did things get so bad?” I am sure you must have heard, asked or thought about
this yourself. So have I. Many times, over the years whenever I saw a
badly-behaved child being fed with the help of an iPad, a spaced-out teenager
who seems lost in his electronic world where Facebook friends are more real to
her than real human ones or when I read reports of rapes and murders being
filmed on smart phones by stupid people. And my instant reaction is, “It was
not like this 40 years ago. What went wrong?” And there would rest the case;
until the next episode. This is 2019 and so when I say, ‘40 years’ we are
talking about two generations; that is the 1980’s. It is not to say that
everything was hunky-dory until 1980 and suddenly in 1981 it all collapsed. But
it is a live demo of the truth of the ‘Boiled Frog Syndrome’.
uninitiated, this has nothing to do with cuisine, but with gradual social
change which suddenly becomes starkly visible, having been unperceived for a
long time before that. The parable is that if you put a frog into a pot of hot
water, it will jump out. But if you put the frog into a pot of water at room
temperature and allow it to get comfortable in it; then you light a fire under
the pot and gradually heat the water, the frog doesn’t register that the water
is getting hotter. It continues to feel comfortable in the water which is
getting hotter and hotter until it reaches a point when it does register that
things are not the same but by then it is too late, and the frog gets boiled.
That is what happens to people and to societies. That is what I believe has
happened to us in India.
Let me do
a flashback to the time that I was growing up, which was in the 60’s and 70’s.
We (me Muslim) lived in a multi-religious society, as we do now, but with a big
difference. Nobody had TV’s or smart phones (we didn’t even have stupid
phones), so our social life was with our friends. We played football and
cricket; yes, really! I mean in the maidan (open field) near our house. We went
to their homes and they came to ours. We participated in their festivals; not
the religious ceremonies, but the fun and games, eats and sweets. And they did
the same with ours. We knew them and their culture and religion, respected it,
understood their boundaries and adhered to them, took an interest in their
culture and they did the same with ours. We spoke about all this because there
was no football or cricket to speak of
and as far as I can recall, (cricket was a 5-day Test Match – a test of
patience for everyone), politics was a given (Panditji was alive after all) and
so there was hardly any discussion about that. We needed people and they needed
us. So, we appreciated each other.
in joint families, referred to our elders by our relationship with them or an honorific
in keeping with their age. So, it was Dadaji, Amma, Baba, Mataji, Dadiji,
Chachi, Chacha and so on. Hardly anyone was ‘Uncle’ or ‘Aunty’. There were some
but not too many. It was the job of all elders to discipline us, teach us, tell
us stories, guide us in our religious or cultural norms, customs and practices
and when they were doing that, if any of our friends was around, they would get
the benefit of this teaching, no matter which religion they came from. They
listened with respect and so did we. Our culture was distinct from that of
others, but I don’t remember anyone in my family ever referring to the culture
of others in any even remotely derogatory term. I don’t believe that my family
or elders were unique. They were ordinary people of the time. We learnt our
cultural norms, manners, taboos, customs and practices from our environment and
those around us and since we lived in joint families, there were plenty of
those. It didn’t matter that Dad was away at work, Mom was always home and even
if she went anywhere, one or both grandparents, an uncle or aunt or two were
always around to ensure that we ate, slept, were safe, studied, went out and
played and when it was time, prayed. Mom and Dad didn’t need to do these things
ate out because it was considered uncultured to eat in a restaurant. People
asked you, ‘Don’t you have a home?’ If you took a friend out to a restaurant it
meant that he was not close to you or that you didn’t really respect him.
Otherwise you would have brought him home. It was normal to eat at each other’s
homes, no matter that in some cases the food laws are very different and rigid.
But Brahmins, Marwaris, Kayasth and Reddy friends all ate regularly at our place.
When those we knew to be particular about their food laws were coming, strictly
vegetarian food would be cooked. Those that ate meat at our house did that because
they wished to. Nobody forced of even suggested it to them. Once again, this
was not unique. This was the norm. I recall dropping in at the home of my good
friend from school, Gurcharan Singh. I said, “Sat Sri Akal” to his mother
(Mummy), Dad (Dadji), Grandmother (Mataji) and “Hi” to his sister and brothers
and him. They all said, “Come and eat”, as they were having lunch. His mother
said, with a big smile on her face, “Aaloo paratha bana hai. Tujhe pasand hai
na!” because she knew how much I loved it. As I sat down, Guru’s father pointed
to a covered dish and said, “Usay utthay rakh do.” (Put that there; signing to
the sideboard); meaning, take that dish away from the table. Guru jokingly
said, “Dadji koi problem nahin hai. Yawar yahan kha lega.” His father was
distinctly not amused. He said, “Khana hai tho kahin aur ja kar khaye. Ithey
nahin.” (If he wants to eat, let him go and eat somewhere else. Not here.) What
they were talking about was pork vindaloo. I would not have eaten it anyway,
but for them it was not a joking matter. We respected each other’s traditions
and unless someone volunteered to break his own tradition, it was not broken
for him. Some Muslims went to their Hindu and Christian friends to drink
alcohol, but nobody forced them to do it. If they chose to do it, that was
their choice, just as it was the choice of vegetarian Hindus to eat meat in
their Muslim friend’s homes, if they wished. Needless to say, many Hindus are
not vegetarian and eat meat and fish.
were a very big thing. You never addressed an elder by name. Or even as Mr.
So-and-so. You either called him Uncle So-and-so or just Uncle. Same thing for
the Aunties. If a boy whistled at a girl, anyone older around would simply
thrash him right then and there. You asked permission, said ‘please’ and ‘thank
you’. The role models you looked up to or who were mentioned to you were people
who were known for their honesty, integrity, hard work, compassion; always for
their values. What people owned was not the subject of discussion firstly
because most people owned similar things, drove similar cars (if they drove a
car at all) and lived in similar houses. The differences were not major and it
was considered crass and highly uncivilized to mention money or the price of
anything. If someone asked you how you were, you replied, “Very well
Uncle/Aunty. Thank you.” You didn’t say, “I’m good”, because that is first of
all, not the right answer because the person was not asking about your moral
condition but your physical well-being and secondly because we thought it was
their job to tell us if we were good or bad. Not ours to announce.
in short supply though we never wanted for anything. We wore each other’s
handed down clothes. We wore shoes until they became holey. Our clothes were
hand-made to measure because that was the cheapest option. Readymade clothes
were expensive and jeans you only saw in pictures. Pocket money was unheard of.
You got money for the bus fare to school and that was it. Whatever else you
needed had to have a reason behind it, and “I want it” was not a reason. We
lived in bungalows on large plots of land because our parents had inherited
them from their parents. We didn’t go on holidays and looked very enviously at
those very few who went to Ooty for two weeks every summer so that they could
return to Hyderabad’s heat and appreciate it better. But then, at that time you
wore a sweater from November to February and the swimming pool (Public Swimming
Pool in Fateh Maidan – does it even exist anymore – where Jeelani Pairak was
the coach) only opened its doors in the middle of March because it was too cold
to swim before that.
were all of four career choices, medicine, engineering (mechanical or civil),
Civil Service or Army. You picked one or if you didn’t, it was thrust upon you
for all kinds of reasons out of your control and then you studied for the
exams. When you got 80% you got presents and gave a party. If you got 90%
people thought that you had cheated. Life was simple, uncomplicated and moved
on at its own pace.
the 80’s. TV came on the scene with its soaps, serials and news. The world
suddenly opened. Education changed. Multiple disciplines became available to
study leading to hitherto unheard-of career options. The Middle East opened up
for jobs, so did America and Canada. Young people left to make their fortunes.
