Lessons from the rain forest

Lessons from the rain forest

 Guyana was also a place of learning. I was alone. I had a lot of time. I loved reading. I was used to being alone and to reflecting and liked writing down my thoughts. All excellent ways to conceptualize life experience.

I love the bush and I loved hunting. So every alternate weekend Peter Ramsingh and I would go on a long drive into the bush to hunt what we could. Most of this was for the table because in the Kwakwani of those days, if you wanted variety on your table you had to find it yourself. And it was not in the Commissary that you would find it either. Mostly, we hunted the Canje Pheasant found all along the Berbice and its tributary, the Canje Creek. Another common game bird was the Powis (Curassow). It was as big as a turkey and good eating. We would also on occasion get an Agouti (Brazilian Agouti or Red, Orange or Golden Rumped Agouti) or two. And when we were very lucky, a small Savannah deer. Bush pig, the Collared Peccary (called Javelina) was also good game and though we both did not eat it, we had many friends who welcomed our hunts because we were the only people who would shoot a pig and then give it away.

Peter inherited my yellow Land Rover when the sawmill started and I got a small Toyota pickup. Peter and I would take turns driving the Land Rover over the bush trails. It contained in the back, everything that we needed for our camping and in case of an emergency. A chainsaw, thick rope, hammocks, spare petrol, an axe, a spade, the ever present cutlasses and various odds and ends. We would put in a cooler filled with drinks and some pre-cooked bananas or cassava and off we would go. What would have been ideal was a cell phone or radio but the first hadn’t been invented and the second we didn’t have. So we relied on ourselves. What we shot, we would cook in the bush and eat. What we saved, we would bring home. Sometimes in the bush we would come across a deep stream and would have to build a bridge to get across. Sometimes we would get stuck in the sandy soil and would have to tie the rope to a tree nearby and use the winch on the Land Rover to haul it out. In the evening we would find a camping place, tie the hammocks to ever present trees, all conveniently located so that we could tie our hammocks of course. Then we would light a fire and put on the tea pot. Once we had a nice cup of tea, we would put on the cooking pot. Peter, meanwhile, would have cleaned the game of the day. We would get water from the stream nearby, water that was coffee colored but perfectly clean and tasteless. The bush meat would go into the pot with salt and chillies, some onions, and as it cooked we would sit and talk about life.

The big topic of conversation at the time was the posturing of Venezuela, which bordered Guyana and had a border dispute. There was some chance that this would escalate to a military conflict. The Guyana Army was not in a position to face the much bigger and powerful Venezuelan army, but nobody would admit that. There was some discussion about whether Guyana would introduce conscription, so Peter was concerned if he would be called to join the Army. I was a foreigner and so was in no such ‘danger.’ To speak the truth though, I would have welcomed the adventure. However, as it turned out, South Americans are far wiser than their northern cousins and the matter was resolved peacefully.

Another topic was the government of President Burnham. This was a dangerous topic to talk about in a dictatorship where even your thoughts would be monitored if they could be, all in the name of freedom and democracy of course. But we were far away in the bush and Peter was in the company of a trusted friend. I was therefore the confidant of many ordinary people who wanted to vent their frustration with the way the country was being misgoverned. It was amazing to see how a country so rich in natural resources, so fertile, and with such wonderful people could be run into the ground so rapidly.

The bush in South America is different from its counterpart in India or Africa because of the absence of major predators. The only big ones are the Jaguar and the Anaconda, but neither will actually attack a person except in special circumstances. So it is possible to actually sleep very peacefully as long as you are not on the ground.

An hour or so later, once the food was ready, we would take the pot off the fire, pull out the bread that we had brought, and have our dinner. Then after some more discussion of world affairs, we would climb into our hammocks and drift off into peaceful sleep looking at the stars—possible only because we were at the river bank where the canopy did not obstruct the view. Those days seem like a dream today. Almost as if they never happened. And Guyana is so far away from where I am today that it seems as if I will never see my friends again. Be that as it may, the memories are alive in my heart and on these pages; they will live on in the minds of those who read this. We live in the memories that we give others. So it is important to be conscious of the memories we leave behind. This doesn’t mean that we live a life for others. But it does mean that we remember one cardinal fact, ‘Everything we choose to do or choose not to do, reflects brand value and character and is the stuff of memories.’

Remember when you read these pages that if I have written about a stream, it is there and the water is good to drink. These are stories of real life, real people, their hopes and loves and fears. And they will live on until they are remembered.

River Berbice, Guyana, 1980

Peter got another friend Leon Molenuex to build a flat bottomed boat for me. It was 18 feet in length with a flat bottom, low sides and a blunt prow. Its back was flat to fix an outboard motor. It had oar locks and two oars. And it had an ice box in the middle with bench seats, a plank each on either side of the ice box, forward and rear. Peter and I, and sometimes Leon would also come along, would load up the boat every Friday afternoon that we could get away and go up the Berbice River. What did we take with us? Hammocks, cutlasses, one single barreled 16 bore shotgun each. Rope, fishing line, hooks and a fishing net. Some rice, cassava, bananas and salt and pepper. And most importantly some chicken guts in a plastic bag. The last being what we called our ‘emergency ration’. Not that we ate them, but if we caught nothing then if you baited a hook with raw chicken guts and trawled them behind your boat you were sure to get some Piranha. Good eating.

It was a matter of honor for us that we would only eat what we could hunt or catch. Since neither Peter nor I ate pork, it took one of the most common items off our menu – Collared Peccary (Bush Pig) that we would be sure to see. But we never returned hungry. We would trawl as we moved along and usually caught some Lukanani (Peacock cichlid, Cichla ocellaris) or Grey Snapper (Acoupa weakfish, Cynoscion acoupa), two of the delicacies of the Amazonian River system and would roast them for dinner. If we were fortunate then either Peter or I would also be able to bag one of the several species of Curassows that lived in those forests. The most common were the Black Curassow (Crax alector) and the Crestless Curassow (Mitu tomentosum). Or even an Agouti (Cuniculus paca, Dasyprocta aguti) which is from the Paca family and a relative of the rabbit and Capybara but much smaller. Game was in such abundance that there was never a trip on which we had to go hungry but we would also bring back fish and game for Peter’s family and the families of other friends.

Almost every other Friday evening, we would start from Kwakwani going upriver, travelling until it got dark. Then we would find a sandy spot on the river bank and camp for the night. That sounds a bit chancy when you read it but we had our spots and knew them well so we just headed for the first one. A sandy bank was necessary because like all the rivers in this part of the world, the trees of the rain forest trailed their feet in the river all along its banks. That made landing very difficult and camping impossible. So you needed to look for a sandy bank. That happened at the bends in the river where the river deposited its sand and this collected over the years to make for some very attractive sandy crescents on which we camped.

Our routine was always the same. We would draw the boat up on the bank and I would collect wood for a fire. Peter and I would then sling up our hammocks from the trees that bordered the bank, first clearing the undergrowth around their trunks to ensure that we didn’t end up with unwanted sleeping partners. We would trawl as we travelled upriver and so we would have a couple of good size fish in our ice box. Once the fire was lit, Peter would put the kettle on and I would gut the fish and clean them. Then I would rub salt into the fish and prepare it for the bake. Taking two large yam leaves (or any other large leaf), I would wrap the fish securely in it and tie the whole bundle with a thread. Then I would dig in the river bank for clay and cover the fish warp with clay and make a ‘brick’ of clay – one for each fish. Once that was ready, I would remove the kettle from the fire, move the coals aside and dig in the sand and bury the clay bricks in the hot sand. I would then put the coals back on top and light the fire again. By the time our tea was ready so would the fish. We would then dig out the bricks and crack them open, remove the leaf covering and we had the most delicious baked fish you can imagine for dinner. There is nothing to beat fresh fish cooked with a little salt, in its own juices, with a bit of butter melted on top.

When dinner was done, we would climb into our hammocks and chat about whatever was at top of the mind until I would hear a snore in response to whatever I was saying. I would know then that Peter was off on his trip to dreamland. The rainforest is a safe place as long as you didn’t do anything stupid like sleeping on the riverbank. As long as you are off the ground nothing bothers you and I am living proof. There are many animals which are dangerous in these forests but none that will take a human being by choice. So as long as you stay out of their normal pathways you will be safe.

Lying in the hammock waiting for sleep to come, I would listen to the sounds of the forest and try to identify each one. The Amazonian rainforest is a rather silent place in the night, unlike Indian forests. The animals are less vocal and the forest itself muffles sound thanks to its density – you don’t hear much except insects. If you are near the river there are not many mosquitos but you do get vampire bats and so you need to cover up unless you wish to be bitten by one of them. That doesn’t turn you into a vampire or anything so romantic, but the wound can bleed for a long time as there is heparin in the bat’s saliva which prevents blood from clotting. In addition, I am sure vampire bites are not exactly what any doctor would order so it is better to stay off their menu.

Early next morning, we would start out at first light, or sometimes even a bit earlier, going over what looks like boiling hot water because of the ‘steam’ rising from it. That ‘steam’ is the mist that gets created when the warm water vapor laden air meets the cold river surface and gives the whole atmosphere an ethereal quality. Engine buzzing with Peter at the rudder, we would travel in companionable silence, eyes ever watchful for floating logs. These were the only real danger because if you hit one full tilt, it would take the bottom out of the boat. A fate not to be contemplated as the Berbice has Piranha, Cayman, and other interesting forms of life.

The Berbice is a wonderful river that changes its nature all along its course. Downriver from Kwakwani it is deep enough for large vessels to negotiate it. Bauxite ore from Kwakwani would be transported on barges pushed by a tug boat all the way to New Amsterdam on the coast to the smelter. These tugs would normally have a tow of four barges; each sixty feet in length which when fully loaded would sink to their gunnels with the weight. The tug boat captain’s job was a very complex one, negotiating bends in the river a hundred and fifty feet ahead through frequent blindingly heavy rain showers and through the night. Since tug boats and barges are about the clumsiest of watercraft and with the kind of weight the barges carried, this was no mean task. It was a tribute to the training and skills of tug boat captains that there had never been any instance of the barges heading out of the river, cross country across the rain forest.

Going upriver, however, the nature of the Berbice changes. It is no longer the deep river but spreads wide and shallow with frequent sandbars; so shallow in places that one could easily wade across. So much so that on occasion we would have to pull in the outboard motor and drag the boat over the sandbank. In this also there was a twist. In this river sand, there were two kinds of dangers. One that it could be quick sand with so much water under it that if you stepped into it, you could easily sink in over your head and die a horrible death. To guard against that we would get out of the boat only one at a time and hang onto the side of the boat until we were completely sure of our footing. Only then would be let go of the boat and then the other person would also get off and we would drag the boat over into water deep enough to float it.

