Living in the Amazonian forest

Living in the Amazonian forest

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?

My Macaw and my house on Staff Hill, Kwakwani – 1981

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 lucky.’

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 ears. 

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 feel.”

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.

For more please read my book, “It’s my Life”

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It’s not my fault

It’s not my fault

 
On April 13, 1919, the 9th Gurkhas, 54th Sikhs & 59th Sind Rifles, on the orders of Col. Dyer, fired on an unarmed, peaceful crowd gathered to celebrate Besakhi at the Jalianwala Bagh in Amritsar. As a result, 1000 people died and perhaps three times that number were injured. Even though, the crowd was overwhelmingly Sikh, one of the platoons firing on them was the 54th Sikhs. The interesting thing is that Col. Dyer himself didn’t fire a single round. An even more interesting thing is that if one were to ask each of those soldiers why he fired, he would have given the same answer, “It’s not my fault. I was only following orders.”
 
The same thing happened to the Germans that led to the deaths of 6 million Jews and others on the orders of Hitler who personally perhaps never killed even a chicken. Stalin’s orders resulted in the deaths of 20 million Russians, not one of whom had the honor of meeting his Maker at the hands of Stalin. Today, as we watch in shameful silence, thousands of Rohingya Muslims are the victims of a genocide which is the latest in the long list of genocides with which the human race visits itself. Poor lemmings get the rap for being suicidal. Nobody is more suicidal than human beings. We are constantly engaged in attempting to send each other into the pages of history and so should be renamed from Human Beings, to Human-Were. That would also explain our inherent brutality and barbarism, which we have been taught to believe is an animal tendency and not worthy of humans. Mercifully no animals went to my school and so no loud protests were heard at this singularly blatant lie.
 
It is humans and only humans that kill for no reason, torture, rape and devise ever more innovative ways of causing harm to each other. I don’t think we should so easily give up this differentiator of our species to mere animals. No wonder that Hitler apart we have always glorified the perpetrators of genocide, like Alexander the Great (why The Great?) who slaughtered his way all the way from Macedonia to India. Julius Caesar who slaughtered a million Gauls fighting for their land, trying to keep it from being civilized by Rome and said, “Today was a good day.” Or Genghis Khan who did far more than these two genocidal maniacs put together, just for fun. Then we talk about the importance of peace. This is a bit of an aside but when you are writing your own articles which you publish on your blogs and don’t care who reads them, you can take this liberty without the fear of your article being returned by a recalcitrant editor.
 
To return to my theme, ask any of those who actually do the killing and you will get the same answer, ‘It’s not my fault. I was only following orders.’
 
You can observe the same attitude of ‘learned helplessness’, with those who fall into negative patterns in life, alcohol, smoking, narcotics or other addictions. They all have the same refrain, ‘It’s not my fault.’ But ask them who is suffering? Who is getting cancer and worse? Who is paying for it from his pocket as well as in more painful ways and you get reactions ranging from the sheepish look to anger directed at you, not recognizing that it is really directed at themselves. This is what leads to my hypothesis, which is that people don’t like to grow up.
 
We all follow the same life cycle. We are born, naked and helpless. If we were to be abandoned at that stage, we would certainly be dead in a few hours at the most. There is nothing we can do to help, defend or support ourselves. We are a piece of living meat. Nothing more. It is our external environment which protects us, sustains us, takes care of our every need and does so at its own cost. We learn to simply take it all as our birthright (sic!) without a word of thanks; firstly, because we are too little to say it and then later, because, well, it is my birthright, right? Our job as babies is to feel sad, glad, bad, mad and yell like hell if we don’t like it, content in the knowledge that someone will come to our aid. The fact that you are reading this is proof that they did. At this stage in life, that is the best strategy and frankly the only one as you are truly helpless. We also learn another lesson; that the external environment determines my happiness and so if I am not happy, it must have to do with the external environment. Also since the external environment is so critically important to my survival, I must obey, or I will perish. These are the lessons of childhood that we all learn.
 