In some cases, the wives and children remained behind. In most other cases, it
was only the elderly parents who saw off their children at the airport to
return to empty houses and loneliness. All in the name of money. Thanks to
repatriation of funds and the effect of the TV, suddenly money was easy and
material things, appliances, clothes, cars, motorcycles, all became affordable.
Rapidly these became not only nice to have but grounds for competition with
neighbors, friends and strangers. Suddenly we discovered that our neighbor’s
name was Jones and we had to compete with them (Keeping up with the Joneses).
sound like ancient history today in 2019 going on the magic number 2020. What
do we have today? Hatred. We hate each other and that sells, that gets you
elected, that gets you followers, it is chic, it is fashionable, and it works. It
is most preferable to hate Muslims, but anyone else will also do, if there are
no Muslims around. As long as you hate. That is the only thing that counts. So,
our world has shrunk. We meet people like ourselves, who talk like we do, eat what
we eat, like what we like and dislike what we dislike. We hate the same people and
in each other’s rhetoric, we find solace.
We live in our echo chamber and that has become our world. There are those
among us who were born in this echo chamber. They don’t know anything else. But
there are those who were born and lived in a world that was very different from
this one. A world where there were no echo chambers, like there were no mobile
phones, laptops, social media and even television. A world that was real. Today
in our echo chamber, we sometimes ask ourselves this question, “What happened
to that world?” Then we correct ourselves and ask, “What did we do to it?”
Mutual respect are what I call my three Cardinal Principles of happy marriages.
Please notice that I am not using the word ‘love’. Love comes out of these
three things. What is called love is usually physical desire. The shape or size
of someone’s body is not the inspiration for love; it can be the inspiration
for infatuation and lust but not love. For love to happen, the lasting kind
that is, the kind that grows with age and the longer you spend time together,
you need truthfulness, caring and concern for one another – putting the needs
of the other before your own; and mutual respect. Without respect there can’t
be any love. One needs to respect one’s spouse, appreciate their strengths,
make them your role model, icon and be proud of them and proud that they are
your spouse. That kindles love in the heart which grows with time because the
reasons for respect also grow with time. Physical attraction reduces with age.
It is programmed to do so. Nobody grows more beautiful with age. You mature
with age, grow wiser, more mellow, more patient and forbearing and more worthy
of respect. The love that comes out of that also grows with age.
Truth is to express feelings as
they are and not to have any pretensions. Caring is to treat the other with
concern because you know that with you s/he has no barriers or safety nets.
Respect is to acknowledge the value of the trust that is placed in you in
allowing you into that inner most of places in the heart in which nobody else
has been allowed before. To treat that privilege with the respect it deserves
and never to abuse it for any reason.
Is there a formula to be happy in a
Marry someone you believe is worthy of emulation;
someone you can look up to and learn to forgive them. The formula of an unhappy
marriage is to marry someone who you believe you can change. That is a sure
recipe for disaster. When you marry someone who you think needs to be changed
you are accepting that they are not good enough as it is. Also, in most cases
you would not have asked them if they want to change and that too to your
preferred model. And then you will lo and behold that they have other ideas
about changing and your marriage will be the casualty.
The second part of the formula is to be forgiving. We need to forgive one another. What tends to happen in many marriages is that we expect the other person to forgive us, but we hold them to standards that we are ourselves unable to live up to and become curiously blind to this unreasonable stance. That doesn’t work. Good to remember the saying, ‘Sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander.’
One thing that people should consider while
choosing one’s partner is compatibility of core values. Core values means both
are pulling in the same direction even with their different personalities,
styles of working and interests. Minimizes contradictions in bringing up
children in the domain of values.
Share in each other’s lives. Take interest in what
the other does. Don’t be nosey but learn and add value. Conversation is both
the key to a happy marriage and a metre to judge its health. Marriages that are
getting sick start to lose conversation. When there is nothing left to talk about
after 10 minutes and when your idea of spending time with your spouse is to sit
in front of the TV or stare at your phone in the same room, then you can safely
say that your marriage is falling sick. In happy marriages there is a desire
for the company of the other. Not for the company of others. You hurry home
because your spouse is there. You don’t hit home and bounce off to the club to
sit with your cronies or to some other place to be with other friends. You want
to spend time with your spouse not because otherwise s/he will complain but
because you genuinely want to do it. Because your spouse is your best friend.
How do you make a marriage work?
By working at it. We use this term, ‘Make a marriage work’, but we forget that a lot of it is actually ‘work’. It takes effort, time and energy, is measurable and produces results. Making breakfast for your wife is work. Offering to do her errands is work. Taking the trouble to look nice when your husband comes home instead of like animated laundry is work. Going to the airport to meet his flight is work. You get the drift? Doing what does not come naturally or doing something that is important for the other even if you don’t like doing it, is work. And all of it produces results in terms of appreciation and love.
If you find that you can’t love your spouse any more, be honest and speak to them about it. See what can be changed and what must be accepted. But don’t go seeking solace elsewhere. That is dishonest, dishonorable, despicable and cowardly. If things are at a stage where it is impossible to live together, part company with grace. Not cheat behind their backs, pretending that everything is fine. Those who collude with other’s spouses and carry on relationships with married men and women are slimy invertebrates which must crawl back under the flat rock they came out from under and not despoil human society with their presence. I never cease to marvel at people who allow another marriage to be destroyed by their cheating, but who would be up in arms if their wife or husband did the same. “Just because you have a good excuse does not make a wrong thing right.”
As I say, ‘If I wanted to marry a nag, I would
have married a horse. At least it would have carried me from place to place.’
Nag is a gender-neutral term. There are male and female nags, and both are
equally painful. Finally, companionable silence is also an indicator of a good
marriage. You don’t have to be talking all the time. It is the quality of the
companionship, the quality of the silence. You will know it without anyone having
to explain, let me assure you. But pay attention to it if there is tension or
boredom in it.
How can you try and make an unhappy
marriage a happy one?
This is a tough one because there is a pre-clause
to it. Once you satisfy that pre-clause then it is very easy. The pre-clause
is, ‘DO YOU REALLY WANT IT TO HAPPEN?’ Now that may sound like a strange thing
to ask but I have seen in many years of counseling that all the failures that I
saw were because the partners did not really want to make it work. They were
not sincere and were merely going through the moves with the idea of satisfying
themselves or others that ‘they made the effort’. Now that is a lie because
they never made an effort. They acted a drama with a precluded ending.
Once you are sincere about turning things around
then you need to sit down and write down all that you like about your spouse.
After all there were things about them that you liked enough to marry them.
What were they? Then when you have that list, you write down the problem areas.
Look in the mirror for one of the major ones. Usually that works like magic.
Marriages go bad most often because we don’t appreciate the good enough and are
not thankful for what they have. I often ask couples, ‘How many times a day do
you thank your wife/husband? How many times a day do you hug or kiss them? How
many times a day do you tell them that you love them?’ No, that is not a
Western idea nor is it from Bollywood. Humans are not mind readers and even
those that are, need to be told if you love them. After all, most spouses don’t
hesitate to inform them about the opposite. So, why not this?
