also a place of learning. I was alone. I had a lot of time. I loved reading. I
was used to being alone and to reflecting and liked writing down my thoughts.
All excellent ways to conceptualize life experience.
I love the bush and I loved hunting. So every
alternate weekend Peter Ramsingh and I would go on a long drive into the bush
to hunt what we could. Most of this was for the table because in the Kwakwani
of those days, if you wanted variety on your table you had to find it yourself.
And it was not in the Commissary that you would find it either. Mostly, we
hunted the Canje Pheasant found all along the Berbice and its tributary, the
Canje Creek. Another common game bird was the Powis (Curassow). It was as big
as a turkey and good eating. We would also on occasion get an Agouti (Brazilian
Agouti or Red, Orange or Golden Rumped Agouti) or two. And when we were very
lucky, a small Savannah deer. Bush pig, the Collared Peccary (called Javelina)
was also good game and though we both did not eat it, we had many friends who
welcomed our hunts because we were the only people who would shoot a pig and
then give it away.
Peter inherited my yellow Land Rover when the
sawmill started and I got a small Toyota pickup. Peter and I would take turns
driving the Land Rover over the bush trails. It contained in the back,
everything that we needed for our camping and in case of an emergency. A
chainsaw, thick rope, hammocks, spare petrol, an axe, a spade, the ever present
cutlasses and various odds and ends. We would put in a cooler filled with
drinks and some pre-cooked bananas or cassava and off we would go. What would
have been ideal was a cell phone or radio but the first hadn’t been invented
and the second we didn’t have. So we relied on ourselves. What we shot, we
would cook in the bush and eat. What we saved, we would bring home. Sometimes
in the bush we would come across a deep stream and would have to build a bridge
to get across. Sometimes we would get stuck in the sandy soil and would have to
tie the rope to a tree nearby and use the winch on the Land Rover to haul it
out. In the evening we would find a camping place, tie the hammocks to ever
present trees, all conveniently located so that we could tie our hammocks of
course. Then we would light a fire and put on the tea pot. Once we had a nice
cup of tea, we would put on the cooking pot. Peter, meanwhile, would have
cleaned the game of the day. We would get water from the stream nearby, water
that was coffee colored but perfectly clean and tasteless. The bush meat would
go into the pot with salt and chillies, some onions, and as it cooked we would
sit and talk about life.
The big topic of conversation at the time was the
posturing of Venezuela, which bordered Guyana and had a border dispute. There
was some chance that this would escalate to a military conflict. The Guyana
Army was not in a position to face the much bigger and powerful Venezuelan
army, but nobody would admit that. There was some discussion about whether
Guyana would introduce conscription, so Peter was concerned if he would be
called to join the Army. I was a foreigner and so was in no such ‘danger.’ To
speak the truth though, I would have welcomed the adventure. However, as it
turned out, South Americans are far wiser than their northern cousins and the
matter was resolved peacefully.
Another topic was the government of President
Burnham. This was a dangerous topic to talk about in a dictatorship where even
your thoughts would be monitored if they could be, all in the name of freedom
and democracy of course. But we were far away in the bush and Peter was in the
company of a trusted friend. I was therefore the confidant of many ordinary
people who wanted to vent their frustration with the way the country was being
misgoverned. It was amazing to see how a country so rich in natural resources,
so fertile, and with such wonderful people could be run into the ground so
The bush in South America is different from its
counterpart in India or Africa because of the absence of major predators. The
only big ones are the Jaguar and the Anaconda, but neither will actually attack
a person except in special circumstances. So it is possible to actually sleep
very peacefully as long as you are not on the ground.
An hour or so later, once the food was ready, we
would take the pot off the fire, pull out the bread that we had brought, and
have our dinner. Then after some more discussion of world affairs, we would
climb into our hammocks and drift off into peaceful sleep looking at the
stars—possible only because we were at the river bank where the canopy did not
obstruct the view. Those days seem like a dream today. Almost as if they never
happened. And Guyana is so far away from where I am today that it seems as if I
will never see my friends again. Be that as it may, the memories are alive in
my heart and on these pages; they will live on in the minds of those who read
this. We live in the memories that we give others. So it is important to be
conscious of the memories we leave behind. This doesn’t mean that we live a
life for others. But it does mean that we remember one cardinal fact,
‘Everything we choose to do or choose not to do, reflects brand value and
character and is the stuff of memories.’
Remember when you read these pages that if I have
written about a stream, it is there and the water is good to drink. These are
stories of real life, real people, their hopes and loves and fears. And they
will live on until they are remembered.
Peter got another friend Leon Molenuex to build a
flat bottomed boat for me. It was 18 feet in length with a flat bottom, low
sides and a blunt prow. Its back was flat to fix an outboard motor. It had oar
locks and two oars. And it had an ice box in the middle with bench seats, a
plank each on either side of the ice box, forward and rear. Peter and I, and
sometimes Leon would also come along, would load up the boat every Friday
afternoon that we could get away and go up the Berbice River. What did we take
with us? Hammocks, cutlasses, one single barreled 16 bore shotgun each. Rope,
fishing line, hooks and a fishing net. Some rice, cassava, bananas and salt and
pepper. And most importantly some chicken guts in a plastic bag. The last being
what we called our ‘emergency ration’. Not that we ate them, but if we caught
nothing then if you baited a hook with raw chicken guts and trawled them behind
your boat you were sure to get some Piranha. Good eating.
