any Indian city and try to rent an apartment, pretending to be Muslim or Dalit. Just call yourself by a Muslim or Christian name and see what happens. We no longer live in mixed communities and therefore do not understand, appreciate or value each other. Unlike in my childhood. Therefore, it’s easier to be prejudiced and to stereotype, to demonize and hate. It is a self-reinforcing, vicious cycle that can have only one end.
In one line, what is happening is the ‘ghettoization of India’. Hate speech is the means by which this is being achieved. What is happening today in India is not about Muslims or Dalits. It is about India. My motherland. Your motherland. It is not enough to chant Bharat Mata ki Jai, if we fail to stand up to defend our Mata. It is India crying out in pain and begging for help. It is time to stand up, stand shoulder to shoulder for the integrity of our nation. If we don’t recognize the nature of the beast and terminate it, it will devour us all. Not a single person in this country will be left untouched.
Kathua didn’t happen in isolation or overnight. It is the culmination of innumerable hate speeches, made and tacitly supported that created a mindset where a nephew and uncle invited each other to satisfy their lust on a poor 8-year-old girl. Is this our society today? Are you happy to be called a member of such a society? If your son starts a conversation planning to rape a girl and invites you to join him, are you ready for it? Sorry to be blunt but this conversation actually happened in the Kathua case, between and uncle and his nephew and they jointly violated an 8-year-old and that too inside a temple. So, is this about Hindus and Muslims? Or is this about our humanity itself?
In the Unnao and Kathua cases, the Government and the Prime Minister made a statement only after countrywide protests. The incident happened in January. The Government’s statement came in April. That statement too was not specifically directed against the perpetrators of the rape and murder of Asifa but was a general statement about the protection of women. Statistics of hate speech after the NDA has come to power show that hate speech has gone up 500%.
The reason is not hard to find. In behavioral science and training, whether it be of animals or humans, we call it ‘positive reinforcement’. This means that the person who adopts the ‘approved’ new behavior is allowed to taste its sweetness, so that in encourages him to do it again. In training hunting dogs, trainers allow them to eat from the kill, so that the dog is encouraged to kill again. Same is the case in training falcons. Same is the case in training humans, you reinforce the new behavior by allowing them to enjoy it or by giving them prizes for it. This is what has been happening in India.
You may challenge me and point to all the marches and demonstrations, all the status pictures changed in WhatsApp, FB and so on, that are now happening all over the world, demanding #JusticeforAsifa. All the clever Tweets and Snapchat and Instagram messages. All the screaming for the death penalty for the rapists, some frankly very creative ways suggested to inflict maximum pain and suffering. But hold on a minute. After all, didn’t we see all this outrage in the case of Nirbhaya? And then? Did attacks on women end with that or with the law that was enacted? You know the answer. Not only did attacks not end, they increased. So, what’s the reason to believe that this will be any different? After all, Asifa’s parents are poor people, nomads to boot, who probably never vote. The rapists belong to the Ruling Class and have powerful supporters, including law makers, law enforcers and lawyers. Asifa’s parents have one gutsy woman lawyer. I hope she proves to be someone who can change the path of destiny; not of Asifa’s family, but of my nation.
To prove my point above about how after all the shouting has died down, we continue in our ways, here are some incidents of violence against women that have happened recently and continue to happen because we don’t care.
Hate speech happens because it can happen. Because it is allowed, encouraged actively or tacitly. Because those who do it, know that they can get away with it and despite the stringent laws against it, they know that those laws are for the books but will never be applied to them. The enforcers of the law, the police, seem to have accepted the role of ‘lackey to the politician’ and are happy with it and IPC (Indian Penal Code) and CrPC (The Code of Criminal Procedure) be damned. Once again there are notable and honorable exceptions that prove the rule. You would have to be blindfolded, not to see this. As for our Constitution and what it guarantees, well, I don’t think you need me to explain that.
Here is an example of what I mean by creating a mindset of hatred.
Both Yogi Adityanath and Maharani Vijaya Raje Scindia can be seen sitting on the stage, while this man is calling upon Hindus to exhume dead Muslim women and rape them. Both remain silent. Silence is support. Silence in assent. Silence is culpable.
Question: Does this constitute hate speech? If so, what action was taken? We know that Yogiji was made the CM of UP. But was any action taken against the speaker?
Sadly, this is not the only such speech. There are dozens of such speeches, each more outrageous than the other by luminaries and leaders who are center stage. I am not talking here about some small-time village leader. I am talking about people who are seen and called ‘national leaders’. This has created a situation where hatred and its expression have become mainstream and are done without shame, because they are applauded. Here is one example:
As always, the comments are even more ‘interesting’. We have reached a stage today where someone not only openly says something like this, but it is condoned and supported also openly by others, some of whom are very prominent people in the leadership of the nation. I know some of you are going to say, ‘If D. Trump can do it, why not others?’ My answer is, ‘D. Trump is not my Gold Standard. Is he yours?’ We need to decide what kind of nation we want ours to be. We are not a part of any other nation, be it Pakistan or America or anything else. We are a sovereign nation and we must take our own decisions. In this case, ‘we’ means, ‘Hindu’. India is a Hindu majority nation. It could have been a theocracy on Day-1 if the Hindus wanted it to be. Instead it chose to be secular with equal respect for everyone. Something has changed since then. We know what that is. The question is, ‘Do we want this change?’ If the answer is, ‘Yes’, then I have nothing more to say. If the answer is, ‘No!’, then I submit to you, my Hindu brothers and sisters, it is in your hands. Because you are the majority. Majoritarianism is a non-inclusive ideology. While a majority that cares for, respects, appreciates and protects minorities is the surest sign of civilization. We need to make that choice.
We are progressively seeing a situation where those who raise a voice and have the courage to stand up to the divisive forces of extremism are targeted, harassed and silenced. Currently, the brave lawyer (Hindu) who is defending the victim of the Kathua case, is a case in point.
And she is not the only one. We all know about the Gauri Lankesh murder. But she was not the only one either.
Is this the nation we want to create? Is this the nation we want ours to become?
To give the devil his due, this is not new. And it is not something that the BJP or RSS invented. True, they are in the driving seat now and so must answer for what happens during their watch. But just to make a list of this litany of shame, we have the Gujarat Riots of 1969, followed by the Sikh Riots of 1984, then the Bhagalpur Riots in Bihar of 1989, then the Bombay Riots of 1992/93, then once again Gujarat Riots of 2002. One common factor in all of them and the numerous incidents of violence against minorities; the perpetrators always walk away, scot free. Positive reinforcement works.