The second danger was that of Stingrays. These are fresh water rays with a poisonous sting in the tail. Their favorite pastime is to lie buried and invisible in the sand of sandbars, just under the surface and wait for something to come within range and then they would sting by shooting a poisonous spike into it and then wait until it dies to eat it. Their normal prey is small fish but if you were to step on or close to one of them, then they would sting you out of fright. I am sure there are more painful things in life than a stingray sting—I just I don’t know what they are. And if you happen to be allergic to the poison then 50 kilometers up the Berbice River in the middle of the Amazonian rain forest is not where you want to discover this.

Even if you are not allergic, the sting means several days of fever, swollen lymph nodes, swollen foot and almost incapacitating pain. So what we would do is to put on our boots before we stepped into the water. Alternatively, you could use a stick and hold it ahead of you and push it in the sand ahead of you as you walk to ensure that you disturb the Stingray and drive it away before you get too close to it.

As we went upriver, we would sometimes pass single houses on stilts on the bank of the river with a little patch of garden at the back growing cassava, banana, and a couple of jackfruit trees. The house was one large room built on a high platform with a leaf or grass thatch. The walls were of woven mat with holes for windows. There would be a couple of dugout canoes tied to one of the poles with a rickety step going up to the platform. Children playing on the step or in the canoes would yell and scream at us with great excitement and delight. If we had time we would stop by and pass out some sweets or bananas that we would carry for such occasions. Otherwise we would wave to them and they would continue to wave and yell until we rounded the next bend of the river out of sight. I always wondered what would make a person go and live so far up the river in the middle of nowhere, alone without access to electricity, medical aid, and schooling for his children, and without any amenities. These Amerindians would hunt, gather honey and balata (wild rubber latex) and farm a little and would occasionally come to Kwakwani to buy a few things and sell their balata and honey and some wild meat. But they would not work at a regular job for love or money nor would they live closer to town. They preferred to live miles upriver and paddle their canoes several hours to get to Kwakwani and longer to return, paddling against the current on their way up.

It was a wonderful experience, buzzing along up the river hour after hour, listening to the sounds of the forest. Macaw pairs flying high over the canopy, talking to each other. Macaws believe that conversation makes for happy marriages and it seems to work for them as they pair for life and talk all the time. Toucans screaming whatever they scream about. The booming call of the Howler Monkey sentinel, answered by his counterpart in another part of the forest. The sudden crash in the undergrowth as you come around a bend and scare away something that was drinking at the edge of the bank. From the sound of the crashing you can guess whether it was a Collared Peccary or a Tapir. Deer and Agouti move very quietly and you wouldn’t even know that they had been there.

One weekend we decided to go as far as we could and eventually we must have gone more than a hundred kilometers when we came to place where the river widened into a huge pool. We entered the pool from the side that the river flowed out of. On the opposite side where the river flowed into was a series of rapids and short waterfalls. The sides of the pool were sandy and made excellent camping ground. We were delighted with the whole prospect. It was a very beautiful place indeed. Peter and I decided to camp for the night and pulled onto the sand and dragged the boat far up onto the sand. No telling if the river would rise in the night and float the boat away. That is not a prospect to be contemplated, being a hundred kilometers or more in the middle of nowhere without a boat. Trekking through rain forest is not an occupation to be thought of easily.

I got the fire going while Peter hung up our hammocks. Suddenly, I noticed on the far end of the pool near the rapids, a permanent structure on a concrete platform, a room roofed with corrugated iron sheets. It looked like a government structure and I wondered what it could be. Once we’d had our dinner and before it got dark we decided to go across and take a look at what it was. When we tied up to the little jetty there, an Indian Guyanese man came down to the water and greeted us. With him was an American who looked like some kind of technician by the way he was dressed, in overalls. We made our mutual introductions and it turned out that the structure was a weather monitoring station with some equipment from Motorola, which needed repair. The American engineer was from Motorola and had come to repair the equipment onsite. In the course of conversation, he asked me where I was from. I told him that I was from India.

He asked me, ‘Where from in India?’

I replied, ‘Hyderabad.’

He got very excited and told me, ‘I have been to Hyderabad. I have a friend there. His name is J. J. Singh and he works at the Administrative Staff College. Do you know him?’

I rolled my eyes and said, ‘Do I know him? Of course, I know him! But look at this, what is the probability that I would be in the middle of the Amazonian rain forest, hundred kilometers up the Berbice River, where I would meet an American who I had no idea would be there and we would have a mutual friend? If there was someone betting on this we would both be millionaires, man!!’ And we both had a great laugh. Whenever someone tells me, ‘It’s a small world’, I tell them, ‘Yes, but much smaller than you think.’ And I tell them this story. To date, nobody has told me a story more unlikely than this.

Influencing without authority

Influencing without authority

 One of the areas of my responsibility was the Commissary. This was the company owned department store from where you got your weekly supply of food and practically everything else you needed. It had a small frozen foods section, rough wooden shelves with rice, flour, lentils and other groceries stacked on them, farming tools, alcohol and beverages, tea, sugar, condiments and flavors, seeds, and fertilizer for the vegetable gardens that most people had. There was a small display of regular shirts, pants, and Dishikis. Basic needs for everyday life in the mining town. Since this was the only store in town, it did good business. All the stuff came across the Berbice River by the bus or up the river by barge. The object of the Commissary was not to make profit and some things were even subsidized by the company. It was more a social obligation as well as a necessity if you wanted to run a mining town in the middle of the rain forest.

One day, thanks to one of the periodic economic crises that we used to go through, there was no rice in the store for several weeks. Things got pretty bad as rice is a staple of the Guyanese people. Kwakwani being a mining town in the forest had the advantage that most people had vegetable gardens where they grew cassava, bananas and tapioca, so nobody was starving but tempers were high. Their  anger was really against the government of President Forbes Burnham, who was Head of the PNC (People’s National Congress), but in a communist (called socialist, but really communist) dictatorship the first thing you learn is to keep your mouth shut about the Party and the President. But anger must be vented. So, the most convenient target was the Company and its Management; though everyone was fully aware that the Company was as helpless as they were individually both in creating the financial crisis as well as in resolving it. Actually, come to think of it, a shortage of rice in Guyana was like a shortage of coal in New Castle. It was more a matter of distribution than of production. The two major agricultural exports of Guyana were rice and sugar and so not having rice in the country was ridiculous. But that is exactly what happened on this occasion. So, people were very angry.

Then one day, rice came. The store keeper, Griffith, unloaded it and packed it into 2 kilo bags, stacked them on the shelves and was ready to open the store. A crowd had collected in front of the store and like most such situations, a combination of old resentment, misplaced anger, and short tempers, things started to get a little hairy. Griffith phoned the Office and I took his call. He said, “Yawar, things are bad here. Looks like there will be a riot and they will break into the store and loot it. They are calling for Nick. Is he there?” Nick had gone to Linden that day for a meeting and hadn’t returned. So, I said, “Nick is not here, but I will be with you in five minutes.” Griffith sounded very doubtful. He said, “Man!! These guys are sounding nasty. I ain’t know if you can handle it.” Now say that kind of thing to a 24-year-old with red blood in his veins and what do you get?? Off I went to the store. The store was about a kilometer down the hill from the Admin. Office and so I was there in less than the five minutes that I promised Griffith.

The store was built on a concrete plinth platform with steps on either side which you had to climb up to get to the door. I parked my Land Rover to one side and walked up to the crowd. They let me through, and I climbed up the stairs and stood on the platform and what do I see? A huge crowd of men and some women, all shouting and cursing (and boy, could those Kwakwani people curse!!) …. many men with guns slung on their shoulders and cutlasses in their hands. Now these guns and cutlasses really meant no harm in themselves as that was the way the men went to their farms in the jungle. As it was evening, they were all headed there and had stopped by the store. But the mood was ugly, and the guns and cutlasses were there.

I raised my hand and the noise died down. I said, “The rice is here. We are sorry for the shortage, but you know this is not in our hands. But it is here now. Please form a line and come and get it in an orderly manner.” There was a moment’s silence as I said this. Then the shouting started again. “Ya rass coolie man wanna come and tell a’we Guyanese how to live?? Who the rass is you to tell a’we anytin?”  I realized that this was not the normal Kwakwani Guyanese I was listening to. Somebody had started this ‘we versus the foreigner’ thing and it was catching on. This was the beast of the mob, which has a mind of its own. At times like this, I believe that if you face the situation with courage you are taught what to say. Later you can analyze it and wonder why you said what you did. But at that time, it is spontaneous and right. I let them shout for a few seconds and then yelled at them, “You wanna come and loot this store, you gotta kill me first.”

My worry was never about my life but that I would fail in my task. I could not believe that Kwakwani people would harm me; that is the normal Kwakwani person. But this was a mob. It was entirely likely that they would call my bluff and I would die. They would regret it later, but I would be dead. All it needed was for someone to fire from the crowd or throw a cutlass and the deed would be done. Mobs give their members the immunity of invisibility and people can do strange things in such circumstances. The situation was definitely getting out of my control and I was wondering what to do, when suddenly Morris Mitchell (Chinee, the truck driver who I had mentioned earlier) jumped up onto the platform. He was also on the way to his farm, so he was wearing a much-used shirt, jeans, his cap backwards on his head, cutlass in his hand. Chinee was a big man. He was well over six feet tall and weighed more than 200 pounds, all muscle. His wrists were a foot wide (or at least they looked like they were) and his hands were like shovels. I remember one day he was sitting in my office and lazily squeezed a tack (nail) into a piece of hard green-heart wood that I used to keep as a paper weight. Squeezed it into the wood. Not hammered—squeezed. Get it??

Well, he jumped up onto the platform and in a voice that was used to being heard over the roar of truck and bulldozer engines shouted, “A’yo raas lisen and lisen good. You wanna kill dis baay? You gotta kill me fus. And a’yo raas know, I ain’t gonna die alone. So, who ready??” As in any mob situation, there is a critical incident that changes the mood. This was the one here. Suddenly someone started laughing and said, “Man Chinee. Yawar a’we baay man!! Nobody ain’t gonna do nothn to he! A’we just mad at the company man!! Anyway, the rice dey ere an so leh we go’n get it. Stand in a line folks. We ain’t ga all night!!” And that was that. All that camaraderie apart, the reality is that if Morris Mitchel had not stood by my side, there is no saying what would have happened. Seeing him with a cutlass in his hand had a sobering effect and broke the mood of the mob and people came to their senses. As I say, Guyana is beloved to me because of its people. Amazing people who would cheerfully put their own lives on the line for a friend.

