One of the areas of my responsibility was the
Commissary. This was the company owned department store from where you got your
weekly supply of food and practically everything else you needed. It had a
small frozen foods section, rough wooden shelves with rice, flour, lentils and
other groceries stacked on them, farming tools, alcohol and beverages, tea,
sugar, condiments and flavors, seeds, and fertilizer for the vegetable gardens
that most people had. There was a small display of regular shirts, pants, and
Dishikis. Basic needs for everyday life in the mining town. Since this was the
only store in town, it did good business. All the stuff came across the Berbice
River by the bus or up the river by barge. The object of the Commissary was not
to make profit and some things were even subsidized by the company. It was more
a social obligation as well as a necessity if you wanted to run a mining town
in the middle of the rain forest.
One day, thanks to one of the periodic economic crises
that we used to go through, there was no rice in the store for several weeks.
Things got pretty bad as rice is a staple of the Guyanese people. Kwakwani
being a mining town in the forest had the advantage that most people had
vegetable gardens where they grew cassava, bananas and tapioca, so nobody was starving
but tempers were high. Their anger was
really against the government of President Forbes Burnham, who was Head of the
PNC (People’s National Congress), but in a communist (called socialist, but
really communist) dictatorship the first thing you learn is to keep your mouth
shut about the Party and the President. But anger must be vented. So, the most
convenient target was the Company and its Management; though everyone was fully
aware that the Company was as helpless as they were individually both in
creating the financial crisis as well as in resolving it. Actually, come to
think of it, a shortage of rice in Guyana was like a shortage of coal in New
Castle. It was more a matter of distribution than of production. The two major
agricultural exports of Guyana were rice and sugar and so not having rice in
the country was ridiculous. But that is exactly what happened on this occasion.
So, people were very angry.
Then one day, rice came. The store keeper,
Griffith, unloaded it and packed it into 2 kilo bags, stacked them on the
shelves and was ready to open the store. A crowd had collected in front of the
store and like most such situations, a combination of old resentment, misplaced
anger, and short tempers, things started to get a little hairy. Griffith phoned
the Office and I took his call. He said, “Yawar, things are bad here. Looks
like there will be a riot and they will break into the store and loot it. They
are calling for Nick. Is he there?” Nick had gone to Linden that day for a
meeting and hadn’t returned. So, I said, “Nick is not here, but I will be with
you in five minutes.” Griffith sounded very doubtful. He said, “Man!! These
guys are sounding nasty. I ain’t know if you can handle it.” Now say that kind
of thing to a 24-year-old with red blood in his veins and what do you get?? Off
I went to the store. The store was about a kilometer down the hill from
the Admin. Office and so I was there in less than the five minutes that I
The store was built on a concrete plinth platform
with steps on either side which you had to climb up to get to the door. I
parked my Land Rover to one side and walked up to the crowd. They let me through,
and I climbed up the stairs and stood on the platform and what do I see? A huge
crowd of men and some women, all shouting and cursing (and boy, could those
Kwakwani people curse!!) …. many men with guns slung on their shoulders and
cutlasses in their hands. Now these guns and cutlasses really meant no harm in
themselves as that was the way the men went to their farms in the jungle. As it
was evening, they were all headed there and had stopped by the store. But the
mood was ugly, and the guns and cutlasses were there.
I raised my hand and the noise died down. I said,
“The rice is here. We are sorry for the shortage, but you know this is not in
our hands. But it is here now. Please form a line and come and get it in an
orderly manner.” There was a moment’s silence as I said this. Then the shouting
started again. “Ya rass coolie man wanna come and tell a’we Guyanese how to
live?? Who the rass is you to tell a’we anytin?” I realized that this was not the normal
Kwakwani Guyanese I was listening to. Somebody had started this ‘we versus the
foreigner’ thing and it was catching on. This was the beast of the mob, which
has a mind of its own. At times like this, I believe that if you face the
situation with courage you are taught what to say. Later you can analyze it and
wonder why you said what you did. But at that time, it is spontaneous and
right. I let them shout for a few seconds and then yelled at them, “You wanna
come and loot this store, you gotta kill me first.”
My worry was never about my life but that I would
fail in my task. I could not believe that Kwakwani people would harm me; that
is the normal Kwakwani person. But this was a mob. It was entirely likely that
they would call my bluff and I would die. They would regret it later, but I
would be dead. All it needed was for someone to fire from the crowd or throw a
cutlass and the deed would be done. Mobs give their members the immunity of
invisibility and people can do strange things in such circumstances. The
situation was definitely getting out of my control and I was wondering what to
do, when suddenly Morris Mitchell (Chinee, the truck driver who I had mentioned
earlier) jumped up onto the platform. He was also on the way to his farm, so he
was wearing a much-used shirt, jeans, his cap backwards on his head, cutlass in
his hand. Chinee was a big man. He was well over six feet tall and weighed more
than 200 pounds, all muscle. His wrists were a foot wide (or at least they
looked like they were) and his hands were like shovels. I remember one day he
was sitting in my office and lazily squeezed a tack (nail) into a piece of hard
green-heart wood that I used to keep as a paper weight. Squeezed it into the
wood. Not hammered—squeezed. Get it??
Well, he jumped up onto the platform and in a
voice that was used to being heard over the roar of truck and bulldozer engines
shouted, “A’yo raas lisen and lisen good. You wanna kill dis baay? You gotta
kill me fus. And a’yo raas know, I ain’t gonna die alone. So, who ready??” As
in any mob situation, there is a critical incident that changes the mood. This
was the one here. Suddenly someone started laughing and said, “Man Chinee.
Yawar a’we baay man!! Nobody ain’t gonna do nothn to he! A’we just mad at the
company man!! Anyway, the rice dey ere an so leh we go’n get it. Stand in a
line folks. We ain’t ga all night!!” And that was that. All that camaraderie apart,
the reality is that if Morris Mitchel had not stood by my side, there is no
saying what would have happened. Seeing him with a cutlass in his hand had a
sobering effect and broke the mood of the mob and people came to their senses.
As I say, Guyana is beloved to me because of its people. Amazing people who
would cheerfully put their own lives on the line for a friend.
The incident did not end there for me. When Nick
got back, instead of a pat on the back, I got my ear burned off for being a
hero. Nick was angry at me for putting my life in danger for no good reason. He
wouldn’t believe that the Kwakwani people wouldn’t have harmed me. He said he
knew mobs and that they had a life and will of their own. People did things in
the mob frenzy which they may well regret later, but the damage would be done.
He was angry, but said he respected my courage and standing on principle and
that he would personally ‘fry my butt’ if I ever did such a thing again. It was
said with so much love and concern for me that I only grew to respect and love
the man even more. He said to me, “Your father told me to look after you
when he left you here and I gave him my word. If you had died today what would
I tell Dr. Baig? Never do this kind of thing again. You hear me?” “Yessah! I
hear you.” I heard you that day and I hear you every time I think of you. I
hear your words, I hear the tone, I hear the love, the responsibility, and the
honor. I hear it and I bless you and thank AllahY that He
gave me you as my first boss so that I could learn from you how to be a man.
And He is witness that you taught me very well. Nick was a father to me in a
strange land where I was alone, and I loved him like my own father.
That is one of the many lessons that I owe to Nick. Another was in
hospitality and consideration. The first time it happened I was astonished.
Then it became a regular feature. One weekend Nick called me and asked me to go
over to his place. When I walked over, I saw that he had a pen full of live
chickens (about 10-12 in all) and a knife. He said to me, “Ya-waar, can you
please slaughter these in your way? I will put them in the freezer so that we
are sure we give you these when you come over to our place to eat.” What do you
say to such a man?
