People listen with their eyes

People listen with their eyes

The plantation industry is perhaps the finest place in which to learn leadership in a very hands-on manner. It is hugely exciting, sometimes very painful and always beneficial; the lessons learnt of lasting benefit. It is a treasure-trove of memories that last all life long; decades after most of us left planting. It enriches us with friendships that transcend all boundaries of religion, culture, region or language and with the cohesiveness of steel rope. If I am asked to name three of my closest friends, two if not all three would be planter friends. Of such a place and time, I speak.

The vast majority of workers in the estates were Dalit (lower caste Hindus). In some estates there were some Christians (converts from Dalits). In some estates, especially close to Kerala there were Malayali (Kerala) Muslims. Anamallais, where I joined, had a majority of Dalit workers. In the Hindu caste system, these Dalits are considered ‘unclean’ by other high caste Hindus and so in their villages they have to live in a separate area, are not allowed inside the temple, and have to even draw their water from a well set apart from the common village well. These are some of the facts about discrimination against Dalits, which is still prevalent in India.

When these people came to work in the plantations, more than a century ago, they organized themselves according to the villages they came from. Since they were the only Hindus on the estates, they built temples in some of which they performed the rituals themselves. In other temples, they hired a Brahmin priest from the plains to do the honors. By and large, they were able to create their own society on the estates and so lived with a great deal more honor and self-respect than their own relatives were allowed to live in the plains in their native villages. However, some of the sense of low self-esteem and awareness of their own low status in the so-called real world remained. I got a taste of this very early in my planting career.

One of our workers in Sheikalmudi Estate died while he was away on leave in his village. Several of his family asked me for 5 days leave to go to his funeral. I was not too happy giving so much leave to so many people, but I agreed because in the words of my Manager Mr. A.V.G. Menon, ‘Nobody dies so that others can get leave.’ Imagine my amazement however, when the next day I saw them all back in the estate. I asked them what had happened and why they were back so soon. They all looked sheepish and refused to say anything. Finally, after much persuasion, this is the story they told me.

“We reached our village late in the night. The next morning, we went to the local tea shop to get have some tea. But to our surprise (and embarrassment) we were not allowed inside the shop. We were told that if we wanted to have tea, we could take the coconut half-shells that were hanging on nails from one of the roof rafters and sit outside on the ground outside the shop and drink the tea. Once we had drunk the tea, we had to wash the ‘utensils’ and put them back on their nails.”

“But you know Dorai,” one of the younger ones told me, “The price of the tea is the same for us and for the high caste Hindus who are given proper cups. No discount price for drinking in coconut cups sitting in the dust.”

“I guess we forgot who we were, Dorai,” said their leader. “After all, we all came from the same village, but we have lived here for so long that we started believing that we also are human beings. This visit reminded us of what we are.”

I was speechless with anger and sadness. What could I say to them? Thousands of years of oppression and apartheid, alive and well in Tamilnadu, a state that claims to have 100% literacy. And a collective helplessness that seems to be able to do nothing about it. One of my major motivators in working with Dalits all my life is this incident. I can still feel the anger and the shame of a society that allows this discrimination while mouthing all kinds of platitudes about ‘children of god’ – Harijan – the name that Gandhiji gave the Dalits. If they are children of god, then we must question what kind of god it is who allows such discrimination.

When I joined Sheikalmudi Estate in 1983 as Assistant Manager, Lower Division, the pruning season was going on at the end of which, it was estate tradition to have a big lunch to which all the pruning workers, supervisors and managers are invited. On the given day, I arrived at the Muster (gathering place to allot work) and was ceremonially met by the Union leaders, staff, and some workers, garlanded with flowers and taken in a procession to the Crèche which was the site for the lunch. In South India we eat off a grass mat spread on the floor on which plantain leaves are spread in lieu of plates and so the seating was arranged accordingly for all the gathering. I noticed that in the corner there was a table set aside with a place setting; knife, fork, and porcelain plate. I realized what was going on. The special seating was for me so that I would not be embarrassed at having to eat with them and save them from the resultant embarrassment in case I refused to eat with ‘low caste’ people. The diplomatic thing to do was to use social status as the excuse and set up a separate eating place where both their honor and mine would remain intact. At the time of this story I was new, and they did not know what my values were, so they weren’t taking any chances.

I decided to make a point and set the record straight right away in the context of my relationship with them.

Pointing to the table and chair, I asked the organizers, “Who is that place for?”

“For you Dorai!” he said.

“You mean you called me to this function, but I can’t eat with you and have to eat separately?” I challenged him.

He was horrified at this turn of events. “Ayyo! Dorai, we thought you may not like to eat with us. That is why we set this table for you. The fact that you are here is an honor for us. You don’t have to sit and eat with us on the floor.”

I knew of course why he was saying what he was saying. This was the Dalit speaking to someone who was socially higher than himself. Even though the caste issue did not apply in my case as I am Muslim and we have no caste system, all human beings being equal in Islam irrespective of caste or race. However, the Dalits have learnt to play safe. So, they were giving me the honor due to a high caste Hindu.

I wanted to make my point. I said to him, “In my culture, the guest is only honored if the host eats with him. So, if you people are not going to eat with me, then I will leave as I have no need to be insulted.”

“Ayyo Dorai, please don’t misunderstand. If you eat with us, it is we who will be honored,” he replied. There were now big smiles on the faces of everyone. “Dorai said he will eat with us,” the whisper flew through the crowd. A place was set for me at the head of the eating mat and we sat down to a wonderful meal, something which they said was the first experience of its kind in their lives. My point was made; here was a man who did not differentiate on the basis of caste and who genuinely believed in equality of people. I did not fully realize the power of what I had done, just by following my own religion. Many years and many incidents later, some of the workers who were with us at that banquet that day said to me, “That day we decided that you were one of us.” I have seldom felt more honored in my life.

My other butler who joined service with me when Bastian left was Mohammed Khan, who I used to call Mahmood because he had the name of the Prophet and I didn’t want to use it to call him as it sounded disrespectful to yell out, ‘Mohammed’. So, I used to call him Mahmood. He was perfectly happy with that as he knew that was a mark of respect on my part. Mahmood was a great cook and intensely loyal. At that time, I was an Assistant Manager working under a very corrupt Manager. I tried to keep my nose clean on the principle that his doings didn’t concern me until one day he called me and ordered me to certify the work of a civil contractor who was his man and gave him a kickback in every contract. I agreed and asked the contractor to show me the work so that I could measure it. The contractor looked very surprised and asked me, ‘Did you speak to Peria Dorai (Big Manager)?’ I said to him, ‘Yes I spoke to him. He told me to certify your work. So, show me your work and I will certify it.’ The man went away and shortly, as expected, my manager called me.