I am reminded of the time when I went to an elephant training camp deep in the forest in the Indira Gandhi National Park in the Anamallais. There I saw an enormous bull elephant, tethered with a coconut fiber rope, to a stake driven into the ground. What I noticed about this animal, apart from his huge size and very dark color (I have never seen a bigger Asian elephant and he was almost completely black) was not only that it was tethered by this ridiculous rope which couldn’t possibly hold him, even if he simply decided to start walking away, but that the leg with which it was tethered didn’t move at all. It was as if it was paralyzed. The elephant, like all elephants, rocked back and forth as he stood, swaying to a tune only he could hear in his heart. In that process, he lifted his other feet. But the foot which was tethered stayed in the same place.
 
I knew the answer, but decided to check with the keeper, his Mahawat. I asked him if the elephant couldn’t rip out the stake or snap the rope and walk away if he wanted. The Mahawat laughed and said, ‘Of course Dorai. That silly rope can’t hold him.’
 
‘Why doesn’t he do it then?’ I asked.
 
‘Because he believes that he can’t. He believes that the rope is too strong for him to break.’
 
‘Why is that?’ I asked.
 
‘You see, when he was a young calf, we would tether him to the same stake with the same rope. At that time, he would fight with all his strength against the rope and squeal with rage when it wouldn’t snap and the stake wouldn’t yield. He was too small to break the rope then. Gradually over a few weeks, he learned a very valuable lesson. Valuable for us, otherwise we would never be able to train him. The lesson he learned was the rope is too strong to break and that we are stronger than he is. That lesson remains with him all life long, even when he is not a calf anymore. As I said, that is a very good thing for us. The day he realizes that his strength, which he uses to push down a full-grown tree to get at a succulent bunch of leaves on top can also be used against this rope and us, he will be free and we will have to run for our lives. But not to worry, he will never realize that. He will always be our slave.’
 
In the same way, it would have been no problem if our condition remained the same and we continued to remain one-year old all through life. But we don’t. We grow up physically, our environment changes, we change physically but the problem is that many, if not most of us, don’t change mentally and emotionally. So, we have forty-year-old bodies with four-year-old minds. That is why they say, ‘The difference between men and boys is the price of their toys.’ This is where the problem begins, not at forty years of age, but because we don’t learn the lesson that with a change in environment, new skills must be learnt, if you want to survive and grow. But our conditioning of decades comes in the way because we have learned to like this dependence on the external environment, the fact that we can blame everything on it, feel free to do whatever we like without taking responsibility for it and go through life imagining that as long as we have someone to point a finger at, we are not accountable.
 
Emotional maturity is the process whereby we break the cycle of infancy and accept the fact that we are adults. Not just physically but mentally and emotionally. This means that we accept responsibility for ourselves and our well-being as well as the responsibility for those whose lives we touch. We are aware of our strengths and of the fact that we are a fractal, the coming together of which, with others makes society whole.
 
To do this there is a critical step that one needs to take which is to understand his/her autonomy i.e. freedom to act according to our will. Simply put, that is not such a big deal. We are all happy to consider ourselves free to act according to our will. What some of us have trouble with, is to recognize that we are free to choose but every choice has a price tag. If we make a choice, we automatically pay the price. In the Vietnam war, American soldiers committed all kinds of horrific atrocities, napalmed entire villages and burned the inhabitants alive, dropped bombs like confetti at a party and did other things, too horrible to be written about here. All following orders. But the tragic fact is that it was not only the Vietnamese who suffered, but that after safely returning home, almost the same number of American Vietnam War Veterans died of PTSD, Agent Orange and other war stress related problems and suicide, as the number killed in Vietnam. The Vietcong didn’t kill them. They paid the price of obeying orders in Vietnam. A price which they didn’t consider when obeying those orders. But a price that was rung up at the till nevertheless. We must pay for what we buy. Always.
 
Autonomy is to understand this and to be very careful about what you buy, because sometimes the price is far higher than we can afford.
 
Truly it is said that all wars are the poor of one country killing the poor of another for the benefit of the rich of both. Only when soldiers understand this, will we have a world without war. The ‘excuse’ I am usually given when I say these things is, “Well if they shoot you and use their army to kill you, what choice do the poor people have?” I say that poor people, including you and me still have the choice of standing up and dying. Not lying down and dying. For dying, we will all do one day. The choice is how. It is not important whether you win or lose a battle. What is important is which side you fought on. The reality is that if enough of us choose to take positive, courageous stances this world will change.
 