It was a matter of honor for us that we would only
eat what we could hunt or catch. Since neither Peter nor I ate pork, it took
one of the most common items off our menu – Collared Peccary (Bush Pig) that we
would be sure to see. But we never returned hungry. We would trawl as we moved
along and usually caught some Lukanani (Peacock
cichlid, Cichla ocellaris) or Grey Snapper (Acoupa weakfish, Cynoscion acoupa), two of the delicacies of the Amazonian River system and
would roast them for dinner. If we were fortunate then either Peter or I would
also be able to bag one of the several species of Curassows that lived in those
forests. The most common were the Black Curassow (Crax alector) and the
Crestless Curassow (Mitu tomentosum). Or even an Agouti (Cuniculus
paca, Dasyprocta aguti) which is from the Paca family and a relative
of the rabbit and Capybara but much smaller. Game was in such abundance that
there was never a trip on which we had to go hungry but we would also bring
back fish and game for Peter’s family and the families of other friends.
Almost every other Friday evening, we would start
from Kwakwani going upriver, travelling until it got dark. Then we would find a
sandy spot on the river bank and camp for the night. That sounds a bit chancy
when you read it but we had our spots and knew them well so we just headed for
the first one. A sandy bank was necessary because like all the rivers in this
part of the world, the trees of the rain forest trailed their feet in the river
all along its banks. That made landing very difficult and camping impossible.
So you needed to look for a sandy bank. That happened at the bends in the river
where the river deposited its sand and this collected over the years to make
for some very attractive sandy crescents on which we camped.
Our routine was always the same. We would draw the
boat up on the bank and I would collect wood for a fire. Peter and I would then
sling up our hammocks from the trees that bordered the bank, first clearing the
undergrowth around their trunks to ensure that we didn’t end up with unwanted
sleeping partners. We would trawl as we travelled upriver and so we would have
a couple of good size fish in our ice box. Once the fire was lit, Peter would
put the kettle on and I would gut the fish and clean them. Then I would rub
salt into the fish and prepare it for the bake. Taking two large yam leaves (or
any other large leaf), I would wrap the fish securely in it and tie the whole
bundle with a thread. Then I would dig in the river bank for clay and cover the
fish warp with clay and make a ‘brick’ of clay – one for each fish. Once that
was ready, I would remove the kettle from the fire, move the coals aside and
dig in the sand and bury the clay bricks in the hot sand. I would then put the
coals back on top and light the fire again. By the time our tea was ready so
would the fish. We would then dig out the bricks and crack them open, remove
the leaf covering and we had the most delicious baked fish you can imagine for
dinner. There is nothing to beat fresh fish cooked with a little salt, in its
own juices, with a bit of butter melted on top.
When dinner was done, we would climb into our
hammocks and chat about whatever was at top of the mind until I would hear a
snore in response to whatever I was saying. I would know then that Peter was
off on his trip to dreamland. The rainforest is a safe place as long as you
didn’t do anything stupid like sleeping on the riverbank. As long as you are
off the ground nothing bothers you and I am living proof. There are many
animals which are dangerous in these forests but none that will take a human
being by choice. So as long as you stay out of their normal pathways you will
Lying in the hammock waiting for sleep to come, I
would listen to the sounds of the forest and try to identify each one. The
Amazonian rainforest is a rather silent place in the night, unlike Indian
forests. The animals are less vocal and the forest itself muffles sound thanks
to its density – you don’t hear much except insects. If you are near the river
there are not many mosquitos but you do get vampire bats and so you need to
cover up unless you wish to be bitten by one of them. That doesn’t turn you
into a vampire or anything so romantic, but the wound can bleed for a long time
as there is heparin in the bat’s saliva which prevents blood from clotting. In
addition, I am sure vampire bites are not exactly what any doctor would order
so it is better to stay off their menu.
Early next morning, we would start out at first
light, or sometimes even a bit earlier, going over what looks like boiling hot
water because of the ‘steam’ rising from it. That ‘steam’ is the mist that gets
created when the warm water vapor laden air meets the cold river surface and
gives the whole atmosphere an ethereal quality. Engine buzzing with Peter at
the rudder, we would travel in companionable silence, eyes ever watchful for
floating logs. These were the only real danger because if you hit one full
tilt, it would take the bottom out of the boat. A fate not to be contemplated
as the Berbice has Piranha, Cayman, and other interesting forms of life.
The Berbice is a wonderful river that changes its
nature all along its course. Downriver from Kwakwani it is deep enough for
large vessels to negotiate it. Bauxite ore from Kwakwani would be transported
on barges pushed by a tug boat all the way to New Amsterdam on the coast to the
smelter. These tugs would normally have a tow of four barges; each sixty feet
in length which when fully loaded would sink to their gunnels with the weight.
The tug boat captain’s job was a very complex one, negotiating bends in the
river a hundred and fifty feet ahead through frequent blindingly heavy rain
showers and through the night. Since tug boats and barges are about the
clumsiest of watercraft and with the kind of weight the barges carried, this
was no mean task. It was a tribute to the training and skills of tug boat
captains that there had never been any instance of the barges heading out of
the river, cross country across the rain forest.
Going upriver, however, the nature of the Berbice
changes. It is no longer the deep river but spreads wide and shallow with frequent
sandbars; so shallow in places that one could easily wade across. So much so
that on occasion we would have to pull in the outboard motor and drag the boat
over the sandbank. In this also there was a twist. In this river sand, there
were two kinds of dangers. One that it could be quick sand with so much water
under it that if you stepped into it, you could easily sink in over your head
and die a horrible death. To guard against that we would get out of the boat
only one at a time and hang onto the side of the boat until we were completely
sure of our footing. Only then would be let go of the boat and then the other
person would also get off and we would drag the boat over into water deep
enough to float it.