In Kathua, the Bakarwala tribe has moved from the region out of fear. Which is exactly what the perpetrators wanted and that should concern the law as much as the act of rape itself. It was a premeditated act of aggression with the aim of creating terror. So, it was a terrorist act. Let us see what action is taken. The underlying narrative we need to look at is something that is happening in many places in the country, more so in Assam. A demographic purge is happening with the idea to move minorities out, so that the vote swing factor is canceled out. The fall out is that these people move to areas where ‘their own people are’. You would think this strengthens the community there who can now pick their MLA. This in practice creates one minority MLA in an assembly of opposition, rendering him ineffective and a target of government apathy.
Here is another case, which happened as we speak:
Interestingly, you will notice, and this is the case in almost every such incident, all this violence, looting and killing is done in the presence of the police. Nobody can accuse the police of not coming in time. They always seem to be present when minorities are subjected to violence. They bear witness while those who indulged in the looting and terrorizing, walk away with their loot, free. Is this the role of the police? Or is their role to stop the violence and bring the perpetrators to justice? Well, you should ask your friendly, neighborhood policeman or woman. I am not one of them. Just for the record, the police and the bureaucracy are empowered by the Constitution of India, no less, to stand up against any illegal instructions of politicians and implement the Rule of Law by the book. They don’t need to wait for directions. And they don’t need to succumb to illegal instructions. But they do. Why?
As for the courts, let me just mention three prominent and most recent cases and leave you to figure out what is happening.
Good to know that the one hundred Muslims died of natural causes and nobody killed them. Or maybe they didn’t die at all.
Great relief to know that there was no blast in Makkah Masjid. Or maybe it was an act of God, because it appears that no human being did it. But why did the judge resign immediately after giving this judgment? Ask Pontius Pilate why he washed his hands after giving his judgment.
Finally, let me share with you this totally amazing case of how saving lives and taking them seems to be the same. Be careful when you next have a pressing urge to save any lives. Who knows what kind of soup that may land you in.
https://youtu.be/dBL5pVYSmsY Interestingly, even the parents of the children whose lives he saved are silent, when the savior is paying the price of his soft heart and devotion to duty.
And of course, we expect that little Asifa will get justice because we run a hashtag campaign #JusticeforAsifa. Where is the boundary between hope and delusion? Between optimism and fantasy?
Just a moment. Who is this mob? Are these trained mercenaries brought in from somewhere? Are they thugs from Chambal? Are they professional killers and highway robbers? No, they are not. Go look in the mirror to meet one of them. They are you. They are me. Look at those around your dining table in your home. Look at those worshiping with you in your place of worship. Look at those who work with you in your office. Look at those you deal with in the market. You are looking at mob members, who at the drop of a hat, have no compunctions about breaking and entering the homes of their neighbors, raping their daughters, looting their hard-earned savings, destroying their lives and laughing all the way home, laden with the loot they accumulated. They do this because they can. They do this because there are no comebacks, no accountability, no punishment. As long as the victims are Muslim, Christian or Dalit. How does this happen? Remember this question every time you hear a derogatory comment, a curse word, a snide remark, a nasty joke, with a Muslim or a Dalit as its butt.
That is how it happens. Hatred is nurtured in our homes, in our hearts and is ingested with mother’s milk in our cradles. That is where it must be fought and stopped and replaced with love, with acceptance, with appreciation of difference. It must be fought because all hatred is fire. Fire burns everything and everyone. And the result is always ash. Remember that the religion of a murderer is cancelled when he/she commits or instigates murder. Remember that the religion of the victim doesn’t make them ‘guilty’ and ‘deserving’ of being murdered. Remember that when we support a murderer or a rapist, we are supporting our own murderers and rapists in the future. Because injustice to one is injustice to all. All murder, rape, plunder, all acts of aggression are wrong, no matter who does them or to whom they are done. That is the only principle which can keep us from going over the brink, into the void from which there is no return. Your silence makes you culpable. By remaining silent you are supporting the crime. So, why are you silent? Don’t tell me. Stand in front of a mirror and tell him/her.
Many people tell me, ‘The vast majority of Hindus are not like this. They don’t want extremism to succeed. They don’t hate Muslims and don’t support Hindutva ideology.’ My answer is, ‘Really?’ The fact is that all those we see protesting against the extremist agenda are the ‘usual suspects’; Hindu socialites, intellectuals, artists, Dalit activits, Christian priests, leftists, liberals and the odd white-capped or burkha-clad Muslim. I sound dismissive, but I am not. I bow to them in reverence and love and undying gratitude for having the courage to stand up when nobody else is doing. I am mentioning this only to show that they are not the so-called vast majority. So where is this vast majority of Hindus who allegedly believe in human rights, equality, freedom of religion, gulab jamoons and rasagollas? I don’t see them. Do you?
Extremist orators seem to be fond of drawing parallels between Indian Muslims and Jews in Hitler’s Germany, casting themselves proudly in the role of Hitler and his Nazis. The question we (normal, garden variety, peaceful, moral, kind, compassionate, cosmopolitan, educated, suave, fashionable and erudite Hindus) need to ask is, ‘By inference does that not put us in the role of the silent German majority which allowed concentration camps to be established, gas chambers to be built and six million, innocent Jewish men, women and children, old and young, even babies, to be exterminated? It was this majority that would never have dreamt of defining itself as ‘murderous, genocide supporters’. But they were. Hitler, after all, didn’t kill a single Jew, at least to my knowledge. Yet six million died for no fault other than that they believed in another religion than that of the Germans. And remember that they were also German citizens. Yet it was their own government, sworn to protect all citizens equally, which put them in concentration camps and then in gas chambers. Why? Because their friends, compatriots, fellow citizens chose to remain silent. Silence is culpable.
In the words of Castillo, the Guatemalan poet and activist:
One day the apolitical intellectuals of my country
will be interrogated by the simplest of our people.
They will be asked what they did when their nation died out
slowly, like a sweet fire, small and alone.
No one will ask them about their dress, their long siestas after lunch,
no one will want to know about their sterile combats with “the idea of the nothing”
no one will care about their higher financial learning.
They won’t be questioned on Greek mythology,
or regarding their self-disgust when someone within them begins to die the coward’s death.
They’ll be asked nothing about their absurd justifications,
born in the shadow of the total life.
On that day the simple men will come.
Those who had no place in the books and poems of the apolitical intellectuals,
but daily delivered their bread and milk, their tortillas and eggs,
those who drove their cars, who cared for their dogs and gardens
and worked for them, and they’ll ask:
“What did you do when the poor suffered, when tenderness and life burned out of them?”
Apolitical intellectuals of my sweet country, you will not be able to answer.
A vulture of silence will eat your gut.
Your own misery will pick at your soul.
And you will be mute in your shame.