With Nick Adams on the Kwakwani trail, 1997

The incident did not end there for me. When Nick got back, instead of a pat on the back, I got my ear burned off for being a hero. Nick was angry at me for putting my life in danger for no good reason. He wouldn’t believe that the Kwakwani people wouldn’t have harmed me. He said he knew mobs and that they had a life and will of their own. People did things in the mob frenzy which they may well regret later, but the damage would be done. He was angry, but said he respected my courage and standing on principle and that he would personally ‘fry my butt’ if I ever did such a thing again. It was said with so much love and concern for me that I only grew to respect and love the man even more. He said to me, “Your father told me to look after you when he left you here and I gave him my word. If you had died today what would I tell Dr. Baig? Never do this kind of thing again. You hear me?” “Yessah! I hear you.” I heard you that day and I hear you every time I think of you. I hear your words, I hear the tone, I hear the love, the responsibility, and the honor. I hear it and I bless you and thank AllahY that He gave me you as my first boss so that I could learn from you how to be a man. And He is witness that you taught me very well. Nick was a father to me in a strange land where I was alone, and I loved him like my own father.

That is one of the many lessons that I owe to Nick. Another was in hospitality and consideration. The first time it happened I was astonished. Then it became a regular feature. One weekend Nick called me and asked me to go over to his place. When I walked over, I saw that he had a pen full of live chickens (about 10-12 in all) and a knife. He said to me, “Ya-waar, can you please slaughter these in your way? I will put them in the freezer so that we are sure we give you these when you come over to our place to eat.” What do you say to such a man?

To return to our story, these were the days of President Linden Forbes Sampson Burnham’s presidency. The PNC (People’s National Congress) was supreme. Race was the underlying thread in any conversation. I was not counted because I was a foreigner. But when I was among strangers, who took me to be Guyanese thanks to my fluency in Creolese, I could sense the tension. There was a lady in Kwakwani Mines Office called Patsy. Patsy was the secretary of the Mines Manager (the Big Boss), George Shultz as well as the District Coordinator of the ‘Party’. So, she was a big noise. Patsy was several years older than I was and didn’t like me one bit and tried initially to make trouble for me by embarrassing me. One day she called out to me in a loud voice, ‘Comrade Baig, do you know the meaning of screw?’ There was an immediate hush and an expectant silence. All the typist girls in the room looked up waiting to laugh their heads off expecting me to beat a hasty embarrassed retreat. But to their surprise and Patsy’s consternation, I turned around and said, ‘Patsy, you want me to tell you or you want me to show you?’ The office collapsed into shrieking laughter. You must see a West Indian African laugh to know the meaning of laughing. The whole body laughs, not just the mouth. And the person literally throws himself around the room, shrieking in delight. It got so loud that George Shultz came out of his office to see what was going on and on being informed, he joined in, much to Patsy’s disgust. But she learned her lesson and that was the last time she tried that trick with me. However, that was not the last of her attempts to make my life difficult.

Patsy would take time off on the pretext of ‘party work’ and disappear, leaving her work with others who resented this, but did not have the courage to tackle her. One day she did her usual disappearing act and then ended up in the Kwakwani Club having a drink during working hours. I was passing by and saw her and suspended her pending investigation. Patsy, as I mentioned, was the PNC District Coordinator and behaved as if she was the country’s President. Since she was in real life a secretary and that too in my office, I tried very hard to convince her that she had to at least pretend to work. But to no avail. So finally, I issued her a warning letter. That was like stepping on the tail of a mamba. Given her political powers, this was a slap in the face that she was not going to take lying down.

 Next morning Nick called me to his office. He had a grave look on his face. He asked me, ‘What happened between you and Patsy?’ I told him about the drinking incident and the following suspension pending investigation, which was according to the rule book. Nick was aware of Patsy’s doings himself but told me that the Minister of Mines had called him and asked him to enquire. I explained what I had done and Nick being a man with moral courage, supported me. He called the Minister and explained what had happened and why. I am amazed today, having seen a great deal of the world, how, given the political situation in Guyana of those days, Nick could have stood up for me. He taught me a lesson of standing up for your subordinates when they are right, and I will remember all my life. This is Nick for you. A man that I admire, respect, and love with all my heart.

The matter did not end with that because the lady in question would not let it rest. She demanded that I withdraw the suspension – I refused. So once again the Minister called Nick and said that he wanted to meet me. Nick said to me, ‘I just had a call from the Minister of Mines, Cd. Hamilton Green. Comrade Green wants to see you.’ I asked, ‘When?’ Nick said, ‘Now. So, get ready and go. Patsy has complained to him about you. I will support you in this so don’t worry but you must satisfy the Minister. Otherwise things can get difficult (he meant that I could summarily be sacked and sent back to India).’ But there was no escape as I was also not willing to back down from my stance, which I was completely convinced, was right. It was also a matter of asserting my authority without which my life would not have been worth living.

I arrived in Georgetown late in the afternoon after a 4-hour drive. I entered the ante-room where Cd. Green’s secretary sat. I introduced myself but it appeared that I was famous. They all knew me. I was not sure if I should be happy or alarmed about this. She told me, ‘Show your face through that window and he will open the door.’ The window was a little sliding shutter. I moved it aside and looked in as instructed. I saw a huge mahogany desk with an African gentleman sitting behind it, manicuring his nails. All the tools for this high precision job were laid out before him. He saw me peering through the glass and reached under the table top and pressed a button which released the lock so that I could go in. The door clicked shut behind me and there I was in the presence of the Honorable Minister of Mines, Cd. Hamilton Green himself. 

I realized that the whole office was furnished and arranged to intimidate and put the other at a disadvantage. Cd. Green’s manicuring was the strangest thing that I had ever seen and to this day I can’t think of why he did it. I remained standing. He looked me up and down and then gestured for me to sit. I took a chair a couple of seats away from him and waited for the crucial interview to begin.

‘So, Mr. Baig, you are from India?’

‘Yes Sir.’

‘What do you think of Mrs. Gandhi?’

‘I think she is a good leader Sir. She is good for our country.’

‘But some people don’t seem to like her, no?’

‘Isn’t that the case with most strong leaders Sir?’

‘Yes, that is true.’

Then he came to the point of the interview. “So, what’s the issue with our friend Comrade Daniels in Kwakwani?”

“Sir”, I said, “to put it politely, her attitude at work is an embarrassment to the Party that she represents. She does not work, plays politics, throws her weight around, and generally behaves as if she owns the place. I believe this is not the impression that the PNC wants to create among the people. I tried every way I could to convince her to be a good example that would be worthy of someone who is the District Coordinator, but she will not listen. So eventually, I had no alternative but to suspend her. I tried to advise her, but she is a strong woman.’

‘Strong woman, eh!’ He laughed. ‘Like Mrs. Gandhi maybe! So how do you like Guyana (Giyaana – is how he and most Guyanese pronounce it)?’

‘I like it very much Sir.’

‘You don’t miss your country?’

‘Everyone misses his country Sir. But Guyana and Guyanese have been so good to me that it feels like home. I have friends here who are like my own family. So, I don’t miss my country too much.’

‘Good of you to come Mr. Baig. It was nice to meet you.’

All the while Mr. Green continued to manicure his nails; filing, pushing back the cuticles and occasionally clipping an uncooperative piece. Strange way of conducting a meeting, I thought to myself. But such are the ways of the high and mighty. To give him his due, however, he was a fair man and gave me a chance to explain myself and then accepted the explanation when it made sense. I’m not sure how many people in his position in other countries would have been equally patient and understanding with a twenty-four year old foreigner who had taken a stance against one of their own Party functionaries.

I thanked him, walked the length of the table, the door buzzed as I came to it and opened, and I walked out. The secretary smiled at me and I left, returning to Kwakwani close to midnight and the matter was closed. The letter stuck and was not withdrawn and the lady in question toed the line. The Minister it seems told her where to get off. In the process, I acquired a huge amount of ‘respect’ because I had managed to make the reprimand stick by convincing none other than the Minister himself and because there were a lot of other poor sufferers who were delighted that the lady got what was coming to her. They did not have the power to do anything about it but were all silently rooting for me. There was an important lesson for me to take away; if you win, you will find that you have a lot of supporters. If I had been reprimanded by the Minister and ordered to withdraw the letter, then I don’t know how many of my supporters would have stood on the same side of the street when they saw me coming. Winners have many fathers and losers none. 

Two other lessons from this incident; the importance of building a good case and the importance of putting it in a way that makes sense to the listener from his perspective. ‘What’s in it for me?’ is a tune that everyone listens to. It’s about speaking the truth but doing it in a way that makes sense to the listener in ways that are important to him. Nick, needless to say, was delighted.

Next morning when I went to see Nick he was smiling and said, ‘Whatever you said to Hamilton Green, Patsy seems to have got an earful from him and I don’t think you are going to have any problems with her again.’ And that is indeed what happened. Mr. Green was a just man and understood what I told him and acted upon it immediately.

Committing matrimony

Committing matrimony

Hmm! Now that is a thought!!!
  1. What are the characteristics of a happy marriage?

Truth, Caring, Mutual respect are what I call my three Cardinal Principles of happy marriages. Please notice that I am not using the word ‘love’. Love comes out of these three things. What is called love is usually physical desire. The shape or size of someone’s body is not the inspiration for love; it can be the inspiration for infatuation and lust but not love. For love to happen, the lasting kind that is, the kind that grows with age and the longer you spend time together, you need truthfulness, caring and concern for one another – putting the needs of the other before your own; and mutual respect. Without respect there can’t be any love. One needs to respect one’s spouse, appreciate their strengths, make them your role model, icon and be proud of them and proud that they are your spouse. That kindles love in the heart which grows with time because the reasons for respect also grow with time. Physical attraction reduces with age. It is programmed to do so. Nobody grows more beautiful with age. You mature with age, grow wiser, more mellow, more patient and forbearing and more worthy of respect. The love that comes out of that also grows with age.

