Eulogy or Elegy?

First the words;

Eulogy: a speech or piece of writing that praises someone or something highly, especially a tribute to someone who has just died.

Elegy: An elegy is a sad poem, usually written to praise and express sorrow for someone who is dead. 

But eulogies, Wikipedia assures me, can also be delivered at retirement functions and other such events when a person is leaving you but not for the next world. I assume that it is not a crime to deliver a eulogy, so to speak, by simply expressing appreciation and thanks to someone who has been good to you in different ways, without any formal function or speechmaking.

Now, why this article.

In the last week, I received news of the deaths of three people, all very dear to me. One was my aunt, Anees Fatima, the second was my classmate all through school (Hyderabad Public School) from 1965-1972, Chandramohan Agarwal and the third was Mohammed (we called him MP), my dear friend and companion on various jaunts, whose father and uncle were mentors to both of us.

Quite spontaneously, I wrote my thoughts about them, our shared memories about the times we lived in saying how much I appreciated their being in my life. Many people read what I wrote and appreciated it. But it occurred to me (yes, I am stupid and you must have seen this coming long ago) that the only one who didn’t and couldn’t see, read or hear what I had written, was the one about whom I had written. So, was my writing worth it at all? Yes, their relatives appreciated the words in their hour of bereavement, but I didn’t write my thoughts for that. I wrote them to express my appreciation and thanks to the person who died. However, because of the timing, the eulogy became an elegy (a poem in praise of the dead).

I recall something I found very amusing at the time, my friend Siasp Kothawala telling me a funny story about his friend Mariba Shetty. Siasp and I shared a love for horses and wildlife. Mariba Shetty was the Inspector of Police in charge of the Mounted Police battalion in Mysore. We used to visit him there and ride the horses of the Mounted Police, beautifully turned out and trained. We always appreciated the immaculate condition of the stables, mounts, tack, saddlery, uniforms and manners of all the people. All the result of one man focused on quality, Mariba Shetty.

I used to visit Siasp in his forest resort/home, Bamboo Banks in Masanagudi on the edge of the Mudumalai National Park and would ride his horses in the buffer area. One day I was having tea with him when Siasp said to me, ‘I read somewhere in the papers that there was a riot in Mysore and the Mounted Police were called out to control it but in the melee, there was all kinds of violence and Mariba Shetty was killed. I was very sad to hear this and promptly wrote a long letter to his wife, telling her what I thought of her husband, listing all his qualities that I appreciated all through my association with him. Two weeks later, I get a letter from Mariba Shetty which said, ‘Dear Mr. Kothawala, you will be happy to know that the news about my demise was wrong and I am alive and well. I am writing however to say that I am most grateful to you for your kind letter to my wife. I had no idea that you thought so highly of me.’

I am writing this as a reflection and a reminder to myself and to you. Express appreciation to the one who was good to you and added value to your life before they die. Don’t wait for someone to die before you tell them that you love them or are grateful to them.

For after they are dead, everyone else will read and hear what you said, except the only one whose reading and hearing it would have mattered.
Don’t wait for a eulogy to become an elegy.
My dear friend MP

My dear friend MP

Today was the first day in my life when I received the news of the passing away of two of my childhood friends. One was Chandramohan Agarwal, my classmate all through school in the Hyderabad Public School and the other was Mohammed, the son of Nawab Habib Jung. Mohammed (we called him MP) was a couple of years my junior but we were very good friends and rode his father’s horses. 

Nawab Habib Jung finetuned our riding in his old-school way, a very powerful voice with a colorful vocabulary followed by the whip on your behind if you didn’t jump to obey and get it right. It is a tribute to my quick learning that I never felt the whip.

They lived in Begumpet, where Nawab Habib Jung had built his own house on the grounds of his father Nawab Wali-ud-Dowla’s house called Vilayat Manzil (today the Country Club). Nawab Habib Jung’s house was my all-time favorite for its architecture. It had a large central courtyard open to the sky with a lawn in it, in which there was a swimming pool at one end and a low marble platform with inlay work at the other, where he used to pray. All around the courtyard were the bedrooms, the dining room, and the drawing room; all opening onto a wide veranda that ran right around the courtyard. Most of the time we would sit on the veranda and look at the swimming pool and chat because it was so airy and lovely. In the basement was a huge formal drawing room and Nawabsab’s office. Nawabsab was the one who wrote my first reference letter when I applied for a job in the tea gardens. I remember the words exactly, ‘He is keenly interested in saddle seat equitation, has an excellent seat, and shows respect where respect is due.’

Outside the house there was an old well and several huge old trees. At one corner were the stables. MP and I would usually ride near the house in an open area overlooking the Husain Sagar lake. One day I went to see the film ‘The Horseman’ with Omar Sharif as the hero. I was enthralled by the film principally because of the scenes of Buz Kashi and the many sequences of riding on Akhal-Teke horses ( that the film was full of.