‘Didn’t I tell you to certify his work?’

‘Yes, you did. I told him to show it to me so that I can certify it.’

‘I have seen the work, so you can simply sign the bills.’

‘If you have seen the work, then why don’t you sign the bills? I don’t sign anything until I see it myself.’

That was that. Obviously, the man was not pleased. So, he started to try to make my life miserable. I worked much harder than him and made no mistakes so there was nothing he could do to get at me. One day he decided to ‘inspect’ my house. He had a reputation for entering the bungalows of his assistants and opening drawers and outraging their privacy. He waited until I had left home and gone to the field and drove up to my bungalow. Mahmood greeted him at the door.

Mahmood had a signature greeting. He would bend over at an angle of forty-five degrees and put his left hand behind his back and bring his right hand in a wide sweeping gesture from his side up to his forehead in a salute and say, ‘Salaam Sahib.’ The Manager said to him, ‘I have come to inspect the bungalow.’

Mahmood, ‘But Sahib, Baig Dorai is not here.’

‘That doesn’t matter. This house belongs to the company and I have the right to enter it at any time without his permission.’

Mahmood responded, ‘Dorai, until he returns, I can’t allow you to enter.’

‘I told you the house belongs to the company,’ he yelled.

Mahmood said in a quiet voice, ‘Dorai, but I don’t belong to the company. I will not allow you to enter until Dorai returns. Please come back when he is here.’

The Manager was enraged but could do nothing short of physically forcing his way in and Mahmood would have put him in a hospital if he had tried. So, he left threatening to have him sacked. As soon as I went to the office in the afternoon, he called me and said, ‘Sack that bloody butler of yours right now.’

I asked him, ‘What happened?’ I knew exactly what happened but wanted to hear it from him.

‘I went to inspect your bungalow, but he refused to let me enter. Sack him right away.’

‘Why did you go to my bungalow when I was not there? He was perfectly right in not allowing you. I will not sack him. If you want to inspect the bungalow come when I am there.’ He never did and Mahmood remained where he was until I moved to Ambadi when he left me and went back to Ooty where he had his family.

Mahmood, making sure that I got properly married

It was in that year that I crashed my motorcycle and went through one year of very difficult times. I had to have an operation to replace the anterior cruciate ligament in my knee and then a very long recovery followed by physiotherapy. All through that period Mahmood served me faithfully and without complaint. He came with me to Hyderabad for my marriage and the only decent marriage picture that I have has Mahmood peering over my head through a curtain of flowers. My wedding photography was a complete disaster and all that I have to show that I’d had a wedding is that one picture. The best thing about both Bastian and Mahmood was that they were completely trustworthy in every respect. They were faithful, their integrity was beyond question, they maintained complete confidentiality, took pride in their work, and cared for me and later when I got married, cared for both of us like members of our own family. We also treated them as members of our own family. I truly have wonderful memories of these two dear friends, both of whom have passed away.

The tea plantations were an interesting place where strange things happened as a matter of course. Over the years, I learned never to be surprised at anything. In the Iyerpadi Hospital where Dr. John Philip was the RMO as I’ve mentioned and his wife Maya was the Lady Doctor, a man was brought in after having been bitten by a cobra on his face. How this happened is a story in itself. This man had the reputation of knowing some sort of magic spell that he claimed neutralized the effect of snake venom. He would catch snakes and get them to bite him on his hand and then show people that nothing happened to him. This naturally gave him a lot of ‘brand’ in a place as superstitious as Anamallais was. The reality is that most snakes are non-poisonous to begin with and those that are poisonous usually don’t inject a full dose, either because they had hunted recently and have used up their poison on their natural prey – rats – and have not regenerated a new supply, or for some other reason. Never having been a snake, I can’t speak on their behalf. The long and short of it is that most people who die of snake bite die more out of fear than anything else.

In this case, however, our friend chased a cobra, which tried to escape down a hole in the embankment by the side of the road but he caught it by the tail and hauled it out and then caught it behind its head and kissed it. He was himself sloshed out of his mind at the time and his bravado far exceeded his intelligence. The result was that the snake reciprocated the affection and he was bitten twice or thrice on the face. Given that this snake did have some venom to donate and that he was bitten on the face, he collapsed. Mercifully, some people saw him and brought him to the hospital. At the hospital, there was no anti-venom and so Dr. John Philip gave him some antihistamine and put him on the ventilator. Now, the interesting thing was that the hospital didn’t have an electrical ventilator. What they had was a mechanical device which was like a bellows and needed someone to sit there and pump it constantly to ensure that the air supply continued uninterrupted. It was amazing how everyone in the hospital, nurses, doctors, other patients, their visitors, passersby who heard the tale, all came to the aid and took turns to keep the air flowing into the lungs of the man who was completely comatose. This continued day and night, hour on hour for 48 hours, and then we beheld that the man’s eyes opened, and he sat up and a couple of hours later he was as good as new. His love of kissing snakes though, had dampened a bit. I asked Dr. John about this ‘miraculous’ event. He told me, ‘No miracle at all. The poison is neurotoxic, but protein based. It affects the nerves and stops the breathing. But being protein based, if you can keep the patient breathing mechanically by forcing air into his lungs, when the poison naturally degenerates within 48 hours the patient can breathe again’. However, miracles are far more fun to believe in than science and so our friend’s stock went up even higher after it was ‘proved’ that snake venom had no effect on him. The fact that he was in a coma and had been kept alive mechanically for 48 hours was soon forgotten because it came in the way of the belief in the nice miracle.

Shows how such beliefs thrive in all parts of the world, whereas the truth lies either in some straightforward physical reason or in less straightforward skullduggery and playacting.

For more, please read my book, ‘It’s my Life’. It is on Amazon worldwide

The Great Slide

The Great Slide

“So, how 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’.

For the 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.

We lived 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 exclusively.

We never 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.

Manners 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.

Money was 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.

There 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.

Then came 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).

The 80’s 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?”

Those were the days

Those were the days

I started working in India in the Anamallai Hills, part of the Western Ghats as they tapered down all the way into the tip of the subcontinent. Before that I had worked for five years in bauxite mining in Guyana, South America and lived on the bank of Rio Berbice, in the middle of the Amazonian rain forest. But that is another story.