Truth is to express feelings as they are and not to have any pretensions. Caring is to treat the other with concern because you know that with you s/he has no barriers or safety nets. Respect is to acknowledge the value of the trust that is placed in you in allowing you into that inner most of places in the heart in which nobody else has been allowed before. To treat that privilege with the respect it deserves and never to abuse it for any reason.

  • Is there a formula to be happy in a marriage?

Marry someone you believe is worthy of emulation; someone you can look up to and learn to forgive them. The formula of an unhappy marriage is to marry someone who you believe you can change. That is a sure recipe for disaster. When you marry someone who you think needs to be changed you are accepting that they are not good enough as it is. Also, in most cases you would not have asked them if they want to change and that too to your preferred model. And then you will lo and behold that they have other ideas about changing and your marriage will be the casualty.

The second part of the formula is to be forgiving. We need to forgive one another. What tends to happen in many marriages is that we expect the other person to forgive us, but we hold them to standards that we are ourselves unable to live up to and become curiously blind to this unreasonable stance. That doesn’t work. Good to remember the saying, ‘Sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander.’

One thing that people should consider while choosing one’s partner is compatibility of core values. Core values means both are pulling in the same direction even with their different personalities, styles of working and interests. Minimizes contradictions in bringing up children in the domain of values.

Share in each other’s lives. Take interest in what the other does. Don’t be nosey but learn and add value. Conversation is both the key to a happy marriage and a metre to judge its health. Marriages that are getting sick start to lose conversation. When there is nothing left to talk about after 10 minutes and when your idea of spending time with your spouse is to sit in front of the TV or stare at your phone in the same room, then you can safely say that your marriage is falling sick. In happy marriages there is a desire for the company of the other. Not for the company of others. You hurry home because your spouse is there. You don’t hit home and bounce off to the club to sit with your cronies or to some other place to be with other friends. You want to spend time with your spouse not because otherwise s/he will complain but because you genuinely want to do it. Because your spouse is your best friend.

  • How do you make a marriage work?

By working at it. We use this term, ‘Make a marriage work’, but we forget that a lot of it is actually ‘work’. It takes effort, time and energy, is measurable and produces results. Making breakfast for your wife is work. Offering to do her errands is work. Taking the trouble to look nice when your husband comes home instead of like animated laundry is work. Going to the airport to meet his flight is work. You get the drift? Doing what does not come naturally or doing something that is important for the other even if you don’t like doing it, is work. And all of it produces results in terms of appreciation and love.

If you find that you can’t love your spouse any more, be honest and speak to them about it. See what can be changed and what must be accepted. But don’t go seeking solace elsewhere. That is dishonest, dishonorable, despicable and cowardly. If things are at a stage where it is impossible to live together, part company with grace. Not cheat behind their backs, pretending that everything is fine. Those who collude with other’s spouses and carry on relationships with married men and women are slimy invertebrates which must crawl back under the flat rock they came out from under and not despoil human society with their presence. I never cease to marvel at people who allow another marriage to be destroyed by their cheating, but who would be up in arms if their wife or husband did the same. “Just because you have a good excuse does not make a wrong thing right.”

As I say, ‘If I wanted to marry a nag, I would have married a horse. At least it would have carried me from place to place.’ Nag is a gender-neutral term. There are male and female nags, and both are equally painful. Finally, companionable silence is also an indicator of a good marriage. You don’t have to be talking all the time. It is the quality of the companionship, the quality of the silence. You will know it without anyone having to explain, let me assure you. But pay attention to it if there is tension or boredom in it.

  • How can you try and make an unhappy marriage a happy one?

This is a tough one because there is a pre-clause to it. Once you satisfy that pre-clause then it is very easy. The pre-clause is, ‘DO YOU REALLY WANT IT TO HAPPEN?’ Now that may sound like a strange thing to ask but I have seen in many years of counseling that all the failures that I saw were because the partners did not really want to make it work. They were not sincere and were merely going through the moves with the idea of satisfying themselves or others that ‘they made the effort’. Now that is a lie because they never made an effort. They acted a drama with a precluded ending.

Once you are sincere about turning things around then you need to sit down and write down all that you like about your spouse. After all there were things about them that you liked enough to marry them. What were they? Then when you have that list, you write down the problem areas. Look in the mirror for one of the major ones. Usually that works like magic. Marriages go bad most often because we don’t appreciate the good enough and are not thankful for what they have. I often ask couples, ‘How many times a day do you thank your wife/husband? How many times a day do you hug or kiss them? How many times a day do you tell them that you love them?’ No, that is not a Western idea nor is it from Bollywood. Humans are not mind readers and even those that are, need to be told if you love them. After all, most spouses don’t hesitate to inform them about the opposite. So, why not this?

  • Is the idea of a soul mate just a myth – or is it simple communication between people?

Soul mates are made, not born. And they are made over time. Sometimes a fairly long time. Then you see them sitting together and smiling at things that only they understand. Or looks that have meaning only for each other. Or speaking in a language that only the other understands. Phrases that they use only for each other and which may even be gibberish to others, but which touch their hearts. This is the stage when every time you look at her you fall in love all over again, 30 years into your marriage. And laughing. Laughing is important. Laughing together at the same things. Showing each other things so as to add to the joy by sharing.

  • What kind of initiatives and actions dictate a happy marriage?

Back to the basics: Truth, caring, mutual respect. Every action or initiative must pass this test. Are you being truthful? Is her need coming before your own? And are you showing the respect you feel? I remember that my grandmother used to serve my grandfather his meals. Every meal. She would put food on his plate, refill it, offer him the choicest pieces of meat, watch to see what he needed and give it to him before he asked for it. She would eat every meal with him, without exception in a house that was a mansion with several servants. But no servant was ever allowed to give my grandfather anything directly. They brought the tray to my grandmother and she served him. All this she did with such a look of love and devotion on her face that I can see clearly in my mind even today 50 years later and more than 30 years since both of them died. Why did she do this? Just because she liked to do it. It really is that simple.

He fully reciprocated this. He never did anything without asking for her advice. He never went anywhere without her. He wore what she gave him. She had complete control of his money. He never touched it. He never asked her for any account with a level of trust seldom seen today, even though it was his money, so to speak. He never raised his voice to her for anything. He never even looked at her except with love. He never made fun of her and she never made fun of him. Both laughed together. He was passionate about chess and played chess every evening with his brother and cousin who all lived together in the same house which my great grandfather built. She never played chess in her life. Different interests but the real interest was in each other. She was his whole life in every sense of the word. In Tamil there is a word for wife – Samsaram. It is the same word for the world. That is how it was for my grandparents. They were each other’s world. Complete in themselves, content with each other, reflected in every moment of their lives.

He loved her and she loved him, and it showed. She died first. He died three months later of a broken heart. But they left memories for their children and grandchildren about how to be married and how to treat your spouse.

  • How much involvement should parents and in laws have in a marriage?

None whatsoever. This is the single most potent recipe for disaster. Parents should be involved in their own marriages. Once your children are married, they are not children any more. Leave them alone and let them work out their problems. They are adults and that is why they got married. The problem with many parents (mostly mothers) especially in our society (Indian) is that they are most anxious about getting their children married and then they start feeling insignificant and so become competitors with their own daughters in law. Remember that if you become your daughter in law’s competitor, you lose if you lose and you lose if you win. Both ways you lose. So, get out of the way. Leave them alone. Visit them for 2 days, not more, every six months – every year is even better. Don’t talk for more than 5 minutes on the phone. Don’t chat on Skype or Yahoo or WhatsApp or anything else. Don’t ask personal questions. And above all, don’t ask, ‘Are you happy?’ I have yet to see a marriage survive the attention of parents and parents in law.

At the same time, I would advise young couples also to take steps to kindly discourage this involvement if you see it happening. If you are old enough to get married, you are old enough to solve your own problems. If you are running to your parents with your problems, then put on your diapers. You are not ready for marriage. If your Mom calls and asks you, ‘So what did he say when you told him such and such?’ Tell your Mom, ‘Mom, sorry I won’t tell you what he told me.’ Smile and say it but say it clearly. Spend time with your spouse, not with your mother. I am not asking you to neglect your mother or father but remember that your spouse has first call on your time, once you get married.

  • How does one make compromises?

They are not called ‘compromises’. They are called ‘adjustments’. It is not the semantics of it but the attitudes that language indicates and dictates. We make compromises when forced to do so. We make adjustments to things so that we can enjoy them more. One of the things that most young couples don’t bargain for is the aspects of sharing ownership, time and privacy that marriage brings with it. Nobody told them about it, and they didn’t think about it when they had stars in their eyes. Honeymoons are in hotels and sharing a hotel room is different from sharing your own bedroom and your own cupboard. Changing from ‘I’ to ‘We’ is often a difficult process.

Having said that, decide on what is important to you. Don’t make compromises on issues of principle. Explain to your spouse why you won’t compromise, and wise partners will respect that. But issues which are important to the other and which you can live with changing, change. Remember the point about concern for the other? It is good to remember that everything is not a test of your masculinity or femininity. By ‘giving in’ to something you don’t lose face; you win hearts. Do it unless it is something that goes against your fundamental values.

It is a very good idea to have some frank sharing of thoughts on what is important to you, before getting married. If you didn’t do it then, do it now. It will be more difficult but then that is what you chose. When your spouse is talking, simply listen. Don’t justify, agree, disagree or argue. Just listen respectfully and then decide what you love, what you can live with, what you can change in yourself and what you need to talk to the other person about. Most couples, in the courtship stage are too busy on appearing their best and get into a pretense mode that has no relation to what they are really like. Acting can’t be sustained and the mask comes off sooner than later with predictable results. Speak to each other frankly and then decide if you want to get married. During this conversation speak clearly and tell them what the non-negotiables for you are. Don’t try to be politically correct or polite or whatever and hide or play down things that you really feel strongly about. Maybe it is something to do with practicing your religious beliefs, or about family values or that your Mom will live with you or that the cat shares your bed or whatever. No matter what it is, if it is important, then say it. That is far more positive and far less painful than having your spouse discover it later. Some things may seem ‘silly’ to you but if they are important enough for the other person then they will cause you serious trouble if you don’t respect them.

  • When does one know that a marriage is not working? And when should people do something about it?

A marriage is ultimately an agreement between two people to live together for mutual benefit. When you find that there is no mutual benefit and that the living together is causing more grief than joy then you know that it is not working. Then you must ask yourself the questions:

  • Am I willing to make it work?
  • What will it take to make it work?
  • Am I willing to do what it takes?