I loved horses and riding with a passion. In one scene in the film they showed a riding competition where the riders would pick up a small piece of cloth from the ground with a dagger while riding at a full gallop. My dear friend Anoop (Vicky) Randhawa, MP and I rode our horses to the schooling area. I was thrilled with the display of horsemanship that I had seen in the movie and when we went to ride, I decided to try this maneuver. The problem with this intention, which I discovered too late, was that the Akhal-Teke is 14.3 – 15.5 hands tall, whereas the Thoroughbred that I was riding was a full 17 hands. Also, the gait of the retired racehorses that we used to ride was a hard, pounding run that was very harsh and jolting. It was many years later when I rode an Arab stallion in Saudi Arabia that I realized what comfort in riding was. The Arab is the Rolls Royce of horses and seems to simply float over the earth as it gallops. 

To return to my story, I dropped my handkerchief in the middle of the field. I then wheeled my horse, trotted to the end of the field, and the turned around and came straight down at a full gallop. As the horse neared the handkerchief, I went down over the right shoulder and reached down with my right arm for the handkerchief. I picked it up alright but realized by then that I was too far down over the side and the pounding gait of the horse was further throwing me lower and lower. And sure enough, in another two or three strides, I fell. I landed on my arm and shoulder and there was a terrible shooting pain. I tried to scramble up and found that my right arm was twisted at an unlikely angle and my shoulder had dislocated. I was in severe pain. MP and Vicky came running and helped me up. I told them to take my arm and jerk it hard so that the ball joint would go back into the socket. I have no idea why I said that or how I knew that this was the right thing to do, but it was and my arm was back in its normal position though the pain was still severe. The next item on the agenda was to catch my horse which had spooked at my fall and run away. It took us more than half an hour to calm him down and get close enough to him to catch him. Then, one armed as I was, I mounted him and we got home.

Another time MP and I decided to take our horses and go camping. I was riding a black stallion and MP was riding a chestnut gelding. My horse was rather highly strung and as is the way with many stallions, constantly testing his will against mine. We started in the afternoon after the heat of the day was past and rode from Begumpet all the way to the Green Masjid (Masjid-e-Hussaini) on Road # 3 Banjara Hills intending to go on to the gate of Chiran Palace and then ride along the wall and descend the hill to what we used to call ‘Secret lake’. Seeing it surrounded by buildings today it is clear that it is no longer a secret. This lake connects with the lake on Road # 1 near Taj Banjara hotel which used to be called the Banjara Hotel and was the first hotel on Banjara Hills and the first 5 – star hotel in Hyderabad. There was a dirt track from the Green Masjid to the gate of Chiran Palace. As MP and I rode up to the masjid a small boy threw a fire cracker under the hoofs of my horse. The fire cracker literally exploded under us and the horse bolted. I let him run because he was scared and to try to stop him would have been fruitless. He galloped full tilt all the way to the gate and then stopped, foaming and blowing. MP caught up and we continued our ride.

As we rounded the wall and were crossing a flat granite rock on which my horse’s shoes rang like bells, a brace of partridges exploded in flight right under his nose. He was already in a skittish mood with the fire cracker incident when this happened, he neighed and reared then slipped and fell on his side. I fell with him with my leg under him. By the grace of Allah, I was wearing knee high boots with a very thick and stiff sole designed just for such accidents. The sole protected my foot from being crushed and my helmet kept my head from cracking on the rock. I kicked my feet free of the stirrups and rolled clear of the horse as he scrambled up, keeping a hold on the reins because if he ran away here, catching him would have been nearly impossible.

Once the dust settled I realized that neither of us was any the worse for wear and we decided to go on. We reached the lake a few minutes later. The lake had a dam at one end with a small building at one end of it. The valley floor spread out all around the lake with some Acacia and Tamarind trees dotted on it. We unsaddled and hobbled the horses and put on their halters with long ropes so that they could roll in the grass and graze but would not be able to run away. Then we made our camp. It was a brilliant starlit night with a three-quarter moon and not a human in sight. This was pure wilderness, peaceful and quiet with the occasional ‘chirr’ of the nightjar or the flight of an owl on silent wings floating overhead in search of the unwary mouse. We ate our sandwiches and drank the water from the lake and lived to tell the tale. The water was clean enough to drink. At the time of all this, I was perhaps fifteen and MP was younger.  

Almost thirty years later, Nawab Habib Jung passed away and MP came to Hyderabad from California where he now lived. We met twice and had lunch and reminisced about old times. Memories as fresh as the day they were made. It was wonderful to meet him and we promised to meet again. Little did either of us know that it would be our last meeting. As I write this, a lot of it an extract from my book, ‘It’s my Life’, I recall the many other times and incidents that MP and I shared.