The area that contained the tea plantations was part of the Indira Gandhi National Park. The park is home to an amazing variety of wildlife which thanks to the difficult terrain, plethora of leeches, and shortage of motorable roads is still safe from the depredations of ‘brave’ hunters buzzing around in their Jeeps and shooting animals blinded and frozen in their searchlight beams. In the Anamallais if you want to hunt (it is illegal to shoot anything in the National Park, but there are those who are not bothered about what is legal and what is not) you must be prepared to walk in the forest, up and down some very steep hills, be bitten by leeches and have a very good chance at becoming history at the feet of an elephant.

However, if you are not interested in hunting and killing animals, you have all the same pleasures and thrills with the animal healthy and alive at the end of it. I want to see and photograph animals, not kill them. I was looking for an opportunity to just spend time in the environment that I loved. My job as an Assistant Manager in Sheikalmudi Estate, my first posting with a princely salary of ₹850 per month, gave me all that I could have wished for.

Sheikalmudi borders the Parambikulam forest. This extends from the shore of the Parambikulam Reservoir (created by damming the Parambikulam River) up the steep mountainside all the way to the top. Sheikalmudi is the crown on that mountain’s head, manicured tea planted after cutting the rain forest, more than a century ago by British colonial planters. Where the tea ends, starts the rain forest of the Western Ghats. Anamallais is the second rainiest place on the planet. In the early part of the century it used to get more than three-hundred centimeters of rain annually and consequently it rained almost six months of the year. Even when I joined in 1983, we frequently saw spells of more than a week at a stretch, when it rained continuously day and night without any easing of the volume of water. I was horrified the first time I saw this. I was used to rain in Hyderabad, where we get about thirty centimeters annually.

Now here was rain and more rain and more rain. Yet in all this rain, we went to work at 6.00 am every morning. Heavy canvas raincoat, waterproof jungle hat, shorts, stockings and wellingtons. We rode our motorcycles down treacherous hill pathways, slippery in the rain and covered with fog as sometimes a cloud decided to rest on its journey across the sky. It was very cold because we were between 3500 to 4000 feet high and so in the first ten minutes, you lost all feeling in your legs, below your knees.

Walls of the bungalow would have mildew growing on them in damp patches. Small leaks would develop in the roof and their yield would be received in sundry pots and pans placed under them. This would create its own music. Little frogs would emerge from every crevice and would hop all around the house. In the night, they would find some resting place and add their voices to the night chorus of frogs and insects in the garden, that would rise and fall like an animal breathing. But sometimes the rain would be so heavy that all you could hear was the rain on the galvanized iron sheet roof. This sound would drown out every other sound. Within the first week of the beginning of the monsoon, all telephone lines would be down. Power supply would become extremely erratic. And more often than not, landslides would block roads. So being cut off from everyone for several days was a common phenomenon. When there came the occasional storm – every year we used to have at least two or three – all these problems would get magnified.

Candlelight dinners with a roaring fire in the fireplace were the fringe benefit of this weather. That and in my case, a lot of chess by the fire. The year I got married, 1985, there was a storm in which twelve-hundred trees fell on my estate alone, taking down with them all power and telephone lines. There were two major landslides and we were cut off from the world for a total of fifteen days. It rained almost continuously for this period and my poor wife had a wet introduction to the new life ahead of her. But typical for us both, we enjoyed this time, playing chess by the fireside. She started by not knowing chess at all and I taught her the game. By the end of our enforced seclusion she was beating me. Now take it as her learning ability or the quality of my game but being rained-in has its benefits.

1983-86 were boom years for tea in South India. Anything that was produced would sell. The biggest buyers were the Russians who bought on the rupee trade agreements between the governments of both countries. Anything that could be manufactured in South India was bought by the Russians. Sadly, quality went out the window. Some people, including myself, were able to see the writing on the wall and tried to get manufacturers to focus on quality and to get out of the commodity market and instead create brand. That, however, meant investing in brand building and hard work in maintaining quality standards. Since people were making money, nobody was interested in listening to anything that meant more work or investment. Eventually, the inevitable happened. Russia collapsed and so did their buying trend and it almost took the South Indian tea industry down with it. Some companies shut down. Others were more fortunate. But the whole industry faced some very hard times.

Life in the Anamallais passed like a dream. Berty Suares was the Assistant Manager on the neighboring estate, Malakiparai. And Sandy (Sundeep Singh) was on Uralikal. Both dear friends. They would come over to my place and we would spend Sunday picnicking on the bank of the Sholayar River where on a bend in the river that passed through our cardamom plantation, I had built a natural swimming pool. I deepened the stream bed and deposited the sand from there on the near bank, thereby creating a very neat ‘beach.’ Sitting on this beach under the deep shade of the trees after a swim in the pool was a heavenly experience. Add to it, eating cardamom flavored honey straight from the comb, taken from the many hives that I had set up in the cardamom fields for pollination. The flavor comes from the pollen of the flowers which the bees take to make the honey. Depending on where you set up your hives or where the bees go to find pollen, honey can have as many flavors as there are flowers.  While we lazed about at noon, our lunch would be brought down to us and we would all eat together. The joys of being a planter in the days when we had people who knew how to enjoy that life.

Prambikulam view from Murugalli

If you walked down the river for a couple of kilometers you would come to the Parambikulam Dam backwaters into which this river flowed. I had built another pool there at the bottom of a waterfall, thanks to a stream that flowed through Murugalli Estate. We used to keep a boat in the dam to go fishing on the lake. There was a thickly wooded island in the lake about half a kilometer from the shore on which one could go and spend the whole day, swimming and lazing in the shade; a very welcome occupation, free from all stress. The only sounds that you would hear would be the wailing call of the Rufus Backed Hawk Eagle and the Fishing Eagle. In the evenings, Jungle Fowl called the hour. If you stayed beyond sunset, the only danger was that you could encounter bison (Gaur) as you walked home. That encounter was not something to look forward to as I discovered one day. Mercifully, I was walking softly and the wind was in my face, so the Gaur was as startled as I was. He snorted, spun on his heels, and vanished, crashing through the undergrowth. I was very fortunate.

