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
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.
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
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?’
‘What do you think of Mrs. Gandhi?’
‘I think she is a good leader Sir. She is good for
‘But some people don’t seem to like her, no?’
‘Isn’t that the case with most strong leaders
‘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
‘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
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
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.
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
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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
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
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
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.
What are the worst things couples can do to
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.
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
“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
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.
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?’
‘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
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
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
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.
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 haveis 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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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
became extinct because there is no need for them any longer.
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.
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?
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
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.
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.
The Berbice River was one boundary of Kwakwani to
which it clung in fright from the forest which loomed behind it, threatening to
engulf it in an unwary moment. The mines were the reason Kwakwani was created
and the reason it existed. Kwakwani was owned by the mining company, Guyana
Mining Enterprise, Kwakwani Operations. The Administrative Manager of Kwakwani
Operations was the defacto ‘Mayor’ of Kwakwani. He was not only responsible for
the company’s operations but also for the welfare of the people of the town.
The hospital was owned by the company, which employed the doctor and staff. The
company ran the only store, which was called the Commissary. This store stocked
all basic essentials which, given the resource starved economy, did not amount
to much. The store stocked Dishikis and shirts, cutlasses, axes, pickaxes,
crowbars, hardware and plumbing items, food – mainly staples and some meats in
the freezer section and of course, a very well stocked liquor store. Guyanese
can drink. Man! Can they drink!! The most popular drink is rum; Demarara Rum,
drunk neat or with Coke. A black drink that looks like lube oil. Guyanese eat
large quantities of meat and drink large quantities of rum and they are among
the most friendly and jolly people in the world.
The town was divided in two parts. Kwakwani Park,
which had the workers quarters, some of which were barracks, some twin houses
with two rooms each, and some individual homes in the Self-Help area. Most of
the houses were built with wood, plenty and cheap in Guyana, on stilts with a
short stairway of 6 or 7 stairs leading up to the front door. The stairway
(called ‘Step’) was not only for going up to the house but more importantly for
people to sit on and socialize. Once the work of the home was done, the women
would come out onto their steps and carry on conversations with the neighbors
sitting across the street on their step. In the evening once the men returned
from work, they would carry their drink in their hand and sit on the step and
talk about the day gone by. The Self-Help area was an area that the Government
of Guyana and the company had promoted where people owned the houses they
helped to build. That is why it was called Self-Help. This was a big departure
from the usual norm in Kwakwani where all housing was company built and owned.
Almost all houses in Kwakwani Park had vegetable
gardens; most of them right behind the house in the rain forest which was never
far away. People employed the slash-and-burn type of agriculture, as mentioned
earlier, a method that is widely practiced all over Guyana but is very
destructive to the rain forest. But then again, what do you tell people who
live on the margins and who have to do something or the other to make ends
meet? These gardens provided food for the family as well as some small income
for those who worked harder as they could sell the produce in the market. The
gardens were also a source of protein because they attracted wild pig (Collared
Peccary), deer, capybara, agouti, and curassow. The wily farmer, especially
immediately after the burn when the ash was on the ground and a great
attraction to the animals, would sit in hiding either on a platform on a nearby
tree or on the ground and shoot whatever came. Hearing gunshots in the night
was not uncommon and not anything to be worried about. Some Amerindian farmers
would also set snares with spears and arrows or even sometimes with a stick of
explosive (easily available from the mines) for pig. One, therefore, had to
watch very closely and walk carefully when negotiating a farm in the forest to
avoid becoming an unintended victim of the hunter.
People mostly grew bananas, cassava (tapioca),
pineapple, and sweet potato. The typical Guyanese farmer in Kwakwani was a
person of African extraction; a mine worker in the day who would drive a truck
or some earth moving or mining equipment, or work in the machine shop and then
in the evening he would put on his farming shirt – a much patched, seldom
washed and therefore odoriferous garment smelling of honest sweat – and would
go to work in his farm. He would carry a shotgun in one hand and a cutlass in
the other. He would wear a floppy hat from under which he would look at you and
smile; a smile that would light up his whole face. Then if you said anything
that was even remotely funny, he would shake all over and laugh so heartily
that his whole body would laugh with him; the world would become a better place
for a little while. Laughter and rhythm are the two hallmarks of the African
person. I always say that nobody can laugh or dance like an African. It is
something that is visceral and intrinsic to being African. I have even prayed
behind an African Imam in the US who would do a quiet little dance as he
recited the Qur’an. Highly objectionable in law but then the question is, how
come you were looking at the Imam instead of concentrating on your prayer, eh?