A wonderful thing is memory; without it, pain would be impossible, but so would be pleasure. If I had to choose, I would choose what I have; memories of a dear friend, even with the pain of his passing. May Allah grant him Jannatul Firdous without reckoning.
Come to the Okavango

Come to the Okavango

First there was the dry. Then it rained high up and far away in the mountains. And water flowed. Life giving water filled the river banks and overflowed. Life giving water which itself gives up its life in a few months when it sinks into the sands of the Kalahari Desert. But while it lasted, it would be called by a name that echoes in the halls of fame which list the most beautiful places on earth – the Okavango Delta.
For those who want to read more about this wonderful place, click below:
It is like my arm – our guide and boatman, Happy – told us, talking about its shape. Rain falls on the shoulder, the mountains in Angola and water flows down the arm and into the fingers only to be swallowed up by the sands of the Kalahari, home, among other species, to the magnificent black-maned Kalahari lions. But while it lasts, the water gives life to an entire ecosystem of plants and resident and migrant animals and birds, that has no parallel on earth.
Our boatman introduced himself, ‘I am Happy.’
I said, ‘So am I.’
He said, ‘That is my name.’
I said, ‘That is my state.’
He gave up but first he smiled. The famous African smile, which the people of Botswana, the Batswana (Tswana people speaking Setwsana) seem to represent so well. A smile that starts in the heart and spreads all over the body and shines out of the face. When the man is happy you can see that in every part of his body. Not like the smile that is on the lips but the eyes say something else. If I could get reincarnated, I would wish to return as a boatman on the Okavango.
We landed in Maun; my dear brothers, Ebrahim Patel and Farouk Hassan and my mentor and teacher, Prof. Salman Nadvi. We had never heard of Maun but there it was, nevertheless, proving that whether people know you or not is a mark of their knowledge or lack of it; not a reflection on your significance. Maun has a wonderful little airport batting way above the average. The immigration official was anything but officious. He also had the trademark smile. Asked me how many days I wanted. I said, ‘Five’. He said, ‘I will give you ten.’ I thanked him. On my return on the fifth day, he was again at the desk. I said to him, ‘You gave me five days but I wish I had stayed for ten.’ He said to me, ‘Next time you must stay for ten. But I will give you twenty. Whatever you ask me for, I will give you more.’ That seems to me to be the attitude of the people  of Botswana. Such warm and lovely people.
We walked around our hired car with the company representative inspecting the car and found two scratches on one side. I helpfully offered to add two more on the other, if the man wished, but he emphatically refused my offer. And so, we drove off to the resort where we had booked our accommodation, The Thamalakane River Lodge. I have always wondered why African languages sound so musical. The most mundane word sounds lilting. I think it has to do with the fact that almost every word has three syllables. When you have three syllables, it makes it sound like a song. Thamalakane is not pronounced as it is written but as Tha-ma-la-ka-nay.
We were checked in by a very charming lady with once again a huge smile on her face and shown to our chalets which came with all amenities and a sign outside the door which read, ‘Beware of hippos and crocodiles.’ That was just in case you forgot that you were in Africa in the Okavango Delta. I don’t know about wandering crocs but I heard a hippo loud and clear late one night. So, the sign was not for scenic effect alone. One ‘amenity’ that the chalets have, is a four-foot-high curving wall between the bedroom and bathroom. Nothing more. The resultant potential for auditory and olfactory sensations is impressive, to say the least. One is well-advised not to eat too many baked beans or peanuts for fear of replicating the sound effects of the Battle of the Bulge. This is a classic example of design before utility, even before common sense which not only takes away useable space from the bedroom but also ensures an assault on the senses that one can well do without. There is a point to be made about privacy and that intimacy needs to be limited within boundaries. Listening (and more) to your room partner (no matter your relationship with them) discharging their responsibilities is not an experience to be sought. 
The first morning we were scheduled to go to Moremi Game Reserve