Oppressors can’t function without supporters. Those fighting oppression, can. 
 
Even one person standing up for justice inspires a million others. Recall the iconic pictures of the one person standing before the tank in the long-forgotten Tiananmen Square. Yes, that still didn’t stop the massacre which the US, UN, U&Me have all chosen to forget. Yet that image lives on and inspires me at least. And I am sure many more. It is a tribute to people of courage that this was not the only such instance, photographed or not. So, to repeat myself, ‘Oppressors can’t function without supporters. Those fighting oppression, can.’
 
Autonomy is to understand that we, each one of us individually, is incredibly powerful. That all change begins with the individual person, man or woman. It is only when one person stands up, that others join. As in the case of Spartacus the Hollywood movie about the slave who fought the Roman Empire and eventually lost. When the slave army was defeated and surrounded, the Roman Commander announced, ‘If you give up Spartacus, your lives will be spared and you can go back to your former jobs (as slaves). If not, every one of you will be crucified.’ There was silence.
 
Then one man stood up and said, ‘I am Spartacus.’
 
Then another stood up and said, ‘I am Spartacus.’
 
Then a third and a fourth until the entire slave army stood up together and proudly shouted, ‘I am Spartacus.’
 
That is because Spartacus had changed, from being a person, to being an ideal, a goal worth dying for, a legacy worth leaving behind.
 
That is the power of autonomy.
 
I know that what I described above is Hollywood’s rendering and a liberal dose of imagination, but nevertheless it makes the point of what I am saying here, that when people choose to exercise their autonomy, good things happen, change happens, human dignity is restored and the world is a better place to live in.
 
And the alternative?
 
Keep blaming the world for your failures, your laziness and your inertia. Keep watching as someone just like you, is dragged off a United Airlines flight and tell yourself, ‘It’s not my fault. I am helpless. It is not the fault of those dragging him off either. They are only following orders. Nothing will change even if I stand up and walk out. Nobody will stand up with me. I will only miss my flight. Etc. etc.’
 
And United is not the only one. Other airlines are not to be left behind in ensuring the best customer service. https://tgam.ca/2fDfnAz
Stand in a queue at a bank in India and watch as an old man standing in the same queue ahead of you, falls dead. As they take the body away, move one place ahead. Do it quietly as if nothing happened. Don’t draw attention to yourself. Just move forward. After all, what can you do if someone just drops dead? What can you do when you also need to get into the bank to get your money out because your government decided to play games with your life’s savings? What can you do when you finally do reach the teller, he tells you, ‘Sorry we have no cash. We have run out of notes.’ It is not his fault, is it? It is certainly not yours. So, whose fault, is it?’ Stop asking stupid questions. Go home and come earlier tomorrow. After all you can’t rely on someone to conveniently die every day to give you a place ahead, can you?
 
Sit on your sit-upon, in your nice seat in the UN General Assembly and listen to the soul stirring speech of the President of the United States (no less) declaring that he is prepared to evaporate North Korea and wipe it off the face of the map. Try to imagine what the world map will look like with a blank space where North Korea used to be. Try to imagine what the world map looks like today with North Korea where it is. North who? Try to imagine the effect of nuclear weapons today that make the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, look like party crackers. Remember that they were dropped also on the orders of another President of the United States of America – not ISIS. Try to imagine what will happen to Japan and China and Russia if North Korea is the target of a nuclear strike.
 
Ignore the voice which is whispering in your ear, “What do you think you should do now?”
 
“Who? Me?”
 
“Yes, you.”
 
“I have no orders from my government to do anything. Do you know who this is? This is the President of the United States of America. Even more importantly, it is Donald Trump, Esq. What will I do? Nothing. It is not my fault. I have to follow orders. I need my job. I am not here to change the world.”
 
“Then why are you in the United Nations General Assembly?”
 
Ignore it. Say nothing. Do nothing. Gradually it fades away. Gradually it dies. You will feel it in your heart. You will feel the dead weight. But not to worry. You will get used to it.
 
Just like those who sent children to gas chambers in Nazi Germany got used to it. Just like those who shoot a pregnant Palestinian mother in the belly and say, ‘Two in one’, got used to it. Just as those who are raping pregnant Rohingya women, then ripping open their bellies and throwing their unborn children into the fire, got used to it. Just like those police officers in India who shoot under-trial prisoners and call it an ‘Encounter Killing’ and are extolled in the Indian press and media as ‘Encounter Specialist’, got used to it.
 