The second danger was that of Stingrays. These are
fresh water rays with a poisonous sting in the tail. Their favorite pastime is
to lie buried and invisible in the sand of sandbars, just under the surface and
wait for something to come within range and then they would sting by shooting a
poisonous spike into it and then wait until it dies to eat it. Their normal
prey is small fish but if you were to step on or close to one of them, then
they would sting you out of fright. I am sure there are more painful things in
life than a stingray sting—I just I don’t know what they are. And if you happen
to be allergic to the poison then 50 kilometers up the Berbice River in the
middle of the Amazonian rain forest is not where you want to discover this.
Even if you are not allergic, the sting means
several days of fever, swollen lymph nodes, swollen foot and almost
incapacitating pain. So what we would do is to put on our boots before we
stepped into the water. Alternatively, you could use a stick and hold it ahead
of you and push it in the sand ahead of you as you walk to ensure that you
disturb the Stingray and drive it away before you get too close to it.
As we went upriver, we would sometimes pass single
houses on stilts on the bank of the river with a little patch of garden at the
back growing cassava, banana, and a couple of jackfruit trees. The house was
one large room built on a high platform with a leaf or grass thatch. The walls
were of woven mat with holes for windows. There would be a couple of dugout
canoes tied to one of the poles with a rickety step going up to the platform.
Children playing on the step or in the canoes would yell and scream at us with
great excitement and delight. If we had time we would stop by and pass out some
sweets or bananas that we would carry for such occasions. Otherwise we would
wave to them and they would continue to wave and yell until we rounded the next
bend of the river out of sight. I always wondered what would make a person go
and live so far up the river in the middle of nowhere, alone without access to
electricity, medical aid, and schooling for his children, and without any
amenities. These Amerindians would hunt, gather honey and balata (wild rubber
latex) and farm a little and would occasionally come to Kwakwani to buy a few
things and sell their balata and honey and some wild meat. But they would not
work at a regular job for love or money nor would they live closer to town.
They preferred to live miles upriver and paddle their canoes several hours to
get to Kwakwani and longer to return, paddling against the current on their way
It was a wonderful experience, buzzing along up
the river hour after hour, listening to the sounds of the forest. Macaw pairs
flying high over the canopy, talking to each other. Macaws believe that
conversation makes for happy marriages and it seems to work for them as they
pair for life and talk all the time. Toucans screaming whatever they scream
about. The booming call of the Howler Monkey sentinel, answered by his
counterpart in another part of the forest. The sudden crash in the undergrowth
as you come around a bend and scare away something that was drinking at the
edge of the bank. From the sound of the crashing you can guess whether it was a
Collared Peccary or a Tapir. Deer and Agouti move very quietly and you wouldn’t
even know that they had been there.
One weekend we decided to go as far as we could
and eventually we must have gone more than a hundred kilometers when we came to
place where the river widened into a huge pool. We entered the pool from the
side that the river flowed out of. On the opposite side where the river flowed
into was a series of rapids and short waterfalls. The sides of the pool were
sandy and made excellent camping ground. We were delighted with the whole
prospect. It was a very beautiful place indeed. Peter and I decided to camp for
the night and pulled onto the sand and dragged the boat far up onto the sand.
No telling if the river would rise in the night and float the boat away. That
is not a prospect to be contemplated, being a hundred kilometers or more in the
middle of nowhere without a boat. Trekking through rain forest is not an
occupation to be thought of easily.
I got the fire going while Peter hung up our
hammocks. Suddenly, I noticed on the far end of the pool near the rapids, a
permanent structure on a concrete platform, a room roofed with corrugated iron
sheets. It looked like a government structure and I wondered what it could be.
Once we’d had our dinner and before it got dark we decided to go across and
take a look at what it was. When we tied up to the little jetty there, an
Indian Guyanese man came down to the water and greeted us. With him was an
American who looked like some kind of technician by the way he was dressed, in
overalls. We made our mutual introductions and it turned out that the structure
was a weather monitoring station with some equipment from Motorola, which
needed repair. The American engineer was from Motorola and had come to repair
the equipment onsite. In the course of conversation, he asked me where I was
from. I told him that I was from India.
He asked me, ‘Where from in India?’
I replied, ‘Hyderabad.’
He got very excited and told me, ‘I have been to
Hyderabad. I have a friend there. His name is J. J. Singh and he works at the
Administrative Staff College. Do you know him?’
I rolled my eyes and said, ‘Do I know him? Of
course, I know him! But look at this, what is the probability that I would be
in the middle of the Amazonian rain forest, hundred kilometers up the Berbice
River, where I would meet an American who I had no idea would be there and we
would have a mutual friend? If there was someone betting on this we would both
be millionaires, man!!’ And we both had a great laugh. Whenever someone tells
me, ‘It’s a small world’, I tell them, ‘Yes, but much smaller than you think.’ And
I tell them this story. To date, nobody has told me a story more unlikely than
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.
People sometimes look at the misery that surrounds us and ask, ‘Why doesn’t God do something about all the sick and dying and starving people?’ The answer is, ‘God did something already. He created you and gave you the means to feed at least one hungry person, pay for the education of one child, pay the hospital bill of one sick person and so on. If you can’t feed a hundred people, feed one. If you can’t build a school, pay the fee of one child to go to school. It is a common cop-out strategy to blame the external world, in this case God, for all the suffering we see around us. Those who are really serious about wanting to help, don’t blame, but ask themselves, ‘What can I do?’ That is what Islam teaches us. To do something. Not to simply complain. Problems need solutions, not complaints. Compassion is the best basis for a society.