This is entirely inside the Okavango and has an area of 5000 square kilometers, which gives you an idea of how big the Okavango is. After the rains, it becomes totally water bound and most parts can’t be reached overland. But when we went, though there had been rains, it was motorable. We got into our open Land Cruiser (the workhorse of Africa) and drove out of our lodge. Conversationally, Farouk Bhai asked the ranger driving the vehicle, ‘How far is Moremi?’ He said, ’160 km to the gate.’ That is when it struck me that sitting in a fast-moving open safari vehicle was not the most comfortable way to travel. What we should have done is to have driven in our hired car to the gate and then boarded the safari vehicle at the gate. Hindsight is always 20:20. Meanwhile we had a freezing cold drive ahead.
Driving through rural Botswana is different from driving through rural South Africa. South Africa has more developed infrastructure, better roads, electricity and more upmarket cars on the roads. There seem to be no speed limits posted on these Botswanian roads, but speed is limited by the road. Occasionally you do see a police car and I understand that you can be stopped for overspeeding. Botswanan Police have a very admirable reputation. Unlike the police in many other countries including mine, Botswanan Police strangely seem to think that the law is not open to interpretation, especially interpretation that is sought to be facilitated by the transfer of wealth from one pocket into another. Anyone who is stopped for a misdemeanor in Botswana had better come clean and quietly pay the fine unless he is seeking state hospitality. Going by the standards of Botswanan hospitality and the soft and easy going nature of the Tswana people, I dare say that may not be an end to be feared, but I would rather pay for my keep rather than the other way around. All this by way of filing-in color. We didn’t meet any police nor did we need to seek state hospitality.
Why do roads get corrugated? This one was. Driving fast on a corrugated road is a hard-core way to get a vibrator massage. At the end of 160 km, my bones, teeth and brain were all rattling. Driving slowly makes it much worse so driving fast, it had to be. Once you get used to the cold wind in your eyes and your eyes have wept enough tears, your sight clears and you see small holdings on either side of the road. Small homes with large yards, filled with country chickens, ducks, turkeys and goats. There are cattle everywhere and horses and more donkeys than I have ever seen except in parliaments. And like those, these are also jealously guarded. I was told that the worst crime on a Botswanan road is to knock down a donkey. But thankfully given their lethargy and contentment with their side of the fence, the chances of knocking one down are negligible unless you set out to do this because you have a grudge against a particular beast. Where there are horses and donkeys, there are also mules. Every single animal of every kind in top condition. That is what hits you first. Sleek, well cared for animals, well fed and well kept. I didn’t see a single animal out of condition in all the many hundreds of kilometers we drove in that area.
The area is designated Code Red, meaning that it is susceptible to Rinderpest, a dreaded cattle disease that is transmitted by the Cape Buffalo which are in the forests. As such there are fences to keep them there and not allow them to wander into inhabited areas. But fences are fences and buffalo are buffalo and the inevitable happens. What being in the Code Red area means is that beef produced in this area must be consumed in this area itself and can’t be transported out of the area. This is done to prevent the spread of Rinderpest to other parts of the country. Not a very happy prospect if you are a beef cattle farmer in this area but that is how it is.
In Moremi, what we saw lots of were single male elephants. Some in Musth, with the telltale secretions from the glands behind the ear as well as discolored hindlegs thanks to their almost constant urinating in this period. An elephant in Musth is not someone you want to meet, up close. And we didn’t. But they were a magnificent sight with massive tusks. One had a couple of other males as companions; an old bull with two Askaris (guards). Another one was bathing and got disturbed when we turned up and flared his ears and shook his head to express his opinion. Another was busy digging for water in a waterhole that was damp but has no water in it. “But where are the herds?”, I asked the ranger. Further inside the reserve, was his guess. Lots of Mopani trees, favorite elephant food, on both sides of the cattle fence that I mentioned above. However, inside the fence they are all cropped short as if by a hedge cutter. While outside the fence they grow tall and shady. Evidence of the attention of elephants which eat all new growth and so the tree never grows tall where there are elephant herds feeding on them. You can see this in Kruger National Park also; hundreds of acres of neatly cropped Mopani. Wonderful creatures, elephants. My favorite among the Big Five. 