(Otto rene Castillo,
Guatemalan Poet and activist)
Once again, Hitler’s gas chambers didn’t happen in isolation. They were the ultimate culmination of centuries of oppression of Jews all over Europe and Russia. They were the ultimate expression of centuries of silence of ‘good’ Russian people, French people, German people, English people, Austrian people and many such people all over Europe; all good, religious, moral (or so they would have defined themselves) and kind people, for whom, killing a Jew or remaining silent when someone did it in their name, didn’t cast any aspersions on their own morality, kindness or religion. They would have gladly risked their lives to save a puppy caught in a house on fire but would also stand silently and watch while a Jewish man or child was set on fire. That is exactly where we, the vast and silent majority of Hindus, stand in India today. If India is to change, we Hindus must take the lead and change it. The minorities can’t do it alone without our support. We Hindus must stand with them, around them and ahead of them. My question is, do we want to continue to stand and watch until we are ourselves engulfed? Or do we want to drive the change we want to see, by being it ourselves?
It will be salutary for those who draw parallels between Jews in Hitler’s Germany and Indian Muslims to consider two facts: Even Hitler and all his silent accomplices, couldn’t exterminate all the Jews in Germany and those who remained, came out of the trial by fire, tempered as hard as steel. And those who remained silent, perished with Hitler and his active companions, when Germany fell to Allied Forces in World War II. Being silent didn’t save them from the consequences of the actions of their compatriots.
I am clueless about how as an ordinary citizen of this country, I can raise a voice and be heard, so that action can be taken to save our society from going over the brink. Where do I raise a voice? Who is there to listen? Who has the authority and the will to bring about change? It seems today that we, as a people, have no self-respect, no principles, no values and no shame. You don’t like what I’ve said? So, prove me wrong.
The biggest lie that is peddled to us and which we swallow without examining it, is that our leaders are ‘our’ leaders. The reality is that our leaders are a different species, who manipulate and rule us, because we are easy to manipulate, and we collude in this manipulation. They are our leaders. That is how they become our leaders in this poor, blessed democracy of ours. By manipulation. We know this. We have suffered this, election after election. But we still fall for the same stories, the same lies, the same betrayal. The truth is that today everyone has failed us. Who’s us? You. Me. Your neighbor, your parents, my parents, your wife, my wife, your husband, my husband, your children, my children, one of whom called Asifa, died in unspeakable terror and agony. Why did she die? Because she was ours. If she’d been theirs’, she’d have had Z-class security.
But hold on a minute, just in case you forgot. Who pays for their security? Who gave them their status? Who pays their salaries? Who pays for them to live in the style they live in? Who pays for them to travel all over the world in the name of service to the nation?
Big question to you, “How much longer do you want to continue to do this?
What can you do?
- What’s the action being taken in the Asifa case? Are the culprits going to be hanged?
- What’s the action taken in the Unao case?
- Why is Dr. Kafeel, who saved the lives of 200 children, imprisoned?
- Why are the parents of those children silent?
- Why are all these great leaders of ours, silent in all these cases?
- What action has been taken in the Gauri Lankesh murder?
- And the many other murders of anyone who raised the voice of dissent?
- What action has been taken in the more than hundred cases of lynching by Gaurakshaks?
- What action has been taken for the numerous encounter killings by police? Extrajudicial killings. In one simple word, murder.
I can go on but won’t.
Meet each other as people, as human beings, not with your religious and caste labels. Meet in your localities, villages, buildings, offices. Tell each other your stories. And discover that it’s really the same story. We are one. We all want safety for our children, education, good affordable health care, food on the table, decent jobs, to be treated with dignity, to be respected for what we are. Same story whether we are Muslim, Hindu, Sikh, Dalit, Christian, God fearing or Godless. Same story. So, what’s the fighting about?
Truly we’re not that stupid, right? Wrong. We are, that stupid. That’s why we are where we are, and they are where they are. We elect them, keep them, support them, pay for them and then they treat us like dirt. So, who is at fault?
Meet each other and ask these questions.
Believe me, it doesn’t matter a damn to you what my religion is or if I have any religion at all. And vice versa. What matters to both you and I, is whether we and our children have a future in this land? Our motherland.
Guess who decides that?
Wake up, take charge, enforce justice. Or keep moaning and groaning until the next Asifa or Nirbhaya or Kafeel. Except, then, the name might be your own or your daughter’s.
In the famous words of Pastor Neimoller who wrote about Hitler’s Germany”
First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Socialist.
Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.
Martin Niemöller (1892–1984)
The tea plantations of the Sub-continent are a unique environment, be that in South India, Assam or Sri Lanka because they represent a completely artificial man-made community. The areas where tea is grown were, until a hundred years ago, pristine rain forest. Then came the British, having discovered wild tea in Assam as well as with stolen tea seedlings from China, which broke the tea monopoly of that country. Workers were transported from the plains of Tamilnadu for South Indian and Sri Lankan (Ceylon) plantations and from Orissa and Bengal for the Assam gardens. In South India most if not almost all of them were Dalits. They were housed in colonies according to their native areas. They built temples and either one of them officiated as the priest, having learned the rituals in Eklavya tradition (unofficially from some kind priest who would teach him) or they hired a poor Brahmin, who because he was paid by them, didn’t prevent them from entering the temple. This was not the case (and to this day it is not the case) in their own homelands, where Dalits, though officially classified as Hindu, are not permitted inside Hindu temples. This resulted in an egalitarian tradition which continues to this day, where everyone participates in all festivals and religious functions. The estate manager especially, irrespective of his religion, is expected to officiate at all religious functions of all religions and is specifically invited as the Chief Guest. Generally, this merely means putting in an appearance and flagging off a temple procession or lighting a lamp to signify the beginning of a ceremony or some other symbolic gesture. But it is nevertheless important and taken very seriously.
There is a book called Red Tea, by Paul Harris Daniel, which is a novel but is based on fact. The author took sworn affidavits from those whose stories he told. This book was published by Higginbotham’s in 1969 and was later made into the Tamil film ‘Paradesi’. The book gives a good account of what life in the early plantations was like and what the real price of tea is, not in money but in lives and blood of animals and men. Not to speak of the tremendous damage to the rain forests of Northeast and South India and Sri Lanka (Ceylon in those days). But those were the days before there was any awareness about these things and after all we were a colony to be exploited for the benefit of the British Empire and so we were; thoroughly.
When I joined planting in 1983, this was all history but there were still old workers who had seen a lot of what I have written above. One of them was Kullan, who was in his 70’s when I met him in 1983. We would sit on my veranda in the night and he would tell me stories about the ‘old days’ (Palaya Gaalam). That is the benefit of learning the language (Tamil, which I didn’t know a word of until I joined planting) and of having a good relationship with your workers. It was in the course of one of those sessions that he told me in a very matter of fact tone that the bungalow in which I lived (where we were sitting right then) was the estate hospital in those days and in the monsoon when there was an epidemic of cholera, many bodies were simply thrown into the ravine that was a little way behind the bungalow. “That is why their ghosts are still wandering here, Dorai”, he said to me. I must say that none of them ever bothered me, though Kullan was not the only one who mentioned ghosts in that bungalow.
