born in the mid-to-late 1970s are the last generation of humans on the planet
to have grown up without the internet. Social scientists call them the Last of
the Innocents. In his book The End of Absence, Vancouver writer Michael Harris
calls people who grew up prior to the popularisation of digital culture
“digital immigrants” — they have lived both “with and without the crowded
connectivity of online life.”
no person on earth will remember what the world was like before the internet.
There will be records, of course (stored in the intangibly limitless archive of
the cloud), but the actual lived experience of what it was like to think and
feel and be human before the emergence of big data will be gone.
demise of the Last of the Innocents will mean the loss of an entire plane of
human experience — the time when, faced with long hours of nothing to do, our
attention was allowed to wander; when there was time for reflection and
introspection and devoting attention to people we were actually with; when idle
summer nights could be spent in the yard catching fireflies and days would be
spent lying in the grass looking for faces in clouds. – The Guardian”
God! How true that is!!! I am so grateful that I am one of the ‘Innocents’. And
I can still recall what it was like to lie in the sand of a riverbed on a dark
night, looking up at the stars and wondering if what I was seeing was still
there. I didn’t even have a wristwatch because those were rare and, in any
case, I was too poor to afford one. Such beautiful days. I recollect this when
today, thanks to big data my words are transmitted all over the world to places
that I have never been to and probably never will. I have seen both worlds.
a disclaimer: Nostalgia alert: Not everything old is or was good. Not
everything new is or was bad. But nostalgia feels so good. Enjoy and keep the
the world before plastics, glasses were made of glass, or copper or silver and
water tasted better in them. Bottles were transparent glass or opaque ceramic.
But both were breakable and did. Plates were ceramic beautifully painted. Also,
breakable and did. We also had steel plates which didn’t break but were less
classy. Buckets and tubs were unbreakable, made of copper or galvanized iron
and made a loud clang when you put them down and dropped the handle. So, you
were careful to put the handle down gently.
bags were cloth, washed and reused until they wore out and then served as dish
and polishing cloths until they vanished. Chairs were wooden or metal – some
foldable, some not. All heavy and unstackable. So, when plastic bottles,
plates, cups, buckets and tubs and above all plastic bags came to be, we were
thrilled out of our minds. Transparent like glass but doesn’t break? Buckets
and tubs lifting which didn’t break your back? Chairs that could be stacked and
put away when you didn’t need them? Shopping bags that you could print your
label on and which the customer could use for other things or simply throw
away? No need to wash and dry and reuse. Truly a vision of convenience heaven.
were wooden cots without springs with cotton mattresses on them. Every year a
man would come with an instrument that resembled a great bow and would be shut
into a room with all mattresses. He would unstitch one side, pull out the
cotton, prong it with his bow until it was fluffy once again and then stuff it
back into the mattress. When you entered the room to give the man a cup of tea,
you had to look for him in the white cloud of cotton fluff and dust that he
generated. The drumming sound of him working was like an out of tune sitar.
What it did to his lungs breathing in the cotton fluff, is not something that
either he or we were conscious of but thanks to spring-less beds and firm mattresses
we didn’t have backaches. PUF was unheard of. Foam was on soaps, not
mattresses. And soaps were in the bathroom, not on TV. There was no TV.
home had resident wildlife – sparrows in the rafters making an infernal din
every morning belligerently defending their nesting sites from intruders. In
Urdu they are very aptly called Khana Chidiya (Khanchudi in Deccani) – house
bird. Their feathers and at nesting time, all the grass and other tidbits they
brought and then allowed to fall – they are incredibly messy nest builders –
meant that the house had to be swept twice or three times a day. Occasionally a
sparrow would get brained by a lazily rotating fan because they never seemed to
realize that trying to perch on a moving fan was a bad idea. We would pick up
the dazed bird and revive it and put it on a windowsill so that it could fly
away when it wished. It never occurred to us to de-sparrow the house.
Sweeping was preferable to an aseptic house devoid of the chirping of
the sparrow. Today with all the concrete and glass and pesticide sprays in
the fields, sparrows are gone.
water came when it came so everyone had storage tanks in bathrooms. If those
ran out there was the Bi-hish-ti (literally: man from heaven) who came with a
leather sack slung over his shoulder and topped up the tank. More usually he
would water the garden and simply sprinkle water in the yard after sunset to
cool the place down before our cots would be set out for us to sleep under the
stars all through summer. Those who didn’t have gardens had terraces or flat
roofs used for the same purpose. How did it feel to lie in bed and look at the
moon and stars through your mosquito net, secure in the thought that your house
was not being burgled while you slept? I don’t think I can even tell you to try
it out today. The world before plastics was different.
that world we had no computers, but we had time. We had no TV, but we had
friends. We had no cell phones, but we spoke to people face to face.
Conversation was an art, taught and learnt and grunts didn’t substitute for
words. Language had value and was acquired and husbanded – new words tried out
to see how they worked – phrases repeated, shared and appreciated. Poetry was
an actual form of self-expression that underlined the thought and the ability
to quote the right couplet at the right time was a mark of a person’s
education. Conversation didn’t simply revolve around politics or controversial matters,
but we talked about thought leaders, exemplars from our past and shared their
thoughts and writings, often verbatim – memorizing and quoting them being a
sign of our own worth. An hour or two passed in this way, drinking tea and
reciting poetry and marveling at the turn of phrase, expressing thoughts that
touched the heart was something to be looked forward to and back on with great
worked in the home or for our families for love or duty but never for money. We
were never offered money and would have considered it an insult to be offered
payment for doing something for our family members, no matter how distant. The
concept of paying children to work in the home was unheard of and considered
deplorable. Money was called ‘dirt on the hands’ – we dirtied our hands for the
experience. The dirt came as a result – we didn’t work for it. Mentioning what
anything cost, what anybody earned or what anyone had spent on a gift, meal or
any other form of hospitality was considered insulting and crass. Hospitality
was a value, not an industry. The guest was someone you invited home to a meal.