To return to our story, these were the days of President Linden Forbes Sampson Burnham’s presidency. The PNC (People’s National Congress) was supreme. Race was the underlying thread in any conversation. I was not counted because I was a foreigner. But when I was among strangers, who took me to be Guyanese thanks to my fluency in Creolese, I could sense the tension. There was a lady in Kwakwani Mines Office called Patsy. Patsy was the secretary of the Mines Manager (the Big Boss), George Shultz as well as the District Coordinator of the ‘Party’. So, she was a big noise. Patsy was several years older than I was and didn’t like me one bit and tried initially to make trouble for me by embarrassing me. One day she called out to me in a loud voice, ‘Comrade Baig, do you know the meaning of screw?’ There was an immediate hush and an expectant silence. All the typist girls in the room looked up waiting to laugh their heads off expecting me to beat a hasty embarrassed retreat. But to their surprise and Patsy’s consternation, I turned around and said, ‘Patsy, you want me to tell you or you want me to show you?’ The office collapsed into shrieking laughter. You must see a West Indian African laugh to know the meaning of laughing. The whole body laughs, not just the mouth. And the person literally throws himself around the room, shrieking in delight. It got so loud that George Shultz came out of his office to see what was going on and on being informed, he joined in, much to Patsy’s disgust. But she learned her lesson and that was the last time she tried that trick with me. However, that was not the last of her attempts to make my life difficult.
Patsy would take time off on the pretext of ‘party
work’ and disappear, leaving her work with others who resented this, but did
not have the courage to tackle her. One day she did her usual disappearing act
and then ended up in the Kwakwani Club having a drink during working hours. I
was passing by and saw her and suspended her pending investigation. Patsy, as I
mentioned, was the PNC District Coordinator and behaved as if she was the
country’s President. Since she was in real life a secretary and that too in my
office, I tried very hard to convince her that she had to at least pretend to
work. But to no avail. So finally, I issued her a warning letter. That was like
stepping on the tail of a mamba. Given her political powers, this was a slap in
the face that she was not going to take lying down.
Next morning Nick called me to his office.
He had a grave look on his face. He asked me, ‘What happened between you and
Patsy?’ I told him about the drinking incident and the following suspension
pending investigation, which was according to the rule book. Nick was aware of
Patsy’s doings himself but told me that the Minister of Mines had called him
and asked him to enquire. I explained what I had done and Nick being a man with
moral courage, supported me. He called the Minister and explained what had
happened and why. I am amazed today, having seen a great deal of the world,
how, given the political situation in Guyana of those days, Nick could have
stood up for me. He taught me a lesson of standing up for your subordinates
when they are right, and I will remember all my life. This is Nick for you. A
man that I admire, respect, and love with all my heart.
The matter did not end with that because the lady
in question would not let it rest. She demanded that I withdraw the suspension
– I refused. So once again the Minister called Nick and said that he wanted to
meet me. Nick said to me, ‘I just had a call from the Minister of Mines, Cd.
Hamilton Green. Comrade Green wants to see you.’ I asked, ‘When?’ Nick said,
‘Now. So, get ready and go. Patsy has complained to him about you. I will
support you in this so don’t worry but you must satisfy the Minister. Otherwise
things can get difficult (he meant that I could summarily be sacked and sent
back to India).’ But there was no escape as I was also not willing to back
down from my stance, which I was completely convinced, was right. It was also a
matter of asserting my authority without which my life would not have been
I arrived in Georgetown late in the afternoon
after a 4-hour drive. I entered the ante-room where Cd. Green’s secretary sat.
I introduced myself but it appeared that I was famous. They all knew me. I was
not sure if I should be happy or alarmed about this. She told me, ‘Show your
face through that window and he will open the door.’ The window was a little
sliding shutter. I moved it aside and looked in as instructed. I saw a huge
mahogany desk with an African gentleman sitting behind it, manicuring his
nails. All the tools for this high precision job were laid out before him. He
saw me peering through the glass and reached under the table top and pressed a
button which released the lock so that I could go in. The door clicked shut
behind me and there I was in the presence of the Honorable Minister of Mines,
Cd. Hamilton Green himself.
I realized that the whole office was furnished and
arranged to intimidate and put the other at a disadvantage. Cd. Green’s
manicuring was the strangest thing that I had ever seen and to this day I can’t
think of why he did it. I remained standing. He looked me up and down and then
gestured for me to sit. I took a chair a couple of seats away from him and
waited for the crucial interview to begin.
‘So, Mr. Baig, you are from India?’
‘What do you think of Mrs. Gandhi?’
‘I think she is a good leader Sir. She is good for
‘But some people don’t seem to like her, no?’
‘Isn’t that the case with most strong leaders
‘Yes, that is true.’
Then he came to the point of the interview. “So,
what’s the issue with our friend Comrade Daniels in Kwakwani?”
“Sir”, I said, “to put it politely, her attitude
at work is an embarrassment to the Party that she represents. She does not
work, plays politics, throws her weight around, and generally behaves as if she
owns the place. I believe this is not the impression that the PNC wants to
create among the people. I tried every way I could to convince her to be a good
example that would be worthy of someone who is the District Coordinator, but
she will not listen. So eventually, I had no alternative but to suspend her. I
tried to advise her, but she is a strong woman.’
‘Strong woman, eh!’ He laughed. ‘Like Mrs. Gandhi
maybe! So how do you like Guyana (Giyaana – is how he and most Guyanese
‘I like it very much Sir.’
‘You don’t miss your country?’
‘Everyone misses his country Sir. But Guyana and
Guyanese have been so good to me that it feels like home. I have friends here
who are like my own family. So, I don’t miss my country too much.’
‘Good of you to come Mr. Baig. It was nice to meet
All the while Mr. Green continued to manicure his
nails; filing, pushing back the cuticles and occasionally clipping an
uncooperative piece. Strange way of conducting a meeting, I thought to myself.
But such are the ways of the high and mighty. To give him his due, however, he
was a fair man and gave me a chance to explain myself and then accepted the
explanation when it made sense. I’m not sure how many people in his position in
other countries would have been equally patient and understanding with a
twenty-four year old foreigner who had taken a stance against one of their own
I thanked him, walked the length of the table, the
door buzzed as I came to it and opened, and I walked out. The secretary smiled
at me and I left, returning to Kwakwani close to midnight and the matter was
closed. The letter stuck and was not withdrawn and the lady in question toed
the line. The Minister it seems told her where to get off. In the process, I
acquired a huge amount of ‘respect’ because I had managed to make the reprimand
stick by convincing none other than the Minister himself and because there were
a lot of other poor sufferers who were delighted that the lady got what was
coming to her. They did not have the power to do anything about it but were all
silently rooting for me. There was an important lesson for me to take away; if
you win, you will find that you have a lot of supporters. If I had been
reprimanded by the Minister and ordered to withdraw the letter, then I don’t
know how many of my supporters would have stood on the same side of the street
when they saw me coming. Winners have many fathers and losers none.
Two other lessons from this incident; the
importance of building a good case and the importance of putting it in a way
that makes sense to the listener from his perspective. ‘What’s in it for me?’
is a tune that everyone listens to. It’s about speaking the truth but doing it
in a way that makes sense to the listener in ways that are important to him.
Nick, needless to say, was delighted.
Next morning when I went to see Nick he was
smiling and said, ‘Whatever you said to Hamilton Green, Patsy seems to have got
an earful from him and I don’t think you are going to have any problems with
her again.’ And that is indeed what happened. Mr. Green was a just man and
understood what I told him and acted upon it immediately.
My friend asked me a question; Where are the statesmen? Where have they all gone? For the sake of some clarity, I defined statesmen as people who were highly respected for their integrity, were highly ethical and moral and showed long-term vision for their people and countries and spent their lives in helping their people achieve that vision and not in amassing personal wealth. When I did my back-of-the-envelope analysis to see when this lifeform existed, I came to the period 1800’s-2000’s; a period of roughly 200 years. To give this a more appreciable face, take Abraham Lincoln at the beginning of this period and Nelson Mandela as the last statesman standing. With his death in 2013, they became extinct. So, what happened? What went wrong? How is it that there was a time when like the Woolly Mammoth, statesmen walked the earth but today they don’t. How is it that they failed to reproduce their kind? Is it because like the climate change that killed off the Mammoths; cultural, psychological climate change, made statesmen of the like of Lincoln and Mandela, perhaps icons to worship but not to emulate?