The Muslim workers in Murugalli Estate where I was posted decided to dismantle the temporary shed that they used as a masjid and build a small, but permanent concrete structure in its place. They had collected some money and the company also gave them a small grant. But when they did the math in the end, they discovered that they had no money for the centering sheets to cast the concrete roof, nor did they have money for the labor to cast the slab. They came to me for advice to resolve this issue. I spoke to Mr. Dakshinamurthy, the Mayura Factory, Site Engineer, and he readily agreed to loan them the centering sheets free of cost. He also loaned them the concrete mixer. All that remained was the labor. I suggested to them that we do a working Sunday and get all the Muslim men to help with the labor and the Muslim women to make some food.
“Why do you need to pay for labor to build a masjid when we are all here?” I asked them. They all agreed enthusiastically. So, the following Sunday that is what we did. What fun we had!!
The Muslim workers in Murugalli were all from the Mallapuram district of Kerala. The women made some wonderful Malabari Biryani and we started early in the morning after a large mug of highly sweetened Malabari tea. We set up a human chain from the mixer to the top; I was on the top. The men started a chant in Malayalam as they passed up the concrete containers and we started pouring the concrete. This is a job that needs to be done without stopping, so as the day advanced and we became tired, the work became progressively more difficult. But the spirit of the work, the fact that we were building a masjid, and the promise of the Malabari Biryani, which was making its presence felt as its aroma floated on the air as it cooked, kept us going. By late afternoon the final load was cast, and we came down. Then after washing up, we sat down to a meal that was more delicious than I remembered eating ever before. Was it the food? Was it the hunger? Was it the fact that we were eating it after a day well spent? I don’t know. All I know is that it was wonderful to eat.
There is a sad ending to this part of my story. Dakshinamurty suddenly died in a very bizarre accident. He was at home one weekend and was having his head oiled. The barber who did the oil massage for him twisted his head to crack his spine. This is a very common practice in India and is done all the time without any adverse result. However, in Dakshinamurty’s case the man accidentally snapped his spinal cord. He was instantly paralyzed from the neck down and two days later he passed away. Sadly, he could not see the completion of Mayura Factory, the project that he had started. D.R.S. Chary stayed with me till the project was completed and then returned to Chennai where he lived. A couple of years later, I heard that he also passed away. I mourn the passing of these good people with whom I shared some wonderful times.
When Mayura was finally built and was to be inaugurated, Mr. AMM Arunachalam sent priests to do a puja – Ganapathy Homam (Havan), which was to start at 2:00 am the next morning and would go on for several hours. To my astonishment, Mr. AVG Menon called me and said, “AMM wants you to officiate as the representative of the Murgappa family at the puja. If you don’t want to do it, then he asked me to find someone else.” I was astonished to say the least because I am Muslim and I had never imagined that I would be asked to officiate at a Hindu puja, that too one which was so important to the Murugappa family. Obviously, it was a great honor and highly unusual. I told AVG that I would not actually be worshiping if I participated but he said that was alright. I asked him what I needed to do. He said to me, “You need to go there at 2:00 am when it starts and sit there with the priests. They will recite the slokas and every once in a while, the head priest will give you some grains of rice, which you must throw on to the fire.” That seemed simple enough and so I, a Muslim, officiated at a Ganapathy Homam on behalf of the Murugappa family at the opening of the Mayura Fatory in the Anamallais. I would like to believe that the extraordinary success of the factory was a result of my participation in its inauguration. In today’s India I wonder what happened to that India which I lived in. Where did it all go?
Once the puja was complete, we got ready for the formal inauguration to which the entire Board of Directors was invited including the Chairman Mr. AMM Arunachalam. This was followed by a lunch at the Group Manager, Mr. AVG Menon’s bungalow in Sheikalmudi. The building of Mayura Factory was a truly historic occurrence because tea factories are not built every day. Most in the Anamallais were over eighty years old at the time Mayura was built and commissioned (1985). On top of that it was the largest and most modern factory in India with computer-controlled systems and all kinds of bells and whistles. Since I was the man on the spot, so to speak, I had to be in many places at once and managed to do it. Everything went off well. Lunch finished late and we returned home close to 5:00pm. I had been awake and working for 48 hours straight with perhaps a short nap on my feet. But the day had not ended yet for me. We, my newly wedded wife and I, had a formal dinner to attend in Mudis.
Among the customs of plantation life was that of ‘calling on’ the seniors of the district. When you came in new or got married and your wife came to the estates, you called on the seniors of the district to introduce yourself and her. You telephoned or sent a letter saying that you would like to call on them and asked when would be convenient. These were formal social meetings and you were treated with great dignity and grace. This ‘calling on’ was usually for tea unless it was somebody you knew already, in which case you would be invited to dinner.
We had just got married (March 1985) and I returned with my wife, post haste to the estate because Mayura Factory opening was due. Two days after our marriage we boarded the train for Coimbatore from where we drove up the Aliyar Ghat of forty hairpin bends. My wife was violently sick all the way up the Ghat. Being prone to motion sickness, the Ghat road was not doing her any good at all. I was very concerned because this Ghat road was a given if we lived in the Anamallais and with my wife being so sick on it, it didn’t seem to portend well for us. The prospect of a repeat performance every time we traveled was definitely not something to look forward to. But as it happened after a couple of trips my wife got over her motion sickness altogether. Maybe the Ghat road shocked it out of her system.
As was the custom of the plantations when anyone got married and returned with his wife, there was a round of parties to meet the couple. So also, in our case and since I was the Secretary of the Anamallai Club, I had more than my fair share of friends and so we had a party to go to every night. The parties were formal suit and tie affairs and the hostess would go to great lengths to cook special dishes in honor of the guests and at the end the couple would be given a gift. In a place where social relationships were very important, these parties were not simply for entertainment. They were rites of passage and thresholds of entry from bachelorhood to marriage, which gave you a higher level of status and respect. They also had a ‘snob value’ associated with who invited you and who didn’t. I didn’t bother with that at all, but then again, I was invited by everyone, so it didn’t matter. The parties were also a good way to introduce the new bride to a way of life that was foreign to her and helped her to make contacts with senior ladies and others more experienced in this lifestyle, which could be challenging for someone born and brought up in the city. Most people who go to tea gardens for a holiday in good weather don’t realize the difficulty of that environment for those who must live there all year round.