To take him to a restaurant was considered a lapse in the standard of
hospitality. Even if you did it, it was done under duress. Never as a choice.
If some family member informed us that he or she was arriving from another
city, it was the standard for us to meet them at the station and bring them
will never forget the sight of my great-uncle Nawab Ruknuddin Ahmed standing on
the platform on Chennai station with garlands when I arrived there in 1985 with
my newly wedded wife Samina. He was staying with his daughter, Aunty Jahanara,
who we would be transiting with on our way to the tea gardens where I worked.
Even though it was not his home that we were going to, Mamujaan honored us by
personally receiving us at the station. But then what am I saying? How can the
daughter’s home not be his home? Just as my aunt’s home was my home. We learnt
from the actions of our elders. Tradition was to keep those memories alive –
not only by talking about them, but by emulating the actions. For a family
member to stay in a hotel instead of at home with us, was an insult to our
honor. The thought that elderly parents could be sent away to a ‘home’ was
unimaginable. Home was where we lived – not some place to shunt old
inconvenient elders to, to be taken care of by strangers. They were our elders.
We remembered what they had done for us when we were little. To do the same for
them, was not only our duty but not even something we considered remarkable.
that world we played real games on real earth not virtual games on a gadget. We
ran, sweated, yelled ourselves hoarse, tore our shirts, fell down, skinned our
knees, got covered with dust and when it was raining with mud and considered
all this as having had a whale of a time. In these games we learned leadership,
sharing, standing up for our friends, being done in by those we trusted and
learnt lessons from all of them. We learned to work as a team, strategize and
see the result of that strategy. We stood up for each other, never reneged on
our friends, even when we sometimes had to pay the price for that loyalty. We
settled with our friend in private but stood by his side in public. You didn’t
turn your back on your friends. It was as simple as that. It didn’t matter to
us what the color, religion or social status of the friend was. It didn’t
matter what car he had because we all rode bicycles. It didn’t matter what
brand of clothing he wore because we all had clothes custom tailored by the
Darzee (tailor) in our Muhalla (neighborhood). Bell bottoms were in fashion and
we wore them. So were pointed shoes, and Brylcream in the hair. It didn’t
matter whether the friend was rich or poor because at the end of a good
football game, we all looked the same – the color of mud. It didn’t matter if
he was tall or short, handsome or ugly. What mattered was that he was my
friend. That was all.
that world manners were everything. Manners meant that you showed respect for
elders by greeting them first and standing up for them. By anticipating their
needs and running to fulfill them. Manners meant that if an elderly person had
to carry a chair to a place where he wanted to sit, it was an insult to you and
your parents, if you only stood by and watched. Manners meant that you spoke
politely after asking permission and listened more than you spoke. ‘That is why
you have been given two ears and one mouth’ – we were told. Manners meant that
when guests came home you served them, not servants. That you were in the
middle of studying for your exam meant nothing. Guests were more important than
exams. When the guests left you went back to studying and still got straight
A’s. No compromising on results.
that world, we read books. Not occasionally but every single day. We had our
favorite authors, but we still had to read the classics mandatorily. Books were
(and still are) our best friends, opening doors into worlds unexplored. We saw
the scenes as we read about them, laughed with the actors in those stories,
shared their joys and sorrows.
opened for us doors into the hearts and lives of the writers and their times
walking through which we discovered ourselves. We read everything. J.R.R
Tolkien, Ayn Rand, Alvin Toffler, Iqbal, Ghalib, Ibn Al Qayyim, Louis L’amour,
George Orwell, Romila Thapar, James Herriot, Gerald Durrell, John Steinbeck,
Munshi Premchand, P. G. Wodehouse, Enid Blyton, Arthur Hailey, Sir Arthur Conan
Doyle (Sherlock Holmes), Agatha Christie and many others, all spoke to us. They
influenced us and shaped our thoughts and values and taught us to question,
critically analyze and choose intelligently. Above all they taught us that we
are not unique or more special than anyone else. That others also cry tears and
laugh their way through difficulties and that in many cases our worst
complaints can be the dreams of others. We read and we learnt to write. We saw
and we learnt to show by drawing vividly colored pictures with words. We dreamt
and learnt to deal with the reality that some dreams are simply that – dreams.
But that even the most unrealizable of them, opens vistas to that which might
have been and leads to that which can become a reality. We learnt the value of
philosophy and the solace it gives to a sore heart. We learnt to choose –
sometimes painfully – but learnt the lesson that we could and must make
choices. Sitting on the fence invariably gives you a sore crotch.
had never heard of recycling, but we always wore clothes that had graced our
elder siblings. We used and reused them until the thing simply fell apart. Only
then did we get anything new. Clothes covered our bodies, not our egos.
Manners, not possessions were our statement. Not to say that we were always
good mannered – one of the things we prided ourselves on was the ability to
describe another’s ancestry in colorful terms for ten minutes without repeating
ourselves. A skill that comes in handy when one needs to de-stress. The secret
is to do it alone facing a wall. Otherwise it increases stress levels instead
we didn’t have copy paste or auto correct, we learned spelling and wrote
clearly in longhand. Ah! The joy of the feel of a fountain pen gliding smoothly
across the page – those were the days before ball pens came into being. You
chose your pen depending on the width of the nib. Sat with an inkpot and
medicine dropper, filling the pen. Then screwed the top back on and carefully
wiped the residual ink on your head and you were good to go. We wrote letters
not only to give news but to pour out our thoughts and feelings. Sometimes you
would get a letter with a circle around a suspicious stain labelled ‘tear’.