In the life of every man and woman comes a time and a window opens when they have a unique opportunity to make an impact and influence others. To succeed we need to anticipate, prepare and act with courage when it opens
Living life is about making choices- the choice to be a ‘victim’ of circumstances or the choice to do something about circumstances and be their ‘master’. We are free to make this choice – to be a ‘victim’ or to be a ‘master’ – but the choices; each has a different payoff in terms of its consequences. Both stances are subject to the same givens of society, environment, organization etc. But have very different implications in terms of our development and happiness
It is one of the fallacies that people assume: that when we say we have freedom of choice; the choice is free of consequences. This is a myth and like all myths, it is a fantasy and a lie. We have freedom to choose but every choice has a price tag – every choice that we make is the same in this context. Each has a price tag. Foolish people make choices without first ascertaining the price tag and are then surprised, shocked, disappointed and so on, when the time comes to pay for the choice.
To return to our discussion, ‘victims’ are people who complain about adversity, think of excuses, blame others, lose hope and perish. ‘Victims’ can be individuals, groups, communities or nations. The ‘victim stance’ is the same – complain and blame. When ‘victims’ find themselves in difficulties, they look around for scapegoats; for someone to blame. They invent conspiracy theories. They like to live with a ‘siege’ mentality. They try to tell everyone that the only reason they are in the mess that they are in, is because everyone in the world is out to get them. They think that as long as there is someone to blame, they are faultless. They don’t stop to think that no matter who they blame, their problems still exist and that it is they and not whoever they blame, that is suffering.
‘Masters’ on the other hand are people who when faced with difficulty and adversity, first look at themselves to see how and why they came to be in that situation, own their responsibility and then look for solutions to resolve that situation. They have the courage to try new ways and so they win even if they fail. “Masters’ recognize that whatever happens to us is at least in part, if not wholly, a result of the choices that we made, consciously or unconsciously. The result of what we chose to do or chose not to do. Consequently, if we recognize that we created the situation, then it follows logically that we can also create its solution.
The characteristic of ‘Masters’ is that even when they may temporarily be in a ‘Victim’ situation, they quickly ask themselves the key question: ‘Okay so what can I do about this situation?’ This question is the key to taking a ‘Masterful’ stance in life. This is in itself, a tremendously empowering mindset which frees a person from the shackles of self-limiting barriers to his or her development. A ‘master’ never says, ‘I can’t’. She/he says, “I don’t know if I can!” – And in that, is a world of difference. The difference between the shepherd and his sheep.
The key question to ask therefore is, ‘In terms of the challenges that I face today, what do I need to do if I want to be a ‘Master’ and not a ‘Victim’? What is the investment that I need to make in order to succeed? Free fall and flight feel the same in the beginning. But it is the end which spells the difference between life and death. One lands safely. The other crashes and burns. Ignoring the law of aerodynamics does not change the law or its result.
Similarly, in life, in our race to succeed, we may well be tempted to ignore the laws of gain – that gain is directly proportional to contribution. We may be tempted to buy the line that what you can grab is yours to take, no matter the consequences to others. Just as the one in free fall may thumb his nose at the one who is flying, even claiming that he is traveling faster than the flyer – the reality is that his speed is aided by gravity which is rapidly pulling him towards his own destruction. It is not speed therefore which matters. It is the direction of flight and the way it ends.
Compassion, concern for others, a service focus, measuring contribution in the same way that we measure profit, willingness to do what it takes to deliver the best possible quality not because someone is watching but because we consider the quality of our output to be our signature and a reflection of our identity – all these are the real pathways to wealth, influence and prosperity. The critical difference is that prosperity that comes in these ways is sustainable, long lasting and spreads goodness all around.
Prosperity that is sought without regard to those who share the world with us, people, animals, environment; without regard to values, ethics and morals with the sole criterion being the amount of money that can be made is short-lived, has a high cost and spreads misery and suffering, including for the one who was chasing it.
We live in an intensely connected world and the sooner we realize that and start taking care of the connections, the better off we are likely to be. We have seen graphically the results of the alternative – blind pursuit of profit.
‘Growth for the sake of growth is the philosophy of the cancer cell.’ ~ Madhukar Shukla
As I stand here at the tail end of 2018, just a few days before the new year is due to come in, I ask myself how I would like to be remembered. And the answer, hands down is, as a Shameless Idealist.
In your life, if you want to achieve anything worthwhile you must do two things. Firstly, surround yourself with positive people or walk alone. Definitely don’t be around negative people, no matter what you do. The reason for that is because negative people drag you down. I am sure you have had this experience in your life where you are all charged up about doing something positive, about bringing about positive change, about changing yourself, your habits, your goals or initiating change in society and in your enthusiasm, you mention this to your good friend.
His/her immediate reaction is, ‘You can’t do this. It is impossible. It is impractical. There is no way that you can succeed.’
Your heart stops, starts again, you won’t give up, so you must say something, and you do. ‘Why do you say that? I think it is such a good idea. Why won’t it work?’
‘Believe me, take my word for it. I tried this ten years ago and failed. It can’t be done. Try it and learn the hard way if you want. But I am advising you, forget all this. You can’t succeed.’
Does this sound familiar? If you have ever tried to do something worthwhile in your life, I am sure you came across someone like this. If you still succeeded, it was because you did what I am going to tell you to do now. Delete that ‘friend’ from your list. And do it fast. Never, ever tell them any of your plans. As I said, walk alone or find someone who will encourage you.
In 1999, at the turn of the century, the American Society for Training & Development (ASTD) did a survey to see what percentage of training sticks. They went to participants of a wide variety of training courses, three weeks after they had taken that course and asked only one question. ‘What do you recall about what you learnt in that training?’ Now, remember, they didn’t ask about application of the training. They only asked what people remembered. The assumption being that if you don’t even remember what you learnt, what hope of application? The result of the survey showed that only 15% of the people even recalled what they had learnt. That was not because the training was bad, or that people had memory problems. That was because there had been no attempt at putting the learning into practice. What we practice, stays with us. What we simply read or listen to, no matter how enthused we may be with it, is forgotten after a while. One of the major reasons people don’t practice is because their desire is killed in the cradle, by their cynical ‘friends’ who convince them that it is not even worth trying.