I did a back-of-the-envelope recall of history. What I haveis as follows: Starting from the beginning of recorded history, we have states which were the property of rulers and their families. These rulers amassed wealth through conquest. It was a simple grab-what-you-can strategy, aided by ever more powerful weapons and military organization and tactics. That gave rise to the so-called ‘Great Conquerors’ starting with Alexander of Macedonia, and on to Julius and Augustus Caesars of Rome, Cyrus of Persia, Pharaohs of Egypt, Umayyads (Abbasids didn’t do any conquests), Genghis and his sons and grandsons, Ottomans, Saffavids, Moghuls, Spanish, British, French, Germans, Dutch, Portuguese, the Vatican (directly and indirectly) and the list goes on. All of them did one thing very well; i.e. wage war. They looted, plundered and colonized. Revenue sources for them were two; immediate plunder of warfare followed by taxation of the subject people. It is not for nothing that it is called ‘spoils of war’. War spoils. Never builds. All this continued to World War I and in a slightly different way, since nation states had by then taken the stage, it continued until World War II.
to be noted here is that the purpose of all war was conquest of territory, loot
and subsequent tax revenue. In some cases, this was open and blatant. In others
it was called ‘civilizing barbarians’, ‘Holy War’, ‘Crusade’, ‘White man’s
burden’ and so on. Soldiers benefited both from the spoils of war which they
looted on their own and what the ruler dished out when the counting was done.
In the case of most rulers, their people were given land in the conquered
territory and settled there as a prize of war for them and as a safety measure
for the rulers. In the case of the Roman Empire as well as many others, this
significantly changed the demography of the region and enabled better policing
of those territories as well as tax collection. In short therefore, rulers
ruled and amassed wealth because their people were willing to support them at
the cost of their life if necessary, in exchange for the crumbs from the table.
World Wars, came the period of decolonization. Freedom struggles started in all
colonies. Some won their freedom after long, protracted and bloody conflict.
Other colonies were freed because they were no longer financially viable to
maintain as they had been bled dry and now the colonizing countries had to
spend their own money to maintain the colony. So, they granted them ‘freedom’.
These freedom struggles shifted the focus of people from materialism (amassing
wealth through conquest) to higher goals of freedom, nation building, social
change and realigning values. People had to and were ready to submit their
personal aspirations to the higher goals of nationalism and patriotism. Freedom
is heady stuff. It was during this period that we see the likes of Lincoln and
Mandela; my two symbols of the kind of leader that one can call ‘statesman’ and
not merely ‘politician’. There were others but these will suffice for this discussion
especially as they bracket the period between 1800 and 2000.
with the wars and in many ways fueled by them, the Industrial Revolution
metamorphosed into the military industrial complex that we are familiar with
today, producing myriad products and services for mass consumption. Apart of
course from weapons of war. People needed funds to buy stuff and that fueled the banking
system. It is not that there were no banks before World War II. Banking was well
established with almost the same financial instruments from the time someone
had money and someone else needed it. Jesus spoke about the bankers and money
lenders. Shakespeare wrote about them. The Roman Empire ran its entire commerce
through bankers. Medieval European monarchs, to a man (or woman) were in debt
up to their gills. But after the World Wars and successful freedom struggles, banks
became accessible to the common man and woman through what we know as
‘Commercial banking’. Money was made available, not for any altruistic reasons,
but because owners of products needed a market for their produce and banks
enabled those whose desires (or needs) exceeded their means, to achieve those
desires by enslaving themselves to a payment schedule for the rest of their
lives. That kept them out of trouble as they were too busy paying to worry
about anything else, which suited those who ruled the roost. Rome invented the
circus. We invented Hollywood, Bollywood, Tollywood. Both serve the same
purpose. Keep people distracted and steer thought into the channels that the
establishment wants them to think along. Add to this all the TV shows, football,
cricket, shopping, advertising, social media, FB algorithms; all things that I don’t
think I need to explain to anyone today. But do reflect on them to understand
how you and I are fish on the end of the hook, enjoying the taste of the bait,
not realizing that we are there for one reason only; to be reeled in for the
fisherman’s sport and profit. Shopping, sports and sex are the formula from the
beginning of recorded history to keep the population subjected, distracted and
interesting thing is if you look at the demographic of the rulers, you will see
that it has not changed at all, except perhaps for the kind of clothes they
wear. That changed from chainmail covered by ermine and mink, to business
suits. The ‘mailed fist’ became more symbolic but no less lethal. Pre-World
Wars and down through the colonial period, the ‘ruling class’ was a small group
of men (with the very rare woman) who ruled with only one motive; personal
profit. The cost didn’t matter at all. If it meant annihilating an entire
population (Aztecs, Incas, Native Americans, Australian Aboriginals,
Hottentots, Bushmen, 2 million Indians…not end of list), then it was done by
whatever means it took ranging from arranging a famine to smallpox infected
blankets to simply separating the head from the body. Millions of Africans were
enslaved and transported across the ocean to give their life and blood to build
someone else’s nation. The list of what was done in the name of profit is well
documented for the one who is interested in reading. It is not my purpose to go
into it here.
profit motive continues, though the means have changed. Now the chains are
greed and debt. The result is the same i.e. profit for the ruling class. That
is why things that are clearly harmful to society are legal and are sold at a
premium. I mean all kinds of addictive substances like alcohol, cigarettes,
tobacco products, human bodies, gambling in many forms, the latest being
football and cricket, porn (including child porn) … once again an endless list.
Consumer perception is manipulated and influenced to make them buy this or that
product and buy more. The infamous pharma racket is a case in point among many
others. All to make profit, which is the final decider. I can’t forget to
mention the biggest of them all, manufacture and sale of weapons of mass
destruction. That is by far the most profitable which gives the best ROI. That is
the reason there is more money invested in death than in life; in weapons
research and manufacture than in cancer research and cure. When production and
sale of weapons of mass destruction is a mainstay of the economy then all
values, morals and peace vanish behind the smoke of bursting bombs and burning
homes. Manufacturing weapons of mass destruction is the most immoral,
despicable and abhorrent thing to do and has no moral justification. It must be
stopped. It is the only reason for wars and as long as it exists wars will happen,
and peace will remain an illusion. When
people who go to work in these factories turn a blind eye and deaf ear to what
their effort, energy, intelligence and industry are creating and do it in the
name of supporting their families, we must know that there is something very
seriously wrong with our society.
hold on, nothing is wrong. It is business as usual. Wars happens because wars
make profit. Peace doesn’t happen because peace doesn’t make profit. Hate sells
because hate makes profit. Love doesn’t sell, because love doesn’t make profit.
It is not about good or evil. It is about profit. Whatever makes profit is
good. Whatever doesn’t, isn’t. It may not be called ‘evil’, but it certainly
won’t get any traction, funding, facetime, airtime or any kind of time. That is
why global warming, water conservation, clean drinking water, alternate energy,
poverty alleviation are all dragging and will continue to drag because they
don’t make profit.
all this have to do with statesmen, which is the subject of this essay?
It is my
conclusion that the world hasn’t changed very much, if at all from the
beginning of recorded history to the present moment. The ‘Statesmen Period’,
was a brief interlude thanks to some special circumstances while the ruling
class changed their ‘clothes’. When they were done, they took charge once
again. They moved from direct control by military conquest to indirect (but
equally strong) control through debt. The latter has proved to be even more
profitable because it obviates the necessity of spending money to administer
another land, collect taxes, fight insurgency from time to time, maintain your
own administrators and myriad other elements of colonization. Much easier and
cost effective to allow local rulers to do your work and we don’t pay for their
sins. Taxes are replaced by sale markup with the benefit that the population
gladly and willingly pays out, while they resent being taxed. Losing colonies
worked out very well, thank you very much. All you need to do is build
attractive tax-collection centers, aka Shopping Malls and revenue flows in. However,
where the inflow of revenue is threatened for any reason by anyone, the mailed
fist does the job. When goods do not cross borders, soldiers will.” Fredrick
Bastiat. Armies cross borders to open the doors of commerce. While they are
there, they help themselves to whatever they can; a well-known soldier’s
prerogative. Compliant local rulers are supported and protected, no matter how
brutal or corrupt they may be. Non-compliant rulers are removed, very publicly
and brutally, both to clear the blockage as well as to demonstrate to potential
aspirants what their fate would be if they dared to buck the system. As
Fredrick Bastiat once again said, ‘When plunder becomes a way of life, men
create for themselves a legal system that authorizes it and a moral code that
became extinct because there is no need for them any longer.
hasten to mention what we can all see clearly, ‘the people’ are very happy with
the current system. The beauty of materialism is that like cigarette smoking,
the gratification is instantaneous while the harm is invisible. You draw the
smoke into your lungs and feel so refreshed and relaxed while some more alveoli
are filled with carbon and your lungs are primed for cancer. Only, you can’t
see it happening, so it is easy to ignore, especially since you are addicted to
smoking. We are all addicted to materialism, violence, promiscuity,
sensationalism, instant gratification of desire. We are blind to the harm this
does to us personally as well as to our society. We don’t care that our way of
life is disastrous for those who share this planet with us, animals, birds,
insects, or even the earth, air and water. We simply don’t care.
heroes are those who make the most profit. I challenge you to ask anyone to
name the top five leaders that he/she admires, and I will guarantee you that it
will be businessmen. Buffet, Gates, Jobs, Bezos, Dell – or some such
combination, but businessmen. Ask what about them that they admire, and they
will mention net worth. Which means the money they have. Not their character, learning,
wisdom, compassion or anything else. Just the amount of money they have. I have
asked this question umpteen times. Not once did anyone mention a great
scientist, social activist, philosopher, theologian, scholar, poet, dramatist,
artist, surgeon, astronaut, researcher or teacher. It is as if such people and their
contribution have no value. By our choices, we have trashed centuries of contribution
that ennobles us and raises us from merely grubbing for money. None of the
qualities which make us uniquely human seem to count. Only money. Only profit.