Then we waited days and sometimes weeks before we got a reply.
couldn’t see the face, didn’t get instant responses and had to struggle with
translating emotion into words – so we learned to write properly. Our
vocabulary was a lot more than, ‘Ugh!, gr8, Like, youknowwhaimean? LOL. We
didn’t explore – we checked. We didn’t reach out – we contacted. We didn’t try
to reach – we reached. We used shorthand to take notes and short forms only for
telegrams. We learnt to imagine, anticipate and adjust. We learned patience and
we learned to write legibly because the addressee had to read what we wrote. We
learned to write concisely because we didn’t want the reader to get bored and
throw the letter away. We learned to write correctly and grammatically because
not to do so was a sign of ignorance and a poor education. It still is.
this world without instant coffee or tea bags we learnt the value of process –
warm the tea pot before you pour in the hot water – and the reward of a
properly done job – drink a cup of freshly ground coffee and you’ll see what I
mean. And the lesson that everything had a use – used tea leaves are excellent
mulch for roses. Drinking tea was also about demonstrating upbringing – hold
the cup by its handle between three fingers and thumb with the little finger
(pinky) sticking out and you don’t slurp or blow on the tea to cool it. And god
forbid, never slurp it out of the saucer. Not to say that doesn’t have its own
pleasure but you didn’t do it.
that everything in the plastic-less world was hunky dory – we had power cuts or
to put it more correctly, we were delightfully surprised when we had power. But
we had candles and lamps. We had no cooking gas and so our rotis came with a
wood smoke flavor. Corn was always on the cob, roasted on live coals, rubbed
with half a lemon dipped in salt and eaten hot. What all this cooking on wood
did to the forests is another story. We had no refrigerators, so we gave away
all leftovers and always ate fresh. Milk would be stored overnight in what was
called a Hawadaan (literally: air container) – a cupboard with a wooden frame
and mesh sides. If it still turned, we converted it either into a sweet or into
ghee. As I said, we recycled out of necessity and it was very enjoyable.
generation is a generation that straddles times and change. We have seen more
fundamental change than both our predecessors and successors and we love it.
friend said to me, “I am with you. But how do we get this back?”
out into the open. Go sit on the grass. Don’t worry about your clothes. Get
them dirty. Sit under a tree, in silence and listen to the tree. I mean that
seriously. Listen to the tree. Trees talk to those who listen to them.
Sometimes it sounds like the rustling of leaves in the breeze. Sometimes, it
sounds like birds talking to each other. Sometimes, when the breeze turns into
a wind, it sounds like a tired man straightening his back. Sometimes, you can
hear what sounds like rain drops, but there is no rain. That is the water that
the tree sends back to earth from transpiration. If you are in a forest, you
will hear it, sometimes making you wonder if it is raining. It is, and it
isn’t. The key to all this is to be totally silent. Silent as in absence of
sound. Silent as in absence of movement. Sit still, breathe gently and take
deep breaths. Remember that you are sitting under an oxygen generation plant.
Take the benefit of that. Let the buzzing in your ears, subside. That is the
noise of the city that came with you into the forest. It will go if you let it
go. Then you will start hearing the forest and its own sounds, which are not
the discordant, disruptive, distressing noise of manmade things and lifestyles.
These are the sounds of nature, before man came on the scene and which will
remain after the earth has rid itself of yet another pestilence. These sounds
are soothing, calm, peaceful, relaxing and eternal. Be prepared to feel like a
chain-smoker on a sixteen-hour long haul, non-smoking flight. That will give
you an indication of what you have done to yourself. Essentially, it will tell
you how sick you are. I mean, the stress you will feel by your self-imposed ban
on using your mobile phone. The best thing is to leave it in your car or home.
Don’t bring it with you. Feel the lack of it. You need to know what you have
done to yourself, so that hopefully, you will be inspired to free yourself from
your voluntary enslavement.
in the rain. Don’t carry an umbrella or even a hat. Feel the water on your face
and head, trickling down your back (it tickles). If the rain is light, it will
be very pleasant. If it is heavy, you will get soaked and it will feel even
nicer. Don’t worry, you are not made of salt. You won’t dissolve and flow away.
I am saying this to people living in the tropics. Those living in Europe and
North America must not do this because thanks to colder climates, you may catch
a cold or worse. But even there, in summer? All power to you. I hope you don’t
live in a place where the rain is acid. How tragic that we have polluted our
world so badly that we must fear even the rain!
you are wet enough, find a nice tree with thick foliage and shelter under it.
Just sit quietly and listen. There is nothing more relaxing than the sound of
rain on the leaves overhead and in the surrounding forest. Some rain will drip
on you but that doesn’t matter because you are wet already. That is why I told
you to walk in the rain first. Then go under a tree. Otherwise you will spend
your energy trying to stay dry instead of enjoying the rain.
I can tell you a lot more but let us leave it at this. When you have done this
and start enjoying it, then tell me and I will tell you what the next step of
the detox process is. And remember, it all starts with your phone. Or more
correctly, without it.
Have you ever been in the shower
in a 5-star hotel, nice and wet all over and you reach for the shampoo bottle,
only to find that there are three? That is not because you are drunk and are
seeing triple but because you are faced with three identical bottles but with
totally different contents. What is in the bottles is not a mystery of course.