Is the idea of a soul mate just a myth – or
is it simple communication between people?
Soul mates are made, not born. And they are made
over time. Sometimes a fairly long time. Then you see them sitting together and
smiling at things that only they understand. Or looks that have meaning only
for each other. Or speaking in a language that only the other understands.
Phrases that they use only for each other and which may even be gibberish to others,
but which touch their hearts. This is the stage when every time you look at her
you fall in love all over again, 30 years into your marriage. And laughing.
Laughing is important. Laughing together at the same things. Showing each other
things so as to add to the joy by sharing.
What kind of initiatives and actions
dictate a happy marriage?
Back to the basics: Truth, caring, mutual respect.
Every action or initiative must pass this test. Are you being truthful? Is her
need coming before your own? And are you showing the respect you feel? I
remember that my grandmother used to serve my grandfather his meals. Every
meal. She would put food on his plate, refill it, offer him the choicest pieces
of meat, watch to see what he needed and give it to him before he asked for it.
She would eat every meal with him, without exception in a house that was a
mansion with several servants. But no servant was ever allowed to give my
grandfather anything directly. They brought the tray to my grandmother and she
served him. All this she did with such a look of love and devotion on her face
that I can see clearly in my mind even today 50 years later and more than 30
years since both of them died. Why did she do this? Just because she liked to do
it. It really is that simple.
He fully reciprocated this. He never did anything
without asking for her advice. He never went anywhere without her. He wore what
she gave him. She had complete control of his money. He never touched it. He never
asked her for any account with a level of trust seldom seen today, even though
it was his money, so to speak. He never raised his voice to her for anything.
He never even looked at her except with love. He never made fun of her and she
never made fun of him. Both laughed together. He was passionate about chess and
played chess every evening with his brother and cousin who all lived together
in the same house which my great grandfather built. She never played chess in
her life. Different interests but the real interest was in each other. She was
his whole life in every sense of the word. In Tamil there is a word for wife –
Samsaram. It is the same word for the world. That is how it was for my
grandparents. They were each other’s world. Complete in themselves, content
with each other, reflected in every moment of their lives.
He loved her and she loved him, and it showed. She
died first. He died three months later of a broken heart. But they left
memories for their children and grandchildren about how to be married and how
to treat your spouse.
How much involvement should parents and in
laws have in a marriage?
None whatsoever. This is the single most potent
recipe for disaster. Parents should be involved in their own marriages. Once
your children are married, they are not children any more. Leave them alone and
let them work out their problems. They are adults and that is why they got
married. The problem with many parents (mostly mothers) especially in our
society (Indian) is that they are most anxious about getting their children
married and then they start feeling insignificant and so become competitors
with their own daughters in law. Remember that if you become your daughter in
law’s competitor, you lose if you lose and you lose if you win. Both ways you
lose. So, get out of the way. Leave them alone. Visit them for 2 days, not
more, every six months – every year is even better. Don’t talk for more than 5
minutes on the phone. Don’t chat on Skype or Yahoo or WhatsApp or anything
else. Don’t ask personal questions. And above all, don’t ask, ‘Are you happy?’
I have yet to see a marriage survive the attention of parents and parents in
At the same time, I would advise young couples
also to take steps to kindly discourage this involvement if you see it
happening. If you are old enough to get married, you are old enough to solve your
own problems. If you are running to your parents with your problems, then put
on your diapers. You are not ready for marriage. If your Mom calls and asks
you, ‘So what did he say when you told him such and such?’ Tell your Mom, ‘Mom,
sorry I won’t tell you what he told me.’ Smile and say it but say it clearly.
Spend time with your spouse, not with your mother. I am not asking you to
neglect your mother or father but remember that your spouse has first call on
your time, once you get married.
How does one make compromises?
They are not called ‘compromises’. They are called
‘adjustments’. It is not the semantics of it but the attitudes that language
indicates and dictates. We make compromises when forced to do so. We make
adjustments to things so that we can enjoy them more. One of the things that
most young couples don’t bargain for is the aspects of sharing ownership, time
and privacy that marriage brings with it. Nobody told them about it, and they
didn’t think about it when they had stars in their eyes. Honeymoons are in
hotels and sharing a hotel room is different from sharing your own bedroom and
your own cupboard. Changing from ‘I’ to ‘We’ is often a difficult process.
Having said that, decide on what is important to
you. Don’t make compromises on issues of principle. Explain to your spouse why
you won’t compromise, and wise partners will respect that. But issues which are
important to the other and which you can live with changing, change. Remember
the point about concern for the other? It is good to remember that everything
is not a test of your masculinity or femininity. By ‘giving in’ to something
you don’t lose face; you win hearts. Do it unless it is something that goes
against your fundamental values.
It is a very good idea to have some frank sharing of
thoughts on what is important to you, before getting married. If you didn’t do
it then, do it now. It will be more difficult but then that is what you chose. When
your spouse is talking, simply listen. Don’t justify, agree, disagree or argue.
Just listen respectfully and then decide what you love, what you can live with,
what you can change in yourself and what you need to talk to the other person
about. Most couples, in the courtship stage are too busy on appearing their
best and get into a pretense mode that has no relation to what they are really
like. Acting can’t be sustained and the mask comes off sooner than later with predictable
results. Speak to each other frankly and then decide if you want to get
married. During this conversation speak clearly and tell them what the
non-negotiables for you are. Don’t try to be politically correct or polite or
whatever and hide or play down things that you really feel strongly about.
Maybe it is something to do with practicing your religious beliefs, or about
family values or that your Mom will live with you or that the cat shares your
bed or whatever. No matter what it is, if it is important, then say it. That is
far more positive and far less painful than having your spouse discover it
later. Some things may seem ‘silly’ to you but if they are important enough for
the other person then they will cause you serious trouble if you don’t respect
When does one know that a marriage is not
working? And when should people do something about it?
A marriage is ultimately an agreement between two
people to live together for mutual benefit. When you find that there is no
mutual benefit and that the living together is causing more grief than joy then
you know that it is not working. Then you must ask yourself the questions:
Am I willing to make it work?
What will it take to make it work?
Am I willing to do what it takes?
If the answer
to all of them is in the affirmative, then get on with it and work. If not,
then it is time to call it a day. The important thing to do even if you decide
to divorce is to remember the first three rules: Truthfulness, concern for the
other and mutual respect. Ensure that you don’t do anything that is not
scrupulously honest and completely above board. Show concern and ensure that
the other person does not leave with any bad feeling. The divorce is bad
enough. Don’t add negative baggage to it. Show respect for each other. You
deserve it and your marriage deserves it. Part company if you must but do it in
a way that is respectful and honorable.
How to make efforts to making a marriage
work – for the man and woman?
It is essential to differentiate between Core Responsibilities
and other things. In my view it is the Core Responsibility of the man to work
and earn a living and take care of the financial responsibilities of the
family. It is Core Responsibility of the
woman to make the home a place of beauty, grace and harmony and to focus on the
upbringing of the children. I know this may sound old fashioned to some but
just take a look at what the result of the Yuppy and Puppy culture is, and you
will come back to the basics soon enough. Having taken care of the Core
Responsibility, naturally the man must help around the home, take care of
children, water the garden, wash the car, mow the lawn, take out the garbage
and not sit in front of the TV with his feet propped up and a bowl of popcorn
at his elbow – or whatever passes as its equivalent in your culture.