In Moremi we also saw the Tsessebe antelope, the fastest of all African antelopes, very rare in the Kruger but much more common here; a giraffe making faces at us and ostriches with their superior looks down the nose.
We stopped for a picnic lunch on the bank of a lake, under some sausage trees. These have a gourd fruit which is like a very long and fat sausage. The fruit is supposed to have legendary properties related to human reproduction which I am sure you can guess. If you can’t, then rejoice at the fact that you have a clean mind. The alleged properties are purely legendary and fictitious, so not to worry. What is more interesting about these trees is that it is from their trunks that the famous Mokoro (a dugout canoe) of the Okavango is made.
You must be brave and suicidal in equal measure to sit in a Mokoro in a place that is populated by hippos and monster crocs, but people do. Mokoro are the most common means of travel for local people and for tourists who go camping on the islands of the Okavango. Today, the government has prohibited the cutting of sausage trees to make canoes and so Mokoro are made of fiberglass. But you can still find plenty of authentic wooden Mokoro if you wish to take a ride. The boatman stands and poles it like the Shikara boatmen of Kashmir or the Gondolas of Venice, with the exception that in those places, you are not likely to meet a resident hippo with territorial tendencies or a sovereign citizen Nile Croc. Not an encounter to be wished for.
As we drove off, I spotted a Pied Lapwing; sitting on eggs in her nest and refused to move even when the wheels of the Land Cruiser were inches away. It simply sat still like a statue, which is its most common defense against predators. If that fails, then it will take off and pretend that one wing is broken and goes away from the nest, calling plaintively until it has succeeded in drawing the predator far away from the nest, before it flies away. Then it makes a series of dive attacks on the predator until it drives it away completely. It is amazing to see how this small bird with almost nothing to defend itself, makes up for that in spirit and courage.
The next day we took an all-day boat ride, a flat-bottomed aluminum boat powered by an outboard motor, Happy at the wheel, and went up into the Okavango for over 150 kilometers. Imagine water so clean that you can see the bottom clearly 3-4 meters below, carpeted by multicolored lilies as far as the eye can see. Not a single plastic bag or piece of paper or cigarette to mar the landscape in hundreds of miles of wilderness. African Jacanas abound and wait until your boat is almost on them and then take off in low flight with their long stick-like legs and elongated web-less feet trailing behind. Imagine heaven or come to the Okavango. 
As you proceed, you will see the eyes and snout of a hippo bull staking out his territory. If you get too close, he will dive and can remain underwater for over half an hour. Usually he will surface a distance away and face you again. When you are in a motorboat this is an interesting sight. In a Mokoro, you don’t want to see it. For if he decides that you are a threat, he can submerge and surface under you and give you a very real chance at becoming a historical figure. Hippos kill more people annually in Africa than all other animals combined, so they are a real threat, not be scoffed at.
Lots of birds in the Okavango of which African Fish Eagles with their striking plumage, white head, neck and a bib on the chest, stand out miles away. If there is a tall tree, you can rest assured that you will find an African Fish Eagle on it, scanning all around for prey. The other very common bird is the African Jacana, busily walking on water – actually, running on its especially adapted feet on the lily pads which cover almost all open water in the Okavango. You will see all species of Kingfisher but the black and white, Pied Kingfisher seems to be the most common. 
Then there are Egyptian geese, sunning themselves close to a huge crocodile. Plenty of Nile Crocodiles in this place, some of them real monsters. 
Imagine driving through a narrow channel through head-high reed-beds where you can’t see on either side anything except impenetrable reeds, waving in the breeze. The reed-beds give way once again to lily carpets interspersed with islands. These islands are mostly the result of birds depositing seeds on termite mounds. Here is a very interesting account of how these islands are formed.
The islands are home to wildlife, Lechwee antelope, elephant, hippo, lions, leopard and in some places, cheetah. Warthog and other smaller game like jackals, hyena and occasionally wild dog also inhabit the islands. As the day progresses and the sun comes out, you are likely to see crocodiles sunning themselves on the edges of islands, always within reach of the water, to slide into at the slightest hint of danger. Although looking at some of the monsters, you can see that nothing except humans are any danger to them. These islands range in size from literally termite mounds to vast tracts of land, the biggest of them being Chief’s Island. This used to be the private hunting reserve of the tribal chief and is now a thriving tourist hub. You can fly in to Chief’s Island from Maun or drive there or take a boat.
Sitting in the bow of our boat, with the wind blowing through my fast disappearing hair, I couldn’t but think of the prospect of meeting another boat traveling in the opposite direction at the same speed. Quite likely and scary especially around the many bends. Even less happy is the thought of being in a Mokoro and meeting a boat like this come at you round a bend. The problem is that even if the boatman stops his boat, which happens quite easily because given the resistance of water, if he throttles down, the boat comes to a halt; the bow wave that it creates, doesn’t stop with the boat. A motorboat traveling fast, can create a wave big enough to completely swamp and sink a Mokoro. As I said, not a happy thought.
We stop at an island for lunch, only to discover that the hotel has packed us non-halal food. That is when we discover how little we really need to eat. One apple each and a small packet of chips, washed down with water. Happy is very unhappy with this development and the hotel’s failure and promises to take up the issue with them while proceeding to demolish our non-shariah compatible chicken et al.  All at our invitation of course. No point in wasting food, is there?
Sitting on the ‘beach’ of the island (which Happy said was about 10 sq km in size) watching the Okavango Delta before us, I could only marvel at the cycle of beginning and end that the delta represents. From the dry season when it is desert, to the wet, when it is a sea of water giving life to many. Then a few months later the water sinks into the sand once again to repeat the cycle once again. Our ‘lunch’ finished, we get back on board the boat once again to resume our journey back to the Thamalakane River Lodge.
Water everywhere with lilies now preparing to shut shop for the night. The hippo’s grunting roar as we pass, a greeting or warning, as you may like to interpret it. A Saddle-billed stork, stalking his way back from the water’s edge. Lots of Letchwee antelopes, horned males with their harems. They used to be called Red Letchwee but I understand they have been renamed, Common Antelope, a development to which I am sure they would take exception if they knew. But it gives you an idea about their numbers. 
As we progress, the sun which has been traveling its course, finally extinguishes itself in the waters of the Delta, but not before giving us a final spectacular display of orange and red. A new display every day that changes minute by minute. Never to be repeated. Infinite variety to delight the senses and draw the mind to the Creator of it all.
The Okavango is a place to be visited again and again and never to be forgotten.
For all my photos of the Okavango and Moremi, please go to :
Okavango Delta – Botswana –