It has been helpfully printed on the label. However, the label was designed by
a 20-something design engineer sitting in a sweatshop in India or Bangladesh,
who has never seen the inside of a 5-star hotel shower and won’t until he gets
old enough to need glasses to read and the money to pay for the hotel. Then he
will realize what he did all his life when he is forced to play Russian
Roulette with the shampoo, body lotion (complicated way to say ‘soap’) and
conditioner. If you think this is funny, put conditioner on your head instead
of shampoo and you will think that is even funnier. That is perhaps the reason
why I had to decline a haircut recently which was for Rs. 350 on the plea that
I refuse to pay more than Re. 1 per hair, aforementioned number being an
optimistic hair-count of my head. The refusal of hair to adhere to my scalp may
be ascribed to the times that I used conditioner instead of shampoo. No
self-respecting hair can stand such treatment and so they decide to part
company with me forever.
“What’s the big deal?” you ask
me. “Why can’t you read the label?”
“I need glasses to read but I
don’t need glasses to shower. So, I don’t wear glasses in the shower, which is
where I need glasses to read the labels on the bottles.”
What is the solution?
Take all shower bottle label
designers to a 5-star hotel, blindfold them, strip them naked and shove them
into the shower.
Why blindfold them?
How else will they understand how
it feels to hold the bottle in your hand and not know what is in it?
Customer Satisfaction and
Customer Delight can be condensed into one phrase and that is, “See with their eyes.” The keyword being ‘Their’.
As they say, ‘When you gotta go
you gotta go.’ But then the question arises, where does he go? And what’s more,
what if he had to do more than just irrigate the tracks? And even more
critical, what if the ‘Motorman’ was a ‘Motorwoman’. Incidentally for those who
may think that I am being facetious, let me assure you that I have seldom been
more serious in my life. This, lack of facilities to do it decently and in
private, is a major problem with Traffic Police Constables also, especially
women Constables. Maybe the fact that we don’t have a distinct word for a
woman police constable is an indicator of our blindness to their
To return to our ‘Motorman’ video
and the lessons from it, the reason the man has to do what he did is because
the designer of the engine driver’s cab, never drove an engine in his life. If
you think I am exaggerating, let me tell you another story.
In 2000 I was invited to teach a
series of leadership courses, which we called From Managing to Leading, for the
design team of one of the two major truck manufacturers in India. There were
totally two hundred engineers who would take this 3-day residential course at
their training facility. They were all graduates from the IITs (Indian
Institutes of Technology) with a sprinkling from REC’s (Regional Engineering
College); some of the most highly qualified engineers in the country. The IITs
have an entrance test about which someone asked one of the professors of MIT
what he would do if he had to write that test. He said, ‘I would leave, in tears.’
In short these were very smart people with arrogance to match. I asked for a
meeting with the Head of the Division, the Head of HR and a cross section of
the design engineers to understand their issues so that I could design a
program that suited their special needs. This is how that went:
Me: “Many thanks for agreeing to
meet me. I am hoping to understand from you, what you see as the special
leadership challenges that you face and what you see as being the key
deliverables for this course. So, let me begin with a question to all and each
of you; Do you have a heavy license (license to drive a truck)?”
They: Thinking: Total silence.
Odd looks. “Looks like we made a mistake. This guy looks like he’s flipped it.
Heavy license? Why on earth would we, IIT grads, have a heavy license? Do we
look like truck drivers to him?” But then this is India and he is older than we
are, so we can’t just tell him that he is crazy. So, we remain silent.
Me: “Hmm! Does this mean that you
don’t have a truck driving license? Nobody has one?”
Me: “You mean that you design
these trucks but none of you has ever driven what you designed?”
They: Thinking: “Now this is
getting uncomfortable. How do we answer this?”
Me: Thinking: “Expressive
“Okay, let me ask you another
question; How many of you sat with the driver in one of your trucks as he drove
from Chandigarh to Chennai?”
Eyes roll, silence is now so
heavy that it is oppressive.
Me: “Okay, Chandigarh to Chennai
is long, though your trucks are being driven on that route. But let me make it
simpler; has anyone sat with the driver as he drove from Chennai to Bangalore?”
Eyes roll again. More silence.
Me: Now I am twisting the knife: “So,
you are telling me that you design trucks that you have never driven or ridden
They: Sheepishly: “Yes.”
Me: “Let me ask you another
question: Who makes the buying decision in the case of a truck?”
They: “The owner of the trucking
Me: “Right and wrong. The owner
‘decides’ but he is totally influenced by his drivers. If the drivers like a
certain brand of truck, the owner will always buy that brand unless there is a
huge price difference between that brand and its competitor. No owner wants
unhappy drivers who are constantly complaining about the truck which results in
slower turnaround time, directly translating to lower profits. The owner wants
the best, most efficient transport and his driver decides. Who is that driver?
He is the one whose reality you have not even tried to understand. You were
looking at me like I was crazy when I asked if you had a heavy license. What do
you say now?”
Sadly, this inability to see with their eyes is widespread and is the real reason behind bad design and
Try an experiment. Walk down a
street that you usually walk down. Notice how it looks and try to remember the
details. When you get to the end of the street or if it is a long street, then
when you have walked a few hundred meters, turn around and look up the street
you just walked down. How does it look? Does it look like it had been a few
minutes ago when you walked down it? Or does it look different? This is a good
way to understand how perspective is a factor of position. What you see depends
on where you look at it from. The same principle holds in life. One of my
friends, a senior police officer was talking to me about human trafficking,
which is a very big issue in India. She talked about how her subordinate
officers seemed to have become calloused about it. She asked me for ideas about
how she could get them inspired to solve human trafficking cases and bring the
perpetrators of urban slavery to book. I told her, “Ask them to give the victim
a name. The name of their daughter.” Simple as it sounds, it worked. Things
change complexion when we put ourselves in the shoes of the ‘other’. The other
is no longer a stranger to be ignored at best or at worst, maligned and hated.