Similarly once the Mom has taken care of her Core
Responsibility then it is good if she waters the garden, washes the car, mows
the lawn, takes out the garbage and does not sit in front of the TV with her
feet propped up and a bowl of popcorn at her elbow – or whatever passes as its
equivalent in your culture. I am sure you understand what I mean. Dividing
responsibilities is a very good idea. Do it whichever way you like but do it.
Role clarity is essential in a happy marriage and role conflict causes the
maximum stress on it. It is essential for one of the spouses to be dedicated to
the upbringing of children; teaching them life skills, manners, tools of
thinking, decision making and teaching them core values of life. Today in the
Yuppy and Puppy cultures the idea of bringing up children is to feed them,
ensure that they are washed and dried and entertained. That is what you do with
the dog. Not with your child. Children need a jolly sight more than food, clothing
and shelter if you want to develop a human being who will be your legacy to the
world. I believe you need to dedicate yourself to that because it is important.
If you don’t agree, use condoms. That is far
better than producing children who are a nuisance at best and a painful reality
in the lives of others, as long as they live.
responsibility is it to make a marriage happy?
Naturally it is the responsibility of both people
like in any agreement. It is important to recognize and accept this
responsibility so that you will then do what it takes to fulfill it. As I
mentioned above, I advocate sitting down and having a dialogue before you get
married about what each one is supposed to do. Say it to each other and agree
on it. Don’t leave it to guesswork and discovery. That leads to
misunderstanding and disappointment. A good marriage is a dream. To make it
come true you must wake up and work. If you expect your wife to cook for your
friends who you will bring home from time to time, say it. And say what time to
time means. If you expect your husband to pick up the food on the way home with
his friends from the restaurant, say so. If you expect your wife to make
breakfast for you and sit with you watching you get outside the eggs and toast,
say so. If you expect your husband to bring the eggs and toast to you in bed
(never really liked the idea of eating without first brushing your teeth), say
so. What I mean is that in marriages, it is often the so-called ‘silly things’
that lead to trouble. So silly or not, say it if it is important to you.
My second Cardinal Principle – Concern, is what is
most important to remember. If you apply the Golden Rule – Do unto them as you
would have them do unto you – you can’t go wrong. The virus that kills marriage
is a two-letter word – ME. To get you must first give. What you have in your
hand is your harvest. What you sow is your seed. To get a harvest you must
first sow the seed. Remember that the harvest is always more than the seed. So,
give and give with grace, with love, with joy. And you will get much more than
you bargained for. Show consideration for your spouse. Do things without being
asked. Be aware of what they like the most and do it. Try to please them. Don’t
play power games. The marriage is not a contest to get the better of the other.
You are not in a race or in a WWF wrestling match or in a competition to see
who is more powerful. Remember that every time you ‘win’ the other person
loses. And losing is something that nobody enjoys. So, at some point they will
get tired of losing and you will have no marriage. And that is the biggest loss
that you brought on to yourself. A marriage is a relay race – long term,
passing the baton to the other at each stage and the team – in this case the
two of you – wins.
In today’s times of
pre-nups, fast track divorces and even websites as matchmakers, what kind of
mindset should people have when getting into a marriage?
Today we live in a world where selfishness is not
a sin anymore. However, changing your mind about an evil does not make it good.
You will get sick even if you fall in love with the virus. People wanting to
get married must learn to think about the other and to consciously give him or
her precedence and preference. If you can’t do this, your marriage will break
down sooner or later. Our lifestyles, the internet, social networking and
talking to people across the world from other cultures, the TV with its unreal,
fantasy world of soap operas, are all designed to destroy marriages. They
promote ideas that are either directly destructive or lead to the killing
fields of marriages. Today in the world of social media, Instagram, Facebook,
Twitter, Snapchat and God-alone-knows-what, there is so much pressure on making
public what must be private that no marriage can survive it. People live in a
fantasy world of pictures which show the best, project an unreal lifestyle and
raise expectations that are impossible to meet. You are not in competition with
the Kardashians or anyone else, so get real. A good marriage is about living in
the real world, not in a world that is neither bold nor beautiful.
Is the 7-year itch
based on statistics or research? In your mind, does it exist?
I don’t think there is any such thing. Looking
outside your marriage for companionship which can then lead to a breakup, is a
sign of intrinsic unhappiness. If you feel it, the thing to do is to deal with
it. Not look outside. The problem with 7-year itches is that every 7 years you
are older and less desirable. Then where will you go?
How important are
children to have a happy marriage? Some couples cannot have children, others
choose not to.
I don’t think children either make a marriage
happy or unhappy. It is more their upbringing that makes the home happy or not.
Children give the parents a common interest but for a marriage if the only
thing in common is the children then something is wrong. On the converse side
children take a lot of time and attention and energy and this can be difficult
to handle for many people. But if the spouses share in the work of bringing up
children and take the trouble to bring them up well, with good manners, values
and attitudes, then they can be a huge asset for the marriage.
What can couples do
to keep the bespoke “spark” in the marriage?
Appreciate each other and express this appreciation
daily. Catch each other doing right. Do things for one another only to see the
smile on the face. Invent your own language which only the two of you
understand. My wife and I used to keep a book on a table in the house in which
we would write things we liked about each other or something nice we wanted to
say to one another. We did say it as well but sometimes writing is easier. Give
flowers and chocolates. Men also like flowers, remember. Second most important
rule: Don’t react to everything that the other says. Take ten deep breaths.
Then forget it. Reactions produce reactions and, in the end, it is taken out of
Finally, never go to bed, mad at each other.
Always make up before you go to bed. Cuddle up together and sleep. Never
quarrel in the bedroom. Never in bed. Make this a rule. If you have a problem,
deal with it in the morning. Usually by the morning it would have solved
Well, depends on what is meant by ‘fighting’. If
it means trying to get the better of each other in an argument and using all
kinds of means to do so then it is definitely not healthy. If it means arguing
as in a friendly fencing match between equal intellects that leads to good
feeling, then it is good. Avoid power games like the plague. Many marriages
turn into daily competitions between the spouses to see who can control the
other. This takes many apparently benign and legitimate forms. But they are all
illegitimate, subversive and destructive to the marriage.
Some people use religion as a means of control and
invoke religious rulings and promise the other brimstone and hellfire for
disobeying some whim or fancy of theirs. In many cases it is people (mostly men
in this case) who have not done anything significant in life and are suffering from
an inferiority complex and can sense that they really don’t command any respect
on their own, who use religion and religious rulings to enforce their will on
the woman. Women use religion to compensate for their own feelings of
inadequacy where they feel that they are not loved or desired as much as they
would like to be. ‘Should’ is the most useless word in the language. If people
did what they should then the world would have been a different place. Both
need to look at the real drivers behind their apparent religious orientation
because it has nothing to do with the Almighty. Power games come in many
packages. Spouses use children as pawns in their games at getting the better of
each other. Others use health concerns, eat more, eat less, joint family rules,
cultural taboos and many other things. All are power games, and all are
How important is
money to keep a marriage happy?