Of humanity, not airlines

I travel all the time, but never on United. I agree with all that has been said in this article. However, my question is not about airlines though I support #neverflyunited. It is about humanity and decency. It is about justice. It is about the maxim, ‘Injustice to one is injustice to all.’ That is why I am not even talking about the race of the passenger whose exit was facilitated. I am not speculating if United would treat a WASP in the same manner. It doesn’t matter. We are all human. Believe me, WASP or not. And injustice to one is injustice to all. Until we understand that, injustice will prevail.
There was a time when people stood up to support one another. What happened to that? Why did all the other passengers simply sit there and watch this horrific thing happen? I am not saying that they should have fought the security guards. They could have simply stood up and walked off the plane in solidarityall including the First Class passengers. But not a single one did that. Why? If they had, United would have had the privilege of flying its own staff and giving them the choice of any seat on the plane.
Try it people. As long as you are willing to take shit, shit shall be dished out to you. That is a law of nature. United didn’t invent it, it’s there, like gravity. United doesn’t enforce it. We do. By our silence in the face of injustice, we permit and support injustice.
Remember the man who said, ‘When the truth must be spoken, silence is culpable’? He too was American. You want to make America great again? Great idea. But then you have to get up and do something. You can’t simply sit on your situpon with your fingers crossed and mumble, ‘Thank God that didn’t happen to me.’ If you do that, one day it will. 
It surely will as the sun rises from the East.

Indian Muslims, Looking ahead

If you want to be successful, you must respect one rule: never lie to yourself.           
~ Paulo Coelho
UP elections are over and the results are out. They are surprising for some of us who have become used to living our lives in slumber. But for those who had their eyes open, the result in UP was neither unexpected nor sudden. It is the result of 90 years of dedicated effort by countless people who will remain unknown but whose effort bore fruit beyond their dreams. We Muslims on the other hand, remained content with complaining and begging. The world changed but we remained stuck in a world that no longer exists. UP election result was (or should be) enough to wake us from the deepest slumber so that we learn to deal with the new world in which we find ourselves. Unless we do that, the results will be far worse than what we may imagine.

So, what must be done now that we are faced with this fait accompli?

The principles of resilience are three:

1. Face the brutal facts without mincing words or looking through rose tinted glasses
2. Identify critical aread of impact and work on them. Not everything is equally important
3. Make necessary changes, no matter how painful

This is the framework which I am going to try to follow.

The Brutal Facts

BJP won a landslide victory. All the analysts were wrong. More than being divided, the Muslim presence in politics and the way it was portrayed to others, resulted in the Hindu vote getting consolidated behind the BJP. Muslims have become the bogeyman of Indian politics and it appears that the mere presence of a Muslim candidate is enough to bring out the worst fantasies in the minds of others. That none of this is based on fact is not important. Rumors don’t need facts to thrive. I am not going to make a long list of all that is wrong with the situation of Muslims today. I think we have the intelligence to see that. I will suffice to say that if we don’t wake up and do what needs to be done, no matter how painful, we are going to enter an era of darkness that none of us has faced in living memory. Our fate is quite literally in our own hands.

The truth is not difficult to see but difficult to swallow.
~ Mirza Yawar Baig
Muslims must understand that their development and future in the country is not restricted to government largesse or elections. It is in our hands and depends on the overall sentiment about us as people, as neighbors, as fellow citizens. Today all this is at an all-time low. I don’t say that this is entirely our fault. A lot of it is the result of systematic propaganda against Islam and Muslims which our neighbors believed. However, our inward looking and exclusionist stances have facilitated the misunderstandings and stereotypes. When people don’t know you personally it is easy to believe the worst about you. This has happened to us and this must change.
Elections apart, we simply have to win the hearts of the person on the street, the person next door and the person sitting next to us at work. If we do that well, then the sentiment will protect us from those who seek to harm us. We need to be seen as beneficial for all people. Incidentally this is what Allah described us and our mission – selected for the benefit of people. We need to therefore redefine how we look at ourselves vis-à-vis others and decide what we need to do to change the negative image into a positive one.  