If the answer to all of them is in the affirmative, then get on with it and work. If not, then it is time to call it a day. The important thing to do even if you decide to divorce is to remember the first three rules: Truthfulness, concern for the other and mutual respect. Ensure that you don’t do anything that is not scrupulously honest and completely above board. Show concern and ensure that the other person does not leave with any bad feeling. The divorce is bad enough. Don’t add negative baggage to it. Show respect for each other. You deserve it and your marriage deserves it. Part company if you must but do it in a way that is respectful and honorable.

  1. How to make efforts to making a marriage work – for the man and woman?

It is essential to differentiate between Core Responsibilities and other things. In my view it is the Core Responsibility of the man to work and earn a living and take care of the financial responsibilities of the family.  It is Core Responsibility of the woman to make the home a place of beauty, grace and harmony and to focus on the upbringing of the children. I know this may sound old fashioned to some but just take a look at what the result of the Yuppy and Puppy culture is, and you will come back to the basics soon enough. Having taken care of the Core Responsibility, naturally the man must help around the home, take care of children, water the garden, wash the car, mow the lawn, take out the garbage and not sit in front of the TV with his feet propped up and a bowl of popcorn at his elbow – or whatever passes as its equivalent in your culture.

Similarly once the Mom has taken care of her Core Responsibility then it is good if she waters the garden, washes the car, mows the lawn, takes out the garbage and does not sit in front of the TV with her feet propped up and a bowl of popcorn at her elbow – or whatever passes as its equivalent in your culture. I am sure you understand what I mean. Dividing responsibilities is a very good idea. Do it whichever way you like but do it. Role clarity is essential in a happy marriage and role conflict causes the maximum stress on it. It is essential for one of the spouses to be dedicated to the upbringing of children; teaching them life skills, manners, tools of thinking, decision making and teaching them core values of life. Today in the Yuppy and Puppy cultures the idea of bringing up children is to feed them, ensure that they are washed and dried and entertained. That is what you do with the dog. Not with your child. Children need a jolly sight more than food, clothing and shelter if you want to develop a human being who will be your legacy to the world. I believe you need to dedicate yourself to that because it is important.

If you don’t agree, use condoms. That is far better than producing children who are a nuisance at best and a painful reality in the lives of others, as long as they live.

  1. Whose responsibility is it to make a marriage happy?

Naturally it is the responsibility of both people like in any agreement. It is important to recognize and accept this responsibility so that you will then do what it takes to fulfill it. As I mentioned above, I advocate sitting down and having a dialogue before you get married about what each one is supposed to do. Say it to each other and agree on it. Don’t leave it to guesswork and discovery. That leads to misunderstanding and disappointment. A good marriage is a dream. To make it come true you must wake up and work. If you expect your wife to cook for your friends who you will bring home from time to time, say it. And say what time to time means. If you expect your husband to pick up the food on the way home with his friends from the restaurant, say so. If you expect your wife to make breakfast for you and sit with you watching you get outside the eggs and toast, say so. If you expect your husband to bring the eggs and toast to you in bed (never really liked the idea of eating without first brushing your teeth), say so. What I mean is that in marriages, it is often the so-called ‘silly things’ that lead to trouble. So silly or not, say it if it is important to you.

My second Cardinal Principle – Concern, is what is most important to remember. If you apply the Golden Rule – Do unto them as you would have them do unto you – you can’t go wrong. The virus that kills marriage is a two-letter word – ME. To get you must first give. What you have in your hand is your harvest. What you sow is your seed. To get a harvest you must first sow the seed. Remember that the harvest is always more than the seed. So, give and give with grace, with love, with joy. And you will get much more than you bargained for. Show consideration for your spouse. Do things without being asked. Be aware of what they like the most and do it. Try to please them. Don’t play power games. The marriage is not a contest to get the better of the other. You are not in a race or in a WWF wrestling match or in a competition to see who is more powerful. Remember that every time you ‘win’ the other person loses. And losing is something that nobody enjoys. So, at some point they will get tired of losing and you will have no marriage. And that is the biggest loss that you brought on to yourself. A marriage is a relay race – long term, passing the baton to the other at each stage and the team – in this case the two of you – wins.

  1. In today’s times of pre-nups, fast track divorces and even websites as matchmakers, what kind of mindset should people have when getting into a marriage?

Today we live in a world where selfishness is not a sin anymore. However, changing your mind about an evil does not make it good. You will get sick even if you fall in love with the virus. People wanting to get married must learn to think about the other and to consciously give him or her precedence and preference. If you can’t do this, your marriage will break down sooner or later. Our lifestyles, the internet, social networking and talking to people across the world from other cultures, the TV with its unreal, fantasy world of soap operas, are all designed to destroy marriages. They promote ideas that are either directly destructive or lead to the killing fields of marriages. Today in the world of social media, Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat and God-alone-knows-what, there is so much pressure on making public what must be private that no marriage can survive it. People live in a fantasy world of pictures which show the best, project an unreal lifestyle and raise expectations that are impossible to meet. You are not in competition with the Kardashians or anyone else, so get real. A good marriage is about living in the real world, not in a world that is neither bold nor beautiful.

  1. Is the 7-year itch based on statistics or research? In your mind, does it exist?

I don’t think there is any such thing. Looking outside your marriage for companionship which can then lead to a breakup, is a sign of intrinsic unhappiness. If you feel it, the thing to do is to deal with it. Not look outside. The problem with 7-year itches is that every 7 years you are older and less desirable. Then where will you go?

  1. How important are children to have a happy marriage? Some couples cannot have children, others choose not to.

I don’t think children either make a marriage happy or unhappy. It is more their upbringing that makes the home happy or not. Children give the parents a common interest but for a marriage if the only thing in common is the children then something is wrong. On the converse side children take a lot of time and attention and energy and this can be difficult to handle for many people. But if the spouses share in the work of bringing up children and take the trouble to bring them up well, with good manners, values and attitudes, then they can be a huge asset for the marriage.

  1. What can couples do to keep the bespoke “spark” in the marriage?

Appreciate each other and express this appreciation daily. Catch each other doing right. Do things for one another only to see the smile on the face. Invent your own language which only the two of you understand. My wife and I used to keep a book on a table in the house in which we would write things we liked about each other or something nice we wanted to say to one another. We did say it as well but sometimes writing is easier. Give flowers and chocolates. Men also like flowers, remember. Second most important rule: Don’t react to everything that the other says. Take ten deep breaths. Then forget it. Reactions produce reactions and, in the end, it is taken out of your hands.

Finally, never go to bed, mad at each other. Always make up before you go to bed. Cuddle up together and sleep. Never quarrel in the bedroom. Never in bed. Make this a rule. If you have a problem, deal with it in the morning. Usually by the morning it would have solved itself.

  1. Is fighting healthy?

Well, depends on what is meant by ‘fighting’. If it means trying to get the better of each other in an argument and using all kinds of means to do so then it is definitely not healthy. If it means arguing as in a friendly fencing match between equal intellects that leads to good feeling, then it is good. Avoid power games like the plague. Many marriages turn into daily competitions between the spouses to see who can control the other. This takes many apparently benign and legitimate forms. But they are all illegitimate, subversive and destructive to the marriage.

Some people use religion as a means of control and invoke religious rulings and promise the other brimstone and hellfire for disobeying some whim or fancy of theirs. In many cases it is people (mostly men in this case) who have not done anything significant in life and are suffering from an inferiority complex and can sense that they really don’t command any respect on their own, who use religion and religious rulings to enforce their will on the woman. Women use religion to compensate for their own feelings of inadequacy where they feel that they are not loved or desired as much as they would like to be. ‘Should’ is the most useless word in the language. If people did what they should then the world would have been a different place. Both need to look at the real drivers behind their apparent religious orientation because it has nothing to do with the Almighty. Power games come in many packages. Spouses use children as pawns in their games at getting the better of each other. Others use health concerns, eat more, eat less, joint family rules, cultural taboos and many other things. All are power games, and all are destructive.

  1. How important is money to keep a marriage happy?

Not important at all. Both financial hardship and plenty can be a source of bonding or a source of drifting apart. It is mutual respect and concern for one another that counts. And that is a result of character, piety, learning, nobility of conduct and deportment, confidence, trustworthiness, dignity and grace, genuine desire to please one another and to place the need of the other before and above one’s own. None of these are things that money can buy or that we need money for. Marriages are happy or break up for reasons other than money. Money problems are not money problems even when there are money problems; if you see what I mean.

  1. What are the worst things couples can do to a marriage?

Lie, betray trust, cheat, play power games. Also making fun of one another as in mocking. Showing disrespect in the name of humor. Humor is to laugh with someone, not to laugh at them. Lastly but by no means the least, by being overly self-focused and showing disregard and no concern for the other. Honesty is still the best policy in 2019 and will still be the best policy in 3019 if the world lasts that long.

  1. Should people resort to white lies or tiny lies to keep the peace?

There’s a difference between telling lies and not divulging all the details. Not divulging all the details, for example about your friendships before marriage, is not wrong and is a very wise thing to do. The spouse has no need to know and it is something that does no good to the marriage no matter how ‘broadminded’ the spouse may be. But to tell a lie is wrong and goes against the grain of all that I have said above. Incidentally ‘white lies’ is a racially color biased term, like ‘black sheep’, ‘nightmare’, ‘black heart’ and so on; the legacy of English which is originally the white man’s language. Knight in shining armor can be all black too – black shines even more than white if you notice.

Having said that, telling ‘the truth’ inappropriately or in a harsh manner does no good either. Being silent is an option that is worth exploring. For example, if the toast is burnt or the food has no salt or something is not to your liking there are many ways of saying it. But you also have the option of remaining silent in honor of all the times that it was delicious. If the husband comes home cranky it is irritating but you have the option to remind yourself that a nice cup of tea and talking about something else is probably more productive than saying, ‘Don’t bring your office home.’ You would be justified in saying so, but sometimes it is better to be kind than to be justified. Diplomacy and wisdom are great virtues and most useful in a marriage. Not rubbing their nose in it is wise. Turn away gracefully. Don’t watch their discomfiture. Spouses realize that they are wrong but may not necessarily grovel at your feet and beg forgiveness. It is wise to leave them alone and not demand groveling. People’s dignity is important to maintain. Be it a management – union negotiation or a domestic disagreement, it is important to allow the one who is wrong to ‘save face’. To insist on humiliating them is to burn bridges to future relationship. Remember that you are also human and will surely be wrong one day. Don’t create a situation where the other is waiting for that day to return your favor.