We don’t see any need for statesmen.
But do we need statesmen and women, whether or not we see the need for them?
question to ask in this context is, ‘Was the world a better place when Abraham Lincoln
and Mandela were in positions of power or when George Bush (and now Donald Trump)
and Jacob Zuma were in power?’
I say we
need statesmen like an alcoholic needs a deaddiction clinic. The alcoholic
won’t accept it, but without it he will die and take his family down with him.
We need people who are not focused on profit alone but who can show us how we can
gain quality of life by focusing on ethics, values and morals. The challenge is
to demonstrate this in ways that will still make profit for them. Statesmen
happened because circumstances enabled, even enforced, the natural selection of
the best to deal with the great goal of freedom. As I said, freedom is heady,
and it is a goal that people are willing to work for. Political freedom we may
have achieved. But freedom from poverty, corruption, discrimination, injustice,
oppression are all goals which remain on the horizon, unachieved. What we need is
statesmen (and women) who will address these goals and enable us, as a global
society, to achieve them. If circumstances create statesmen, I submit that
those circumstances exist even today. If only we can recognize and address
them. The tragedy is that as in my analogy about smoking, instead of recognizing
that materialistic pursuit of profit at any cost as the cancer it is, we seem have
created a mindset where it has become an aspirational goal. That is why I suggested
the test of asking about who our icons are. That will tell us what we aspire to
Today the challenge is to bring about a change in perception where people learn to see the benefit (profit in perhaps non-monetary terms) in compassion, justice, empowering the weak, alleviating poverty, education, public health, alternate energy, husbanding resources, conservation and such world building (not merely nation building) goals. It is to inspire and lead this new effort that we need statesmen and women. When we begin to see that we are all interconnected in a very real sense and that we can only swim together or we will sink, that we will hopefully be prepared to change the destructive lifestyles that we have become used to. Aspiring statesmen and women must invent ways to convince people to make this change. For that they must first believe and then they must lead by example. Each statesman is guided by his/her religious/nonreligious philosophy. Therefore, it all depends on which philosophy is guiding him/her. Statesmanship can be constructive/destructive. It all depends whether destructiveness will be called statesmanship! The world listens with its eyes. It doesn’t care what you say until it sees what you do. Statesmanship is about creating a need for value-based leadership and then fulfilling it. Statesmanship therefore must begin within ourselves. Within our families and neighborhoods. We need to inculcate values of care and concern, kindness and compassion, the willingness to extend ourselves for the sake of others, and to find personal fulfillment in it. We must understand that it is uniquely human to work to help others who can’t help us and to work for a time that we will not live to see. After all, that is the definition of vision. Given access to technology and open source material, I believe that all that a child needs today are literacy and numeracy. That takes less than one year of learning. After that the child has access to anything in the world that he or she wants to explore. To decide what that should be, the child needs a value system, a criterion for judgment and decision making. That is why value education is so critical. That is why skills of critical thinking, decision making, communication, conflict resolution and a sense of trusteeship are so essential. Sadly, almost nobody teaches them in any school curriculum and even more sadly both parents and people running schools, don’t see the need. Children are the voiceless victims of their elders’ apathy.
what must change. The statesman within must be nurtured and allowed to flower
so that appreciable change can happen in the world. The reality is that true
happiness doesn’t lie in a shopping mall or buying stuff or in consumerism. It lies
in seeing the smile on a face where you had seen tears a little while earlier
and to know that you were the reason for that change. That is truly inspiring,
motivating and satisfying.
Interestingly, success seems to breed fear of failure. This is a paradox, since success should really build confidence. It does that too, but what seems to happen over the years is that we become progressively more afraid of losing what we have created and our ability to take risks decreases. This to me explains why entrepreneurs who have built large organizations are so afraid to allow others to take the same kind of risks that they took when they were alone, creating the company. Somehow, as they succeed, people who build organizations seem to forget the real lessons of their experience:
That it was speed of reaction and the ability to take risks that gave them the competitive advantage.
That it was the willingness to put themselves on the line, which built their credibility.
That it was staying in touch with customers that helped them anticipate trends.
This seems to extend even more to their own children, a phenomenon that we see in many family owned companies where the old, often senile, patriarch rules supreme and holds the strings of power.
That is also why such organizations finally break-up, usually with a lot of rancor, as the rebellion against authority comes to a head and the son has no alternative but to break away.
This fear of failure has many respectable names: Consolidation of gains, Stability, Creating Permanence and so on.
What is forgotten is that life is about change and positive change is growth. That growth is not looking with a satisfied glow at what exists, but always to seek what might be. And that all growth is essentially characterized by a lack of stability, living with impermanence and spending what you have, to fuel what you aspire to create. This is forgotten, not by chance or accident. It is forgotten deliberately, albeit sometimes unconsciously. And it is done to deal with the fear of failure if one continues to take risk.
So, what is the alternative?
In my view, the alternative is to practice change even when there is no need for it.
Some organizations create think-tanks whose job is to conceptualize hypothetical threat situations and suggest solutions. One can use this or any other method, but it is a very good idea to spend some time and energy in anticipating the future and preparing for it. I personally make it a point to do this kind of reflective observation every so often. The important thing is to make this an ongoing process, no matter how you do it. Anticipating change is the first step to creating game changers that will put you in the driving seat. That is the only guarantee of permanence in a world where permanence is against nature. Any other route only guarantees stagnation of ideas, sanctification of monumental stupidity, and calcification of the mind.
The single biggest and most critical requirement of success is the desire to be the best. No matter what you may do – if you want to succeed, you need to be passionate about what you do and want to be the best at it. This is something that I have been aware of all my life. I always wanted to be the best at whatever I did. Read the most, get the best results at school, train my dog so that it would win in tracking and show championships, school my horse so that he would win in dressage competitions every time, climb the biggest mountain I could find, do what nobody had done before, go where nobody had gone before me. Always trying to excel in whatever I put my hand to. I never saw any thrill in simply doing more of the same. I always wanted to do something new. And that’s a very cool way to live.
It is not that I succeeded on every occasion. But I made a serious effort every time. And when I failed, I used the other technique that I had learnt early in life; analyze failure, face the brutal reality, and acknowledge ownership. No justification of mistakes. No blaming others. Take the responsibility for my own actions. See what went wrong and why. See what I need to do to ensure that this particular mistake never happens again. The pin and hole principle in engineering; fool proofing the system so that it becomes impossible to make a mistake. Not leaving the issue to individual discretion but creating a system to ensure that the correct procedure is followed every time. These are two principles that I have always tried to follow in my life: try to be the best and own up to mistakes.
A third principle that I have always tried to follow is to actively seek feedback. And then to listen to it without defensiveness. No justification or argument with the person giving the feedback, always remembering that my intention is inside my heart. What we intended to convey is less important than what we did convey. What the other person sees is the action, not the intention. And if the action did not convey the intention, then the action failed and must change, because for us all, perception is reality.