The company had kindly allotted me the house that
my parents had lived in for the year that they were in Kwakwani, so I didn’t
have to move from Staff Hill, which was the senior officer’s enclave. My
father, who started work in Linden at the main Guymine hospital was transferred
to Kwakwani as the head of the small hospital there at about the same time as I
got my job. So for one year we lived together in Kwakwani. Then they left,
returning home to India and I stayed on for three years thereafter. That is how
I was in the house which the company allowed me to retain after my parents had
left – another of Nick Adam’s favors. The house overlooked an orange orchard on
the far side of which was the ever present jungle. Behind the house was a large
open area cleared out of the jungle and then there was the jungle. The orange
orchard used to be well maintained with its grass cut and the orange trees
pruned and fertilized. The orange tree has a lovely shape and on a moonlit
night to sit in my veranda simply looking out across at the orchard was
something that I greatly enjoyed. This was one of the many joys of a TV-less
existence. This orange orchard was also the first time I saw Leaf Cutter ants (Atta cephalotes) at work. I woke up one morning to find one
tree almost completely defoliated. When I went to examine what had happened, I
saw a long line of ants with pieces of leaves in their mandibles busily walking
to their nest. This was a mound about 2 meters in height and double that in
circumference at the edge of the forest boundary. I had read about these ants
and how they use these leaves as a substrate to grow fungi to feed on, but this
was the first time I was seeing them in action. I also knew the cure for them,
which was to collect the refuse from the mound and place it around the base of
the tree, which they then avoid. This, I found to be true. It is said that this
remedy works for up to 30 days but in the case of Kwakwani where it rained
almost every afternoon, it didn’t last that long. These ants have a very
elaborate and complex society and I recommend you read about it.
The house itself was a low roofed bungalow with a
veranda in the front and on one side. It had three small bedrooms with two
bathrooms and a main hall which served both as a dining and living room. It was
very sparsely furnished, so I made some furniture. I got the sawmill people to
saw me a few Wamara planks—with their lovely double colored grain—and got a few
fire bricks and lo and behold I had a complete shelf system in which I used to
keep my books and other some local handicrafts. To one side was the kitchen
with a big gas cooker. The gas cylinder was housed in a small enclosed shelf in
the veranda behind the kitchen and the gas was piped to the stove. I would make
my own breakfast and Naomi, my very large, very concerned, and very domineering
cook from St. Lucia, would come in and make my lunch and dinner. For breakfast
I would usually toast some crackers with cheese on them in the oven and make
myself a cup of tea.
One day, with this intention, as usual, I prepared
my tray of crackers with slices of cheese on them and opened the gas oven to
light it. I smelt something funny, but didn’t give it much thought and struck a
match. Instantly there was a huge explosion and I was thrown back against the
wall. The glass of the oven shattered and my tray of crackers flew out of my
hands. I had a burning sensation on my face but otherwise seemed to be alright.
I ran to the bathroom mirror and discovered that I was minus eyebrows and
eyelashes and my face was very red. The hair on my forearms was also singed
off, but otherwise I seemed none the worse for the shock. What had happened was
that there was a gas leak in the oven and the oven was full of gas. That was
what I had smelt when I sat in front of the oven but hadn’t recognized the
aroma. When I lit the match, it ignited the gas and it exploded. Mercifully, I
had to open the glass oven door to light it and so the glass didn’t shatter in
my face. Having a face full of toughened glass wouldn’t have been any fun. My
beard saved the rest of my face and apart from feeling crinkly with the hairs
being singed, the beard was also intact. It took me some minutes to get over
the shock of having the oven explode in my face and to be thankful for having
been saved. But after that it was off to work with an interesting story to tell
my friends and have them say with great concern in their voice, ‘Man! Ayo
All the truck drivers and bulldozer and earth
moving equipment operators became my good friends and I learnt to drive their
huge machines. To drive a Caterpillar D9 dozer and literally move a mountain
gives you such a kick that I remember the feeling even now, more than thirty
years later. Men can’t move mountains, but they have invented machines that
can. Such are the marvels of technology.
I have reason to remember the D9 and its power in
a personal way as well. One day I was driving to Linden and decided to take a
short cut through one of the Linden mines. As I was driving over the sand
over-burden (this is what the soil that coves the ore is called) I suddenly
started to sink in it. I put the Land Rover into 4 wheel drive and thought I’d
get out fast enough. What happened, however, was that the vehicle simply dug
itself into the sand right up to the axels and I was well and truly stuck.