  • Does it help couples when they talk about their problems? To whom, a stranger or someone they know?

It is helpful for couples to talk about their problems to someone they respect and whose advice they are willing to listen to. Usually it is better to talk to strangers as they are perceived to be fairer and more objective, as they don’t know either party but really it doesn’t matter as long as it is someone you respect and who you have decided to listen to, meaning, to obey his or her advice. As I have said earlier, before you go to talk to anyone, decide if you are going to listen to what they say even if they don’t agree with you. If you are going to someone with the expectation that they must agree with you and support your stance no matter what it is, then don’t waste your and their time. No self-respecting, honest arbitrator with any dignity will agree to be biased in favor of one party or the other. If they do, then they are not fit for the position.

In conclusion I would like to say that a marriage can be as good or as bad as you would like to make it. It is literally in your own hands.

Guyana, cross cultural boot camp

Guyana, cross cultural boot camp

Guyana Chronicle interview, 1980

“So, Comrade Baig, you have been living here for two years. What are your impressions about our country?” The interviewer was from Guyana Chronicle, the main English newspaper. I was being interviewed because I was there. Comrade was a gender-neutral term used to address anyone because Guyana was a socialist (communist) country ruled by an iron-man with an iron fist, not always in a velvet glove. My interviewer had come in preparation for a great event, the visit of the President, Hon. Linden Forbes Sampson Burnham who was the leader of Guyana from 1964 until his death, as the first Prime Minister from 1964 to 1980 and as second President from 1980 to 1985. I lived in Guyana from 1979-83 and so in the middle of the reign of the President Linden Forbes Sampson Burnham. We called him Comrade Burnham; meaning we referred to him as that. When he visited Kwakwani, he arrived by helicopter, which was a grand spectacle in itself and for many Kwakwani people, including myself, it was the first time any of us had seen a helicopter. The helipad on Staff Hill was surrounded by people all waving PNC flags and screaming their welcome above the roar of the rotors. As the helicopter landed, the dust thrown up effectively shut everyone’s mouths. Since he was the guest of our company, Guymine, Berbice Operations and I was the Assistant Administrative Manager, it meant that I got to stand to one side with the senior managers including the CEO who welcomed Cdr. Burnham. There was Haslyn Parris, the CEO of Guyana Mining Enterprise (Guymine), Stephen Ng Qui Sang, the Berbice Operations Coordinator, Walter Melville, Personnel Coordinator, James Nicholas Adams, Berbice Operations Administrative Manager and my boss and George Schultz, Berbice Operations Mines Manager. All of them were in the front-line welcoming the President.

Among the things that were peculiar to the reign of Forbes Burnham, (I use the term because to all intents and purposes he was a ‘Ruler’ more than a leader. Some called him ‘Dictator’) was his no-nonsense style, which translated into no-opposition to his policies. Guyana of those days had a pall of fear over it and if you knew what was good for you, you didn’t talk politics. I knew what was good for me. Burnham was dealing with the aftermath of freedom and he and his party chose the socialist way. Guyana was called the Co-Operative Republic of Guyana and was closely aligned with Cuba and Soviet Russia, though it was officially part of the NAM (non-Aligned Movement). This was not to the liking of either the Americans or the British, Guyana’s erstwhile colonizers but that was reality. Guyana paid a high price in facing political blockages resulting in shortages at home. However, in today’s terms, things were easy. Unlike today, Guyana had not discovered that it had oil and so nobody was particularly interested in what Guyana did or didn’t do. There was bauxite and sugar. There was some gold, but it was not really extracted in any big way. There were and are major rivers but no hydro power. There was no organized or large-scale agriculture or ranching though there was land enough and more for both. Guyana was poor. What was also happening was the reality about payback time after any revolution leading to freedom. People who struggled for the freedom remember the promises made during the struggle and are looking to live happily ever after, forgetting that that is only a last line in fairy tales. To develop we need education and very hard work.

Burnham’s policies drove Guyanese out of Guyana and many migrated to the United States, Canada and the UK. As it used to be said at one time, ‘There are more Guyanese in Brooklyn than there are in Guyana.’ True or false, there were too few in Guyana and those that remained were people who really couldn’t leave or were in government jobs where political affiliation counted for more than any competence. The results on the economy and society were hardly surprising or beneficial. On that day Comrade Burnham ascended the podium that had been constructed and spoke, short and clear. I still remember this line in his speech. He said, “A-we Gainese wan far go-va-men to give us everytin while we sit upon we sit-upons and wait. Lemme tell ayo dat if ayo wan devlopmen, ayo gon hav to wok fo it. But we like to sit upon our sit-upons and talk about what the Go-va-men mos do an vat Mistah Bonham mos do but nevah about wa I mos do. That won’t work. Unless we decide to get up and help ourselves, nothing will change.” To me, that made perfect sense. And if someone didn’t like the man because he spoke plainly, well, that is their choice. Burnham was also known for and liked or hated for some of his policies, among which was the banning of wheat flour and the promotion of rice flour. Guyana grows rice while wheat was imported. Naturally this went against the established food habits of people and they didn’t like it. Burnham did it to reduce the import bill, but economic policy succeeds or fails more for subjective emotional reasons than objective logical ones.

Burnham decreed a policy of self-reliance and many imports including food staples were banned. Among the things that were banned apart from wheat flour were also Irish Potatoes, which was rather ironic seeing that potatoes are actually South American and were imported into Ireland. The result was that one night someone came to my house and rang the bell and looking over his shoulder, presented me with ‘forbidden fruit’, three Irish potatoes, smuggled in from Suriname, no less. For an Indian, getting three potatoes as a gift was strange to say the least, but since I lived in Guyana and was totally acculturated, I knew what a great honor and sign of friendship that gesture represented. Forbes Burnham was feared and respected, loved and hated. All hallmarks of strong leaders.

Kwakwani Park Labor Club was an institution. This was a place which had a large hall which doubled as a cinema with a stage at one end. It had a long veranda along one end on which were placed tables at short intervals where people played dominoes with great passion and noise. Inside was the bar, the place for many a meeting, fight and romance. The level of noise in it can only be experienced, not described. The Club could be heard before it was seen. And its smell was never to be forgotten. Playing dominoes in the Kwakwani Club seemed to consist of smashing the domino on the table with all your might and shouting at the top of your voice. I can vouch for the fact that going by this criterion the people who played dominoes in Kwakwani Club must have been world champions. If the game is more than this, then I must beg forgiveness for my ignorance. The Club was also remarkable for its smell. Imagine a combination of stale sweat, beer, and rum floating on heavy humid air in an invisible cloud that came at you as soon as you were within reach. Then it clung to you and entered every exposed pore and remained with you and your clothes through several baths and washes. But this did not seem to bother anyone to the best of my knowledge.

The people of Kwakwani were mostly of African descent. This, however, is a generalization because in Guyana the racial mixture is so rich that most people seem to be a combination of many different races – Amerindian, Chinese, Indian, African, and European. Demographically, Guyana had at that time about sixty percent people of Indian descent who mostly lived on the coast. They used to work on the sugar plantations, having been brought in by the British as indentured labor from India. Another main occupation of theirs was small time trade. Twenty percent of African descent who were the descendants of African slaves and also worked on the sugar plantations. When the emancipation of slaves happened, they walked off the plantations and settled in the hinterland, engaged in timber extraction and whatever else they could do. The timber and mining industries are dominated by them, as are also the Army and the Police. The last twenty percent consists of the indigenous Amerindian tribes, originally hunter, gatherers who have been exploited mercilessly by everyone else. They still live in the forests, though many now live and work on the fringes of whichever town or village that happens to be nearby. They have the least paying jobs and live mostly by selling wild meat, fish, honey, balata (wild rubber), and sometimes by working as guides for others.

In this final section of the population are also the descendants of the Chinese laborers who were brought by the British to work on the railway, most of which has fallen into disuse and is rotting away. There was and continues to be a free mixing of the races though the Indians seem to keep to themselves and away especially from people of African origin. Indians everywhere seem to be oriented towards fair-skinned people and practice their own brand of ‘apartheid’, wherever they live in appreciable numbers, including in India. The best example of this can be seen if you read the matrimonial advertisement page in the Sunday papers in India. Almost every single ad will ask for a bride who above all else is ‘Fair,’ which has nothing to do with her love for justice, believe me. A very sad practice that harms Indians more than anyone else, but they have yet to learn this lesson.

Guyana had become independent less than 10 years before I got there. So, ideology, in this case communist, was still very strong. As I mentioned earlier, people called each other ‘Comrade,’ which depending on the tone of voice could be given any kind of connotation from the most warmly cordial to the positively hostile. As in many such cases, not everyone was a ‘believer,’ but to appear to believe was required. Since ideological alignment was more important than everything else, efficiency suffered and people who claimed to be loyalists of the ruling party, the PNC, had personal power far in excess of their official position.

On Sundays a film would be screened in the Club. Most of the spectators apparently believed that they could influence the outcome of whatever was happening on the screen if they shouted at the actors. So, they proceeded to do the same with great gusto. But strangely nothing seemed to change. The actors continued to do whatever they had intended to do in the first place. Much like government policy in our so-called democracies, which seems to be independent of the screaming and shouting of their poor enslaved populations who have not realized the fact that the script has been written by someone else and will not change with their screaming. Little did I realize while attempting to watch a film in Kwakwani, I would live to see a real-life version of this behavior, thirty years later.

About a kilometer away from Kwakwani Park, up a small hill was the Officers colony called Staff Hill. In typical British colonial style, the rulers were separated from the ruled. Even ten years after independence, Staff Hill was informally out of bounds for ordinary people. It was meant for Officers, in this case, all black West Indian or East Indian (people of Indian origin) and though we no longer had a fence and guards as used to be there in the past, nobody from Kwakwani Park actually came up the hill except to bring some visiting relative for a short drive to show them how the other half lived. White and black is not about color; it’s about social status and attitude.

In my hammock outside my house facing the orange orchard

Staff Hill had two kinds of houses. Bungalow type houses with 3 bedrooms and a veranda all around them for most of us. And big wooden houses on stilts with parking underneath them for the really big bosses. The houses were arranged around a quadrangle with an orange orchard all around them. There was a swimming pool to cool off. There were tennis courts, a Club House with a bar, guest rooms, dining room (excellent cooks to boot) with proper dinner service, uniformed waiters, table tennis table, and a library.