Not important at all. Both financial hardship and
plenty can be a source of bonding or a source of drifting apart. It is mutual
respect and concern for one another that counts. And that is a result of
character, piety, learning, nobility of conduct and deportment, confidence,
trustworthiness, dignity and grace, genuine desire to please one another and to
place the need of the other before and above one’s own. None of these are
things that money can buy or that we need money for. Marriages are happy or
break up for reasons other than money. Money problems are not money problems
even when there are money problems; if you see what I mean.
What are the worst things couples can do to
Lie, betray trust, cheat, play power games. Also
making fun of one another as in mocking. Showing disrespect in the name of
humor. Humor is to laugh with someone, not to laugh at them. Lastly but by no
means the least, by being overly self-focused and showing disregard and no
concern for the other. Honesty is still the best policy in 2019 and will still
be the best policy in 3019 if the world lasts that long.
resort to white lies or tiny lies to keep the peace?
There’s a difference between telling lies and not divulging
all the details. Not divulging all the details, for example about your
friendships before marriage, is not wrong and is a very wise thing to do. The
spouse has no need to know and it is something that does no good to the
marriage no matter how ‘broadminded’ the spouse may be. But to tell a lie is
wrong and goes against the grain of all that I have said above. Incidentally
‘white lies’ is a racially color biased term, like ‘black sheep’, ‘nightmare’,
‘black heart’ and so on; the legacy of English which is originally the white
man’s language. Knight in shining armor can be all black too – black shines
even more than white if you notice.
Having said that, telling ‘the truth’
inappropriately or in a harsh manner does no good either. Being silent is an
option that is worth exploring. For example, if the toast is burnt or the food
has no salt or something is not to your liking there are many ways of saying
it. But you also have the option of remaining silent in honor of all the times
that it was delicious. If the husband comes home cranky it is irritating but
you have the option to remind yourself that a nice cup of tea and talking about
something else is probably more productive than saying, ‘Don’t bring your
office home.’ You would be justified in saying so, but sometimes it is better
to be kind than to be justified. Diplomacy and wisdom are great virtues and
most useful in a marriage. Not rubbing their nose in it is wise. Turn away
gracefully. Don’t watch their discomfiture. Spouses realize that they are wrong
but may not necessarily grovel at your feet and beg forgiveness. It is wise to
leave them alone and not demand groveling. People’s dignity is important to
maintain. Be it a management – union negotiation or a domestic disagreement, it
is important to allow the one who is wrong to ‘save face’. To insist on
humiliating them is to burn bridges to future relationship. Remember that you
are also human and will surely be wrong one day. Don’t create a situation where
the other is waiting for that day to return your favor.
Does it help couples when they talk about
their problems? To whom, a stranger or someone they know?
It is helpful for couples to talk about their
problems to someone they respect and whose advice they are willing to listen
to. Usually it is better to talk to strangers as they are perceived to be
fairer and more objective, as they don’t know either party but really it
doesn’t matter as long as it is someone you respect and who you have decided to
listen to, meaning, to obey his or her advice. As I have said earlier, before
you go to talk to anyone, decide if you are going to listen to what they say
even if they don’t agree with you. If you are going to someone with the
expectation that they must agree with you and support your stance no matter
what it is, then don’t waste your and their time. No self-respecting, honest
arbitrator with any dignity will agree to be biased in favor of one party or
the other. If they do, then they are not fit for the position.
In conclusion I would like to say that a marriage
can be as good or as bad as you would like to make it. It is literally in your
“So, Comrade Baig, you have been living here for two years. What are your impressions about our country?” The interviewer was from Guyana Chronicle, the main English newspaper. I was being interviewed because I was there. Comrade was a gender-neutral term used to address anyone because Guyana was a socialist (communist) country ruled by an iron-man with an iron fist, not always in a velvet glove. My interviewer had come in preparation for a great event, the visit of the President, Hon. Linden Forbes Sampson Burnham who was the leader of Guyana from 1964 until his death, as the first Prime Minister from 1964 to 1980 and as second President from 1980 to 1985. I lived in Guyana from 1979-83 and so in the middle of the reign of the President Linden Forbes Sampson Burnham. We called him Comrade Burnham; meaning we referred to him as that. When he visited Kwakwani, he arrived by helicopter, which was a grand spectacle in itself and for many Kwakwani people, including myself, it was the first time any of us had seen a helicopter. The helipad on Staff Hill was surrounded by people all waving PNC flags and screaming their welcome above the roar of the rotors. As the helicopter landed, the dust thrown up effectively shut everyone’s mouths. Since he was the guest of our company, Guymine, Berbice Operations and I was the Assistant Administrative Manager, it meant that I got to stand to one side with the senior managers including the CEO who welcomed Cdr. Burnham. There was Haslyn Parris, the CEO of Guyana Mining Enterprise (Guymine), Stephen Ng Qui Sang, the Berbice Operations Coordinator, Walter Melville, Personnel Coordinator, James Nicholas Adams, Berbice Operations Administrative Manager and my boss and George Schultz, Berbice Operations Mines Manager. All of them were in the front-line welcoming the President.
Among the things that were peculiar to the reign of Forbes Burnham, (I use the term because to all intents and purposes he was a ‘Ruler’ more than a leader. Some called him ‘Dictator’) was his no-nonsense style, which translated into no-opposition to his policies. Guyana of those days had a pall of fear over it and if you knew what was good for you, you didn’t talk politics. I knew what was good for me. Burnham was dealing with the aftermath of freedom and he and his party chose the socialist way. Guyana was called the Co-Operative Republic of Guyana and was closely aligned with Cuba and Soviet Russia, though it was officially part of the NAM (non-Aligned Movement). This was not to the liking of either the Americans or the British, Guyana’s erstwhile colonizers but that was reality. Guyana paid a high price in facing political blockages resulting in shortages at home. However, in today’s terms, things were easy. Unlike today, Guyana had not discovered that it had oil and so nobody was particularly interested in what Guyana did or didn’t do. There was bauxite and sugar. There was some gold, but it was not really extracted in any big way. There were and are major rivers but no hydro power. There was no organized or large-scale agriculture or ranching though there was land enough and more for both. Guyana was poor. What was also happening was the reality about payback time after any revolution leading to freedom. People who struggled for the freedom remember the promises made during the struggle and are looking to live happily ever after, forgetting that that is only a last line in fairy tales. To develop we need education and very hard work.
Burnham’s policies drove Guyanese out of Guyana and many migrated to the United States, Canada and the UK. As it used to be said at one time, ‘There are more Guyanese in Brooklyn than there are in Guyana.’ True or false, there were too few in Guyana and those that remained were people who really couldn’t leave or were in government jobs where political affiliation counted for more than any competence. The results on the economy and society were hardly surprising or beneficial. On that day Comrade Burnham ascended the podium that had been constructed and spoke, short and clear. I still remember this line in his speech. He said, “A-we Gainese wan far go-va-men to give us everytin while we sit upon we sit-upons and wait. Lemme tell ayo dat if ayo wan devlopmen, ayo gon hav to wok fo it. But we like to sit upon our sit-upons and talk about what the Go-va-men mos do an vat Mistah Bonham mos do but nevah about wa I mos do. That won’t work. Unless we decide to get up and help ourselves, nothing will change.” To me, that made perfect sense. And if someone didn’t like the man because he spoke plainly, well, that is their choice. Burnham was also known for and liked or hated for some of his policies, among which was the banning of wheat flour and the promotion of rice flour. Guyana grows rice while wheat was imported. Naturally this went against the established food habits of people and they didn’t like it. Burnham did it to reduce the import bill, but economic policy succeeds or fails more for subjective emotional reasons than objective logical ones.