We see the other, and in him, we
This is the origin of the Golden
Rule: “Do unto others what you would have them do unto you.” Or as someone else
put it: “Don’t do to others what you wouldn’t want them to do to you.” Or as yet
someone else put it: “People may forget what you did but they will never forget
how you made them feel.”
Before I end, let me assure you
that this is not about business or winning customers. The biggest lesson I learnt
in this context was one week after I got married. I married when I was thirty
and had been living alone since I was eighteen. We got married in Hyderabad and
left the next day for the Anamallais (where I was an Assistant Manager in the
tea gardens) we arrived in Madras at my aunt’s place. Jahanara Aunty and Mohammed
Uncle were absolute gems whose hospitality was legendary and recalled to this
day by everyone who was fortunate enough to enjoy it. Two
days later we boarded the train for Coimbatore from where we drove up the
Aliyar Ghat of forty hairpin bends. Samina was violently sick all the way up
the Ghat. Being prone to motion sickness anyway, the Ghat road was not doing
her any good at all. I was very concerned because this Ghat road was a given if
we lived in the Anamallais and with Samina being so sick on it, it didn’t seem
to portend well for us. The prospect of a repeat performance every time we
traveled was definitely not something to look forward to. But as it happened
after a couple of trips Samina got over her motion sickness altogether. Maybe
the Ghat road shocked it out of her system.
a tradition that estate workers welcomed the Assistant Manager when he returned
with his wife. But it was not something that happened always. The workers
decided who they wanted to welcome and who they didn’t. In our case as our car
rounded the bend off the Sholayar Dam and came towards ‘Black Bridge,’ we were
stopped and requested to alight. Samina and I came out of the car, glad for the
chance to stretch our legs. The road was lined with girls who sang a welcome
song and showered us with flower petals as we walked through this guard of
honor. We were taken to a pavilion which I realized had been made by tying the
best sarees of the women to the poles and decorated with lots of flowers. Tea
garden workers can be the most loving people in the world and if you were good
to them, they appreciated it and reciprocated. I saw many examples of that in
my decade long career. We were garlanded and sat at a table on the two grandest
chairs that they could find. Then we were served tea and biscuits and sweets.
It was then that a depressed fly decided to end its meaningless life in my
wife’s teacup. But Samina, being the perfect lady that she is, merely fished the
fly out and drank the tea without batting an eyelid. An amazing performance
which saved us from a lot of embarrassment.
speeches were made, and the women danced and sang a song in our honor in which
we were mentioned repeatedly in sometimes a humorous way and sometimes with
great respect. The amazing thing was that this song was made up then and there
and they sang about various habits of mine, including singing while I rode my
motorcycle. People observe you and remember and respond to you the way they perceive
you. People listen with their eyes. They don’t care what you say, until they
see what you do. I have seen this in my life more times than I can possibly recall.
All the more reason to ensure that whatever it was, remained good and
the end of all this song and dance there were some speeches by the local union
leaders and one supervisor and then I was asked to speak. It was permitted for
the manager to speak in English and the speech would be translated. But I had
learnt Tamil for occasions such as these and spoke it well, much to everyone’s
delight. When I had finished and thanked them for all their trouble and
expressed our gratitude for the honor that we had been granted, they gave my
wife a gold ring as their gift as a mark of their love and honor for me. I was
floored. These were poor people who had collected money for this, something
which was not expected of them at all. What could I say? As I mentioned
earlier, Managers and workers in the plantations form bonds that are more like
family than anything else.
story was the background for the lesson I mentioned earlier. A lesson in seeing
with ‘their’ eyes. It was about a week later when one day I was saying something
to my wife about my car and so on when she stopped me and said, ‘If you keep talking
about everything as my-this and my-that, how will I ever feel that I share it
with you?’ I was flabbergasted. I didn’t realize the effect of my perfectly
innocuous speech on my wife. I had lived alone since I was eighteen and was
used to thinking of everything as being mine. Sharing didn’t come into it as I’d
had nobody to share with. But now I did. I realized that I needed to change my
outlook. I needed to see with her eyes. Today, thirty-four years later, I am
very happy that I learnt that lesson.
Whenever I speak of
customer service, I am reminded of how some people from north India, from the
Hindi speaking belt of UP and MP pronounce it. They say, ‘Kasht-mar service’.
Now ‘Kasht’ in Hindi means ‘difficulty’. And ‘Mar’ means to die. So, the literal
translation of ‘Kasht-Mar’ would be (Kasht-say-mar) meaning ‘die slowly with
difficulty’. Not a very nice thing to say but that is what some people in the
business of providing service seem to be saying to their customers (Kashtmars).
Customer service is about customers, not about the content, technology or industry in which those customers operate. This is a very important thing to understand and accept if one is not to fall into the trap of feeling that somehow our own industry is so unique that the lessons learnt in the airline, hotel, BPO, IT or hospital businesses are not applicable to us. If we deal with people, lessons learnt in any industry that have to do with people, apply to us and we would be very foolish to ignore them. Customers and people think holistically. When we experience bad service on board a plane, we compare it quite happily (albeit sometimes unconsciously) to the overall service standard that we are used to in our own environment and feel proportionately bad about it. If we come from a country like Singapore where the quality of service is generally very superior, we will tend to feel highly dissatisfied with bad service. But someone who comes from another country where service standards are generally pretty low, they may find the same service to be acceptable because their expectations are so low to begin with. When experiencing on-board in-flight service, we don’t compare it only to our experience on other airlines. Even people who are flying for the first time feel dissatisfied with poor service. So, lessons are transferable.