The estate workers also welcomed the Assistant Manager when he returned with his wife. In my case, the Candoora workers were the first. As our car rounded the bend off the Sholayar Dam and came towards ‘Black Bridge,’ we were stopped and requested to alight. We both came out of the car, glad for the chance to stretch our legs. The road was lined with girls who sang a welcome song and showered us with flower petals as we walked through this guard of honor. We were taken to a small pavilion which I realized had been made by tying the best sarees of the women to the poles and decorated with lots of flowers. Tea garden workers can be the most loving people in the world and if you are good to them, they appreciate it and reciprocate. I saw many examples of that in my decade long career. We were garlanded and sat at a table on the two grandest chairs that they could find. Then we were served tea with biscuits and sweets. It was then that a depressed fly decided to end its meaningless life in my wife’s tea cup. But my wife being the perfect lady that she is, merely fished out the fly and drank the tea without batting an eyelid. An amazing performance which saved us from a lot of embarrassment. Those poor workers had taken so much trouble to welcome us that it would have been very ungraceful to complain, even about the suicide of a fly.
Then speeches were made, and the women danced and sang another song in our honor in which we were mentioned repeatedly in sometimes a humorous way and sometimes with great respect. The amazing thing was that this song was made up then and there and they sang about various habits of mine, including singing while I rode my motorcycle. People observed you and remembered and mentioned what you did. All the more reason to ensure that whatever it was, remained good and honorable. At the end of this song and dance there were some speeches by the local union leaders and one supervisor and then I was asked to speak. It was permitted for the manager to speak in English and the speech would be translated. But I had learnt Tamil for occasions such as these and spoke it well, much to everyone’s delight. When I had finished and thanked them for all their trouble and expressed our gratitude for the honor that we had been granted, they gave my wife a gold ring as their gift as a mark of their love and honor for me. I was floored. These were poor people who had collected money for this, something which was not expected of them at all. What could I say? As I mentioned earlier, Managers and workers in the plantations form bonds that are more like family than anything else.
To return to the daily dinner parties in our honor, these daily night outings were so frequent that my wife could recognize a road only in the dark. The parties, enjoyable though they were and were a good way to meet friends who lived too far to visit frequently, could be very taxing as they tended to go on very late. I was expected to put in an appearance at the morning muster on the estate at 6:00 am no matter when we returned. The night of Mayura Factory inauguration (the day that started at 2:00 am), we had been invited to dinner at the home of our dear friends, Prema and Ricky Muthanna in Mudis. Ricky was the General Manager of BBTC and we were honored to be invited to their home. As it happened, there was no time even for a short snooze in the afternoon thanks to the inauguration and to top it all, my car was once again in hospital. I didn’t fancy the idea of going all the way to Mudis (about thirty km on serpentine estate roads, decorated with potholes) on my motorcycle. I asked AVG Menon to borrow his new car, an Ambassador, for the evening and he graciously agreed.
We set off at about 7:00 pm as the dinner was for 8:00 pm. I was exhausted as I had been awake for 48 hours, but we set off, my wife and I, on this long drive. We arrived at Prema and Ricky’s house to a very warm welcome. My wife and Prema became friends instantly and have remained friends all these years. Ricky and Prema’s home was a delight, very tastefully decorated and one of the iconic bungalows in the Anamallais. It was the only bungalow to my knowledge which had a central courtyard with a veranda all around it and so it had a garden inside and outside. Prema had called a lot of people in our honor and the house was full of our friends and some others who I knew by name but was meeting for the first time.
All plantation parties (except in my house) started with drinks, which the men consumed in large quantities while the women sipped soft drinks and discussed matters of great import. As I was not one for the spiritual experience, I would take my orange juice or fresh lime soda and chat with whoever was still on mother earth. But as many left for higher altitudes in proportion to the spirit inside them, I would usually take myself off into a corner and contemplate the world. That day I was so sleepy and tired that my eyes were self-shutting unable to withstand the weight of my eyelids, while the party was in full swing. I was clearly out of it. Prema saw me in that state and said to us, ‘Yawar looks like he is going to drop. Let me give you dinner so that you can eat and leave. I have no idea when these men will eat, and you look like you won’t last too long.’ I agreed wholeheartedly, and we ate, said our farewells quietly and left.
Even up to that point I had my faculties still intact. You had to be alert when driving in the Anamallais, both because of the road conditions as well as the possibility of coming upon a herd of elephants or gaur around a bend. That night was mercifully elephant free and we reached Lower Sheikalmudi Estate without incident. As I took the final turn on the road leading up to our bungalow (the ‘Tennis Court Bungalow’), I relaxed and that was my undoing. The next thing I knew, there was a crash and the car came to an abrupt halt. I was shocked back into awareness and realized that I had driven off the road. The left front wheel of the car was hanging off the side of the road in midair with the front fender resting against a tea bush, which was the reason we didn’t go all the way down into the ravine. The chassis was resting on the road bed. My wife and I were shocked. It was 2:00 am and there we were.
I realized that this was not a good situation because the car didn’t belong to me. It was Mr. Menon’s car and a new one to boot. It was therefore my responsibility to get out of this situation. It didn’t even occur to me that I could leave the car where it was until morning and then get assistance to take it out of its predicament. I had crashed it and it was up to me to get it out. And I had to do it right away; it was not even a matter to think about. As it was, the car was directly below a stairway that led up to our house. I got my wife to walk up to the house so that she would be safely home. Then I went in search of a tractor to pull the car out. I knew that the leaf transport tractors – Massey Ferguson – used to be parked near Mayura Factory, about two kilometers from where I was. Our roads had no street lights and it was a dark night. The tea fields were home to wild boar and other friendly species, not to mention several species of snakes, but none of them was my boss while AVG Menon was. So, I hiked off in search of a tractor. On the way I called my good friend, mechanic Thangavelu, because there was no way that I could pull the car out alone. He and his ever-present smile came out of his house as if he had been waiting for me. Both of us got to where the tractors were parked and selected the one we wanted.
None of the tractors had self-starters and used to be parked on an incline so that you could roll down and start the engine. And they had no lights; I never understood why. Working in starlight, I got into the driver’s seat, rolled down, and started the tractor. Now we needed a tow rope. Thangavelu recalled that the telephone company people had been working on a line passing through one of our fields and had left a coil of telephone wire there. So off we went, with Thangavelu standing on a plank behind me, holding the seat as I drove the tractor. We picked up the coil of wire and drove back to where the car was; hooked up the wire to the chassis at the back and pulled the car back on the road. When I examined the damage, I saw that the tea bush had taken the shock and except for a small side indicator light, nothing was broken. That was a big relief to put it mildly. Thangavelu and I, then took the tractor back to its parking spot and I drove home at 3:30 am. I still recall the first thing that AVG asked me when I told him that we’d had an accident in his new car. He said, “I hope you both are alright?” I told him that we were fine but that his new car had been inaugurated with a broken indicator light. He was amused and laughed it off and said, “That can be fixed. I am happy that nothing happened to you both.”
That is why we used to call him A Very Good Menon (AVG Menon).
For more, please see my book, ‘It’s my Life’.