The more time I spent with myself, the clearer it became that it is important to be ‘friends’ with yourself. The more you are self-aware and comfortable internally, the more you can enjoy the world outside. When you are not aware of what is happening to you inside or are unhappy with decisions you have taken, or with your own internal processes, the unhappier you are likely to be with your surroundings. The normal tendency is to blame the outer world, but if one looks within, it is possible to find the solution. One rider however, that you will find only if you seek and only if you have the courage to recognize what you see. That is where sometimes the matter remains unresolved. Not because there is no solution. But because we are unwilling to accept the solution or to implement it.

Time for another dip, then climb into the hammock and gently swing in the breeze that comes blowing over the water. Those were the days……………………

What is Ramadan?

What is Ramadan?

We are in the month of Ramadan Al Kareem. It comes with great goodness and blessings and the promise of Allahﷻ’s Forgiveness and Mercy.

Abu Sa`id Al-Khudri (RA) reported that Rasoolullah said, ‘Anyone who fasts for one day for Allah’s sake, Allah will keep his face away from the Hellfire for (a distance covered by a journey of) seventy years. (Al-Bukhari and Muslim)

Uthman ibn Abi Al-Aas reported that Rasoolullah said, ‘Fasting serves as a shield from Hellfire.”’(An-Nasa’i and authenticated by Al-Albani)

Abdullah ibn Amr reported that Rasoolullahﷺ said, ‘Fasting and the Qur’an will intercede on behalf of Allah’s servant on the Day of Judgment: Fasting will say, “O my Rabb! I prevented him from food and desires during the day, so accept my intercession for him. And the Qur’an will say, ‘O my Rabb! I prevented him from sleeping by night, so accept my intercession for him.’ The intercession of both will thus be accepted. (Ahmad and authenticated by Al-Albani)

Contrary to ignorantly romantic notions, fasting in Ramadan is not prescribed to teach the wealthy what it means to be poor. Poverty is about insecurity, lack of choice, lack of dignity, compulsion, fear and despair. Poverty is about living on the edge of despair without any safety net. It is not about present hardship but of looking ahead at a life of unending and ever-increasing deprivation. Anyone who thinks that he can know what poverty is by merely bringing breakfast forward and postponing lunch with a fridge full of goodies and special foods to break your fast with, is delusional. You will never know what it is to be poor until you are poor yourself.

Ramadan is about recognizing that you are not Calvin

Ramadan is a month which Allahﷻ sends as a boot camp to reset our lifestyles to a way that leads to success in this world and the next. This is the beauty of Islam. Islam doesn’t demand renunciation of this life in order to attain success in the Hereafter. Islam shows us a way of life that guarantees us popularity, influence, love, harmony, peace and prosperity in this life and Jannah (Heaven) in the Aakhira (Hereafter). The key to that is the concept of Taqwa.

Allahﷻ said about Ramadan:

Baqara 2:183. O you who believe! Observing As-Saum (the fasting) is prescribed for you as it was prescribed for those before you, that you may become Al-Muttaqun (people of Taqwa)

What is Taqwa? Taqwa is the over-riding concern, never to displease Allahﷻ, who we love the most, over and above anyone and anything else. The love of Allahﷻ is not like the love of anyone or anything else. It is a combination of Khashiyyat (Awe) and Shukr (Thankfulness). This leads to the Hubb (Love) of Allahﷻ, which, as I said, is unlike any other emotion that we are capable of feeling. How do we develop this love? We do it by focusing on the Glory and Majesty of Allahﷻ and on His blessings.

About His Glory and Majesty, Allahﷻ described it in a way that nobody can equal or better. He said about Himself and His Glory and Majesty:

Baqara 2: 255. Allah! La ilaha illa Huwa (none has the right to be worshipped but He), the Ever Living, the One Who sustains and protects all that exists. Neither dozing, nor sleep overtake Him. To Him belongs whatever is in the heavens and whatever is on earth. Who is he that can intercede with Him except with His Permission? He knows what happens to them (His creatures) in this world, and what will happen to them in the Hereafter . And they will never compass anything of His Knowledge except that which He wills. His Kursi extends over the heavens and the earth, and He feels no fatigue in guarding and preserving them. And He is the Most High, the Most Great.

Al Ikhlaas 112: 1. Say (O Muhammad ()): “He is Allah, (the) One. 2. “Allah-us-Samad (The Self-Sufficient Master, Whom all creatures need and He doesn’t need anything from his creatures). 3. “He begets not, nor was He begotten; 4. “And there is none co-equal or comparable unto Him.”

Hashr 59: 21.  Had We sent down this Qur’an on a mountain, you would surely have seen it humbling itself and rending asunder by the fear of Allah. Such are the parables which We put forward to mankind that they may reflect. 22. He is Allah, than Whom there is La ilaha illa Huwa (none has the right to be worshipped but He) the All-Knower of the unseen and the seen (open). He is the Most Beneficent, the Most Merciful. 23. He is Allah than Whom there is La ilaha illa Huwa (none has the right to be worshipped but He) the King, the Holy, the One Free from all defects, the Giver of security, the Watcher over His creatures, the All-Mighty, the Compeller, the Supreme. Glory be to Allah! (High is He) above all that they associate as partners with Him. 24. He is Allah, the Creator, the Inventor of all things, the Bestower of forms. To Him belong the Best Names . All that is in the heavens and the earth glorify Him. And He is the All-Mighty, the All-Wise.

Allah reminded us about His blessings and said:

Ar-Rahman 55: 1. The Most Beneficent (Allah)! 2. Has taught (you mankind) the Qur’an (by His Mercy). 3. He created man. 4. He taught him eloquent speech. 5. The sun and the moon run on their fixed courses (exactly) calculated with measured out stages for each (for reckoning, etc.). 6. And the herbs (or stars) and the trees both prostrate. 7. And the heaven He has raised high, and He has set up the Balance. 8. In order that you may not transgress (due) balance. 9. And observe the weight with equity and do not make the balance deficient. 10. And the earth He has put for the creatures.  11. Therein are fruits, date-palms producing sheathed fruit-stalks (enclosing dates). 12. And also corn, with (its) leaves and stalk for fodder, and sweet-scented plants. 13. Then which of the Blessings of your Rabb will you both (jinn and men) deny?14. He created man (Adam) from sounding clay like the clay of pottery.15. And the jinn did He create from a smokeless flame of fire. 16. Then which of the Blessings of your Rabb will you both (jinn and men) deny? 17. (He is) the Rabb of the two easts (places of sunrise during early summer and early winter) and the Rabb of the two wests (places of sunset during early summer and early winter). 18. Then which of the Blessings of your Rabb will you both (jinn and men) deny? 19. He has let loose the two seas (the salt water and the sweet) meeting together. 20. Between them is a barrier which neither of them can transgress. 21. Then which of the Blessings of your Rabb will you both (jinn and men) deny? 22. Out of them both come out pearl and coral. 23. Then which of the Blessings of your Rabb will you both (jinn and men) deny? 24. And His are the ships going and coming in the seas, like mountains. 25. Then which of the Blessings of your Rabb will you both (jinn and men) deny? 26. Whatsoever is on it (the earth) will perish. 27. And the Face of your Rabb full of Majesty and Honour will abide forever. 28. Then which of the Blessings of your Rabb will you both (jinn and men) deny?