That killing an innocent person is murder according to the IPC and CrPC which the same police officers are sworn to uphold, is a mere detail, best ignored. More important to ‘solve’ cases and save the State time and money which otherwise would be spent in tedious investigation, collecting evidence, producing it before the judge, arguing the case and waiting for the judgment; anxious all the while that it may go against you because your evidence was manufactured and not discovered. Meanwhile, the State pays for the prisoner’s housing and food (so what if that is in prison?). So much easier and cheaper to use one single bullet in the back of the head. And announce the next day to the ever-ready press, ‘Prisoner was killed in an encounter.’
 
After all, just like you, Mr/Ms. UN Delegate, all these people are also following orders. They also need their jobs. Strange, that they also have their own wives who they love very much. They also have children they dote on. Yet they don’t see the faces of those they love in those they oppress, rape and murder. To them, it is only their own flesh and blood who have names. Others are merely numbers, labels and objects of hate. If you don’t believe me, raise a chicken as a pet, give it a name that it responds to and then one day, try to slaughter it for dinner.
 
The very meaning of autonomy is to take a stand. To stand up and say, ‘No matter what orders, no matter that I need the job, no matter what anyone says, I will not be a part of injustice.’
 
It is to stand up and say, ‘There is a price to pay for standing up and a price to pay for keeping silent. I will stand up because I know that the price to pay for remaining silent is far higher.’
 
Remember the words of Pastor Martin Niemoller (14, January, 1892-6 March 1984)
 
“First they came for the Communists, and I did not speak out, because I was not a Communist. Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out, because I was not a Trade Unionist. Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out, because I was not a Jew. Then they came for me and there was no one left to speak for me.”
 
Living is about choosing. To take a stand is a choice. To do nothing is also a choice. 
And all choices have price tags.
 

 

That is why I ask myself, “If not now, then when? If not me, then who?”
The Hope Forum

The Hope Forum

Welcome to The Hope Forum
Imagine a desert. That is our world. A desert of hatred, suspicion, violence and despair. Imagine wandering in this desert, throat parched, fearing enemies all around, nearing the end of your strength and just as you think you can’t go any further, you see an oasis. That is The Hope Forum. It is an oasis in the desert.
What does an oasis have that the desert doesn’t? Life giving water, shade giving trees, fruit to eat, grass to lie down on and gaze at the sky through the fronds of the trees, listening to the birds singing in the trees, the croaking of frogs on lily pads and the occasional plop of the Kingfisher when he dives for the unwary fish. The scorching life sucking wind of the desert, cools down and becomes the cool breeze that’s now wafting over your face. That is what breaking its force in the wind breaks and passing over water and does to it. It cools it down.
What else do oases do? They attract rain clouds. What’s the good of that in a desert? Have you ever seen a desert after the rain? For a brief span the desert blooms. The bleak, parched landscape turns overnight into a carpet of green and flowers. That’s not because flower seeds rain out of the sky. It is because every desert has in it, seeds of flowers. All it takes is some rain to make them grow. So eventually if oases grow and multiply – lo and behold – no more desert.
That is what we hope The Hope Forum will do. Give sustenance and life to those exhausted of traveling in the desert. Let them drink crystal clear, clean, cold water; eat sweet fruits, listen to birdsong and rest on the grass. Let them meet. Listen to each other. And think of how to create more oases.
If we can do this together and if we can do this enough, then a day will come, when people of the world will take charge of their destiny and wrench it back from those who control it today. The people of the world will put more value on life than on death, on virtue than on vice, on compassion than on cruelty, on justice than on greed. Then and only then can the wars end. Refugees will go back home. People will smile once again. TSA guys will have to look for gainful employment and our children will read about how the world was saved, because their elders broke the cycle. The cycle of hatred. The cycle of suspicion. The cycle of violence.
The Hope Forum is a place that the injured from Twitter, Facebook and other social media can come, to detox and cure themselves from the negativity of the world. There’s much good happening in the world that gets no lift. Bad news sells. So we’ll give each other good news for free. And you’ll be automatically chucked out if you post anything negative. The rule for this forum will be that only productive and positive things can be shared. Nothing negative. No criticism of anyone or anything. No praising yourself. Praise others and let others praise you. No pontificating, no proselytizing. No promoting of any particular religion, ideology, politics, shop, product, service or yourself. Only appreciating what others are doing. Let others speak about your work while you do it quietly and sincerely because you believe in it and in yourself. The Hope Forum is something that seeks to change the whole culture of social networking which is simply another name for self-promotion and one-upmanship. We have nothing against any religion, ideology, politics, shop, product, service or yourself. Just that if you want to promote any of this go somewhere else. This is not the place for it.
The Hope Forum is about promoting others. Showing the world how many good people there are, in every country, every nationality, every race, who are working quietly to make this world a better place. Your job as a Hope Forum member is to find them and tell the world about them through The Hope Forum. That is if you want to join.
Share a good song, story, picture, thought, dream, idea. But only good, only positive, only thankful, only appreciation. Tell all of us who are with you on The Hope Forum, what you liked, appreciated and recall with pleasure.