The reality of life is that everyone is born with the desire to do something worthwhile in life. Nobody wakes up in the morning and says to himself, ‘Today I am going to be the world’s greatest loser.’ Even if he did that, it would be remarkable because he would not be any ordinary loser; he would be the world’s greatest loser. Everyone wants to make a mark in life, to contribute, to change things for the better. If you don’t believe me, go to a primary school and ask those children what they want to become in life. You will find the greatest collection of pilots, firemen, kings and queens you have ever seen. My most inspiring moments are times that I spend with small children in primary schools. People think the kids gain something. I don’t know about that, but what I do know is that I gain more than all of them put together.
If you don’t have the time to do this, then just recall your first day, first job. What was in your heart? What did you want to do? Did you wake up that morning and say, ‘Ugh! Another Monday! Just let me get through the day.’ Or did you think to yourself, ‘Today I am going to do something that will be exemplary, something that will make a difference in life for me and others.’ I am not saying that you actually said this to yourself in so many words. Not many have that clarity of intention. But it was certainly in your heart, even if not verbalized or even felt clearly. So, I say to you that everyone is born an Idealist.
Then what happens? Life happens. You go to work and your boss tells you, ‘Welcome to this company. We are one big family here. If you need anything, my door is always open. Since you are new here and have a fresh perspective, I am going to ask you for a favor. Please shadow me for a week and give me your feedback about my management style. You are free to interview my direct reports also if you like. But I want you to be totally frank and open.’
You are thrilled. You came to the right place. Your boss is a man after your heart, so open, honest, humble. He is asking you, wet-behind-the-ears-first-jobber for your opinion about his management style. WOW! That is something to write home about. You are on to a great start in this company. You follow the man around. You shadow him. You take notes. You see things and hear things, many of which you wish you didn’t. But you persevere. You talk to others. You listen. Eventually the week is over, and you write your report which in one line reads, ‘Dear Boss, your management style stinks.’ Granted you didn’t actually write that. You are not that stupid. But in effect, that is what you said, because that was the truth and your boss had told you to be truthful, frank and open. You are an Idealist, remember?
Your boss takes one look at the report and while throwing it into the waste paper bin, says, ‘Thanks for the report. You have a lot to learn. I can see that. You can go.’
You are shocked, horrified. Your idol has feet of clay and they stink. But then as you walk down the passage, trying to ignore the glances of those ‘in the know’, you tell yourself, ‘Well, the report probably slipped out of his hand and fell into the bin. He didn’t mean to throw it in. After all, there is gravity. Maybe the poor guy had a bad night. We all do.’ You take a few deep breaths, grab a mug of coffee and carry on. But to your great surprise it doesn’t end there. There are other such incidents. Not only with your boss, but with others. Your Idealism is taking some hard knocks. ‘What on earth is going on?’ You ask yourself. Life is going on. That is what is going on. Your Idealism is strong, but the problem seems to be that the stronger it is, the more you get knocked. But you are still an Optimist and continue to look at the positive side of everything and refuse to believe the evidence of your experience.
But life is relentless. Things keep happening. People dump on you, they don’t keep their word, they make promises and break them, they claim to espouse certain values but do the opposite. They insist on being what they are, i.e. people. It is at about this time that you start becoming what we call a Realist. You are still enthusiastic but now more cautious. Nothing wrong with being cautious, you tell yourself. Especially on cold nights when the bruises hurt. But life is relentless. Things keep happening.
It is at about this time that you acquire a ‘wise’ friend. Someone who has seen life, has grey hair, maybe even a beard and wears glasses. He takes you to the cafeteria, gets you a mug of coffee and asks you, ‘Tell me, what are you trying to do?’
You look at him and don’t know how to say, ‘I am trying to change the world, because it needs changing.’
He says, ‘Look, we were all Idealistic when we were wet-behind-the-ears. But then we grew up. So, don’t feel bad, but you need to grow up. You need to get real. All this ‘always speak the truth; always stand up for the weak; integrity is the foundation’ stuff, sounds nice. But this is India, see?’
You don’t see. You don’t see what difference that makes to anything. How is integrity, truthfulness, compassion, fairness and moral courage any different in India or the US or Australia? These are universal values and good for all people, everywhere.
‘No, they’re not’, says your friend, the Cynic. ‘But Yawar says it differently’, you insist.
‘He has to. He can’t help it. What do you expect him to say? Will he tell you to lie and cheat? But let me tell you, he knows the reality just like I do. He says all this because that is his job as a leadership trainer. They all talk like this. Forget him. It is not his life. It is yours. Wake up or you will get knocked down again.’
Cynics are popular because they make sarcastic, cynical comments. But have you ever seen a monument to a cynic? Plenty to Idealists. But not one to a cynic. Ask why?
Now is your decision point. If you stay long enough in his company, you will become a Pessimist and then a Cynic and eventually both of you will come to the bottom of the pile and become Indifferent. You will stop caring. You will stop getting angry, passionate. You will stop shedding tears. You will pass by as if nothing happened.
But remember one thing and remember it well. The flame of Idealism in your heart which was alive and bright, will still be there. It will keep pricking you from time to time and will tell you that the stories you are telling yourself are the lie. Idealism is the flame that our hearts come with when we are born. All of us. And no matter what we do to try to extinguish it, it will continue to burn as long as we live. We can dampen it, but we can’t put it out. The flame will finally die when we die. Not before.