The rules of this Club were very different. The barman wore a uniform and gloves. You could not play dominos here. And you could not come to the Club in your shorts and nothing else. You could not shout at the top of your voice and you could not curse. And no matter that the British were long gone – as in the case of India, their ways had been adopted by their erstwhile slaves and upheld as a sign of their own ‘superiority’ over their own brethren. I am not saying that there is something intrinsically good about cursing and yelling and unwashed shirts. I am merely pointing at the reasons we do some things and how we use certain norms to demonstrate our own superiority over others.

In Kwakwani Park was the hospital where for a year my father was the resident doctor, Nurse Liverpool the Head Nurse, and MacFarlane the Compounder. All wonderful people who ran a very good hospital indeed. Kwakwani was a lovely small town where you knew everyone, and everyone knew you. There were no strangers in Kwakwani. Everyone knew what was happening in your life and had an interest in it. And you in theirs. People had the time to stop whatever they were doing to chat with you when you came past. Nobody passed anyone on the street without saying, “Aye! Aye! Maan!! Ow ya doo’in!!” Remember to end on a high note as you say that, to know how it sounded.

They may add, “Ow de Ol Maan?” (Could mean your father or your husband, depending on who you were). “Ow de Ol Lady?” (wife or mother). “Ow de Picknee?” (Believe it or not, that means children). And remember that had nothing to do with whether you were married or not, as I learned to my own embarrassment one day when I went to the Income Tax office to file my tax return. The lady at the counter offered to help me fill out the form, which I gladly agreed to have her do. She asked me at the appropriate column, “Married?” I said, “No.” She then asked, “Any children?” I said, “I already told you I am not married.” She looked up at me and said, “Wad de hell dat ga fa do wid anytin Maan!!” To end this line of discussion, I immediately accepted defeat and said, “No children.”

The language of the Guyanese is called Creolese. It is an English Patois and as distinct with its own flavor as French Patois is from French. Creolese has the taste of Cookup, the sound of the Steel Band. and the aroma of the rain forest. It is a language of the people and reflects their culture. I used to speak it so fluently that new locals I met wouldn’t believe that I was not a native.

They would ask me, ‘Weya fraam?’

‘I’m Indian.’

‘Me-no-da bai, A-mean weya from in Giyana?’

‘Me-na from Giyana, me from India.’

‘Ah! (That is said as an exclamation in a high rising tone) – Ya tak jus laka-we’

And that was a great compliment. It is really impossible to render Creolese into text because it is spoken with so much emotion and voice modulation that without those sounds, it’s not done justice. It is a language that comes straight from the heart. Creolese has many proverbs and funny stories with morals that are typical of the language and the people.

For example, there is a famous proverb: Han wash han mak han com clean (When two people help one another, they help themselves).

Another one: He taak caz he ga mouth (He talks nonsense).

As for stories, there are several. And in them, the people of color may appear lazy, but are smart and the White man is the butt of the joke. Here’s one:

One day a black man (Blak-maan) be ga-in about lookin for sometin ta eat when he com upon dis garden in de bush. Dey he saw dis great big bunch of ripe bananas. De man! He very appy! He put he arms around the bunch of bananas an sey, ‘De Lord is my shepherd and I shall not want.’ He hear a voice saying, ‘If you don tak ya hands off dem bananas, I gon lay ya down in green pastures.’

Dey bin the owner of the garden watchin over he garden when dis man go dey.

And knowing the Guyanese, once this happened, I am sure the owner would have given some bananas to the hungry man to eat. I don’t know of any Guyanese who would chase a hungry man away. Guyanese have big hearts.

Another one involves an Amerindian guide and his white employer. They are walking through the rain forest. The Vyte-maan (White man) sees that the Amerindian is walking barefoot, carrying his boots on a string over his shoulder. So he laughs at him and says, ‘You ignorant Amerindians are so stupid. Why are you carrying your boots?’

The Buck-maan (Amerindian), he na say nothn.

Then they come to a stream. The Vyte-maan tak off he shoe and the Bok-maan, he put on he shoe.

The Vyte-maan laugh at he again and seh, ‘This is really stupid. Now that we have to wade through the water you put on your shoes? The shoes will get spoilt.’

The Buck-man, he na say nothn.

As they wade through the stream the Vyte-maan get hit by a stingray. He scream in pain and fall down. The Buck-maan drag he out onto the other bank and seh, ‘Now who stupid? When me eye cyan see, me na need no shoe. But when me eye cyant see, is weh I need de shoe maan. So, who stupid, me ah you?’

Another brilliant one is about this Blak-maan who goes looking for work. In Guyana, the custom is that the employer feeds the worker. If the worker works for the full day then the employer gives him a lunch break and lunch. So, this Blak-maan comes to the mansion of a Vyte-maan. The Vyte-maan says to him, ‘I have a big tree in the back garden that fell last night. You must saw it. But you guys are lazy. You take too long to eat lunch. So, what I’m going to do is to give you food now. You eat first then you work through till the evening without a lunch break.’

The Blak-maan agrees. The Vyte-maan gives him banana and cassava and mutton and tea and the Black-maan, he eat like it is his last meal. When he done, the Vyte-maan tell he, ‘Come over to the back and I will show you the tree you have to saw.’ The Blak-maan goes around the house and there is this huge tree that has fallen. The Vyte-maan say to he, ‘Alright, you see that tree over there, you have to saw it.’

The Blak-maan he look carefully and seh, ‘Me na see no tree.’

The Vyte-maan can’t believe his ears. ‘What do you mean you can’t see the tree? It is that great big tree over there!’

The Blak-maan ben down and look heah and deh and seh again, ‘Me na see no tree.’

Now the Vyte-maan is really angry. So he shouts at him, ‘You stupid man, can’t you see that great big tree over there?’

The Blak-maan seh again, ‘Me na see no tree.’

The Vyte-maan is in a rage and yells, ‘What do you mean you can’t see the tree? I saw you see the tree.’

The Blak-maan seh, ‘You saw me see the tree? But you aint go see me saw it.’

I can still hear the voice of my dear friend and first boss, Nick Adams telling me this joke and both of us laughing our heads off. You have to listen to a Guyanese tell these stories with the sing-song tone of their voice and their actions illustrating what is supposed to be happening in the story. I can’t put that into this narrative here. But if we meet one day, remind me and I will tell you the stories in Creolese as they should be told.

Mail took an average of one month to get to Guyana from India. That it actually arrived is a marvel of the system which in today’s email world we seem to have forgotten. But it did come and in the 5 years that I spent in Guyana, I never had a letter that was lost. As postage depended on weight, I used to write on very thin, semi-transparent tracing paper with a very fine nibbed pen to try to get as much matter into it as possible. And since Mr. Gates had not yet created Windows and laptops were not for machines and notebooks had 100 pages of 15 lines each, you could not cut & paste or delete or drag & drop. So, you needed to write after due thought if you wanted to save yourself the trouble of writing what you wrote all over again. This is how I learnt to express myself in writing. 

The Statesman within

The Statesman within

My friend asked me a question; Where are the statesmen? Where have they all gone? For the sake of some clarity, I defined statesmen as people who were highly respected for their integrity, were highly ethical and moral and showed long-term vision for their people and countries and spent their lives in helping their people achieve that vision and not in amassing personal wealth.  When I did my back-of-the-envelope analysis to see when this lifeform existed, I came to the period 1800’s-2000’s; a period of roughly 200 years. To give this a more appreciable face, take Abraham Lincoln at the beginning of this period and Nelson Mandela as the last statesman standing. With his death in 2013, they became extinct. So, what happened? What went wrong? How is it that there was a time when like the Woolly Mammoth, statesmen walked the earth but today they don’t. How is it that they failed to reproduce their kind? Is it because like the climate change that killed off the Mammoths; cultural, psychological climate change, made statesmen of the like of Lincoln and Mandela, perhaps icons to worship but not to emulate?

I did a back-of-the-envelope recall of history. What I have is as follows: Starting from the beginning of recorded history, we have states which were the property of rulers and their families. These rulers amassed wealth through conquest. It was a simple grab-what-you-can strategy, aided by ever more powerful weapons and military organization and tactics. That gave rise to the so-called ‘Great Conquerors’ starting with Alexander of Macedonia, and on to Julius and Augustus Caesars of Rome, Cyrus of Persia, Pharaohs of Egypt, Umayyads (Abbasids didn’t do any conquests), Genghis and his sons and grandsons, Ottomans, Saffavids, Moghuls, Spanish, British, French, Germans, Dutch, Portuguese, the Vatican (directly and indirectly) and the list goes on. All of them did one thing very well; i.e. wage war. They looted, plundered and colonized. Revenue sources for them were two; immediate plunder of warfare followed by taxation of the subject people. It is not for nothing that it is called ‘spoils of war’. War spoils. Never builds. All this continued to World War I and in a slightly different way, since nation states had by then taken the stage, it continued until World War II.

The point to be noted here is that the purpose of all war was conquest of territory, loot and subsequent tax revenue. In some cases, this was open and blatant. In others it was called ‘civilizing barbarians’, ‘Holy War’, ‘Crusade’, ‘White man’s burden’ and so on. Soldiers benefited both from the spoils of war which they looted on their own and what the ruler dished out when the counting was done. In the case of most rulers, their people were given land in the conquered territory and settled there as a prize of war for them and as a safety measure for the rulers. In the case of the Roman Empire as well as many others, this significantly changed the demography of the region and enabled better policing of those territories as well as tax collection. In short therefore, rulers ruled and amassed wealth because their people were willing to support them at the cost of their life if necessary, in exchange for the crumbs from the table.

Post the World Wars, came the period of decolonization. Freedom struggles started in all colonies. Some won their freedom after long, protracted and bloody conflict. Other colonies were freed because they were no longer financially viable to maintain as they had been bled dry and now the colonizing countries had to spend their own money to maintain the colony. So, they granted them ‘freedom’. These freedom struggles shifted the focus of people from materialism (amassing wealth through conquest) to higher goals of freedom, nation building, social change and realigning values. People had to and were ready to submit their personal aspirations to the higher goals of nationalism and patriotism. Freedom is heady stuff. It was during this period that we see the likes of Lincoln and Mandela; my two symbols of the kind of leader that one can call ‘statesman’ and not merely ‘politician’. There were others but these will suffice for this discussion especially as they bracket the period between 1800 and 2000.