This is my first post. It is about this young man I saw in Pune – Samir Key Maker. Samir is a very Indian name and can belong to someone from any religion. Mohammed Samir (my nephew), Samir Joshi (a very good friend), Samir Singh, Samir Joseph. So Samir represents Indian youth to me. The best in Indian youth. A symbol of courage and confidence. He doesn’t just sit there on the pavement. He announces who he is. He has his phone number on the sign so that people can call him if they don’t have the time to stop by. He has a white sheet on which the tools of his trade are set out. What does a white sheet signify? To me it signifies quality. He is saying, “Look at my sheet and see if it is clean to decide what the quality of my work is going to be.” Now that is a statement of great confidence. His sheet is spotless. If you meet him, tell him I remember him. He doesn’t know me. But I know him. I remember him. I honor him. And I tell the world about him.  Samir is the symbol of hope. 

If you want to share a problem, a pain, a complaint; then reflect on it and think of a solution. Then share it with the solution. So the only problems we will allow are problem definitions of solutions. As someone said, ‘Every problem has at least two possible solutions. Do not enter this room until you have thought of both of them.’
The Hope Forum is open to everyone; any age, gender, religion or not, nationality, race, ethnicity, waist measurement, height, weight, strength; whether you can sing or croak, whether you can dance of shuffle, whether you can run or toddle, whether you are tall in your imagination or in people’s eyes, whether you can eat your cooking or others also can, whether anyone else loves you or not – we do. So join us. But read the condition below and stick to it.
The Hope Forum is open to everyone who accepts and agrees with our conditions of being a member i.e. good only, positive only, appreciation only, smiles only, solutions only.
No other conditions for joining.

October 20, 2016 is the day The Hope Forum was born. Long may it survive. Fast may it grow. And great may be the goodness it brings to all the world.


I will not allow what is not in my control, to prevent me from doing what is in my control.

Entrepreneurship Development is the key to economic upliftment

This picture which I took in Pune on my way to the airport after teaching a leadership course at SKF, is my all-time favorite. It is a picture of a man who decided to take his future into his own hands and become an entrepreneur. He gives the lie to all those who complain about lack of resources, education, government support, fate or whatever. He has less resources, education, government support than anyone who will read this post. Yet he is better than almost every one of us because he decided to do something instead of complaining. This is a picture of courage, enterprise, creativity and confidence. It is an inspiration for me and for anyone who is seriously interested in development. And a kick in the pants for all those who make excuses.