Being passionate about what you do is absolutely essential for anyone who wants to be the best in their work. For me, this has never been a matter of choice but something that I have always held as inevitable. If I do something, then it must be the best that I can possibly do. Nothing less. And if I am in a profession or job where I can’t really find it in myself to be passionate about it, then I need to change the job. Happiness is not doing less. It is to do the most that we can do. To maximize contribution. And that can only come through loving what you do. I am deliberately using a term which is not often used in a work context, love. That is why work produces stress. People who don’t love their work are stressed. People who love their work automatically get a sense of meaning from it and believe it is worthwhile. The more they do, the happier they are. They get stressed not with work, but with not having enough of it.
The strange thing in life is that organizations want people to enjoy work, to give their best, and to maximize effort and productivity. But the messages they give are negative. Let me give you an example. Many organizations have a ritual called TGIF: Thank God it is Friday. This is a small party at the end of the work day on Friday where all employees gather and have some eats and some fun together celebrating the fact that, yet another week of work is behind them. I first heard of this custom which was imported into India with IT companies that set up shop in Bangalore. We Indians are the world’s greatest mindless imitators. Promptly, many Indian companies picked up on this practice and even went to the extent of advertising it as a perk in their recruitment spiels.
I was speaking to a friend of mine who was the promoter of one of the early IT companies in Bangalore that had this TGIF custom.
I asked him, “Do you really want people to be saying ‘Thank God it is Friday?”
“What do you mean?” he asked.
I said to him, “To me, if someone who works for me says that he is glad the work week is over, it is a danger signal. It means that the work the person is doing is not meaningful or enjoyable and that somehow, they got through it and now that it is over, they are happy to go home for the weekend. If I had to have a party, I would rather have one on Monday morning called TGIM. And I would work very hard to create an environment where people would actually love to go to work.”
“You are a real spoilsport,” said my friend, jokingly. “You know, I never thought of it that way!!”
Take another case. You have a sales person who is magical. She or he is an inspired sales person. They can sell the Buckingham Palace to the Queen and many times they do. They work very hard and exceed all targets. So, at the end of the year, you give them a reward. You send them on a two week, all expenses paid vacation to the Bahamas. Most organizations do the equivalent of this. Now let us analyze what you have done.
You achieved two things: Firstly you were successful in getting your best salesperson off the street for two weeks and that will show up in your first quarter results. Secondly and even more importantly you gave a strong subconscious message, that you believe that work is actually unpleasant. But since this person managed to hang in there and do it well for twelve months, you are now paying for them to do what they really want to do and enjoy doing; roasting on the beach in the Bahamas.
Consider the alternative. Passionate people who love what they do, enjoy every minute of it, find it fulfilling and would pay you to do it if they had to. What kind of results do you think you can get if you create workplaces and work that can give this to those who perform it? And before you accuse me of fantasying, let me give you an example. All missionaries work like this. Many spend their own money and endure a lot of hardship, to do the work they do because the rewards of their work are clear to them. The challenge is to create this sense of meaning in work. The need is essential.
Just to close the point I am making here, a working person spends roughly thirty to thirty-five years doing what we call work. If we take a lifespan of seventy years and subtract the years spent in education that is almost seventy percent of a person’s lifespan. To spend this doing something that does not give fulfillment, satisfaction and a sense of achievement, but is something that is routine, boring and even unpleasant, is a very stupid way to live your life. Unfortunately, that is how many people do lead their lives. In dead end jobs with no value addition to themselves or to the organizations they work for.
It is essential for one to take stock from time to time to see if they are achieving what they set out to achieve.
Which brings me to the next question: what is a good goal?
A good goal in my view has two essential ingredients:
It is big enough to make it worth your while to work for.
It is big enough to scare you.
A goal that is not scary will not generate the energy that we need to achieve it. It is in the nature of extraordinary goals to inspire extraordinary effort. Nobody rises to low expectations. People rise to high expectations. In my life, whenever I have experienced meaninglessness, low energy, and passivity, it has always been because the work was too easy, the goal not big enough. My antidote to tiredness, lack of focus and attention and stress in life is to create a big, scary goal. When you are walking in a forest and you come around a bend and see a tiger sitting in the middle of the road, adrenaline pumps into your blood. You are all attention. You turn around and run like hell. You are not bored, inattentive, or tired. Instantly, you have all the energy and focus that you need, and you passionately try to get away from the tiger. For all you know, the tiger is probably still sitting where he was, having a good laugh at your expense. But you are not waiting to find out. That is the key. Create the tigers that will make you run.
It’s true that tigers are also cats. But the resemblance ends there.
The debate starts once again, “Should Muslims participate in politics in a democracy, since ‘democracy’ is itself not an Islamic form of government?” Let me try to put this in perspective. Before I begin let me state that I am not talking about the philosophy of democracy i.e. Supremacy of the People instead of Supremacy of Allahﷻ. Let me state also that in terms of Islam, the only one worthy of worship and obedience is Allahﷻ and that only Allahﷻ has the right to make laws which He did and His Messengerﷺ conveyed to us. Anyone who considers laws opposed to the laws of Allahﷻ as being superior or even permissible, has committed Shirk. This article is about the issue of Muslims living in democratic countries, often as minorities. What must they do? What options do they have and what are the consequences of these options?
To the question, “Should Muslims participate in politics in a democracy, since ‘democracy’ is itself not an Islamic form of government?” I would like to state that first of all, there is no specific form of government that is ‘Islamic’. If anyone disputes that statement and says that the ‘Khilafa’ is the only form of government that is permissible in Islam, then we have to ask why it is that ever since the ascension of Yazid bin Muawiyya, monarchy has been accepted as ‘Islamic’ even by Sahaba who lived under Yazid and supported his rule? This continued even though the terms, ‘Khalifa’ and ‘Khilafa’ continued to be used off and on, until the institution of Khilafa was finally abolished in 1923. For the record, the Ottoman rulers called themselves ‘Sultan’ and not ‘Khalifa’, though the government itself was called ‘Khilafa’. How does that work?
So, what is the Islamic form of government?
Islam is concerned with the nature of the government and not necessarily its form.
Consider this: the Khilafa Rashida itself followed three different processes to choose a successor in the case of the first three Khulafa.
In the case of Abu Bakr Siddique (R) it was an election of the Supreme Leader by lesser leaders in Madina. This was the usual way of the Arabs when electing a new Ameer or Chief of their clans where the decision would be taken by a few significant and powerful elders/leaders and everyone else would accept and support it. So also, in this case, it was not one-man-one-vote involving the entire population of Madina. Even if it had been, hypothetically speaking one could have argued that the people of Makkah, Ta’aif, Najd and all the tribes of the Hijaz had not voted. Yet, the leader being chosen would have authority over all Muslims. Abu Bakr Siddique (R) was elected by the people who had gathered in the Saqifa Bani Sa’ada and was later ratified by the rest of the community in Masjid An-Nabawi when other people gave him the Baya (Oath or Pledge) of Allegiance. In the election in the Saqifa Bani Sa’ada, which itself was not planned but was impromptu, many of the important Sahaba of Rasoolullahﷺ including Sayyidina Ali bin Abi Talib (R) were not present and neither was their opinion sought. This was not deliberate or by design but because Ali bin Abi Talib (R) was busy with the burial of Rasoolullahﷺ he was not disturbed, and he gave his pledge the next day.
But since Abu Bakr Siddique (R) was already accepted as the foremost among the Sahaba and was their leader, nobody objected and they all, including Ali bin Abi Talib (R) gave him their Pledge. They remembered that Rasoolullahﷺ had always sought his advice and used to give him precedence over everyone else because of him having been the first man to accept Islam and for his service to Islam and to Rasoolullahﷺ. They remembered that Abu Bakr (R) was Rasoolullahﷺ’s companion in the cave during their Hijra from Makkah to Madina. People remembered that Rasoolullahﷺ had given him Imamat of Salah from the Thursday before the Monday when he passed away. For the Sahaba, that was a clear sign that Rasoolullahﷺ preferred and had thereby nominated Abu Bakr Siddique (R) as his successor. Having said that, there are people to this day, fourteen centuries later, who differ and say that the Khilafa should have gone to Ali bin Abi Talib (R).
The fact that Ali bin Abi Talib (R) himself never said this nor did he object to the leadership of Abu Bakr Siddique (R) and gladly gave his Baya (oath) of Allegiance with sincerity (what else do we expect of Ali bin Abi Talib (R)?) cuts no ice with them. We will put that dispute aside as it is not relevant to this discussion and look at what happened two years later, when Sayyidina Abu Bakr Siddique (R) was dying.