Simultaneous with the wars and in many ways fueled by them, the Industrial Revolution metamorphosed into the military industrial complex that we are familiar with today, producing myriad products and services for mass consumption. Apart of course from weapons of war. People needed funds  to buy stuff and that fueled the banking system. It is not that there were no banks before World War II. Banking was well established with almost the same financial instruments from the time someone had money and someone else needed it. Jesus spoke about the bankers and money lenders. Shakespeare wrote about them. The Roman Empire ran its entire commerce through bankers. Medieval European monarchs, to a man (or woman) were in debt up to their gills. But after the World Wars and successful freedom struggles, banks became accessible to the common man and woman through what we know as ‘Commercial banking’. Money was made available, not for any altruistic reasons, but because owners of products needed a market for their produce and banks enabled those whose desires (or needs) exceeded their means, to achieve those desires by enslaving themselves to a payment schedule for the rest of their lives. That kept them out of trouble as they were too busy paying to worry about anything else, which suited those who ruled the roost. Rome invented the circus. We invented Hollywood, Bollywood, Tollywood. Both serve the same purpose. Keep people distracted and steer thought into the channels that the establishment wants them to think along. Add to this all the TV shows, football, cricket, shopping, advertising, social media, FB algorithms; all things that I don’t think I need to explain to anyone today. But do reflect on them to understand how you and I are fish on the end of the hook, enjoying the taste of the bait, not realizing that we are there for one reason only; to be reeled in for the fisherman’s sport and profit. Shopping, sports and sex are the formula from the beginning of recorded history to keep the population subjected, distracted and obedient.

The interesting thing is if you look at the demographic of the rulers, you will see that it has not changed at all, except perhaps for the kind of clothes they wear. That changed from chainmail covered by ermine and mink, to business suits. The ‘mailed fist’ became more symbolic but no less lethal. Pre-World Wars and down through the colonial period, the ‘ruling class’ was a small group of men (with the very rare woman) who ruled with only one motive; personal profit. The cost didn’t matter at all. If it meant annihilating an entire population (Aztecs, Incas, Native Americans, Australian Aboriginals, Hottentots, Bushmen, 2 million Indians…not end of list), then it was done by whatever means it took ranging from arranging a famine to smallpox infected blankets to simply separating the head from the body. Millions of Africans were enslaved and transported across the ocean to give their life and blood to build someone else’s nation. The list of what was done in the name of profit is well documented for the one who is interested in reading. It is not my purpose to go into it here.

The same profit motive continues, though the means have changed. Now the chains are greed and debt. The result is the same i.e. profit for the ruling class. That is why things that are clearly harmful to society are legal and are sold at a premium. I mean all kinds of addictive substances like alcohol, cigarettes, tobacco products, human bodies, gambling in many forms, the latest being football and cricket, porn (including child porn) … once again an endless list. Consumer perception is manipulated and influenced to make them buy this or that product and buy more. The infamous pharma racket is a case in point among many others. All to make profit, which is the final decider. I can’t forget to mention the biggest of them all, manufacture and sale of weapons of mass destruction. That is by far the most profitable which gives the best ROI. That is the reason there is more money invested in death than in life; in weapons research and manufacture than in cancer research and cure. When production and sale of weapons of mass destruction is a mainstay of the economy then all values, morals and peace vanish behind the smoke of bursting bombs and burning homes. Manufacturing weapons of mass destruction is the most immoral, despicable and abhorrent thing to do and has no moral justification. It must be stopped. It is the only reason for wars and as long as it exists wars will happen, and peace will remain an illusion.  When people who go to work in these factories turn a blind eye and deaf ear to what their effort, energy, intelligence and industry are creating and do it in the name of supporting their families, we must know that there is something very seriously wrong with our society.

Actually, hold on, nothing is wrong. It is business as usual. Wars happens because wars make profit. Peace doesn’t happen because peace doesn’t make profit. Hate sells because hate makes profit. Love doesn’t sell, because love doesn’t make profit. It is not about good or evil. It is about profit. Whatever makes profit is good. Whatever doesn’t, isn’t. It may not be called ‘evil’, but it certainly won’t get any traction, funding, facetime, airtime or any kind of time. That is why global warming, water conservation, clean drinking water, alternate energy, poverty alleviation are all dragging and will continue to drag because they don’t make profit.

What does all this have to do with statesmen, which is the subject of this essay?

It is my conclusion that the world hasn’t changed very much, if at all from the beginning of recorded history to the present moment. The ‘Statesmen Period’, was a brief interlude thanks to some special circumstances while the ruling class changed their ‘clothes’. When they were done, they took charge once again. They moved from direct control by military conquest to indirect (but equally strong) control through debt. The latter has proved to be even more profitable because it obviates the necessity of spending money to administer another land, collect taxes, fight insurgency from time to time, maintain your own administrators and myriad other elements of colonization. Much easier and cost effective to allow local rulers to do your work and we don’t pay for their sins. Taxes are replaced by sale markup with the benefit that the population gladly and willingly pays out, while they resent being taxed. Losing colonies worked out very well, thank you very much. All you need to do is build attractive tax-collection centers, aka Shopping Malls and revenue flows in. However, where the inflow of revenue is threatened for any reason by anyone, the mailed fist does the job. When goods do not cross borders, soldiers will.” Fredrick Bastiat. Armies cross borders to open the doors of commerce. While they are there, they help themselves to whatever they can; a well-known soldier’s prerogative. Compliant local rulers are supported and protected, no matter how brutal or corrupt they may be. Non-compliant rulers are removed, very publicly and brutally, both to clear the blockage as well as to demonstrate to potential aspirants what their fate would be if they dared to buck the system. As Fredrick Bastiat once again said, ‘When plunder becomes a way of life, men create for themselves a legal system that authorizes it and a moral code that glorifies it.’

Statesmen became extinct because there is no need for them any longer.

Let me hasten to mention what we can all see clearly, ‘the people’ are very happy with the current system. The beauty of materialism is that like cigarette smoking, the gratification is instantaneous while the harm is invisible. You draw the smoke into your lungs and feel so refreshed and relaxed while some more alveoli are filled with carbon and your lungs are primed for cancer. Only, you can’t see it happening, so it is easy to ignore, especially since you are addicted to smoking. We are all addicted to materialism, violence, promiscuity, sensationalism, instant gratification of desire. We are blind to the harm this does to us personally as well as to our society. We don’t care that our way of life is disastrous for those who share this planet with us, animals, birds, insects, or even the earth, air and water. We simply don’t care.

All our heroes are those who make the most profit. I challenge you to ask anyone to name the top five leaders that he/she admires, and I will guarantee you that it will be businessmen. Buffet, Gates, Jobs, Bezos, Dell – or some such combination, but businessmen. Ask what about them that they admire, and they will mention net worth. Which means the money they have. Not their character, learning, wisdom, compassion or anything else. Just the amount of money they have. I have asked this question umpteen times. Not once did anyone mention a great scientist, social activist, philosopher, theologian, scholar, poet, dramatist, artist, surgeon, astronaut, researcher or teacher. It is as if such people and their contribution have no value. By our choices, we have trashed centuries of contribution that ennobles us and raises us from merely grubbing for money. None of the qualities which make us uniquely human seem to count. Only money. Only profit. We don’t see any need for statesmen.

But do we need statesmen and women, whether or not we see the need for them?

A simple question to ask in this context is, ‘Was the world a better place when Abraham Lincoln and Mandela were in positions of power or when George Bush (and now Donald Trump) and Jacob Zuma were in power?’

I say we need statesmen like an alcoholic needs a deaddiction clinic. The alcoholic won’t accept it, but without it he will die and take his family down with him. We need people who are not focused on profit alone but who can show us how we can gain quality of life by focusing on ethics, values and morals. The challenge is to demonstrate this in ways that will still make profit for them. Statesmen happened because circumstances enabled, even enforced, the natural selection of the best to deal with the great goal of freedom. As I said, freedom is heady, and it is a goal that people are willing to work for. Political freedom we may have achieved. But freedom from poverty, corruption, discrimination, injustice, oppression are all goals which remain on the horizon, unachieved. What we need is statesmen (and women) who will address these goals and enable us, as a global society, to achieve them. If circumstances create statesmen, I submit that those circumstances exist even today. If only we can recognize and address them. The tragedy is that as in my analogy about smoking, instead of recognizing that materialistic pursuit of profit at any cost as the cancer it is, we seem have created a mindset where it has become an aspirational goal. That is why I suggested the test of asking about who our icons are. That will tell us what we aspire to become.

Today the challenge is to bring about a change in perception where people learn to see the benefit (profit in perhaps non-monetary terms) in compassion, justice, empowering the weak, alleviating poverty, education, public health, alternate energy, husbanding resources, conservation and such world building (not merely nation building) goals. It is to inspire and lead this new effort that we need statesmen and women. When we begin to see that we are all interconnected in a very real sense and that we can only swim together or we will sink, that we will hopefully be prepared to change the destructive lifestyles that we have become used to. Aspiring statesmen and women must invent ways to convince people to make this change. For that they must first believe and then they must lead by example. Each statesman is guided by his/her religious/nonreligious philosophy. Therefore, it all depends on which philosophy is guiding him/her. Statesmanship can be constructive/destructive. It all depends whether destructiveness will be called statesmanship! The world listens with its eyes. It doesn’t care what you say until it sees what you do. Statesmanship is about creating a need for value-based leadership and then fulfilling it. Statesmanship therefore must begin within ourselves. Within our families and neighborhoods. We need to inculcate values of care and concern, kindness and compassion, the willingness to extend ourselves for the sake of others, and to find personal fulfillment in it. We must understand that it is uniquely human to work to help others who can’t help us and to work for a time that we will not live to see. After all, that is the definition of vision. Given access to technology and open source material, I believe that all that a child needs today are literacy and numeracy. That takes less than one year of learning. After that the child has access to anything in the world that he or she wants to explore. To decide what that should be, the child needs a value system, a criterion for judgment and decision making. That is why value education is so critical. That is why skills of critical thinking, decision making, communication, conflict resolution and a sense of trusteeship are so essential. Sadly, almost nobody teaches them in any school curriculum and even more sadly both parents and people running schools, don’t see the need. Children are the voiceless victims of their elders’ apathy.

This is what must change. The statesman within must be nurtured and allowed to flower so that appreciable change can happen in the world. The reality is that true happiness doesn’t lie in a shopping mall or buying stuff or in consumerism. It lies in seeing the smile on a face where you had seen tears a little while earlier and to know that you were the reason for that change. That is truly inspiring, motivating and satisfying.

Anyone ready?