Naba 78: 6. Have We not made the earth as a bed, 7. And the mountains as pegs? 8. And We have created you in pairs 9. And have made your sleep as a thing for rest. 10. And have made the night as a covering (through its darkness), 11. And have made the day for livelihood. 12. And We have built above you seven strong (heavens), 13. And have made (therein) a shining lamp (sun). 14. And have sent down from the rainy clouds abundant water. 15. That We may produce therewith corn and vegetation, 16. And gardens of thick growth. 17. Verily, the Day of Decision is a fixed time, 18. The Day when the Trumpet will be blown, and you shall come forth in crowds (groups); 19.And the heaven shall be opened, and it will become as gates, 20. And the mountains shall be moved away from their places and they will be as if they were a mirage.

When we reflect; that is the key – reflection; on the Glory and Majesty of Allahﷻ and all that He blessed us with, we begin to love Him. The more we reflect, the more we love Him. The more we love Him, the more concerned we become about never disobeying or displeasing Him. That is Taqwa and that is why Allahﷻ sent Ramadan.

But how is Ramadan a boot camp?

Obedience is about boundaries. It is about doing what we are told to do without question. Without question not because the obedience is blind but because we recognize and know the One who is ordering us. We obey because we know two things very clearly: 1. That Allahﷻ loves us, wants the best for us and knows what that is better than we do. 2. That what He ordered us to do is for our benefit, because nothing can benefit or harm him. This is basic logic. If Allahﷻ doesn’t know and if we know more than He does, then why are we worshiping Him? In Islam we have settled these basic questions and know that our Creator and Sustainer wants the best for us, knows what that is and has told us to do what is good for us and to refrain from what is bad for us and that to Him, is our return.

Ramadan comes to remind us about obedience by making what is normally permissible, prohibited during a specific time, from dawn to dusk. Why is something that is normally permissible, meaning that it is beneficial for us, prohibited during this time in Ramadan? To teach us a lesson that all permissibility and prohibition is for our benefit and is from Allahﷻ. Ramadan is not only about not eating or drinking. It is about abstaining from all negativity and negative behavior. It is about abstaining from backbiting, slander, lying, cheating, cursing and foul language, anger and arrogance. It is not only about not initiating but of not even responding in a negative way if someone abuses us. Rasoolullahﷺ told us to say, “I am fasting,” to someone who yells at us but not to respond in kind. Rasoolullahﷺ said, “If you can’t control your tongues and behavior, then Allahﷻ is not in need of your hunger and thirst.”

 Abu Hurairah (RA) reported that Rasoolullah said, ‘Fasting is a shield; so, when one of you is fasting, he should neither indulge in obscene language nor should he raise his voice in anger. If someone attacks him or insults him, let him say: “I am fasting!” (Muslim) 

Ramadan is about experimenting with total behavioral change. With making a new lifestyle choice. To choose to live a life of obedience and spread goodness around us. When we are ready to stop ourselves from doing what we normally do and enjoy, only because Allahﷻ ordered us to do so, then how much more important is it to stop ourselves from what Allahﷻ prohibited for us throughout our lives? This is the essence of Taqwa which Ramadan comes to teach us in a powerful experiential way.

That is why we need to ask if Ramadan entered us or if we entered Ramadan. If we entered Ramadan, we will exit it on the 29 or 30 of the month. If Ramadan entered us, then it will remain in our hearts and lives, throughout the year. The spirit of obedience, which is Ramadan, is the key to success in this life and the next. That is what must enter our hearts. To obey joyfully and eagerly because we love Allahﷻ. That is Taqwa.

When the slave gets close to His Rabb, it is only natural that he asks about Him and wants to feel connected to Him. See the Mercy of Allahﷻ. He said, in the middle of the Ayaat related to fasting:

وَإِذَا سَأَلَكَ عِبَادِي عَنِّي فَإِنِّي قَرِيبٌ أُجِيبُ دَعْوَةَ الدَّاعِ إِذَا دَعَانِ فَلْيَسْتَجِيبُواْ لِي وَلْيُؤْمِنُواْ بِي لَعَلَّهُمْ يَرْشُدُونَ

Baqara 2:186. And when My slaves ask you (O Muhammad) concerning Me, then (answer them), I am indeed near (to them by My Knowledge). I respond to the dua of the supplicant when he calls on Me. So, let them obey Me and believe in Me, so that they may be rightly guided.

Ramadan is a month of dua. Of asking Allahﷻ, of telling Him your story. He knows it but you still tell Him because that is the essence of Uboodiyat. Learn to make dua.

Create your own style of asking Allahﷻ. He didn’t put any conditions on making dua. We can ask Allahﷻ in any language, in any state, in any condition, anywhere and anyhow. It makes perfect sense not to have any conditions about making dua because the slave asks when he is in dire need. And so he/she must be free to ask in any way and from anywhere. So, ask Allahﷻ. Remember however that Allahﷻ said, “So, let him obey me and have faith in me.” Obedience starts with making a choice to change our ways. To repent our transgressions, knowing that Allahﷻ promised to forgive every transgression, every sin of anyone who comes to Him with sincere repentance. He said:

قُلْ يَا عِبَادِيَ الَّذِينَ أَسْرَفُوا عَلَى أَنفُسِهِمْ لَا تَقْنَطُوا مِن رَّحْمَةِ اللَّهِ إِنَّ اللَّهَ يَغْفِرُ الذُّنُوبَ جَمِيعًا إِنَّهُ هُوَ الْغَفُورُ الرَّحِيمُ

Zumar 39:53.  Say: “O ‘Ibadi (My slaves) who have transgressed against themselves (by committing evil deeds and sins)! Despair not of the Mercy of Allah, verily Allah forgives all sins. Truly, He is Oft-Forgiving, Most Merciful.