As I stood there wondering how I would get out, I
saw one of my friends in his D9, who having seen me, was driving towards me.
When he came close he shouted over the noise of the engine, “Man! Baigie!! Get
into your car and put it in neutral.” I yelled back at him in alarm, “Chinee!”
That was my friend Morris Mitchell’s nickname as thanks to large quantities of Amerindian and maybe even Chinese genes, he had the flattest face of anyone I have ever seen.
“What the hell do you think you are doing. You
ain’t pushing my car with that dozer!! It will collapse.” “Man!! Ya do wa I
tell Ya na Man!!” goes Chinee. So I got in and put the gear in neutral. Chinee
dropped the blade of the dozer while he was a dozen yards away from the back of
my car and built up a small hillock of sand between him and me. And this
hillock of sand pushed the car out. The dozer did not touch it. Ingenuity of
people who use these machines day in and day out.
The path through the forest that I mentioned
earlier was one of the most interesting nature walks that I’ve ever taken. I
would walk silently and suddenly come upon various animals and birds doing
their own thing. The hummingbird hovering on invisible wings gently probing the
center of a flower for nectar. The wings beat at such a speed that like the
blades of a fast turning fan, they become invisible. Now the path was gone,
claimed by its owner, the jungle.
One day walking down this path, I saw a boa
constrictor, a young one about eight feet long, slow and lethargic after his
meal, lying across the path basking in a rare patch of sunlight that managed to
sneak through the forest canopy. He made a halfhearted attempt at getting away
and then a fairly serious attempt at attacking me as I lifted him up and took
him home. I built a square cage of 1” thick planks nailed together with big
nails. Inside the cage I put a log of wood, which he would use to drape himself
over. He seemed to like the arrangement especially as it was partially in the
sun under which he liked to soak in the mornings. Boas eat only live prey and
so every few days I would put a small chicken into the cage. The snake would
lie as if he were dead. Totally still, so that you could not even see him
breathe. The chicken, initially ruffled about its treatment and protesting
loudly would quieten down and start scratching in the dust in the cage.
Eventually it would hop onto the log right next to the snake. Talk of bird
brains especially of farm grown broiler chickens who have never seen a snake in
their lives. Then, suddenly, viola!! Magic!! In a flash, no chicken and a large
lump in the snake.
I am very fond of animals and so I had quite a
collection in Guyana. Apart from this snake I had a young Collared Peccary (a
wild pig that lives in the Amazonian rain forests). This thing thought of me as
its mother and followed me everywhere. I did not mind that but drew the line at
him following me inside the house. So he would curl up with my boots which I
left outside the door.
I had a young Tapir, which loved cassava (sweet
potatoes) and I had a lot of trouble keeping him out of other people’s gardens,
which would have been decidedly unhealthy for him and myself. But thankfully,
Guyanese being as they are, though they loved tapir meat and hated anyone
tampering with their vegetables, knowing that this thing belonged to me, they
only yelled at it and sometimes at me. All this was done in a very friendly
way. They would say, ‘Man!! Baigie, you should be with the girls. Instead, you
walk around the forest by yourself and collect these animals. Okay, so eat the
thing man!! Or call us and we gonna cook he for you. But na!! You gotta keep he
as ya frien. You need a gyurlfrien man!! Not a tapir!!’
One day one of them asked me, “Man!! Yawar, ya
raas aint got no guyrlfrien, you ain’t married, you don’ drink, tell me why you
alive, haan??” Then he got philosophical and asked me, “A’yo Indians all like
dis man?? Then tell me how come you so many?? How you mak alladem babies man??”
Simple people with good hearts were my friends from Kwakwani.
I recalled how we used to travel from Linden on
the rickety Kwakwani bus with Joyleen Crawford as the conductor and George
Sears the driver. I remember these two very well as they used to bring the mail
from Linden for which I used to wait like a fish out of water….out of breath.
Kwakwani people never understood why I, a bachelor and a very eligible one at
that (young, nice looking, had money, a regular job, etc. etc…..) was never
interested in the Kwakwani girls. Joyleen tells me today (she mailed me one day
in 2010 having seen my address in some other mail and said, “Yawar is that
you??”) that all the girls of Kwakwani used to bet with each other to see who
would get me. None did, and I did get very lonely sometimes. Lonely and
depressed, yearning for companionship that never came through. The night
outside was dark, as I sat on the veranda gazing into the shadows of the orange
orchard, listening to the sounds of the jungle around my home. The night inside
me was darker still, strange forms and shadowy shapes in the murky depths.