One thing that the Sachar Committee Report showed clearly to anyone who has eyes is that discrimination is a part of life for the Muslim in India. While we keep fighting for reservations and whatnot, I am one who believes that if one wants to succeed in life, he can’t rely on the mercy of others. One has to rely on oneself and one’s own effort for the simple reason that it is the only thing which is in our direct control. With that in mind I am writing what I have advocated all over the world. I have tried to devise a strategy that is self-sustaining and requires very little start-up funding. This strategy is not for Muslims alone. It is for anyone who wants to do something about poverty and economic deprivation. Discrimination is not a Muslim copyright. It is what every poor person faces. For poverty is the religion of the poor. And that is the conversion we need to make – from job seeker to job provider.
Action Plan
  1. Vocational training
  2. Entrepreneurial development
  3. Venture Capital Fund
Vocational Training
  1. Start a Vocational Training Centre in every school. This must be done in every Government and private school and Madrassa. Every child must learn a skill. Products can be sold and the income can be used for the Center. This will also provide employment opportunity for artisans/professionals who are presently unemployed. Parents and community members can be encouraged to participate in this venture by lending their time and skills.
  2. Funding can come from CSR of companies who will be happy to fund such ventures.
  3. The building infrastructure already exists. If the timetable is an issue (usually there is enough time in the normal day itself) then the Vocational Training can be done after school.
Entrepreneurial Development
Simultaneously an Entrepreneurial Development Training plan must be established teaching students of the Center how to turn the skill into a business. This will ensure interest in the Vocational Training Course itself as people will be interested if they see how they can make this into a viable business and career option.
I suggest opening both the Vocational Training and Entrepreneurial Development Training to local communities also to help everyone and gain popular support. The Entrepreneurial Development Training course must consist of the following skills to be taught in a completely practical mode. NO LECTURES except as initial explanations. All teaching by practitioners (preferably voluntary) and all practical only.
  1. Writing a Business Plan to pitch for investment
  2. Budgeting and P & L Accounting
  3. Hiring and Team building
  4. Selling and Service Orientation
Venture Capital Fund
Final strategy in this is to start a Venture Capital Fund in each District/city managed by an independent Board of Directors of five members who are all reputed and highly trust worthy business people (include at least two women) with active businesses. CEOs may also be taken on the board but NO RETIRED OFFICIALS. One very important consideration which must be written in, is that Board Members MUST attend all meetings and inability to do so for two meetings will eject them from the Board.  This is critical.
This VC Fund will give interest free loans based on Business Plan with easy installment payment options to graduates of the different Vocational Skills Training Centers in the District/city. The funding to set up the VC Fund can come from MNC/Public/Private firms CSR or philanthropists. Later it can be increased when beneficiaries donate to the fund which helped them to set up. A cap can be set on the amount of each loan so that the Fund is not over extended in any one loan. I recommend Rs. 2 laks as a cap. But the Board can decide.
I believe that this plan to create entrepreneurship will free us from our malaise of looking to government to solve our problems and the problem of discrimination which our children face when they try to apply for jobs. Help them to stand on their own feet and instead of asking for jobs, they will provide jobs to others. Economic development is at the root of self-respect. It is the biggest need today for the poor in every country. It is the most powerful bulwark against extremism. People who have something to lose, don’t become extremists. So give them something to lose.

Entreprenuership is not about business


In the world of entrepreneurship and startups, which I inhabit and have some claim to, we say that you can’t succeed in your startup until you make a significant personal commitment. Most successful entrepreneurs deliberately had no Plan B (second option if the first didn’t work) because of two core beliefs: Their unshakable belief that they would succeed and their belief that a second option blunts the edge. It takes the edge off desperation, off hunger; and that is detrimental to the result. So they remain hungry, remain desperate and they succeed where everybody else thought they would have failed. They use other’s derision and naysaying to spur them on to do even more and they prove their detractors wrong.

Excellence in measured in many ways, one of the most important of which is your confidence and ability to stay on your chosen path. You will find when you do that, that other people will often be scared of your high ideals and goals. To remain on the path and not be discouraged by their lack of confidence is a measure of excellence. I have always measured the strength of my goals from the number of people who they scare the daylights out of. Currently the same is true for my dream of the SBA – it scares the daylights out of a lot of people. To me, it means that I am on the right path. You see, the only path that doesn’t scare sheep is the path to the pen. I personally have never had a liking to being penned. Especially since every sheep pen has only two doors. One towards the pasture and the other towards the abattoir.

Danger is both exciting as well as mostly imaginary. But when we embark on lofty goals which are rooted in integrity, truthfulness and the desire to do something worthwhile, the world – what we know of it as well as what is unseen – conspires to make us succeed. Angels walk with you though you can’t see them. Doors open for you where you would not have imagined. People come out of the woodwork to help you not because you asked them to – you didn’t even know that they were there – but because they were sent. The resources that you need to accomplish your goal will flow in your direction. Very simple principle of physics – water flows down a slope, not up it. So when you are climbing a hill and rain falls, water will flow in your direction. If you are running away and going downhill, water will flow away from you.