Tell me, who but my Rabb, Allahﷻ has the Mercy to call those who have disobeyed and angered Him all their lives, “My slaves”? And then He says, “Despair not of the Mercy of Allahﷻ.” He promises to forgive them and says, “Verily Allahﷻ forgives all sins.” And then he reassures us and says, “Truly He is Oft-Forgiving, Most Merciful.” At each stage of this Ayah, one could say that the meaning is complete. But then my Rabb in His Infinite Mercy goes beyond what we can imagine and forgives us.

Remember however, that forgiveness of Allahﷻ is dependent on forgiveness of those you wronged, when it comes to transgressions against people. If you wronged someone in any way, seek their forgiveness in this life and compensate them and don’t carry that sin with you when you meet Allahﷻ. Rasoolullahﷺ said, “Allahﷻ will not forgive the slave until the one he wronged has forgiven him.” Remember that Rasoolullahﷺ didn’t distinguish between the Muslim and non-Muslim when it comes to oppression of others. A Muslim is prohibited from oppression or wronging anyone. Muslim or non-Muslim, human or animal, animate or inanimate. Muslims are supposed to spread only goodness around themselves.

And if they don’t, they are answerable to the Highest Authority from whom nothing is hidden and whose justice nobody can escape. That is why Allahﷻ called the taking of a single life equal to the annihilation of all humanity and the saving of one life equal to the saving of all humanity. He said:

مِنْ أَجْلِ ذَلِكَ كَتَبْنَا عَلَى بَنِي إِسْرَائِيلَ أَنَّهُ مَن قَتَلَ نَفْسًا بِغَيْرِ نَفْسٍ أَوْ فَسَادٍ فِي الأَرْضِ فَكَأَنَّمَا قَتَلَ النَّاسَ جَمِيعًا وَمَنْ أَحْيَاهَا فَكَأَنَّمَا أَحْيَا النَّاسَ جَمِيعًا

Maida 5:32. Because of that We ordained for the Children of Israel that if anyone killed a person not in retaliation of murder, or (and) to spread mischief in the land – it would be as if he killed all mankind, and if anyone saved a life, it would be as if he saved the life of all mankind….

Finally, the crowning glory of Ramadan is Laylatul Qadr – the Night of Decree. The worship in which is better than continuous worship for one thousand months. Not equal to continuous worship for one thousand months, but better than that. How much better? In keeping with the Glory and Majesty of the One who said it is better. He said:

Al-Qadr 97:1. Verily! We have sent it (this Qur’an) down in the night of Al-Qadr (Decree) 2. And what will make you know what the night of Al-Qadr (Decree) is? 3. The night of Al-Qadr (Decree) is better than a thousand months (i.e. worshipping Allah in that night is better than worshipping Him a thousand months, i.e. 83 years and 4 months). 4. Therein descend the angels and the Ruh [Jibreel (Gabriel)] by Allah’s Permission with all Decrees, 5.Peace! (All that night, there is Peace and Goodness from Allah) until the appearance of dawn.

May Allahﷻ bless our mother, Ayesha Siddiqua (RA) who asked Rasoolullahﷺ what dua she should make if she were to find Laylatul Qadr.

‘Aishah (RA) reported: I asked: “Ya Rasoolullah! If I get Lailat-ul-Qadr (Night of Decree), what dua should I make in it?” He () replied, “You should make this dua: Allahumma innaka ‘afuwwun, tuhibbul-‘afwa, fa’fu ‘anni (O Allah, You are Most Forgiving, and You love forgiveness; so forgive me).” [At-Tirmidhi, Book of Virtues].

I remind myself and you that all goodness comes from making thoughtful choices. Ramadan comes to enable us to do that. To recognize the Glory and Magnificence of Allahﷻ, to seek comfort and courage in His Mercy and Forgiveness and to remember that one day we will meet Him and answer to Him. On that Day nothing will be with anyone and nothing can help anyone except their deeds. Ramadan comes to enable us to repent, rethink, reset and reboot our lives to make them obedient to Allahﷻ, which means to live according to the Sunnah (Way) of Rasoolullahﷺ. Study his life and live like he did and die as he did. That is what Ramadan comes for. Let us remember that and use Ramadan to start a new positive, powerful, meaningful and fulfilling phase of our lives. I ask Allahﷻ for His help and Mercy.

Nations and Forest Fires

Nations and Forest Fires

It was 1984. The second and last formal employment of my career was in the tea plantations in the Anamallai Hills in Coimbatore District of Tamilnadu. I worked there for seven years, one of the most enjoyable and instructive periods of my life. Fires and estates are companions. Not surprising given the combination of people who smoke and don’t always bother to put out their cigarettes, and forests with semi deciduous trees that regularly carpet the floor with their leaves every summer. A forest fire is easy to start. One cigarette butt is enough. But if it catches, then it can’t be put out until there’s nothing left to burn. In the end, all that is left is ash. We used to take a lot of preventive steps including clearing fire boundaries where we would clear a wide swathe of ground of all undergrowth and leaves and keep it swept clean so that even if a fire started it could be contained. We had also constructed water tanks and dammed streams to create small reservoirs, which would be useful if we needed water in a hurry to put out a fire. These reservoirs were also very useful as watering holes for wildlife in the summer and a source of endless delight for me to watch animals as they came down to drink.

One day late in the afternoon someone came running to the office (days without mobile phones or walky-talky radios) and said that a fire had started in the Murugalli coffee area. In the plantations, emergencies were everyone’s affair. News would go to all those who could be informed, and they all rushed to the aid of the estate which had the problem. All who could go would go, regardless of whose estate it was.

As soon as the runner caught his breath, I put him on the back of my motorcycle to guide me and we were off. When I reached the place, I realized that this was a fairly large forest fire. There were about thirty of our workers and two supervisors who had been working in the area. I marshaled them all and got them to clear a belt and start a counter fire. The idea was to burn an area across the direction of the fire and clear it of all inflammable material so that when the main fire reached this place it would simply starve to death. We started the counter fires and once the dry stuff was burnt, we beat out the flames with green leafy branches that we had previously cut and kept at hand. The main fire was moving very fast as it was being pushed by a tail wind. As it came up to us it was our task to ensure that it did not jump the cleared boundary. Every time a flame jumped the fire boundary, we beat it to death. There was no water available where we were, otherwise, we would have also wet as much area as possible as a preventive measure. The story didn’t end here but for this article, this is enough.