“In order to change an existing paradigm, you do not struggle to try and change the problematic model. You create a new model and make the old one obsolete.”      
~ R. Buckminster Fuller
All change is painful. Drastic change is even more painful. But the most painful is annihilation. That is what must be remembered when we want to complain about what I am about to propose. Annihilation, not literally but in every other way as productive, influential and important citizens of the country. We are facing a future where when the words of the Constitution are spoken, “We the people of India”, 200 million citizens will not be included in the term, ‘We the people.’ Once again, if that comes to pass, it will be with our active or tacit agreement. Nobody to blame but ourselves.
I believe that there are three areas we must address urgently.

1. Societal impact
2. Approach to religion
3. Politial presence

1.     Changes for Societal Impact
Become beneficial and be seen as beneficial. The way to the heart is through the belly as they say. This means that people need to feel and taste the goodness of anything to believe it. Words are cheap and today we are looking at a society that has become intensely cynical and has no trust in anyone’s words. Action speaks; not just louder than words but it is the only thing that speaks. People don’t care what you say until they see what you do. The change must come within our community. We must shed our exclusivist image and communicate with others (non-Muslims). Talk to your neighbors, colleagues, customers. Just talk. Not talk theology but just normal everyday talk. Help them even if they don’t help you. Be good to them even if they are not. Greet them in their terms and thank them for any service; for example, thank the taxi driver, the bus driver, check-in and check-out person, the waiter, the doorman, anyone. Thanking increases blessing and changes hearts. This must be done such that people change their perception about us.
I know this is difficult especially in a society that has become very polarized and Muslims are denied housing and jobs. It is difficult but that is why it is even more critical to do it. As for polarizing society, it is good to remind ourselves that we are equally responsible for it with less justification because polarization is suicide for a minority, yet we did it and allowed it to happen. That is the reason we must change this perception by being genuine and approaching our fellow countrymen and women with love, respect, openness and acceptance. It is critically important to give this message to our children who mirror what they hear at home. Listening to the young ones of all communities tells you a sorry tale about the kind of psychological conditioning that is taking place in our homes. All of us, Hindu, Muslim, Sikh, Esai (Christian) – remember the song?? Today these are empty words. I weep when I recall my own childhood when a friend was simply a friend. His name wasn’t a flag to his caste. We lived in each other’s homes, ate each other’s food, called each other’s parents, Amma, Mataji, Dadji, Papa, Baba. Where did we lose it all?  
When the truth must be spoken, silence is culpable.
~ Martin Luther King, Jr.
 We must set up a fund to create the following institutions open to everyone:
Legal Aid Cell
·        Establish Legal Aid Cells in every city and take up cases of all those who need legal aid – not only Muslims
·        Make a list of cases that need to be tackled in order of priority and ease of winning
·        Make Law a primary study focus for students
·        Ensure that no attack on anyone goes unchallenged
·        Because injustice to one is injustice to all
Focus on education
·        Set up high quality English medium schools which teach vocational skills
·        Open them to everyone – not only Muslims
·        Make it compulsory for every child to go to these schools until the high school level
·        Make Madrassas only for higher education – graduation and above. Not for primary and secondary education
·        Make every child a potential entrepreneur
·        Set up a Zero Interest Venture Capital Fund and an Advisory Council to help startups
·        Open both to everyone – not only Muslims
·        Send our youth into the army and police both at officer and serviceman levels. This will inculcate discipline and a sense of belonging to the nation, both of which are missing today
·        Teaching, judiciary, journalism & media are professions of choice
·        Zero unemployment is possible with entrepreneurship
Social Development Fund
·        Set up a Social Development Fund to help anyone in need – not only Muslims
·   Focus on prisoners who need bail, hospital expenses, clean water, sewage, housing, vocational education, entrepreneurial development, orphans, widows
·    Focus on women’s economic and educational development to ensure empowerment of women
·        Demonstrate the real face of Islam to the world of helping everyone to be well
Funding for all the above
·        Central collection of Zakat Funds.
·        Capitalizing of Awqaf (Religious endowments).
·        Voluntary contribution of Rs. 100 per person per month.
·        Additional charitable donations.
2.  Approach to religion
Change our ways
The change must begin within us, individually, within our families and within our community. We need to clean up our lives of all forms of disobedience of Allah and ensure that we spread goodness all around us. Islam doesn’t distinguish between Muslim and non-Muslim when it comes to justice or welfare. Neither must we. Our presence must be seen as a blessing in the community we live in, our cities and villages. This message must be spread by all of us in our different capacities. The major share of this lies on the Ulama who have access to the Friday congregations. Their message must be about distinguishing ourselves through service, bringing hearts together and against every form of divisive thought, ideology and message. We need to root out the social evils that our society is plagued with, chief among them being alcoholism, gambling and ostentation. Our ostentatious weddings are a case in point. To celebrate weddings the way we do when our own people are as poor and deprived as they are is immoral and criminal. To participate in such functions is to aid and abet the crime. These are destroying us at all levels and must be forcibly stopped if persuasion doesn’t work.