Your position on the hill doesn’t matter (no matter how far from the peak you are). It is your direction which makes a world of difference and quite simply spells the difference between reaching the peak or not. Many people believe that they can climb a mountain walking backwards. I personally don’t know of anyone who managed to do that. If you want to succeed, you have to face your fears and stare into their eyes until they look away. Not turn your back on them. Especially because what is behind your back becomes even more scary. I was never very good at walking backwards myself.

That is not to say that one must ignore honest feedback or not check one’s assumptions against emerging data and change them if necessary. That too is a measure of excellence in itself but the final goal must not be watered down and diluted because of fear. One is to change the approach because someone has a better way. That is good to do provided that other way stands the test of rigorous proof-of-concept. The other is to give up the goal itself because you became afraid. That is to betray yourself.

I want to share with you some of my quotes on excellence. All these and more are part of four of my books, two of which have been published – (Understanding Life) on January 1, 2016 and (Life is but a Dream – Or is it?) last year and two more are in the pipeline. Please reflect on these thoughts and see where you and your goals fit in.

1.    Excellence is an expression of self-respect. So is mediocrity. We define ourselves and the world accepts that and treats us accordingly.
2.  Only those excel who revel in the effort. For whom the journey is the destination. Excitement is only in the chase. It ends with the catch.
3.    If you think success is difficult, try failure. Mediocrity ensures that your failure becomes permanent. That drug is called compromise.
4.    Why are there more mediocre people than those who achieve excellence? But who do you want to emulate? Who do you choose as your role model?
5.    Compromise is to attitude what cancer is to the body. The body doesn’t fight but accepts cancer cells until they kill it.

Remember that we all start in the same place – as idealists. But then we allow others (at least most of us do) to dictate what we will do, how we will live, what goals are ‘realistic’, what goals are ‘worth it’ and so on. So the leaping flame of idealism that was in our heart takes a beating and gradually gets reduced and dampened.

When you are idealistic, people will initially oppose you and push back and try to discourage you, not because they don’t like what you are planning to do but because in your eyes they see what they were themselves like one day; until they allowed the rest of the crowd to dampen their idealism. But remember also that the spark of idealism lives as long as we are alive. You can dampen it but you can’t kill it. So when they meet you, their spark starts to get some energy and that scares them. Their initial reaction is to try to put it back in its ‘place’ and dampen it once again because that will justify what they did to themselves all their lives. But if you refuse to internalize their fears and are true to your ideals, you will see that their own sparks will start to grow and will once again become the leaping flames that dispel the fears of darkness and light up the world in ways that neither they nor you thought possible.

The key is to remain true to your ideals no matter what the world tells you. That, to me, is a measure of excellence. That is why I am a shameless idealist and I hope I remain that to the end of my days. For what is a life worth if one is to live it like a sheep?

The Sahaba were idealists. They ignored ‘facts’ because they marched to another tune which they heard in their hearts. They never allowed the world to discourage them. They were focused, they were ‘unreasonable’, they were ‘unrealistic’, they were hugely successful where all logic was against even their survival. That incidentally is the case with all great successes in the world. 

In the words of George Bernard Shaw:
“The reasonable man adapts himself to the world: the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore, all progress depends on the unreasonable man.”

And that is why Alphonse de Lamartine French writer, poet and politician who was instrumental in the foundation of the Second Republic said about Rasoolullahr:
“If greatness of purpose, smallness of means, and astonishing results are the three criteria of a human genius, who could dare compare any great man in history with Muhammad?”

I want to end with a short reminder to myself and you about the importance of commitment to excellence and the danger of slipping into mediocrity. The world is witness that people who never lowered the bar of excellence in the name of expediency, diplomacy or any of the myriad reasons we seem to find today are people who even their enemies look up to as role models.

1.    Excellence takes effort. Few make it. Failure is painful. Nobody likes it. Mediocrity is a narcotic which makes destruction seem acceptable.
2.    Failure is not the opposite of excellence. Mediocrity is. Failure is painful and drives effort. Mediocrity is painless failure. It’s fatal.

At the end of my days, I would rather be remembered as a man who died trying to achieve excellence than someone who accepted mediocrity.