Abu Bakr Siddique (R) took the advice of the Asharum Mubashshara (the 10 Sahaba who had been given the good news of Jannah by Rasoolullahﷺ) about his proposed choice, Omar ibn Al Khattab (R), as his successor. All of them except one (Zubair bin Awwam (R)) accepted this choice and so Abu Bakr Siddique (R) called Omar ibn Al Khattab (R) and nominated him. This action of Abu Bakr Siddique (R) was in keeping with the informal but clearly understood and accepted hierarchy among the Sahaba in which the Asharum Mubashshara came first followed by the Badriyyeen (Sahaba who participated in the Battle of Badr) and then everyone else.
Ten years later when Omar ibn Al Khattab (R) had been stabbed and was dying, he called the rest of the Asharum Mubashshara and told them to choose one among them to succeed him. Some of them declined to accept the role of Khalifa. There were two contenders who remained. Abdur Rahman ibn Awf (R), who was a scholar among the Sahaba and one of the wealthiest businessmen of the time was himself from the Asharum Mubashshara and who had declined to be considered for Khilafa, was chosen to pick between them. He decided to consult the Sahaba who had participated in the Battle of Badr and other significant leaders in Madina and at the end of this consultation, he borrowed the Amama (turban) of Rasoolullahﷺ and wearing it, he ascended the Minbar of Masjid An-Nabawi and announced Othman ibn Affan (R) as the leader who had been chosen to succeed Omar ibn Al Khattab (R). Everyone accepted this choice, including Ali bin Abi Talib (R) who had also accepted Omar ibn Al Khattab (R) as Khalifa and worked under him as a judge.
Othman ibn Affan (R)’s Khilafa ended in war and Ali bin Abi Talib (R) was forced to accept the Khilafa to put an end to the worst turmoil and violence that the Muslims had ever seen. However, this was also contested, and we have a history of ever more complex conflicts thereafter. Once again, I am not going into details here as they are not relevant. What is relevant however, is that twenty years later, when Muawiyya bin Abi Sufyan (R) was dying, he nominated his son Yazid bin Muawiyya (also called Yazid I) as Khalifa, thereby dispensing with the entire selection/election process and converting the Khilafa into a hereditary monarchy.
This became the default Muslim (Islamic) form of government all over the world, from the Banu Umayyah who started it, to the Banu Abbas, Fatimi, Ayyubi, Saffavid, Mughal, Uthmani (Ottoman) and other rulers right down to our modern times, who all accepted hereditary monarchy as the way Muslim lands were to be governed. Before we blame the kings however, let us reflect on the fact that none of their subjects, including Sahaba, all the Imams of Fiqh, all the Ulama of the Tabiyyin and their followers including to this day, have ever criticized or refused to accept hereditary monarchy, calling it ‘unislamic’ nor called for the establishment of the Khilafa. One reason could be that the Khilafa Rashida itself was established in three different ways. So, which of them would one choose?
The point that I want to make is that it appears from reading our history that Islam is more concerned with the nature of government than its form. Our great classical and modern scholars seem to be agreed upon this and this seems to be the majority view. Islam is concerned with how the government is carried on; whether it establishes the laws of Allahﷻ as mentioned in the Qur’an and Sunnah, whether it establishes justice or not, whether the poor and weak are taken care of, whether there is corruption or not, and whether law is enforced so that crime is minimized if not eradicated. It is not concerned with how the government itself came into being or its structure, if that government does what all good governments are supposed to do i.e. good governance. Therefore, different forms of governments were accepted as valid and legal if they provided good governance.
Of course, from the Islamic point of view, for a government to be considered Islamic, whichever form of government it may be, it must follow the Divine Laws of the Shari’ah and must not legislate against the Laws of Allahﷻ. Governments are free to legislate and pass laws to ensure the best for all people, without denying, altering or going against Divine Laws. For examples, laws of taxation, zoning of cities, regulation of road traffic and so on can be made because they don’t contradict the Laws of Allahﷻ. However, laws which make Halaal what Allahﷻ prohibited, for example, interest-based banking, consumption of alcohol and other addictive substances and so on, are not permissible and any government that makes such laws would be unislamic even if the government was run by Muslims.
I am not claiming that democracy is the best form of government from a Islamic theological or philosophical perspective but that it is the best among all that exist today. There are some clear issues about parliamentary democracy which must be borne in mind. A parliamentary democracy is the rule by political parties, where the party which gets the most votes rules the country. This means that independent candidates, no matter how good they are, have no chance to be effective or to be able to form a government. Candidates who stand on tickets from any political party must necessarily follow the party line in all matters, no matter what their own opinion may be. The party is run, not always by elected representatives but often by its ideologues and leaders, who need not be elected at all but who direct all policies and actions of the party.
It is in this context that we must look at democracy today when some people say that Muslims must not participate in democracy because it is not ‘Islamic’. My contention is that there is no such thing as an ‘Islamic’ form of government. What is ‘Islamic’ about a government, lies in its actions of governing. Obviously, there is great misunderstanding about forms of government which is exacerbated by our general lack of knowledge of history so that we have no perspective or decision-making ability. We must correct this urgently.
What is the role of Muslim citizens who live in democratic countries? Should they participate in government, from voting, to standing for election to discharging their responsibilities in difference capacities in Parliaments and Senates? Or should they abstain from doing any of these things. And if they should abstain, then how are they to ensure that their rights, needs and issues are represented and addressed by a government that they didn’t elect or show any interest in?
My contention is that democracy, like monarchy is simply a form of government; in terms of governance. Citizens of democratic countries must participate in democracy for the simple reason that all change can only be initiated and implemented from within. As a matter of interest, if we take the very first form of government of the Muslim State after Rasoolullahﷺ passed away, it was a ‘democratic’ decision. As I mentioned earlier, it was different from our present form of universal suffrage leading to universal suffering (except for politicians) but it was democracy, nevertheless.
The argument that most of these countries are not Muslim (meaning that the rulers are not Muslim) is met with two arguments:
How ‘Islamic’ is a government where the rulers are Muslim but permit interest-based banking in their realms, when they know perfectly well that Allahﷻ not only prohibited it but declared war on behalf of Himself and His Messengerﷺ on those who participate in interest-based banking? How can a government, which is classified as an enemy of Allahﷻ by the definition of the Qur’an, be called Islamic?
In the Shari’ah we follow the principle that if you can’t do (have) everything, you don’t reject or stop doing everything.
So, if we can’t have the perfect state of government that Rasoolullahﷺ provided when he was the ruler, we will live with and support rulers (and governments) who provide justice, safety, law & order, economic development and general protection of rights and privileges even if they do other things which are not perfect. We don’t support them in things which are against Islamic law (e.g. we will not participate in interest-based banking, even if it is allowed in the country) but we will support them in everything that is for the benefit of everyone.
Authority can be delegated. Not responsibility. Responsibility remains with the original person. Meaning that if the one to whom authority was delegated fails to perform, it is the one who delegated it, who will still be responsible. Often there is confusion between authority and responsibility. Authority is the permission to act. Responsibility refers to the consequences of the action. That is why training is very important, before delegating authority. The ruler delegates authority to various officials, but the responsibility remains with the ruler whether they succeed or fail. It will be called the success or failure of the ruler. So also, the CEO, Head of Family or whatever; delegates and should delegate authority, because he or she can’t do everything themselves. But the responsibility i.e. accountability, remains with them. If they delegate authority without preparing their subordinates or delegate it to people who are incompetent, then it is their rule or tenure or performance which would have failed.
We, the people of the nation, through the ballot box have delegated the responsibility of running the nation to those we elected. Hence, we retain the responsibility for their success or failure. It comes back to my favorite political quote: “We get the government we deserve”.
We should realize that we have delegated authority. Not responsibility. So, if those to whom authority was delegated, failed, we need to take back the authority and realize that to give ourselves good government is our responsibility, not anyone else’s.
In conclusion I would like to state clearly and unequivocally that Muslims living in democratic countries must participate in government in every way knowing that it is entirely in keeping with Islam to do so. They must participate because Islam orders them to support all that is beneficial for everyone, Muslim or otherwise and to do that in a way that showcases Islam for the rest of the world. Muslims must participate in democracy, because only by participation can we ensure that our interests are addressed, and our needs met. We have seen many examples of what happens when we don’t participate.