The whole logic of fighting forest fires is about preventing them from starting. And if they do start, then trying to prevent them from growing. If this is not done, then once a fire grows beyond a certain size, nothing can put it out until everything that can burn has been burnt. The fire will die only when everyone and everything is dead. And all that is left is ash.

Today, as I reflect on global politics as well as its local reflection in my country, I am reminded of forest fires and my own experience of fighting one in the Anamallais. It appears that none of the leaders either on the global stage or the even more critical local ones, has ever seen or fought a forest fire. That is why they so blithely ignite and stoke the fires of hatred. Racial hatred, communal hatred and religious hatred. They know not what they do but regardless, we, every single one of us, will burn if we allow this to go on unchallenged and unanswered. Fire can’t be fought with fire. It must be fought with something that is cool and which is not inflammable. So also, hatred can’t be fought with hatred, but with love. Loving someone who hates you is not easy. It seems impossible. But the alternative is to burn in the same fire.

In human relations terms, ignorance is combustible. It is the substance that is used to ignite the fire of hatred and to stoke it by demonizing the object of hate. The real purpose is to sow discord and terror, so that we are all reduced to the same level, joined only in our fear of one another rooted in ignorance. Then we become malleable and controllable through fear. This is done by first focusing on the differences in our diversity and then teaching us that these differences are things to hate. In a society like ours which is based on caste differences that discriminate against other people based on their ethnicity (race), to get people to hate someone for something as ridiculous as what they eat, drink, wear or worship is very easy. We already live in a society where we are taught that some of us are superior to others for no fault of ours or theirs. It is just that we were born into this or that caste and so that not only makes us superior, but it means that we get to look down on others and consider them to be dirty, sub-human, unworthy of associating with and to always be treated with contempt. Since this entire edifice is built on an accident of birth, it means that it is permanent and there is nothing that anyone can do to change that. That leads to the logical progression of despising and hating the person and the entire group that he/she belongs to, because that makes me feel superior and good, once again free of cost.

To continue to feel good, all I need to do is to perpetuate this lie from generation to generation and ensure that the hatred and contempt stays alive. For this there are some requirements; deny anything good that the target population may have done, no matter how clear and substantial the evidence. Mock and disparage their identity, beliefs, culture and customs and demonize them by interpreting them in negative ways. Re-write history in a way that removes all evidence of their contribution to the nation and world and replace that with cherry-picked or manufactured stories of their ‘sins’. Pick a time period that is ancient enough to ensure that nobody from the time is alive to defend themselves and do all this so aggressively that those who are alive today, are intimidated enough to remain silent and watch their heritage being trashed. The idea is to eventually have a situation where even the memory of the contributions of those people is lost and all sense of self-esteem is taken from them. It is an age-old tactic, the only thing remarkable about which is that it still works.

Once again, what is the solution? For a solution we must find and implement if we are not all to be consumed in the forest fire that we lighted or allowed to be lighted while we watched. The first part of the solution is to reject every ideology that teaches that you are either superior or inferior because of the accident of birth. All such ideologies of being the ‘chosen of god’, are an insult to humanity and God. All such ideologies are false, dangerous and destructive and must be trashed. For the record as far as my own religion, Islam is concerned, let me quote from the sermon of the Prophet Muhammad(S) during his last Hajj where he said, “All mankind is from Adam and Eve, an Arab has no superiority over a non-Arab nor does a non-Arab have any superiority over an Arab. A white (person) has no superiority over a black, nor does a black (person) have any superiority over a white; except by piety and good action.”  Now that is clear enough and needs no elaboration. We are all equal in our humanity and the only measure of goodness is the goodness we spread around us.

The second part of the solution is to give names and faces to the labels that we are confronted with. Labels seeking to create the ‘Other’ in our minds. Labels that if we don’t question and see them for what they are, make it possible for us to reject others. Labels are distant, disembodied and impersonal. That makes it possible to hate those to whom they apply. Names are known and personal; faces are recognizable. They make us stop to consider what we think, say or do about those people. Let me illustrate with my own example, how a name changes the complexion of a label.

I am Muslim. But when I hear the label ‘Agnostic/Atheist’, I see Aunty Mohini and Uncle Rama’s faces. The two people who were my mentors in childhood and youth and role models, lifelong. They enabled me to discover myself and opened my heart and mind to appreciate others. When I hear the label Sikh, I see the faces of Gurcharan, Gurveen Kaur, Anup and Sandy. When I hear the label Hindu, I see the faces of AMM Arunachalam, Renuka & Aditya Mishra, Purba & Sanjoy Sanyal, Nikoo Rawlley, Arun Menon and Gudducha (Jaikant Chaturvedi). When I hear the label Christian, I see the faces of Berty & Jenny Suares, Thambi Kurien, Ranjan Solomon, Norman & Lorraine Wood. When I hear the label Buddhist, I see the faces of Rose, Ivo and Alvito Baretto. When I hear the label Jew, I see the faces of Kathy, Dennis Goodman, David and Jeffrey Solomon. When I hear the label Christian Missionary, I see the faces of David and Miriam Ramse and Thurston Riehl. When I hear the label Parsi, I see the faces of Jehangir Ghadiali, Naushi and Mehru Tarapore. When I think of communal riots, I think of Uncle Raman Kumar who came with a police escort through the curfew to give us food grains. I think of Norman Lindie in Guyana who shielded me with his own body from a man who had come to attack me with a knife. I think of Peter Ramsingh, who was my constant companion in our innumerable camping trips through the rain forests, up and down the Berbice River. These are by no means the only people I know under these ‘categories’. There are many, many more. This is only to make my point that when you have a face to a label, it becomes personal. With each of them, I have many pleasant memories associated. Of happy times, helping one another, just being with one another and enjoying each other’s company and difference. So, deal with people, not labels.

The benefit of becoming personal is that I have a frame of reference when I hear or read something hateful about the ‘category’ which in my mind and life experience is represented by a name and face of a friend. I find it impossible to hate anyone, but even if this were not the case, I would have cause to stop and reflect, if I have a frame of reference against which to compare what I am being asked to believe. Without that and given the unique human tendency to believe the negative more easily than the positive, rumor becomes real and the lie becomes the truth. Today the problem is that thanks to our highly urbanized and apparently self-sufficient (but really isolationist) way of life, we manage to live in the same apartment building for decades without even knowing the name of our neighbor, let alone anything more. Our civic spaces are disappearing.  Hence civilized interaction and dialogue. Even schools are ‘segregated’. Not officially but children don’t seem to have friends, except among their own kind. Racist language is rampant and normal. Discrimination seems to be the order of the day. Even the question of a child going to the home of a friend, not from his/her religion or ethnicity, to spend an overnight or weekend with their family, doesn’t arise. Our conversation mentions other people, their religion and culture, but always in disparaging words. Never with respect and appreciation. Our world view has become totally color blind – black and white. We don’t even see the racist overtone in the term, Black & White. We have lost our frame of reference. We are blind, waiting to be led down the road of someone else’s choosing.