So, why do people fight you when you are Idealistic? Why do they try to tell you that you are wrong and try to take you off your Idealistic stand?
It is because when they look into your eyes, they see themselves as they were, one day, a long time ago. That frightens them, because in the reflection they see what they did to themselves along the way. Now when you come into their lives and they see you taking an Idealistic stance, they have two choices. Either they kill your Idealism and drag you down to their own level. Then they will be able to live comfortably with themselves for a few days longer. Or they must face what they did to themselves and undo it. The second choice is very difficult and painful, and most won’t choose that, at least initially. But if you remain Idealistic, if you don’t allow your flame to be dampened, then you will find that you will start to light their flames again. And gradually you will find people standing with you, following you, and if you are lucky, going ahead of you. The only condition is that you don’t give up.
I am a shameless Idealist. Have been all my life. And I will die a shameless Idealist. That is because in my mind, if I am not going to do what needs to be done to bring relief, hope, joy and courage to people who need it, then what is the point of living?
It doesn’t matter what others do. They are not my teachers. What matters to me is what I do. For it is not about them. It is about me.
If you think that you are too small to make a difference, too weak to stand up for what is right, too isolated, have no friends and supporters and so are sure to fail, then look at the life of Muhammadﷺ.
About him and his life, the French philosopher, poet and historian, Alphonse de Lamartine said, “If the grandeur of the aim, the smallness of the means, the immensity of the results are the three measures of a man’s genius, who would dare humanly compare a great man of modern history with Muhammad?”
(Extract from Alphonse de Lamartine’s Histoire de la Turquie Paris, 1854, vol. II, pp. 276-277)
When Muhammadﷺ first stood on the hill of Safa and called out to his people with his message of justice, compassion, equality and human dignity, the instant reaction was opposition, anger, hatred and aggression. In one instant he lost all his friends and supporters. He went from being the most beloved to the most hated. If an analyst were to be asked, looking at him standing alone on the hill, what odds he would give to this message being accepted not only by his people present there at the time, but by people still to come in lands yet untouched by it; I am sure the analyst would say that zero was a big number. His chances would be maybe minus ten thousand. But as they say, the rest is history. Fourteen centuries later, today one and a half billion people respond to his message and believe in him.
That will give you the courage to stand up for what you believe in, ignore all analysts and predictions and do what needs to be done, to make this world a better place.
In today’s world, one of the things that I am most conscious about is the need to connect with the land. In my case, that means forests. Urban living has ripped out the connection we all had with the earth and left us with a lifestyle which is deceptive and artificial. Millennials are addicted to tech gadgets, not to the sound of birdsong early in the morning. Many have never smelled the first rain on parched earth, a perfume which the Attars (perfume makers) of old captured in an Atar (perfume) called Atar-e-Gil or Mitti Atar. Many don’t know the feel of good loamy soil in their hands or the pleasure of planting a tree and then watching it take root, grow and flower, over the weeks. For many eggs come from the grocery store, not from chickens with a personality and clear likes and dislikes of places and people, which they don’t hesitate to make known. I can go on but this will suffice. I believe it is critically important for us to change that and get people to smell the earth, listen to the forest and feel a sense of companionship with those who inhabit the earth with us. As we are headed into global warming and environmental destruction, I can’t help but feel that this is because most of us don’t even know what we are losing or what an unspoiled environment looks and feels like. What we don’t understand, we fear and what we fear, we destroy.
All through my childhood and youth, 1960’s & 70’s, I spent as much time in the forests as I could which enabled me to indulge my deep and abiding interest in wildlife and ecology. I had three of the best teachers that one could hope for to learn jungle craft from. People who loved the forests, had a wealth of knowledge about them and had the patience and affection to convey it to a young boy. They were Capt. Nadir Tyabji, Nawab Nazir Yar Jung and my dear Uncle Rama (Venkat Rama Reddy). All were more than twenty years my senior but that has always been my situation, friends who are older and wiser from whom I learn all the time. I owe them a debt of gratitude and remember them with boundless respect and love. They invested countless hours in me for no material return and taught me lessons which fall into place to this day, fifty years later. It is a very rare privilege to have mentors like them and I am forever grateful.
From Nadir uncle I learnt to observe quietly without disturbing what I was looking at. I learnt from him the amazing variety of living beings that live in harmony with one another in a small little pond. I learnt a lot about birds, their nesting habits, their camouflage techniques and that the term, ‘free as a bird’ is a figment of the imagination. Birds are often so tied down to their environment, often a single species of tree, that if that tree dies, so does the bird. Out of this, I learnt to appreciate not one or two selected creatures but the whole spectrum of trees, insects, birds, reptiles and mammals that make up our environment. This was at a time when to get to the nearest pond with some undisturbed rocks and bush around it, took all of ten minutes walking.
I was able to appreciate the importance of not upsetting this balance and what happens when in our endless greed we thoughtlessly destroy our environment. I saw that pond, the rocks and scrub forest around it, listened to the cooing of doves in the trees, saw the jacana with her chicks skipping on the lily pads. I saw the mongoose come out of her den in the rocks and look at me, unafraid because she had seen me so often and knew that I posed no threat to her babies. I heard the cawing of crows and the endless chatter of sparrows. I saw the hoopoe swoop down from the sky onto a patch of grass and dig for worms with his sharp beak, raising his crown from time to time, to remind the world of who he is. Some years later when I returned to Hyderabad, I tried to visit that pond. I say tried to visit because to be able to visit, the object of your visit needs to be there. It wasn’t. The rocks had been blasted to make concrete. The pond had been filled in, the trees cut, the grass ground underfoot into dust. The mongoose, the jacana, the doves and hoopoe, even the crows and sparrows, all gone, never to return. What I saw was a tar road, a concrete high-rise building with climate control (meaning, no windows) and the whir of traffic. Was that the worst of it or was it that there was nobody to mourn their passing?