Great customer service is a
combination of two things: a genuine desire to serve and some key things to do
(tools). Let us look at each of them.
Attitude: Whenever I think of an attitude
of great customer service I remember when I first went to Singapore in 1994. I
was there to teach a course in teaming skills at GE Asia. I reached my hotel by
about midday and having had lunch and rested, decided to go out in the evening
to see the city. I came out of the hotel and stood at the curbside waiting for
a cab. One came along in less than 2 minutes and then it happened. The driver
pulled up, got out of the car, trotted (he didn’t walk, he trotted) around the
back to where I was, opened the rear passenger door and ushered me into the cab
with a flourish. I realized that I was in the presence of something special and
silently got in.
The interior was spotlessly clean
and smelled of some pleasant mild perfume. I sat waiting for the next act of
the play. And there it was. He said to me as I was sitting in the cab, ‘That is
today’s newspaper for you Sir and some water if you’re thirsty. I hope you are
comfortable.’ I said that I was and thanked him. He shut the door respectfully,
trotted (once again he didn’t walk) back to his seat and said, looking at me in
the rearview mirror, ‘Where can I take you Sir?’ I replied, ‘I don’t want to go
anywhere. I want to just sit here so that I can enjoy the experience of being
in your car.’
I still remember this incident so
many years later as if it happened yesterday. The point is that he was an
ordinary taxi driver who had never gone to a single training class in customer
service. He was in a business where customers commonly have the least
expectation of service and are only interested in not being deceived to pay
more than their due. His customer is with him for probably the shortest time of
any service; just the few minutes it takes to drive to the customer’s
destination. And typically, he would probably never see that customer again.
Yet here was a man going out of his way to be nice to his customers and to give
them an experience to remember. Why?
The only answer I have is,
because for him service was about who he was. Not about who the customer was.
Neither I nor anyone I know would expect, much less demand a taxi driver to get
out and open the door for them or keep clean drinking water (in a sealed
bottle) and the day’s papers in the car or to keep the car in an absolutely
pristine state. After all we are used to shabby taxis and as long as it is not
horribly dirty, we don’t give it a second thought.
He did what he did because he saw
his service as defining him, not because he thought the customer cared about it
or wanted it or demanded it or would pay for it. It was his own pride in his
work and his desire to serve.
Let me give you another example.
In 1997, I lived in Bangalore and wanted to buy a Maruti 800 car. I called a
number which I thought was the number of the agency which financed Maruti purchases.
A lady answered, and the conversation went like this:
‘Good morning, this is Citibank
Car Finance. How can I help you?’
‘Good morning. I am looking to
buy a Maruti 800 car and want to know if you finance it.’
‘I am sorry Sir, we finance only
Opel Astra (four times the price), but if you hang on a minute, I will get you
the number of the company which does Maruti.’
Once again, I knew I was in the
presence of someone with that key attitude – the desire to win customers. So, I
waited. She came back online in less than one minute.
‘Here’s the number Sir. And if
you change your mind and decide to buy an Opel Astra, please do give us a
She knew perfectly well that I
was not an Opel Astra customer, but she still said that so that I would not
feel bad about not being able to afford an expensive car.
Once again, the power of
The first thing I would ask
anyone who has to deal with any customer in any kind of business at all is, ‘Do
you really want to do this job? And if you want to do it, how much do you want
to do it?’
# 1. Is it an, ‘Ah! Here comes another one’, kind
# 2. Or is it a, ‘Well, since I am here, I may as
well get it over with.’
# 3. Or is it, ‘Another fantastic day for me to
give some customers service they have never seen before. I love the look on their
faces as if they can’t believe their own eyes and ears.’
Which one applies to you? It’s
really as simple as that.
Now how about if you are not the
# 3 kind of person?
have two choices; change your job or change yourself.
Changing your job may neither be
feasible nor is it easy to find a job where you don’t have to deal with people.
There are such jobs, like feeding crocodiles in a zoo, but not so many fall
vacant unless the feeder slips into the pool. Like it or not you are going to
have to deal with people. So, what should you do?
is what you should do:
Stand before a mirror and tell
yourself, this is the BEST job that I could possibly be doing because I have an
opportunity to make a difference in someone’s life. Now what is more worthwhile
than that? Convince yourself and then go to work.
I was in the airport in Hyderabad
and wanted to use the washroom. I entered the room and found that the toilets
were being cleaned. The man doing the job saw me and said to me, ‘Please give
me a minute Sir.’
Then he not only cleaned the
toilet, but he sprayed air freshener and then took some tissue and dried the
toilet seat. Did that make a difference in my life? You can bet it did and I
ensured that I gave him the biggest tip he would have received in a while. Though
going by his attitude and quality of service it would take a shamelessly stingy
person to pass him by without emptying their pockets into his hands. Once
again, I don’t think that man ever saw the inside of a Customer Service
Let me give you my final example.