Burnham decreed a policy of self-reliance and many imports including food staples were banned. Among the things that were banned apart from wheat flour were also Irish Potatoes, which was rather ironic seeing that potatoes are actually South American and were imported into Ireland. The result was that one night someone came to my house and rang the bell and looking over his shoulder, presented me with ‘forbidden fruit’, three Irish potatoes, smuggled in from Suriname, no less. For an Indian, getting three potatoes as a gift was strange to say the least, but since I lived in Guyana and was totally acculturated, I knew what a great honor and sign of friendship that gesture represented. Forbes Burnham was feared and respected, loved and hated. All hallmarks of strong leaders.
Kwakwani Park Labor Club was an institution. This was a place which had a large hall which doubled as a cinema with a stage at one end. It had a long veranda along one end on which were placed tables at short intervals where people played dominoes with great passion and noise. Inside was the bar, the place for many a meeting, fight and romance. The level of noise in it can only be experienced, not described. The Club could be heard before it was seen. And its smell was never to be forgotten. Playing dominoes in the Kwakwani Club seemed to consist of smashing the domino on the table with all your might and shouting at the top of your voice. I can vouch for the fact that going by this criterion the people who played dominoes in Kwakwani Club must have been world champions. If the game is more than this, then I must beg forgiveness for my ignorance. The Club was also remarkable for its smell. Imagine a combination of stale sweat, beer, and rum floating on heavy humid air in an invisible cloud that came at you as soon as you were within reach. Then it clung to you and entered every exposed pore and remained with you and your clothes through several baths and washes. But this did not seem to bother anyone to the best of my knowledge.
The people of Kwakwani were mostly of African
descent. This, however, is a generalization because in Guyana the racial
mixture is so rich that most people seem to be a combination of many different
races – Amerindian, Chinese, Indian, African, and European. Demographically,
Guyana had at that time about sixty percent people of Indian descent who mostly
lived on the coast. They used to work on the sugar plantations, having been
brought in by the British as indentured labor from India. Another main
occupation of theirs was small time trade. Twenty percent of African descent who
were the descendants of African slaves and also worked on the sugar
plantations. When the emancipation of slaves happened, they walked off the
plantations and settled in the hinterland, engaged in timber extraction and
whatever else they could do. The timber and mining industries are dominated by
them, as are also the Army and the Police. The last twenty percent consists of
the indigenous Amerindian tribes, originally hunter, gatherers who have been
exploited mercilessly by everyone else. They still live in the forests, though
many now live and work on the fringes of whichever town or village that happens
to be nearby. They have the least paying jobs and live mostly by selling wild
meat, fish, honey, balata (wild rubber), and sometimes by working as guides for
In this final section of the population are also
the descendants of the Chinese laborers who were brought by the British to work
on the railway, most of which has fallen into disuse and is rotting away. There
was and continues to be a free mixing of the races though the Indians seem to
keep to themselves and away especially from people of African origin. Indians
everywhere seem to be oriented towards fair-skinned people and practice their
own brand of ‘apartheid’, wherever they live in appreciable numbers, including
in India. The best example of this can be seen if you read the matrimonial
advertisement page in the Sunday papers in India. Almost every single ad will
ask for a bride who above all else is ‘Fair,’ which has nothing to do with her
love for justice, believe me. A very sad practice that harms Indians more than
anyone else, but they have yet to learn this lesson.
Guyana had become independent less than 10 years
before I got there. So, ideology, in this case communist, was still very strong.
As I mentioned earlier, people called each other ‘Comrade,’ which depending on
the tone of voice could be given any kind of connotation from the most warmly
cordial to the positively hostile. As in many such cases, not everyone was a
‘believer,’ but to appear to believe was required. Since ideological alignment
was more important than everything else, efficiency suffered and people who
claimed to be loyalists of the ruling party, the PNC, had personal power far in
excess of their official position.
On Sundays a film would be screened in the Club. Most of the spectators apparently believed that they could influence the outcome of whatever was happening on the screen if they shouted at the actors. So, they proceeded to do the same with great gusto. But strangely nothing seemed to change. The actors continued to do whatever they had intended to do in the first place. Much like government policy in our so-called democracies, which seems to be independent of the screaming and shouting of their poor enslaved populations who have not realized the fact that the script has been written by someone else and will not change with their screaming. Little did I realize while attempting to watch a film in Kwakwani, I would live to see a real-life version of this behavior, thirty years later.
About a kilometer away from Kwakwani Park, up a
small hill was the Officers colony called Staff Hill. In typical British
colonial style, the rulers were separated from the ruled. Even ten years after
independence, Staff Hill was informally out of bounds for ordinary people. It
was meant for Officers, in this case, all black West Indian or East Indian
(people of Indian origin) and though we no longer had a fence and guards as
used to be there in the past, nobody from Kwakwani Park actually came up the
hill except to bring some visiting relative for a short drive to show them how
the other half lived. White and black is not about color; it’s about social
status and attitude.
Staff Hill had two kinds of houses. Bungalow type
houses with 3 bedrooms and a veranda all around them for most of us. And big
wooden houses on stilts with parking underneath them for the really big bosses.
The houses were arranged around a quadrangle with an orange orchard all around
them. There was a swimming pool to cool off. There were tennis courts, a Club
House with a bar, guest rooms, dining room (excellent cooks to boot) with
proper dinner service, uniformed waiters, table tennis table, and a library.
The rules of this Club were very different. The
barman wore a uniform and gloves. You could not play dominos here. And you
could not come to the Club in your shorts and nothing else. You could not shout
at the top of your voice and you could not curse. And no matter that the
British were long gone – as in the case of India, their ways had been adopted
by their erstwhile slaves and upheld as a sign of their own ‘superiority’ over
their own brethren. I am not saying that there is something intrinsically good
about cursing and yelling and unwashed shirts. I am merely pointing at the
reasons we do some things and how we use certain norms to demonstrate our own
superiority over others.
In Kwakwani Park was the hospital where for a year
my father was the resident doctor, Nurse Liverpool the Head Nurse, and
MacFarlane the Compounder. All wonderful people who ran a very good hospital
indeed. Kwakwani was a lovely small town where you knew everyone, and everyone
knew you. There were no strangers in Kwakwani. Everyone knew what was happening
in your life and had an interest in it. And you in theirs. People had the time
to stop whatever they were doing to chat with you when you came past. Nobody
passed anyone on the street without saying, “Aye! Aye! Maan!! Ow ya doo’in!!”
Remember to end on a high note as you say that, to know how it sounded.
They may add, “Ow de Ol Maan?” (Could mean your
father or your husband, depending on who you were). “Ow de Ol Lady?” (wife or
mother). “Ow de Picknee?” (Believe it or not, that means children). And
remember that had nothing to do with whether you were married or not, as I
learned to my own embarrassment one day when I went to the Income Tax office to
file my tax return. The lady at the counter offered to help me fill out the
form, which I gladly agreed to have her do. She asked me at the appropriate
column, “Married?” I said, “No.” She then asked, “Any children?” I said, “I
already told you I am not married.” She looked up at me and said, “Wad de hell
dat ga fa do wid anytin Maan!!” To end this line of discussion, I immediately
accepted defeat and said, “No children.”