From Nawab Nazir Yar Jung (we called him Nawabsab) I learnt the basics of self defense, shooting, training dogs and horses and jungle craft. He taught me how to train dogs for tracking, retrieving and guarding. I was learning from a man who had an international standing in his art and I was very conscious of it. What I was also learning in the process of training dogs and horses, which I was not conscious of then, was about myself, my strengths, weaknesses, fears, hopes and emotions. Dogs react to facial expressions and unconscious movements and mannerisms and their performance depends on the clarity with which a command is given. To the man, it may appear that the command is the word alone. But to the dog it is a combination of sound, expression and the slightest movement all together as one. So, if you are not conscious of yourself, then your dog will always be confused because your command comes across to him differently each time. Today, when I teach presentation skills or facilitate meetings I recall these lessons in self-awareness and the power of synchronizing yourself in thought, word and action. Dogs taught me how to deal with people.
Uncle Rama taught me more than I can possibly list here. He taught me the meaning of responsibility and accountability. He taught me to take care of myself in a hostile environment. He taught me to be at peace with the forest, to connect with the stars and to respect the animals we occasionally shot for the table. Hunting was not a sport. It was something you did only for necessity and with a sense of deep thankfulness for the fact that the animal gave its life for you. Hunting was a contest between man with his weak senses and a good rifle and the animal with his speed of response, his highly tuned senses, his intuition and his enormous knowledge of his environment. It was not only an equal contest but was usually in favor of the animal. That is when you played fair. This means that you tracked the animal on foot, in daylight. Not when you used a high-powered searchlight to blind it in the night and then did target practice. That I was taught, is the most despicable, dishonorable and shameless thing that you could do. And so, I never did it.
All these were ostensibly lessons in anything but work. But in reality, they were lessons in character building, life skills, influencing, social dynamics, self-awareness and understanding which have stood me in very good stead all through my life and which are the backbone of my profession of leadership training.
I became very skilled in jungle craft and could stalk game in silence over long distances. I could camouflage myself and stay hidden and unobserved and walk a trail and tell the signs of creatures that had walked that path ahead of me. The more I knew about an animal the more likely I was to be able to track it down and shoot it. So, I studied, talked to people who were knowledgeable, and observed. My observation became very good and so did my ability to listen to and analyze sounds. In the Indian forests, home to large and potentially dangerous mammals, this knowledge can often mean the difference between life and death. As I learned more about forests, I enjoyed my time in the forests even more and looked forward to the holidays when I would get on a bus and travel to Nirmal, change buses for Khanapur and Pembi and then walk the last four kilometers to Sethpalli.
Uncle Rama was like a father to me and he would give me a royal welcome. He used to call me Nawab and treated me like a king. That I was a fifteen-year-old schoolboy meant nothing to him. To him I was his friend, who he treated as an equal. As soon as I arrived, covered in dust, I would go off to the well at the edge of the Tamarind trees, which shaded the house on the riverbank. There I would stand in my underwear and one of the farm workers (usually Shivaiyya, my Gond tracker friend) would draw water in a bucket from the well and pour it over my head. Lots of soap, more water flooded over my head, and I would be clean as two whistles. Dressed in a lungi and banyan, I would sit on the charpoy opposite Uncle Rama under one of the Tamarind trees and he would tell me all that had happened since my last visit. While this was going on, his cook would bring a huge bowl of fried Chital meat and I would eat and listen to him. I had a vast capacity for eating meat and tender Chital was my absolute favorite. Uncle Rama knew that I was Muslim and would not eat anything not slaughtered in the Islamic way. So, he used to take one of his Muslim workers, Noorullah, with him when he went hunting. Once the animal was down, Noorullah would go and slaughter it by cutting the throat and saying: Bismillahi Allahu Akbar. Such was the consideration we were taught to observe for one another.
I loved jungles. I loved hunting and I loved Uncle Rama above all else. So, every holiday I would go off to Sethpalli. Sometimes Uncle Rama would be in town (Hyderabad) at the time my holidays were about to begin. He would call and say, “Kya Nawab, chalna hai?” And off we went. He had a BSA motorcycle (350 cc). He would ride with a .12 bore shotgun slung across his chest and a bandolier of cartridges and I would ride behind him with a .22 bore rifle slung across my back.
How can I describe the excitement as I rode behind Uncle Rama with the wind in my face? Those were the days before helmets were invented; before there were any Naxalites in those forests and before it became illegal to hunt. So off we would go from Hyderabad to Sethpalli, via Nirmal and Khanapur. All names that conjure up wonderful memories of a childhood that today no child can even dream of. This is the price we have paid for what we like to call ‘development’.
As we went along, Uncle Rama would stop by a road side water tank. These tanks were an integral part of the irrigation network of Telangana, which does not see too much rain. Every village had its tank. When maintained, they harvested rain water, enhanced the water table in the village and provided water to irrigate the fields so that in most years people were able to harvest two crops. The tanks had fish and attracted water birds, both of which added to the villager’s diet. And they were very beautiful. Today they have been allowed to silt up. The dams are ruined. The entire irrigation system has been allowed to collapse with nothing else to replace it. Some of them have been encroached upon and people have built houses and shops on the tank bed, which is illegal of course. Alas, when the grease hits the palm in India, anything is possible. The result is drought, uncultivated lands and in years when the monsoon fails, starvation, and farmer suicides.