It was 1995. I was teaching a 3-day leadership course for a major IT
multinational. The course was in Bombay. This was before the name of the city
was changed to Mumbai. It was July. Not the best time to go to Bombay unless
you love flooded roads and incredible traffic jams. But when you are lean, mean
and hungry, you do what you need to do. I was and I did. I flew Indian Airlines
(before its name was changed to Air India) and because if you wanted to fly that
is what you flew. There were no other domestic airlines. I landed in Bombay under
threatening skies. A cab driver came to pick me up from the airport and we drove
to my hotel which was not too far away. As I got out of the car, he asked me, “When
do I need to pick you up to bring you back to the airport Sir?” I told him, “At
5.30 pm on Day 3.” He thanked me and left. I checked in to the hotel. That
night the skies made good their threat and how? It rained non-stop for the
three days that I was there. The whole city was flooded and there was knee-deep
water in the streets and traffic was one massive gridlock. It appeared that all
those stuck in the traffic jams would spend the rest of their lives in their
On Day 3, as I walked through the
hotel reception to my class, I requested them to keep my room as it didn’t look
like I would be able to go anywhere that day. I finished my day and as I came
to the reception, on the way to my room, who do I see there? The cab driver. He
was standing there with a rolled-up umbrella in his hand, totally soaked from
head to toe. I was astonished. I said to him, “How are you here? In this rain? You
are soaked? Why didn’t you use the umbrella?”
He said to me, “Sir, I came to
take you to the airport. The umbrella is for you Sir. Please come, let us go.”
“How can we drive? The street is flooded
and there is a traffic jam all around!”
“I know the back roads Sir. Don’t
worry. I will get you to the airport. But I have a request. I must apologize to
you Sir. I couldn’t bring my car for you because it has a petrol engine and can’t
go in water as deep as this. So, I borrowed a diesel pickup van from my friend.
If you don’t mind sitting in the van, I will get you to the airport in time for
I couldn’t believe my ears. My
judgement told me to stay put. I had the hotel room. I was not in a hurry to
get home. I wasn’t even sure if Indian Airlines was flying on schedule. But
there was no way that I was going to refuse to go after this man had gone to
all the trouble on my behalf. I picked up my bag and got into the cab of the pickup
and we drove through the flood waters, with a bow wave before us. It was like being
in a boat. When we got to the airport, I tried to give him Rs. 100 as a tip. He
refused. “It is my duty Sir,” he said. You don’t need to pay me anything. I told
him that I was not paying him out of a sense of duty but as a small gesture of
my vast appreciation for his effort. He still refused. I had to use all my
skills of persuasion for him to eventually accept this token of my appreciation.
He left with a smile on his face. Indian Airlines cancelled the flight and
since there was no way to return to the hotel, I spent that night on the floor
of Bombay airport, warm in the glow of my experience of absolutely heroic customer
service, once again from someone who had never heard of a Customer Service
Course. Indian Airlines on the other hand gave me many examples of staff who
had attended many such courses, with no appreciable effect. It is not about the
course. It is about the person.
stand before your mirror and tell yourself, ‘I want to make a difference in
someone’s life today.’
To help you to focus on customer
service, here is a tool you may like to use.
Listen, Empathize, Accept Responsibility, Do Something
Listen: The first thing is to listen to
the customer. Listen to what they are saying and to how they are saying it.
Sometimes it is not the words of the customer but their tone of voice or body
language which gives the one who listens well, the real message. In GE there is
a process called Voice of Customer (VOC) which is part of the Six Sigma Quality
Initiative where customers are regularly invited to come in and talk about how
they experience GE’s service. The focus in this meeting is not on giving
explanations or making excuses. Just on listening carefully to what the customer
has to say about his experience. This conversation then becomes the basis for addressing
pain areas and enhancing the level of service.
Empathize: The second is to put yourself in
the customer’s shoes. How would you feel if someone did to you what you or
someone in your company did to your customer? The reason it was done is
immaterial. That they had to suffer is what the customer is conscious of.
I was in San Francisco at the
Marriot, having arrived there by a late-night flight at midnight, having flown across
the country from Hartford, CT. I was teaching a 3-day course for AMA
International starting at 8.00 am the next morning. I had asked for a
non-smoking room as I am allergic to cigarette smoke. When I went up to the
room almost at 1.00 am, I found it reeking of cigarette smoke. I complained but
the person at the front desk told me that they did not have any other room. I
was furious but there was nothing I could do so I slept as best I could. Next
morning, I had to leave early for work. When I returned, I was met at the lobby
by the hotel manager who took me up to another room, this one smelling sweet
and asked if I liked it. I said that I did. She then asked if she could have my
luggage moved there. I agreed.
Then (only then) did she say to
me, ‘Sir, I apologize for the problem you had last night. We had booked a non-smoking
room for you but unfortunately it seems that the guest had someone else in the
room who smoked and so the room smelled of cigarettes. We did not realize this
until too late and there was no other non-smoking room available last night. I
blocked the first room that fell vacant this morning and here it is. My
apologies once again.’
The beauty of this response was
that she first solved my problem and then (only then) gave me the explanation
for what had happened. It was clear that they were empathetic about my problem.
They did not try to brush it aside or pretend that it was not really a problem,
nor did they try to justify or explain it. They addressed it and solved it and
then explained why it had happened, once the problem had been solved.
third thing is to accept the fact that the problem of the customer is really
your problem. This is something that we don’t see too quickly and act as if the
problem has nothing to do with us. It is our problem because it is causing our
customer to be dissatisfied. And a dissatisfied customer is very much our
problem. Own your responsibility and don’t send the customer to someone else.
This is one of the biggest aggravations that customers face; being shunted from
person to person and having to repeat their story over and over. I am sure
every single one of us has faced this, especially where there is an automated
response system. Press this button or that and listen to free music while you
wait. And every once in a while, a disembodied voice tells you, “Your call is
important to us. Please wait awhile for our Customer Service Representative to
attend to you.” You want to say, “If my call is really important to you, talk to
me.” But you know that nobody is listening, and nobody cares.