One of the first things that strikes you as you enter any ‘Tea District’ is the tea factory. These in many if not most cases are over a century old, build entirely of wood on a structure of steel girders. The machinery, especially in the Orthodox factories is fit for a museum. For the uninitiated, ‘Orthodox’ refers to the type of manufacture and not the religious inclinations of the manager. This was the case when I entered planting in 1983. Then in 1985 our company, Parry Agro, decided to build a spanking new CTC (another way of manufacturing tea) in the Anamallais. I was closely associated with the project from the word ‘Go.’ The factory was built on Lower Sheikalmudi Estate and AVG Menon, my first manager was made responsible for the project, since he was the Group Manager for the Sheikalmudi Group. He appointed me as his assistant for the day to day supervision of the construction and so I became the defacto Site Manager of the project. At this time, I was the Assistant Manager in Murugalli Estate with responsibility for Murugalli Factory (Factory Assistant). I now had two jobs, reported to two managers and no additional pay. I was delighted, and it didn’t even occur to me to ask for more money for doing almost double the work that anyone else was doing. Not because I am allergic to money but because I was going to get a chance to build something that others had only done a century ago; build a tea factory.
I lived in a bungalow that was midway between Murugalli Factory and the site of the proposed Mayura factory and was the proud possessor (company issue) of a Royal Enfield 350 cc motorcycle. This ran on a mixture of petrol and faith aided by gravity when coasting down hill after its engine periodically decided to give up the ghost. I would then roll down the road to its end and hand over the bike to its resurrector, Thangavelu, our mechanic who had no formal education in automobile engineering but could make anything with wheels run, when all others had given up on it. It was (and is) a fascinating fact about our tea gardens, factories that for literally over a century, they are run by people like Thangavelu who learnt their art as apprentices with some other mechanic and run machinery that would be a major challenge for highly qualified engineers. These people have no diagnostic tools, no meters, just a spanner and a pair of pliers; but with that they moved mountains. This is an unsung lot who work from generation to generation and disappear quietly into the environment, none the wiser or even grateful that thanks to them, they (the unwise and ungrateful) got their daily cuppa.
Thangavelu looked like he had lube oil in his veins. His clothes looked like leather, thanks to the amount of oil they had absorbed. He had three teeth in his top jaw and a few more in the bottom, all visible because he never stopped smiling from ear to ear, come rain or sunshine. He never walked. He trotted. His heart was made of gold and he was my brother. He still is, and now retired, I hope he has a long and happy life. Apart from his genius with motorcycles, he repaired tractors, cars, factory machinery and worked a lathe machine. I wanted a pruning knife, a wicked blade 18 inches long and curved at the end, sharp enough to shave the hair on your arm (that is how we used to test it). Thangavelu started with a broken piece of truck spring blade and created a knife nestled in a handle made of Sambar horn (they shed annually), bound with brass hoops. It was a work of art and I had it for many years, until the Deputy Forest Officer coveted it and expropriated it in exchange for releasing ten of my workers who got arrested for killing a barking deer. But that is another story.
I mentioned Thangavelu (that is him but without his smile because he thinks this photo taking is serious business) because I mentioned my Royal Enfield motorcycle, my sole means of transport. And that, because one day it died. Truly forever. That left me in the situation where I was in-charge of two projects, Murugalli Factory and the Mayura construction project and no transport. I asked my Manager who was my immediate superior and who had not been happy at all at my appointment with additional responsibility for Mayura, if he could let me have another bike. He said to me, ‘Who told you to accept the additional responsibility? Now ask whoever appointed you.’ That meant that I was to ask AVG Menon who had asked for me. I refused to do that as I had no intention of getting in the middle of company politics. In any case, I was very pleased with the appointment and didn’t want to go to AVG with this kind of stuff. So, I used to walk every day twice, to both factories, clocking in about 15-16 kilometers all told. That continued until one day I was hoofing it when a car drove up from behind me and I heard a cheery, ‘Hello! Yawar!’ It was Mr. Rawlley, the Visiting Agent (an old British period title that was still used in those days even after the Agency system no longer existed), on his inspection tour of our group of estates. ‘Why on earth are you walking?’ he asked. I told him the story and that evening, much to my manager’s acidity and flatulence, I got a new bike.
Mayura was unique for many reasons. For one thing, it would have a capacity to process one-hundred-thousand kilograms of green leaf per day. At a time when the average production was two-thousand-five-hundred kilograms made-tea per hectare, this was a huge figure, one that nobody thought could ever be reached. It was the vision of Mr. K. Ahmedullah and Mr. N. K. Rawlley, who were the General Manager and Visiting Agent respectively. They proposed the theory that creating capacity would stimulate production as it would put pressure on the estates to supply the factory. Initially, nobody believed them except the Murugappa family; Mr. Alagappan and Mr. AMM Arunachalam in particular. But that was enough as they were the ones who were funding the project. Once the factory was completed, Ahmed’s and Nickoo’s vision was proved right. The production of the estates went up from two-thousand-five-hundred to four-thousand kilograms per hectare. Needless to say, this did not happen by magic. A lot of people put in a lot of effort, but there is no doubt that it was the presence of Mayura that pushed us all to excel. Once again this proved to me the value of vision.
Since the Anamallais is hilly, locating a huge factory was no easy task. It involved leveling the land first, to create the construction site. The main building was on columns, but we still needed a level site to locate all the rest of the buildings and bays. We had two bulldozers brought up from Coimbatore to do the cutting and filling of soil on the hillside to get enough level land to start building. I went down to the site on the first day that the work started. The bulldozer operators were already on their machines with the engines running. I called the leader of the team to give him instructions. He switched off the engine and came to me. I showed him from which part of the hillside I wanted the soil to be cut and where I wanted it to be moved and dumped so that eventually we would get a flat surface. He listened in silence, then handed me the key and said, “Why don’t you show me how to do it?”
I was taken aback by this obvious insubordination so early in the morning. But I took the key from him, climbed up on the track of the dozer and into the seat. I started the engine, engaged gear, and started cutting the soil. I worked for about half an hour. Then I parked the machine, switched off the engine, got off the machine, and handed the key back to the driver and walked away, all in silence. I had a hard time keeping a straight face at the look of shock on the driver’s face for having called his bluff. The long and short of this was that I never had a problem with that driver again for the duration of the land clearing stage. When the work was done, and the drivers were going back, he came to me and said, “I apologize for challenging you on the first day, but tell me where did you learn to drive a bulldozer?” I told him, “In future, before you challenge anyone, find out what they know.”