Uncle Rama would park his motorcycle by the roadside and we would get off, un-sling the guns and sneak up the embankment of the nearby water tank. There, sure enough, we would find, Brahminy, Pollard, Comb (Nakta) ducks, or Teals. All floating in the reeds and feeding in the shallows. Uncle Rama was a master tracker and I learnt from him. We would crawl along the bank, just below the top, careful not to show a silhouette and when we were in range, I would fire first and he would take the flying shots as the ducks rose in flight. Usually, we would get our dinner before we reached home. We would arrive at the farm with the motorcycle festooned with ducks on either side.
The villagers also hunt ducks. The difference is they do it without firearms. In this part of the world, they don’t even have any bows and arrows, catapults, or any other throwing weapons. What they do is to take a round pot with a mouth big enough for the head of the hunter to go through and make two holes in it to see through. They then seal the holes and the mouth of the pot and float it among the reeds where ducks take shelter in the night. After a couple of days, the ducks get used to seeing the pot in their midst. Then on a moonless night, the hunter creeps up quietly, enters the water and inserts his head into the pot, making sure that his body is completely submerged. He looks through the holes in the pot and breathes the air trapped in the pot. To the ducks, it is still the same pot floating among the reeds. Then the hunter very quietly and gently approaches a duck and grabs its legs under the water, yanking it down below the surface. Done expertly, the duck simply disappears without trace. The man transfers the duck to his other hand and then approaches the next duck to yank it to its watery end. The only thing limiting him is the number of duck legs he can hold in one hand. On a good day, getting five or six ducks is not difficult. Some hunters wear a belt to which they attach all underwater ducks which considerably increases their game bag. These ducks were a valuable addition of protein in their diet as well as a means of earning some money. Human ingenuity is truly the best resource we have.
Khanapur was the first watering hole. The first serious one that is. We would stop for tea at one of the many road-side Dhabas and Uncle Rama would have fun talking to the owner in fluent Telugu only to see the look of total surprise on his face. Uncle Rama, due to his English mother, was himself white with blond hair. So, people naturally took him to be British. And when he spoke colloquial Telugu and Urdu fluently, they were shocked.
In Khanapur we would stop at his house which he never actually finished building. He’d started it in the hope that his family would live there with him. But his wife, a wonderful, cultured lady did not fancy the village life, so he never finished the house. It was still livable though and we would stop there for lunch. After lunch he would pull out a big bottle with a viscous liquid that looked like old engine oil. What it contained was the most delicious honey that I have ever eaten. Fifty years later that statement still holds true. It was so black and viscous because it was so old and high in sugar content that it was practically solid. This honey with butter was the dessert…blissssssssssssssssssss, which was followed by two hours of sound sleep. The idea was to wait for the heat of the afternoon to lessen before travelling. In summer the temperatures there would be in the high forties (north of 115 F), even though we were in the middle of the forest. To travel in that heat (especially on a motorcycle) was a good way to get sunstroke. All life comes to a standstill at midday and then people start to move again once the sun is on its way to rising in America.
In the evening, after a cup of tea we would leave for Sethpalli, our final destination, sometimes in the Jeep that Uncle Rama used to cache in Khanapur, or on the motorbike. This drive was the most exciting part of the whole trip as the road went through thick forests. Much of it teak plantations. Some original forest. A lot of bamboo thickets and Ber bushes; favorite haunts of wildlife ranging from Jungle Fowl who eat the berries and seed, to Gaur which graze on tender bamboo shoots to tigers who like to lie up in the shade of the bamboo which is not deciduous and remains green in the summer. A good place to look for tigers is bamboo bordering any small creek or even a dry stream bed (Nalla). Tigers love to lie in the relatively cool sand or in the water all through the heat of the day, shaded from the sun and prying eyes by the thick bamboo fronds.
The semi-deciduous forests of the Satpura Range are relatively open without much undergrowth. One of the reasons for this is also the annual burning that happens even though it is illegal. Shepherds and others set fire to the undergrowth and this burns off all the dry leaves on the forest floor causing minor damage to the large trees. That leaves the place open for the growth of new grass and shrubs. Deer and Gaur love this new growth as also the ash from the burnt logs which they come to eat. The ash is also excellent manure for the new growth and it grows lush and thick. As we drove through the evening, rapidly turning to night, we would often see herds of Chital, Nilgai, the occasional Sambar (they usually start moving much later after moonset) and Gaur lying or feeding in the open forest glades. Most were so used to the sound of traffic that as long as the vehicle was moving, they would simply look up to see what it was and then continue on with whatever they were doing. But if the vehicle stopped, they would immediately be alarmed and start to move away.
Uncle Rama used these trips to teach me from his vast knowledge of jungle lore. I learnt to distinguish between a male and female animal. To recognize one that was pregnant or nursing. To recognize their different moods and what the calls meant. Some raised in alarm, the belling of a Sambar; the barking of the Cheetal, hooting of the Langur sentinel who sees the danger before anyone else and on whose vigilance, they all depend. I learnt the meaning of a deer staring in concentration at one thicket and then stamping his fore hoof a couple of times before barking alarm. By listening to the belling of a Sambar in the night, I learnt to tell which direction he was looking in and how far he was from me. In forests that had many tigers and leopards, this was a very useful skill indeed.
So many things to learn. I learnt. I learnt. I learnt. And I loved every minute of it.
The big challenge we have today is to teach our children these lessons and help them to connect to the earth, to its inhabitants and to each other. We are living beings, not binary code. The earth is not at our mercy but waits and watches to see what we do. Then it will do what it has done in the past, to protect what is beneficial and to heal itself by ridding itself of that which is harmful. Our call to define ourselves.