This must change. This is the fire-break that we must build. The essential fire prevention strategy if we want to protect ourselves from annihilation. We must open our eyes and ears, homes and hearts, to others. We must stop ‘Othering’ each other. We must learn to observe with respect and without being judgmental. We must learn to appreciate difference and not reduce all difference to good (like me) and bad (different from me). It is variety that adds color to the scenery. Variety is another name for difference. We must consciously examine the assumptions that we have become used to and treat as ‘The Truth’. We must face the fact that they are baseless assumptions, rooted in bigotry. As Reza Aslan put it very aptly, ‘Religion doesn’t make people bigots. People are bigots and they use religion to justify their ideology.’ The question each one of us needs to ask is, ‘Am I a bigot?’ I can imagine that in today’s world, the answer may well be, ‘Yes’, in all cases with a difference only in degree. As a starting point, I would say that it is enough to ask this question and then ask another one, even more painful. ‘Am I willing to do anything to change this?’ That is when we can start thinking of what we must do.

So, what must we do?

Monitor conversations. At home, in the workplace, especially in our schools and in public. It is ‘domestic legends’ which shape our worldview from a very early age. We need to reflect on how we were conditioned and become conscious of how we are conditioning our children. Most conditioning is unconscious and extremely powerful and very difficult to undo, unless we make a serious effort. Monitoring conversations will give us diagnostic evidence of the degree of change we need to make. It is important to do this objectively with a no-praise-no-blame mindset. The idea is to see how serious the terminal disease which afflicts us is and see what we need to do, to cure it. For terminal it is. Hatred is fire. All fires burn and the result is always ash.

Then we need to create civic spaces to meet in and practice being civilized. We need to develop the skills to speak about each other, our beliefs, culture, customs and traditions with respect. We must visit each other, participate in each other’s lives and do it with respect and without being judgmental. We must ask questions, respectfully and strongly oppose all mockery of people different from us, even if and especially when it is done in the name of ‘humor’. Laughing at someone is not humorous. Reject outright anyone who preaches hatred or mocks others; whether that is your priest or preacher, teacher or political leader, uncle or mother. We need to become open-minded enough to try to understand the reason why other people do things differently from us and not only accept that but appreciate it as another way of life which has an equal right to exist. We must deal with the fear that if we do this, we will need to ‘convert’ to their way. We won’t. What will happen though is that our minds and hearts will expand, which is a very good thing for all minds and hearts. Even ours. We will become more understanding, accepting, respectful and impervious to manipulation by those who wish to fill our hearts with hatred for others, so that we become tools in their hands to achieve their own ends.

It was a very hot day in May, 1991. Very dry, at the peak of summer with the monsoon another month away. I was driving through Thirunelveli District on my way back from Madurai where I had gone to attend a Labour Court hearing. These were the days before car air-conditioning in India, so the car was a moving oven. Suddenly the moving oven stopped moving. A tyre was punctured. My driver Santiago pulled over to the side. I got out of the car as it was simply too hot to sit inside. Santiago didn’t need any help, he said, so I looked around. I saw that we had stopped by some fields which in the monsoon would be planted with rice, but which at this time were simply baked, dry clay fractured into pieces according to whatever natural law was at work. There was not a blade of grass or anything green in sight. Except that is, for two small Neem trees, which had been planted by the roadside. Beside the trees, with its back to them and facing the field was a mud hut. It must have been about twenty feet long and had a grass thatch roof. Between the trees, which were at either end of the hut, the ground had been swept clean and sprinkled with sand. Under each tree, in the scant shade was a stone bench. It was really a stone fence post laid flat on two short raisers about two feet in height. I was intrigued to say the least about how this whole thing was obviously planned and prepared. Who would bother to make this seating arrangement and why?

I sat on one of the benches to see what would happen. In a little while a young boy came out of the hut with a brass water pot and a steel tumbler and poured me a tumbler full of tepid water. I had many thoughts about the origin of the water and its hygiene but didn’t want to interfere with whatever was at work here. So, I accepted the water and drank it. The boy went to Santiago and poured some water for him also. Then he set the pot down and sat with Santiago to provide him with moral support in changing the tyre of the car. A couple of minutes later, his mother called him. He took his pot and departed, only to emerge with two glass tumblers of tea. His mother came out as he finished giving the tea to me and Santiago, with a plate of Murku – the twisted savory snack that is very popular all over Tamilnadu and South India. I thanked her and took one, thinking all the time that the mystery had been solved. We had been fortunate enough to break down near a tea-shop and so we were now being served.

We finished our tea and the tyre was changed. I got up and asked the boy how much money I owed them for the tea and snack. He looked at me in surprise and said, ‘Onnum illayingay.’ (Nothing, Sir.) He used the respectful form of address which given the difference in our ages, our mutual social positions and the culture of Thirunelveli was natural. I thanked him but told him to ask his mother. He went into the hut and the lady came out, her head covered with the tail of her sari (pallu) and said, ‘This is not a shop Sir. Your car broke down, so I thought that maybe you would like a cup of tea and made it for you. That is all. There is nothing to pay. You are our guest.’ I didn’t know what to say. There was nothing in my experience to handle this, except unless I went back almost 30 years earlier to my time with Gond tribals in Adilabad, where I also encountered such generosity of spirit from people who had nothing. In this case, it was Diwali next day. So, I took out Rs. 100 and folded the note and put it in the pocket of the youngster and said, ‘This is for Diwali sweets for you.’ His mother tried to object but I said to her, ‘I am like his elder brother. Please allow me to give him a gift for Diwali.’ She smiled and nodded. And we left. This happened in 1991. This is 2019. The memory is alive.

Our education and sophistication seem to build walls and teach us to despise one another. These people were among the poorest in the world, deprived, discriminated against, so-called lower caste. Yet their hearts were full of compassion, generosity and abundance. What is the secret? It is to see another human being as a human being. Shorn of our titles and labels. Just another human being. This is what we need to learn and teach. This is the secret of putting out fires and of survival. This is our lifeline.