My knowledge of bulldozers and machinery was acquired in Guyana in the mines, when I was doing a Job Evaluation exercise in the company and had to evaluate the difficulty of each job. Knowing how to do the job yourself is obviously a big advantage and not one that most non-technical people have. I had very good relations with the bulldozer, truck (50 ton CAT dump trucks) and dragline crane operators and they gladly taught me how to drive them. For them I was a curiosity, a young Indian boy in his early 20’s willing to learn from grizzled West Indian African experts whose hands were like steel encased in sandpaper. That I was their superior in rank meant nothing. That I was willing to learn and not throw my weight around meant everything in my favor. I was welcomed. We joked, shared our meals and I spent many happy hours in the cabin of a truck or bulldozer deep in the Amazonian rain forest or in the great mine pit.
My learning in this incident of the bulldozer at Mayura fatory, many years later, was the fact that to build credibility it is important to be able to lead from the front. You don’t have to do people’s jobs for them. It is not even desirable to do this. But you do need to demonstrate that you know what they do and can do it if necessary. It is when subordinates get the impression that you know nothing about what they do, that it makes them nervous and lose motivation. The good ones feel a little lost. The crooks take you for a ride.
Mayura Factory’s construction was a time of learning for me. The site engineer was a wonderful elderly gentleman called Mr. D.R.S. Chary, who stayed with me in my bungalow throughout the project. He was a very well read and learned man, many years my senior but with a great sense of humor. We hit it off from the first day and became great friends. Chary taught me a great deal about constructing large buildings. I found this a fascinating time and used every opportunity I could, to add to my knowledge. On the factory site, the contractor’s site engineer was another wonderful man called Mr. Dakshinamurthy. He also became a good friend and was helpful in many ways.
Chary and I lived in the bungalow behind the tennis court. We could see the construction site from our veranda. Since Chary was a Brahmin, out of consideration for him, I had instructed my cook and butler Bastian, not to cook any meat while he was staying with us. No meat was cooked for over six months in our kitchen. I would go to some of my other friends like Berty Suares and Taher for my meat fix.
The bungalow had a somewhat shady history in that it was supposed to have been the estate hospital in the remote past during an epidemic and many people had died in it. It also had the dubious distinction of having a resident demon. There was a small shrine at one end of the garden, which I was told was a shrine to Karpuswamy (literally means: Black God), who the people described as a very powerful and evil entity that needed to be placated with an annual animal sacrifice. The sacrifice itself was not done in the Bungalow garden because it was done at a larger temple, but every morning one of the tea plucker women would put some flowers at the shrine. Chary, like most highly educated Hindus, did not believe in any of this, given more to keeping to the social norms than any real religious belief in the mythology.
Some weeks after Chary and I moved into the bungalow, some rumors started to circulate in the estate to say that my bungalow was haunted and that people had seen Karpuswamy near the bungalow at night. I saw nothing and was not perturbed by the rumors. I don’t believe in ghosts and don’t believe that anything can harm or benefit anyone except the Creator Himself. I slept well. Chary told me one day when he was leaving after the completion of Mayura Factory that he never seemed to sleep well in this bungalow. But I was not sure how much of that was because of some unconscious effect of the rumors and how much of it was plain indigestion or some such thing. He was over sixty years old at the time, after all.
I had recently bought a used Ambassador car. It had the dubious distinction of having belonged to the son of Marri Chenna Reddy a former Chief Minister of Andhra Pradesh. Among its other attributes was the fact that it was graced with a carburetor that was cracked down the middle and was held together with a wire. Now hold on – before you go making sly remarks about Ambassadors, ask yourself, ‘which other car would still run in this condition?’ And run it did. However, it did need long hours in the workshop. In the plantations the workshop came to you, as did most other things. One night, Velayudhan, the mechanic, was working on the car in my garage behind the house. He worked late into the night and promised to return the next day to complete the job. The next morning there was no sign of him and when I sent someone to look for him, the man returned and said that Velayudhan was in hospital.
I was very surprised and concerned as the man had been working in my house the previous evening and had been well and healthy. What could have happened to him for him to be hospitalized? He was a cheerful and willing worker and I had a very good relationship with him, so I was genuinely concerned for him. I went to the hospital and first asked the doctor what the matter was with Velayudhan. The doctor told me that he had been brought to the hospital late the previous night in a hysterical state, his heartbeat racing and in a semi-conscious state. He was so bad that the doctor had been afraid the man would have a heart attack or a stroke. All this seemed to have been brought about by intense fear. He had to be given a heavy dose of sedative to put him to sleep. In short, the man had been extremely frightened by someone or something.
I went to see him and he told me the story, which I present to you without comment.
He said to me, “Dorai, I had finished my work for the day on your car and decided to take the short cut through the tea field down the hillside instead of the main road. It was a full moon night and the footpath was clearly visible in the moonlight. As I started down the path, I suddenly heard a heavy snort behind me, like a cow sometimes makes as it is grazing. I looked back over my shoulder and saw a huge man with flaming red eyes and huge teeth. I turned and ran and then I fell down and fainted.” Some people who were going past on the main road below heard the sound of his running and then saw him fall. They picked him up and took him to the hospital. There was some suspicion that perhaps he’d hit the bottle, but the doctor denied that and said that he did not show any sign of having been inebriated. He was just very badly terrified and completely hysterical with fear.
I lived in that bungalow for two years and went in and out at all hours, but never saw a thing. That is what led to the rumor that Karpuswamy was the guard on the bungalow and guarded me. In the plantations such rumors add to your mystique and reputation. In any case, I could do nothing to refute it.
A year later, another incident added some more grist to the mill.
There was a supervisor who was very corrupt, so I dismissed him. He was naturally very upset and angry with me and threatened me with many things. He did not say any of this to me directly of course, but various rumors started floating that he would do black magic against me. Black magic is quite prevalent in India and in the plantations and many people claimed either to do it or had been its victims. When these stories got to me, I said, “If anyone does anything against me, it will turn against him. I worship AllahY and nothing can happen to me without His will. I ask Him to protect me.” That put a stop to all the talk that came to me.
Then one day, I was walking in the field with my Field Officer Mr. O. T. Varghese, a wonderful elderly man who taught me a lot about tea planting. Suddenly a tea plucker woman came running to us, wailing all the while and fell at my feet. She was wailing, “Only you can save me. Have mercy on my husband……” and so on. I was taken aback to say the least. After a while, Mr. Varghese and I managed to get some sense out of her. Mr. Varghese told me that she was the wife of the dismissed supervisor. She told us that her husband had gone to a black magic expert in their village and asked him to put a spell on me to kill me. However, the spell backfired on him and now he was dying and was in hospital, where they had brought him the previous evening. She begged me to go with her and see her husband.
I agreed, though I thought to myself that this was a jolly good thing and served him right for his efforts. After all, his wife had not tried to stop him from his nefarious activity and if he had succeeded, his wife would have been sitting pretty with him and not running to my aid. Anyway, Mr. Varghese and I reached the hospital and I asked the doctor about the patient.