Menacing and frightening and I, without the cognitive tools to deal with that.
It is when I reflect on those days that I realize how AllahY gave me the strength and support when there was
nobody else. Today I realize that His plan for me was better than my plan for
myself. I recognized my Rabb in the breaking of my dreams and learnt to trust
Him and the inner voice in my heart more than the noise of my desires in my
In those years, I learnt the meaning of rejection,
parting, and loss. I also learnt how to pick myself up from the depth of
depression and rebuild my self-esteem, not on the shaky basis of other people’s
opinions, but my own assessment and acceptance of myself. I learnt to like
myself, to forgive myself, to hold myself accountable for what happened to me,
and to stop blaming others. I learnt that it was I who was in control of my
feelings. Other people could do whatever they wanted, but that it was I who had
the authority to decide what I wanted to feel about what they did. I learnt the
freedom of saying to myself when someone did something unpleasant, “I will not
allow him or her to decide how I am going to behave or what I am going to
People may be abusive. We choose to feel hurt
because we accept what they say about us. People may reject us or treat us as
less than themselves. But it is we who decide to agree with them and feel bad.
People may feel threatened when they encounter us in work situations because we
challenge them when we demonstrate our own competence. We feel bad about their
reaction, but fail to realize that to pretend to be incompetent to please
someone else’s ego is not an option. I learnt that the key is to realize that
it is we, not they, who define us.
Nobody can MAKE us feel anything. We feel whatever
we choose to feel. People don’t like to accept this fact because with it comes
the understanding that if I am feeling bad about something, then I am the one
who is responsible for it. It is either a frightening or a freeing situation,
depending on how we choose to look at it. It is frightening if we refuse to
stop looking around trying to find someone to blame for what is happening to
us. It is freeing if we choose to realize that if we are in control then we
don’t need to feel bad if we don’t want to. Slavery is comforting and freedom
is frightening to many people, so they go around feeling bad and blaming others
for what happens to them, refusing to recognize their own role and
responsibility in it. Not willing to face the fact that this attitude only
makes matters worse, not better. Typical ‘victim’ mindset.
Another game we play with ourselves to justify
inaction and copping out, is to express the problems we face in global terms.
We talk about the problem as if it is a problem of the world. We say, “This is
the problem with people today.” Whereas the reality is, “This is my problem
today.” Let me illustrate. If I say to myself that the biggest problem for the
Third World is poverty and a lack of education. Then you ask me, “So what can
you do about it?” I feel justified in saying, “Well, I am one man. What can I
do to solve the illiteracy problem of the Third World?” But instead of this, if
I define this problem to say, “Can I educate one child other than my own?” Then
the problem is solvable. If I do this and I spread the word to others and
encourage them to pay for the education of one child, then eventually we will
see the impact of this on the global screen.
We globalize issues because the solution also
becomes global and then we feel justified in feeling helpless and in sitting
idle and taking no action to solve the problem. But if we choose to redefine
the problem in personal terms, we will find that there are solutions where we
did not think they could exist. The issue of course is that it then becomes
very uncomfortable for us to sit by and do nothing. We are forced to take
action and in that is hope for the world.
I decided in those years that I would consciously
choose the ‘Master’ mindset in every situation that life may put me in. I did
not know these terms then. I invented them more than 20 years later. But they
are grounded in the throes of personal growth and the pain of accepting my own
personal power. Strange to see how accepting that you are powerful can be
painful. But there it is!!
If we think about it, in every situation, no
matter how many things are actually not in our control, there are always things
that are in our control. At the very least, how we choose to feel about the
situation is in our control. How we choose to behave in that situation is
always in our control. To ask instead of telling, to offer instead of
demanding, to contribute instead of consuming, to stand instead of running, to
respond instead of reacting, are all in our control. What we choose to speak or
do is in our control. To choose to do nothing is also a choice and that too is
in our control. Take a simple matter like being stuck in a traffic jam. Most
people start fuming, their blood pressure rises, they start getting restive,
then irritated, and then furious because someone accidentally honked. Road rage
statistics in the US show that the maximum number of cases of verbal and
physical violence happen in traffic jams. And at the end, you are still stuck.
However, there are those who use the same situation and time to catch up on reading, some meditate, some pray, some actually start conversations, and make friends in traffic jams. All in the same situation as those who are ready to kill each other. Lesson? It is our choice whether we want to treat our situation as a problem and complain or as an opportunity that hardship provides and take advantage of it. Problems need solutions, not complaints.