We must not only consciously not propagate differences and divisiveness but we must forcefully do the opposite. Preach and promote by word and action, inclusiveness, acceptance and brotherhood. Universal brotherhood, because that is the way of Islam. Universal brotherhood is a message that is unique to Islam. That and mercy and forgiveness from one person to another. These two must be revived urgently because our lives are currently desolated and deprived of both. Today, let alone preaching divisiveness with respect to non-Muslims, we preach it with respect to Muslims who don’t belong to our particular cult, juristic order (Madhab), culture or region. This is completely Haraam. It is not in the scope of this article to quote from the Qur’an and Sunnah to prove my statement but there are plenty of lectures of mine with all references that you can listen to.
Secondly on the national front the following actions must be taken with respect to our Madrassas and the AIMPLB. Our Madrassas are a symbol of great dedication but very poor quality. The result is that graduates are maladjusted and incapable of being productive members of society and are looked down upon and treated with disdain. To change this, we need to change what we teach and how we do it.
Madrassa Education
·    Set up a Central Madrassa Board to ensure the following:
·    All Madrassa teachers must be qualified to teach & have a teaching degree. Our Madrassas are perhaps the only schools where teachers need not be trained to teach. This is so incredibly insane that I feel ashamed to write it.
·        Corporal punishment to be banned and punishable if practiced.
·        Madrassas only for higher (college) education. Not earlier.
·      Centralized curriculum, syllabus and examination system. Present curriculum and syllabi to be redesigned to make them current, relevant and effective. Please see my paper on this.
·        Centralized management of funds by the Madrassa Board so that funds can be allotted to those who need them and not be squandered by those who happen to have the ability to raise them.
·        Transparency in all matters and merit being the only consideration.
·   Establish the Maktab system to educate children in Islam. This is very successfully practiced in South Africa, the UK and elsewhere and can be replicated in India.
·        AIMPLB to abolish triple Talaq and not oppose UCC. Let the government introduce the UCC which will be debated nationally in which we can also participate. No need to say anything until then. The image of being regressive must be changed.
·        AIMPLB membership must be democratized and operations made much more efficient and relevant.
·        AIMPLB to be the sole dispenser of Fatwas on any matter. All random Fatwa dispensers to be stopped.
·        No knee jerk reactions and no working in slow motion.
Subsidies & Reservations
·        Demand that the Hajj Subsidy be abolished. It is a subsidy to Air India, not to Muslims. Refuse to take it.
·     Hajj is not Fardh on anyone who can’t afford it. We don’t need to give our detractors another stick to beat us with.
·        Any travel agent can get us better fares than Air India.
·        Demand that Hajj Committee be abolished. It gives little benefit and with the removal of the Hajj Subsidy its purpose will vanish.
·    Ditto for all Reservations. We don’t need them. Nobody respects beggars. We need to become self-sufficient. Reservations have never solved anyone’s problems and they won’t solve ours. They are yet one more stick for our detractors to beat with.
3.    Political presence
Leave politics as contestants
UP elections have proved that as things stand Muslim presence in politics as contestants only serves to drive everyone into the arms of the Hindutva brigade. Their absence will enable those who stand for principles instead of caste to have a voice to try to steer Indian politics away from a purely caste-based contest. This may sound drastic but I believe our situation today has reached such a desperate state that we need to consider drastic changes. Like invasive surgery and chemotherapy despite the pain and evil after effects become acceptable when life is at stake, I believe we have reached a stage today where our survival as viable, functioning members of society as Citizens of India seems to be at stake.
As I mentioned earlier, it appears that in the future, when the words of the Constitution are spoken, ‘We the people of India’, somehow 200 million citizens will not be included in this definition. So, we should not stand for election any more at least for a five-year period. If you are not there, you can’t become the bogey man. Muslims must break out of it. We must reject all extremist talk and ideas. Polarization may help some individuals but it is suicide for the community. We must partner and cooperate with all those who stand for justice, human rights, dignity and solidarity of the nation.

I believe the time has come for Indian Muslims to rethink their very existence in this country. We are Indians by choice. We love our country and want to contribute to its development. Therefore, it is time to stop living in isolation and start participating in every aspect of life in our country as CONTRIBUTORS. Not merely whine and complain about negative things that happen to us but do nothing positive to help others. Nobody can harm us – unless we allow it. All this will take time and effort. All this will be painful at least to some. All this needs serious investment of funds. But without it, we will cease to exist as relevant and significant members of this society.

The writing is on the wall. The choice is ours.