The language of the Guyanese is called Creolese.
It is an English Patois and as distinct with its own flavor as French Patois is
from French. Creolese has the taste of Cookup, the sound of the Steel Band. and
the aroma of the rain forest. It is a language of the people and reflects their
culture. I used to speak it so fluently that new locals I met wouldn’t believe
that I was not a native.
They would ask me, ‘Weya fraam?’
‘Me-no-da bai, A-mean weya from in Giyana?’
‘Me-na from Giyana, me from India.’
‘Ah! (That is said as an exclamation in a high
rising tone) – Ya tak jus laka-we’
And that was a great compliment. It is really
impossible to render Creolese into text because it is spoken with so much
emotion and voice modulation that without those sounds, it’s not done justice.
It is a language that comes straight from the heart. Creolese has many proverbs
and funny stories with morals that are typical of the language and the people.
For example, there is a famous proverb: Han wash
han mak han com clean (When two people help one another, they help themselves).
Another one: He taak caz he ga mouth (He talks
As for stories, there are several. And in them,
the people of color may appear lazy, but are smart and the White man is the
butt of the joke. Here’s one:
One day a black man (Blak-maan) be ga-in about lookin
for sometin ta eat when he com upon dis garden in de bush. Dey he saw dis great
big bunch of ripe bananas. De man! He very appy! He put he arms around the bunch
of bananas an sey, ‘De Lord is my shepherd and I shall not want.’ He hear a
voice saying, ‘If you don tak ya hands off dem bananas, I gon lay ya down in
Dey bin the owner of the garden watchin over he
garden when dis man go dey.
And knowing the Guyanese, once this happened, I am
sure the owner would have given some bananas to the hungry man to eat. I don’t
know of any Guyanese who would chase a hungry man away. Guyanese have big
Another one involves an Amerindian guide and his
white employer. They are walking through the rain forest. The Vyte-maan (White
man) sees that the Amerindian is walking barefoot, carrying his boots on a
string over his shoulder. So he laughs at him and says, ‘You ignorant
Amerindians are so stupid. Why are you carrying your boots?’
The Buck-maan (Amerindian), he na say nothn.
Then they come to a stream. The Vyte-maan tak off
he shoe and the Bok-maan, he put on he shoe.
The Vyte-maan laugh at he again and seh, ‘This is
really stupid. Now that we have to wade through the water you put on your
shoes? The shoes will get spoilt.’
The Buck-man, he na say nothn.
As they wade through the stream the Vyte-maan get
hit by a stingray. He scream in pain and fall down. The Buck-maan drag he out
onto the other bank and seh, ‘Now who stupid? When me eye cyan see, me na need
no shoe. But when me eye cyant see, is weh I need de shoe maan. So, who stupid,
me ah you?’
Another brilliant one is about this Blak-maan who
goes looking for work. In Guyana, the custom is that the employer feeds the
worker. If the worker works for the full day then the employer gives him a lunch
break and lunch. So, this Blak-maan comes to the mansion of a Vyte-maan. The
Vyte-maan says to him, ‘I have a big tree in the back garden that fell last night.
You must saw it. But you guys are lazy. You take too long to eat lunch. So,
what I’m going to do is to give you food now. You eat first then you work
through till the evening without a lunch break.’
The Blak-maan agrees. The Vyte-maan gives him
banana and cassava and mutton and tea and the Black-maan, he eat like it is his
last meal. When he done, the Vyte-maan tell he, ‘Come over to the back and I
will show you the tree you have to saw.’ The Blak-maan goes around the house
and there is this huge tree that has fallen. The Vyte-maan say to he, ‘Alright,
you see that tree over there, you have to saw it.’
The Blak-maan he look carefully and seh, ‘Me na
see no tree.’
The Vyte-maan can’t believe his ears. ‘What do you
mean you can’t see the tree? It is that great big tree over there!’
The Blak-maan ben down and look heah and deh and
seh again, ‘Me na see no tree.’
Now the Vyte-maan is really angry. So he shouts at
him, ‘You stupid man, can’t you see that great big tree over there?’
The Blak-maan seh again, ‘Me na see no tree.’
The Vyte-maan is in a rage and yells, ‘What do you
mean you can’t see the tree? I saw you see the tree.’
The Blak-maan seh, ‘You saw me see the tree? But
you aint go see me saw it.’
I can still hear the voice of my dear friend and
first boss, Nick Adams telling me this joke and both of us laughing our heads
off. You have to listen to a Guyanese tell these stories with the sing-song
tone of their voice and their actions illustrating what is supposed to be
happening in the story. I can’t put that into this narrative here. But if we
meet one day, remind me and I will tell you the stories in Creolese as they
should be told.
Mail took an average of one month to get to Guyana
from India. That it actually arrived is a marvel of the system which in today’s
email world we seem to have forgotten. But it did come and in the 5 years that
I spent in Guyana, I never had a letter that was lost. As postage depended on
weight, I used to write on very thin, semi-transparent tracing paper with a
very fine nibbed pen to try to get as much matter into it as possible. And
since Mr. Gates had not yet created Windows and laptops were not for machines
and notebooks had 100 pages of 15 lines each, you could not cut & paste or
delete or drag & drop. So, you needed to write after due thought if you
wanted to save yourself the trouble of writing what you wrote all over again.
This is how I learnt to express myself in writing.
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.
There are ocean people and others who are mountain people; and yet others who are city people. I, am of the forest people. Wildlife, open spaces, mountains and forests have always been a very significant influence in my life. There is an instant connection that I find with forests. And every once in a while I rejuvenate myself by spending time in forests, listening to them, watching animals, and simply being.
The sounds of the forest herald the passing of time and the arrival of the night and day. And they vary from place to place. In the Anamallais, the rain forests of the Western Ghats, there are no peacocks, who are usually the first heralds of the coming night in the forests of central India. In the Anamallais, the first heralds are Jungle Fowl roosters. They start calling (as they do at the approach of the morning) as they go to roost. They make sure that they are perched high up out of harm’s way well before it becomes fully dark. I must add this piece here. I was in the Anamallais in April, 2013 and to my intense surprise found peacocks thriving. This is a clear indicator that the amount of rainfall has decreased, for peacocks don’t survive in high rainfall areas like the rain forests of the Western Ghats. I asked around and everyone agreed that this was the first time in living memory that anyone had seen peacocks in the Anamallais. Alarming news.
To go back to our story, after the Jungle Fowl roosters come the calls of the Lion Tailed Macaques and the Langur sentinels who boom out their announcement to the world. These calls are not alarm calls. They are just to let their troops know that it is time to settle down for the night. Closer at hand you can hear the ‘Brrrrr!!’ of the Night Jar as it settles in the middle of a path or in a clearing and suddenly darts up to catch the unwary moth. As the sky darkens, you hear the hoot of the newly awake owl (many different species) as it ruffles its feathers and gets ready to take off on its nocturnal hunt. Then there is silence for a while. As the night progresses and if you are lucky, you can suddenly hear the ‘Dhank! Dhank!’ alarm call of the Sambhar as it sights a Tiger or Leopard out on the prowl. Sometimes you will hear the sawing growl of the leopard. The sawing call of the leopard is for courtship. Usually the cats go on silently so as not to alarm their prey unduly.