The first thing to do therefore is to ensure that your name is listed as a voter. Then YOU MUST GO TO VOTE. Whether it is raining or not, whatever be the situation, you MUST GO AND VOTE. Remember this is the only opportunity that you have in a democracy to be heard, to influence your own future and to protect yourself from those who wish to hurt you.
Finally, a party is elected not by the majority of the population of the country but by the majority of those who cast their vote. This last line is the key to modern democracies and the reason why you must vote. If you don’t enroll yourself and don’t go and vote, then don’t blame anyone else for the result. You are responsible, and you will pay the price.
The tea plantations of the Sub-continent are a unique environment, be that in South India, Assam or Sri Lanka because they represent a completely artificial man-made community. The areas where tea is grown were, until a hundred years ago, pristine rain forest. Then came the British, having discovered wild tea in Assam as well as with stolen tea seedlings from China, which broke the tea monopoly of that country. Workers were transported from the plains of Tamilnadu for South Indian and Sri Lankan (Ceylon) plantations and from Orissa and Bengal for the Assam gardens. In South India most if not almost all of them were Dalits. They were housed in colonies according to their native areas. They built temples and either one of them officiated as the priest, having learned the rituals in Eklavya tradition (unofficially from some kind priest who would teach him) or they hired a poor Brahmin, who because he was paid by them, didn’t prevent them from entering the temple. This was not the case (and to this day it is not the case) in their own homelands, where Dalits, though officially classified as Hindu, are not permitted inside Hindu temples. This resulted in an egalitarian tradition which continues to this day, where everyone participates in all festivals and religious functions. The estate manager especially, irrespective of his religion, is expected to officiate at all religious functions of all religions and is specifically invited as the Chief Guest. Generally, this merely means putting in an appearance and flagging off a temple procession or lighting a lamp to signify the beginning of a ceremony or some other symbolic gesture. But it is nevertheless important and taken very seriously.
There is a book called Red Tea, by Paul Harris Daniel, which is a novel but is based on fact. The author took sworn affidavits from those whose stories he told. This book was published by Higginbotham’s in 1969 and was later made into the Tamil film ‘Paradesi’. The book gives a good account of what life in the early plantations was like and what the real price of tea is, not in money but in lives and blood of animals and men. Not to speak of the tremendous damage to the rain forests of Northeast and South India and Sri Lanka (Ceylon in those days). But those were the days before there was any awareness about these things and after all we were a colony to be exploited for the benefit of the British Empire and so we were; thoroughly.
When I joined planting in 1983, this was all history but there were still old workers who had seen a lot of what I have written above. One of them was Kullan, who was in his 70’s when I met him in 1983. We would sit on my veranda in the night and he would tell me stories about the ‘old days’ (Palaya Gaalam). That is the benefit of learning the language (Tamil, which I didn’t know a word of until I joined planting) and of having a good relationship with your workers. It was in the course of one of those sessions that he told me in a very matter of fact tone that the bungalow in which I lived (where we were sitting right then) was the estate hospital in those days and in the monsoon when there was an epidemic of cholera, many bodies were simply thrown into the ravine that was a little way behind the bungalow. “That is why their ghosts are still wandering here, Dorai”, he said to me. I must say that none of them ever bothered me, though Kullan was not the only one who mentioned ghosts in that bungalow.
The Muslim workers in Murugalli Estate where I was posted decided to dismantle the temporary shed that they used as a masjid and build a small, but permanent concrete structure in its place. They had collected some money and the company also gave them a small grant. But when they did the math in the end, they discovered that they had no money for the centering sheets to cast the concrete roof, nor did they have money for the labor to cast the slab. They came to me for advice to resolve this issue. I spoke to Mr. Dakshinamurthy, the Mayura Factory, Site Engineer, and he readily agreed to loan them the centering sheets free of cost. He also loaned them the concrete mixer. All that remained was the labor. I suggested to them that we do a working Sunday and get all the Muslim men to help with the labor and the Muslim women to make some food.
“Why do you need to pay for labor to build a masjid when we are all here?” I asked them. They all agreed enthusiastically. So, the following Sunday that is what we did. What fun we had!!
The Muslim workers in Murugalli were all from the Mallapuram district of Kerala. The women made some wonderful Malabari Biryani and we started early in the morning after a large mug of highly sweetened Malabari tea. We set up a human chain from the mixer to the top; I was on the top. The men started a chant in Malayalam as they passed up the concrete containers and we started pouring the concrete. This is a job that needs to be done without stopping, so as the day advanced and we became tired, the work became progressively more difficult. But the spirit of the work, the fact that we were building a masjid, and the promise of the Malabari Biryani, which was making its presence felt as its aroma floated on the air as it cooked, kept us going. By late afternoon the final load was cast, and we came down. Then after washing up, we sat down to a meal that was more delicious than I remembered eating ever before. Was it the food? Was it the hunger? Was it the fact that we were eating it after a day well spent? I don’t know. All I know is that it was wonderful to eat.
There is a sad ending to this part of my story. Dakshinamurty suddenly died in a very bizarre accident. He was at home one weekend and was having his head oiled. The barber who did the oil massage for him twisted his head to crack his spine. This is a very common practice in India and is done all the time without any adverse result. However, in Dakshinamurty’s case the man accidentally snapped his spinal cord. He was instantly paralyzed from the neck down and two days later he passed away. Sadly, he could not see the completion of Mayura Factory, the project that he had started. D.R.S. Chary stayed with me till the project was completed and then returned to Chennai where he lived. A couple of years later, I heard that he also passed away. I mourn the passing of these good people with whom I shared some wonderful times.
When Mayura was finally built and was to be inaugurated, Mr. AMM Arunachalam sent priests to do a puja – Ganapathy Homam (Havan), which was to start at 2:00 am the next morning and would go on for several hours. To my astonishment, Mr. AVG Menon called me and said, “AMM wants you to officiate as the representative of the Murgappa family at the puja. If you don’t want to do it, then he asked me to find someone else.” I was astonished to say the least because I am Muslim and I had never imagined that I would be asked to officiate at a Hindu puja, that too one which was so important to the Murugappa family. Obviously, it was a great honor and highly unusual. I told AVG that I would not actually be worshiping if I participated but he said that was alright. I asked him what I needed to do. He said to me, “You need to go there at 2:00 am when it starts and sit there with the priests. They will recite the slokas and every once in a while, the head priest will give you some grains of rice, which you must throw on to the fire.” That seemed simple enough and so I, a Muslim, officiated at a Ganapathy Homam on behalf of the Murugappa family at the opening of the Mayura Fatory in the Anamallais. I would like to believe that the extraordinary success of the factory was a result of my participation in its inauguration. In today’s India I wonder what happened to that India which I lived in. Where did it all go?
Once the puja was complete, we got ready for the formal inauguration to which the entire Board of Directors was invited including the Chairman Mr. AMM Arunachalam. This was followed by a lunch at the Group Manager, Mr. AVG Menon’s bungalow in Sheikalmudi. The building of Mayura Factory was a truly historic occurrence because tea factories are not built every day. Most in the Anamallais were over eighty years old at the time Mayura was built and commissioned (1985). On top of that it was the largest and most modern factory in India with computer-controlled systems and all kinds of bells and whistles. Since I was the man on the spot, so to speak, I had to be in many places at once and managed to do it. Everything went off well. Lunch finished late and we returned home close to 5:00pm. I had been awake and working for 48 hours straight with perhaps a short nap on my feet. But the day had not ended yet for me. We, my newly wedded wife and I, had a formal dinner to attend in Mudis.
Among the customs of plantation life was that of ‘calling on’ the seniors of the district. When you came in new or got married and your wife came to the estates, you called on the seniors of the district to introduce yourself and her. You telephoned or sent a letter saying that you would like to call on them and asked when would be convenient. These were formal social meetings and you were treated with great dignity and grace. This ‘calling on’ was usually for tea unless it was somebody you knew already, in which case you would be invited to dinner.
We had just got married (March 1985) and I returned with my wife, post haste to the estate because Mayura Factory opening was due. Two days after our marriage we boarded the train for Coimbatore from where we drove up the Aliyar Ghat of forty hairpin bends. My wife was violently sick all the way up the Ghat. Being prone to motion sickness, the Ghat road was not doing her any good at all. I was very concerned because this Ghat road was a given if we lived in the Anamallais and with my wife being so sick on it, it didn’t seem to portend well for us. The prospect of a repeat performance every time we traveled was definitely not something to look forward to. But as it happened after a couple of trips my wife got over her motion sickness altogether. Maybe the Ghat road shocked it out of her system.
