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.
to make a point and set the record straight right away in the context of my
relationship with them.
to the table and chair, I asked the organizers, “Who is that place for?”
Dorai!” he said.
mean you called me to this function, but I can’t eat with you and have to eat
separately?” I challenged him.
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
“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
‘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
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.
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
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?”
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.
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
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 Rasoolullahﷺsaid,
‘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 Rasoolullahﷺ 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 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:
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
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.
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.
Allahﷻ 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 Rasoolullahﷺ 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:
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:
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
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
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:
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
Rasoolullahﷺ! If I get
Lailat-ul-Qadr (Night of Decree), what dua should I make in it?” He (ﷺ) 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
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
must we do?
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.
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.
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.
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.