In the winters late in the night you will hear the moaning roar of the tigress, during which she literally bends down and booms off the earth and the sound of which travels for many miles. Sometimes the tigress calls continuously for hours. At other times you will hear her on and off. At all times it is a thrilling sound guaranteed to raise the hair on the back of your neck. Tigers don’t have a breeding season as such but I seem to recall hearing them mostly in the winter in the Aravallies. The primordial memories of the hunter and the hunted travel through the genes. As do their responses.
In the Anamallais, which is prime elephant country you can also hear the king of the forest as the whole clan moves along, grazing. Branches breaking, sometimes a tree pushed over so that the hungry pachyderm can get at the succulent leaves at the top, which he loves. The rumbling of their bellies and the snorting of mothers and aunts as they try to keep the calves in line. Calves squealing and the sounds of playful trumpeting as they sometimes engage in mock battles. Sometimes you can hear the long moaning rumble of the matriarch as she calls to others who only she knows about. This low frequency sound carries for many miles and is answered by other family groups in the vicinity. As they are all happily going about their business of feeding and playing, the wind changes and they get a scent of you sitting in the tree. And there is change as if by magic. The noisy group of huge animals instantly falls silent and moves through the forest like shadows. It seems amazing to those who have not had the good fortune of encountering elephants in the wild and have not seen how silently and quickly they can move in the thick forest. Not a leaf crackles. Not a branch snaps underfoot. When the elephant wants to move silently he becomes a ghost. And he is gone.
On one occasion I was walking along a forest path in Manamboli in the Anamallais when I smelt elephants. So, I simply got off the path and into the forest, not more than a few meters away, hidden in the foliage. As I stood there, waiting for them, the whole herd emerged around the corner, all headed to the river from which I had just come. Believe me, they knew I was there and knew I was coming down that path far better than I could ever sense their movement. There was the matriarch who led the herd, some other females, young calves and a couple of bulls. But all of them simply walked past me without any comment. The one thing you learn in the forest is that respect gets respect. You respect the animals and they respect you and leave you alone. You are not in the slightest danger unless you do something silly like trying to scare them, or run away in fright or in some cases if you are completely unaware of their presence and blunder into them. Otherwise a normal wild animal will never attack you unprovoked. Animals are far better mannered than humans.
On another occasion, I was on my Royal Enfield motorcycle with a bag of cash on the petrol tank. The tradition in the tea gardens where I was the Manager is that workers are paid in cash directly by the Manager. This is considered the respectful way to do it. Workers would all line up outside the Muster on payday and come in when their name was called and greet you and take the money and thank you. For each one you returned the greeting, paid the money, waited for them to count it, returned their thanks and then called out the next name. Sounds tedious but it is a brilliant way to learn people’s names and to build relationships. To do this, we used to take the cash out of the safe in the Estate Office, count it – amounting sometimes to half a million rupees – and take it to the Divisional Muster for the payment. It is a mark of the safety of the times that we could do all this without any ‘security’. I can’t recall a single instant when anyone was ever held up and the cash stolen.
To return to my story of respecting animals, on this day I was going to the Candura Division in Lower Sheikalmudi Estate and decided to take a shortcut through our coffee plantation which bordered the forest. This was one of my favorite routes as in the short drive of perhaps five kilometers I could be sure to see several species of animals or birds. There were Grey Hornbills, Malabar Squirrels, Lion Tailed Macaques (which the locals called Yel-Tee-Yam). In season, Green Imperial Pigeons beautifully camouflaged and usually on the topmost branches of the figs that attract them when they start fruiting. The fig is the best tree to attract birds. So there I was, gently riding my bike, looking around to see what I could spot; the finely tuned engine just turning over almost silent when I turned a corner and right in the middle of the road was a very large Gaur bull. Lone bulls usually mean trouble. And when that is a Gaur, standing six feet plus at the shoulder and weighing half a ton or more, it is generally not good news. But what could I do? I was on my bike on a narrow forest road with a steep bank on one side and a drop on the other. The only way I could even turn the bike would have been to get off and do many back and forth pushing and pulling. Anyone who has ridden a Royal Enfield can understand what I was facing. Trying all these gymnastics on a jungle track, balancing half a million rupees in a duffel bag on the tank with a bull Gaur as your audience is not my idea of fun.
So, I did what any sensible person who knows animals would do. Nothing. I did nothing. I just stopped, kept the engine idling and looked at him. He looked at me for what felt like a couple of hours but was perhaps ten seconds, snorted and with great dignity, moved aside to let me pass. He didn’t run away. He didn’t even go far from the road. He just moved aside. I knew what he was telling me and so I put the bike in gear and also with dignity, unhurried, rode past him. He could have ambushed me or attacked me as I passed him or after, but I knew he wouldn’t do it. He knew he didn’t need to. And here I am remembering him and our meeting.
The final story of this dispatch is to do with Wild Dogs, the dreaded Dhole. Anyone who has read Rudyard Kipling will remember the Dhole. Romantic notions apart, they are a top predator and hunt in packs. The Dhole is a very handsome animal with a reddish-brown coat and a black-tipped tail. They can’t bark and communicate in whistles. Their favorite prey in the Anamallais is Sambhar. The individual dog can’t possibly kill the Sambhar which is far bigger and heavier but the pack working together is an unbeatable team. They literally run the animal to the ground and when you are talking about thick forests on steep mountains, that doesn’t take too long. Then they hamstring it and when it drops, start eating it alive. Nature is sometimes very ugly. But there it is. An ecologist friend said to me that the Sambhar at the end is probably so pumped full of adrenalin that it doesn’t feel a thing, but I am not so sure because sometimes they take a very long time to die, mostly due to loss of blood. Meanwhile they have the Dhole tearing into them and eating their living flesh. Definitely not a sight for anyone.
My story has to do with one day when one of my workers came racing to me and between panting breaths told me that a pack of Dhole had taken down a pregnant Sambhar doe and were eating her, very close to the worker’s quarters which we called Labour Lines. There is a lot of military terminology in the tea gardens, a memory of the first British planters who were military officers who came to India after being de-mobbed. I followed the man to the site. The doe was lying on her side in the middle of a clearing, almost all of it covered by sheet rock, in the middle of a valley surrounded on two sides by tea and on one side by the forest. She had been chased out of the forest and seemed to have come there to take refuge with people who Dhole avoid but before she could reach the quarters, she had collapsed. The pack was in a feeding frenzy, making excited yelping sounds. There were fifteen animals in the pack which is quite large for a single pack but when food is plentiful they tend to have large litters.
I watched from the edge of the valley for a bit and thought I could see the doe still kicking. I decided to put the poor animal out of its misery and drew my knife and walked down into the valley. The Dhole saw me coming, whistled to each other and moved off a few meters away and sat down in a semi-circle watching me. I walked up the doe and realized that she was dead. The kicking I had seen, was the result of the Dhole pulling at her carcass. They had ripped open her belly and eaten her unborn fetus, udders and were feeding on the stomach contents from which they get minerals. Definitely not a pretty sight. I made sure the Sambhar doe was dead and turned around and retraced my steps. The Dhole watched me go and returned to their kill. They never threatened me or made any attempt to attack. They knew I was not going to steal their prize. I don’t know what else they thought. But I do know that when you respect animals, they respect you.