As was the custom of the plantations when anyone got married and returned with his wife, there was a round of parties to meet the couple. So also, in our case and since I was the Secretary of the Anamallai Club, I had more than my fair share of friends and so we had a party to go to every night. The parties were formal suit and tie affairs and the hostess would go to great lengths to cook special dishes in honor of the guests and at the end the couple would be given a gift. In a place where social relationships were very important, these parties were not simply for entertainment. They were rites of passage and thresholds of entry from bachelorhood to marriage, which gave you a higher level of status and respect. They also had a ‘snob value’ associated with who invited you and who didn’t. I didn’t bother with that at all, but then again, I was invited by everyone, so it didn’t matter. The parties were also a good way to introduce the new bride to a way of life that was foreign to her and helped her to make contacts with senior ladies and others more experienced in this lifestyle, which could be challenging for someone born and brought up in the city. Most people who go to tea gardens for a holiday in good weather don’t realize the difficulty of that environment for those who must live there all year round.
The estate workers also welcomed the Assistant Manager when he returned with his wife. In my case, the Candoora workers were the first. As our car rounded the bend off the Sholayar Dam and came towards ‘Black Bridge,’ we were stopped and requested to alight. We both came out of the car, glad for the chance to stretch our legs. The road was lined with girls who sang a welcome song and showered us with flower petals as we walked through this guard of honor. We were taken to a small pavilion which I realized had been made by tying the best sarees of the women to the poles and decorated with lots of flowers. Tea garden workers can be the most loving people in the world and if you are good to them, they appreciate it and reciprocate. I saw many examples of that in my decade long career. We were garlanded and sat at a table on the two grandest chairs that they could find. Then we were served tea with biscuits and sweets. It was then that a depressed fly decided to end its meaningless life in my wife’s tea cup. But my wife being the perfect lady that she is, merely fished out the fly and drank the tea without batting an eyelid. An amazing performance which saved us from a lot of embarrassment. Those poor workers had taken so much trouble to welcome us that it would have been very ungraceful to complain, even about the suicide of a fly.
Then speeches were made, and the women danced and sang another song in our honor in which we were mentioned repeatedly in sometimes a humorous way and sometimes with great respect. The amazing thing was that this song was made up then and there and they sang about various habits of mine, including singing while I rode my motorcycle. People observed you and remembered and mentioned what you did. All the more reason to ensure that whatever it was, remained good and honorable. At the end of this song and dance there were some speeches by the local union leaders and one supervisor and then I was asked to speak. It was permitted for the manager to speak in English and the speech would be translated. But I had learnt Tamil for occasions such as these and spoke it well, much to everyone’s delight. When I had finished and thanked them for all their trouble and expressed our gratitude for the honor that we had been granted, they gave my wife a gold ring as their gift as a mark of their love and honor for me. I was floored. These were poor people who had collected money for this, something which was not expected of them at all. What could I say? As I mentioned earlier, Managers and workers in the plantations form bonds that are more like family than anything else.
To return to the daily dinner parties in our honor, these daily night outings were so frequent that my wife could recognize a road only in the dark. The parties, enjoyable though they were and were a good way to meet friends who lived too far to visit frequently, could be very taxing as they tended to go on very late. I was expected to put in an appearance at the morning muster on the estate at 6:00 am no matter when we returned. The night of Mayura Factory inauguration (the day that started at 2:00 am), we had been invited to dinner at the home of our dear friends, Prema and Ricky Muthanna in Mudis. Ricky was the General Manager of BBTC and we were honored to be invited to their home. As it happened, there was no time even for a short snooze in the afternoon thanks to the inauguration and to top it all, my car was once again in hospital. I didn’t fancy the idea of going all the way to Mudis (about thirty km on serpentine estate roads, decorated with potholes) on my motorcycle. I asked AVG Menon to borrow his new car, an Ambassador, for the evening and he graciously agreed.
We set off at about 7:00 pm as the dinner was for 8:00 pm. I was exhausted as I had been awake for 48 hours, but we set off, my wife and I, on this long drive. We arrived at Prema and Ricky’s house to a very warm welcome. My wife and Prema became friends instantly and have remained friends all these years. Ricky and Prema’s home was a delight, very tastefully decorated and one of the iconic bungalows in the Anamallais. It was the only bungalow to my knowledge which had a central courtyard with a veranda all around it and so it had a garden inside and outside. Prema had called a lot of people in our honor and the house was full of our friends and some others who I knew by name but was meeting for the first time.
All plantation parties (except in my house) started with drinks, which the men consumed in large quantities while the women sipped soft drinks and discussed matters of great import. As I was not one for the spiritual experience, I would take my orange juice or fresh lime soda and chat with whoever was still on mother earth. But as many left for higher altitudes in proportion to the spirit inside them, I would usually take myself off into a corner and contemplate the world. That day I was so sleepy and tired that my eyes were self-shutting unable to withstand the weight of my eyelids, while the party was in full swing. I was clearly out of it. Prema saw me in that state and said to us, ‘Yawar looks like he is going to drop. Let me give you dinner so that you can eat and leave. I have no idea when these men will eat, and you look like you won’t last too long.’ I agreed wholeheartedly, and we ate, said our farewells quietly and left.
Even up to that point I had my faculties still intact. You had to be alert when driving in the Anamallais, both because of the road conditions as well as the possibility of coming upon a herd of elephants or gaur around a bend. That night was mercifully elephant free and we reached Lower Sheikalmudi Estate without incident. As I took the final turn on the road leading up to our bungalow (the ‘Tennis Court Bungalow’), I relaxed and that was my undoing. The next thing I knew, there was a crash and the car came to an abrupt halt. I was shocked back into awareness and realized that I had driven off the road. The left front wheel of the car was hanging off the side of the road in midair with the front fender resting against a tea bush, which was the reason we didn’t go all the way down into the ravine. The chassis was resting on the road bed. My wife and I were shocked. It was 2:00 am and there we were.
I realized that this was not a good situation because the car didn’t belong to me. It was Mr. Menon’s car and a new one to boot. It was therefore my responsibility to get out of this situation. It didn’t even occur to me that I could leave the car where it was until morning and then get assistance to take it out of its predicament. I had crashed it and it was up to me to get it out. And I had to do it right away; it was not even a matter to think about. As it was, the car was directly below a stairway that led up to our house. I got my wife to walk up to the house so that she would be safely home. Then I went in search of a tractor to pull the car out. I knew that the leaf transport tractors – Massey Ferguson – used to be parked near Mayura Factory, about two kilometers from where I was. Our roads had no street lights and it was a dark night. The tea fields were home to wild boar and other friendly species, not to mention several species of snakes, but none of them was my boss while AVG Menon was. So, I hiked off in search of a tractor. On the way I called my good friend, mechanic Thangavelu, because there was no way that I could pull the car out alone. He and his ever-present smile came out of his house as if he had been waiting for me. Both of us got to where the tractors were parked and selected the one we wanted.
None of the tractors had self-starters and used to be parked on an incline so that you could roll down and start the engine. And they had no lights; I never understood why. Working in starlight, I got into the driver’s seat, rolled down, and started the tractor. Now we needed a tow rope. Thangavelu recalled that the telephone company people had been working on a line passing through one of our fields and had left a coil of telephone wire there. So off we went, with Thangavelu standing on a plank behind me, holding the seat as I drove the tractor. We picked up the coil of wire and drove back to where the car was; hooked up the wire to the chassis at the back and pulled the car back on the road. When I examined the damage, I saw that the tea bush had taken the shock and except for a small side indicator light, nothing was broken. That was a big relief to put it mildly. Thangavelu and I, then took the tractor back to its parking spot and I drove home at 3:30 am. I still recall the first thing that AVG asked me when I told him that we’d had an accident in his new car. He said, “I hope you both are alright?” I told him that we were fine but that his new car had been inaugurated with a broken indicator light. He was amused and laughed it off and said, “That can be fixed. I am happy that nothing happened to you both.”
That is why we used to call him A Very Good Menon (AVG Menon).