He said to me that there was nothing wrong with him except that he was in a state of very high excitement and terror and had not slept for more than 72 hours. His heart was racing and the doctor was fearful that if he continued in this way for a few more hours it was entirely likely that he would have a heart attack. I entered the room after getting this information. As soon as I entered, the man literally fell off the bed and put his head on my feet. Weeping, he cried, “Dorai, please forgive me. I tried to do something bad to you, but it has come to me. I have children Dorai and they will become orphans if I die. Please forgive me Dorai and take this thing away from me.” It was the strangest experience that I have ever had in my life. I told him to get up and pulled him up by his arm and put him back on the bed. Then I asked for some water and recited Sura Al Fatiha (the first chapter in the Qur’an) and the Al Muwaddathian, the last two chapters and blew on the water and told him to drink it. I told his wife to give him what was left of the water later in the evening. Then I left. The doctor told me later that shortly thereafter the man slept and the next morning he was discharged.
Never a dull moment in the estates.
For more, please see my book, ‘It’s my Life’.
Why do you have a burglar alarm on your car or home? Not because you believe that no burglar in the world can get past it. But because you know that burglars, very sensibly, always look for easy gains. The reality is that if someone really wants to break into Fort Knox, I am sure there are ways to do it. After all, whatever was made by one human being can be unmade by another. But when you have Punjab National Bank, why do you need to break into Fort Knox? If you don’t believe me, ask Nirav Bhai. Which underlines my theory that burglars are looking for easy access.
Second answer to the unasked but will-be-asked question is, ‘Just because you don’t have anything to hide, you don’t walk around naked.’ Privacy is not about having something to hide. It is about human dignity. It is the reason we wear clothes, have curtains on our windows and don’t appreciate people peering over our shoulders and reading what we write or checking our messages or rummaging in our handbags, even if those people are the ones who gave us birth, ones we gave birth to or the ones we married. Privacy is about dignity and the right to that special place of solitude and, well, ‘PRIVACY’, that is a fundamental right of every human being.
That is what is being invaded today. Not by soldiers with guns but by geeks; for God’s sake!! Interestingly I am not even sure if the word ‘invaded’ is the right one. If you open your door and invite someone into your bedroom, can you then accuse them of having invaded your home and violated your privacy? That is exactly what is happening to us, as you read this article.
Imagine a world before 2004: No Facebook. Before 1998: No Google. Before 1994: No Amazon. Before 1976: No Apple. In 1976, I was 21, in the middle of my college degree of BA and had just got the right to vote. For us, Amazon was a river (where I went two years later and spent the next 5 years of my life in its basin); Apple was a fruit you got in Hyderabad only in winter from Kashmir; Google was a mispronunciation of what you did in cricket (Googly) and Facebook? Well, maybe if someone hit you in the face with a book, you could say that you had been ‘Facebooked’. But nobody did and that was that. But believe it or not, we lived, we loved, we walked the earth in great joy, we wept and we comforted each other. Our friends were real; we knew them personally and they existed in flesh and blood. We didn’t know what they were doing minute by minute. We didn’t feel the need to. And they (and we) didn’t feel the need to tell each other. Taking the time and trouble to remember and greet is what makes a friendship, a friendship. To forget is human. To forgive and understand is even more human.
Today I read a very good article about the on-going debacle involving Facebook and the “Cambridge Analytica revelations”. https://bit.ly/2IMJrDm In it is this paragraph; “Even if you’ve got multiple ways to communicate and participate in society online, there is not really a good replacement for Facebook. There’s no one portal that reminds you of your friends’ birthdays, connects you to relatives across the world and stores photos from 10 years ago. Deleting Facebook inevitably means missing out on certain things and having to make more of an effort to connect with people in other ways.”
Reminds you about friend’s birthdays? What do you think happened pre-2004. Friends were not born? We didn’t remember? What happened was that when someone greeted you, you were very happy that he or she actually remembered and took the trouble to greet you. Today, even if they did that, the voice in the back of your head says, “She only did that because she got an alert from Facebook.” As it is, there are many others who remind you including Google Calendar which reminds me about the birthdays of people I don’t even know and some whose birth I deeply regret. So does Outlook and LinkedIn. The only social media that I am on. LinkedIn goes a step further and reminds me about what it calls, ‘Work Anniversary’. What that means only whoever dreamt up this ridiculous thing and God, understand. I didn’t dream it up and I am not God, so I don’t. Why I mention it is because dutifully on every one of my alleged ‘Work Anniversaries”, I get lots of messages from all sorts of people, congratulating me. Congratulating me for what? For still having my job? Well, I can’t help it. I own the place you see, so I can’t go anywhere else. Will someone tell me how I can switch off this silly ‘Work Anniversary’ in LinkedIn? Or even better, switch it off for everyone. Let us retain the value of being human. Remember because we care. And if we forget, experience the joy of making up.
What we are experiencing is the evil of wanting things free. The only way we will get security is when people learn to pay for what they get. As long as we want things free, it only means that we don’t want to know what the real cost is. Nothing in life is free. Everything has a price. It is better to know what that is, because then we can decide if we really need it at that price. Then we consciously buy it or reject it. The alternative is there for us all to see. It is Mark Z and others who are the billionaires. Not FB status updaters, thanks to whom MZ got rich. The reality is that smart people rule the world not because they are stronger, but because the dumb people allow them to do so.
FB has all the information on us, not because it engaged investigators to dig into our lives, but because we voluntarily gave them that information and authorized them to use it in any way they wished. Mark Z’s comment about them is in the article which I have referred to above. Read it and go look in the mirror to know who he called that name. What they are doing is not illegal and what we did was simply stupid. I don’t have an FB account. Or any account on any social media. I suggest you do the same. Get out of social media. That is the only road to safety.
Final point, yes, our phones are tracking devices, even when they are switched off. My question is, ‘So what?’ Let them track me. I am not going anywhere that I don’t want people to know. And if I did, I wouldn’t take my phone with me. I am not that dumb. But just because I have a smart phone I don’t have to have all kinds of apps and offer up all sorts of personal data to them to monetize and exploit. Get off Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Snapchat and all those that I missed here. Speak to people face to face or on the phone. Meet real people. Make real friends. Don’t get fooled by Likes and Hits. They mean nothing. You and I both know how the internet counts hits. So why bother?
Please understand that Facebook and others benefit by influencing your behavior but can only do that if you allow them to. Do you want to do that? Ask yourself what you are getting in this deal? There are three parties in any deal; the buyer, the seller and the commodity. If you are not the seller or the buyer, you are the commodity. Someone is selling you to someone to whom you represent value and is making money in the process. Is that what you want to be? I know, some people will say, “What is the use if only I, get out and everyone else is still there? I will only miss out on all the fun.” All I can say is that if we each do what makes sense, then we will all be free. Otherwise, wait for the inevitable.