There is almost a reflex tendency
in most people to give explanations for failed service. We go off into telling people
why they are suffering. Believe me, they don’t want to know why they are
suffering. They want their suffering to stop. And they want you to make amends.
If you don’t do this and tell them all the reasons why they must suffer, it only
makes them angrier and more frustrated. So, accept responsibility. It is your problem,
because the customer is your customer. It is really as simple as that.
take action. You take action. Don’t tell the customer what to do. You go
do it. And then let them know what you are doing and how it is going to solve their
problem. Reporting periodically is essential for customer satisfaction. Don’t just
disappear over the horizon. Tell them what you are doing to help them. People
don’t like to be left in the dark. So, tell them.
is a known fact that in most cases it is the same things that tend to go wrong
again and again. Identify the three or four major things that tend to go wrong
most often and have preset responses for them. In order to do this, it is
essential to document what happens in your customer interactions so that you
can correctly identify what goes wrong most often. Preset responses take away
the stress from the interactions and ensure the fastest recovery from failure.
Research shows that customers who had a problem that was solved well are more
satisfied than those who did not have a problem at all.
I have always maintained that the
quality of customer service depends on what you define as the boundaries of your
customer interaction. When does someone become your customer? When does the customer
interaction start? When does it end? Does it start when someone calls your office
or drives past it or sees your delivery van or website or billboard? Does it
start when someone buys your product or service? Where and when does it end? Does
it end when the person picks up the package or buys the ticket or the service
is delivered to him in some way? Or do you also include their use of your
product or service in your definition? I am not going into a detailed
discussion of all these, but I want to flag them for you. The quality of your
service will depend on your definition.
In Disney, they have a Vice
President for parking lots. Now that may sound strange, but it has to do with
Disney’s philosophy that to give you a great experience at Disney Land from the
time you enter their parking lot to the time you leave, safely on your way home,
is their responsibility. This is how it works. When you drive into Disney’s
city block size parking lots, you leave your car and get into a shuttle bus to go
to the entrance. As you get on the bus, you hear this announcement. “Ladies and
gentlemen, boys and girls; welcome to Disney. You are parked in Goofy 1.” You
will hear this announcement thrice during your trip to the entrance. Once when
you get on, once midway in your journey and once just before you get off.
What is unique about this announcement?
It addresses the main customers
of Disney, your children. It repeats thrice which is the best way to ensure
that people notice what you are saying to them. And it uses Disney characters
to name parking lots.
You buy your tickets; you go in and
you have a great day. You take all the rides and watch the sights and eat and walk
around and take lots of photos. It is now late evening and you return to the shuttle
bus station and wonder which bus to take. “Where did I park my car?” That is
when one of the little ones pipes up, “Goofy 1.” Children recall the Disney characters
that they are so familiar with. The wisdom of the announcement.
When you reach your car, you discover
that you had left your lights on. Entirely understandable, as you arrived that
morning with a car full of excited little ones, all screaming about what they
want to do in Disney. Now, you have a whole lot of tired and sleepy little ones
and your car is dead. But as you stand there, contemplating the futility of
life, you will notice a PRE-PRINTED sticky note on your diver’s side window
glass. The note reads, “We came by and saw that you left your lights on. If your
battery is dead and you need a jumpstart, please call this number.” Imagine
your state. It is that moment which decides what you think of Disney’s service.
Not all the rides or sights or food. But their proactivity in dealing with a
problem that was not even their own. But then, they consider it theirs, because
you are their customer. And you are their customer, not only when you entered the
park but until you have gone safely home. This is so important to them, that
parking lots is an entire business vertical. That is what makes service great.
It is how you define the boundaries of responsibility.
To be able to give service to your
customers that you become the Gold Standard in their perception against which
they judge every other service provider, you need to monitor your ‘Moments of
Truth.’ I want to share with you one of
my favorite stories and the origin of the term, ‘Moment of Truth’. I quote from
“Jan Carlzon (born June 25,
1941) is a Swedish businessman. He is most noted for being Chief
Executive Officer of SAS Group from 1981–1994 At the time Jan
Carlzon took over the helm of SAS, the company was facing large financial
difficulties and losing $17 million per annum and had an international
reputation for always being late. A 1981 survey showed that SAS was ranked no.
14 of 17 airlines in Europe when it came to punctuality. Furthermore, the
company had a reputation for being a very centralized organization, where
decisions were hard to come by to the detriment of customers, shareholders, and
staff. He revolutionized the airline industry through an unrelenting focus on
customer service quality. Within one year of taking over, SAS had become the
most punctual airline in Europe and had started an ongoing training program
called Putting People First developed by Claus Møller of Time
Manager International (‘TMI’). The program was focused on delegating
responsibility away from management and allowing customer-facing staff to make
decisions to resolve any issues on the spot. Jan Carlzon said at the time:
“Problems are solved on the spot, as soon as they arise. No front-line
employee has to wait for a supervisor’s permission.” These changes
soon impacted the bottom-line as well and the company made a profit of $54
million in 1982.”
Ian Carlzon coined the phrase, ‘Moment
of Truth’, in relation to Customer Service and defined it as: that
moment when a customer or a potential customer comes into contact with any
aspect of your operation and has an opportunity to form an opinion.
This is a very clear definition
and shows how everyone in the organization is responsible for customer service.
It also underlines two things: that frontline staff must be empowered to take
decisions without fear to ensure that customers are satisfied and that means that
the system must not punish a wrong decision by a frontline staff, as long as it
was taken with the intention of satisfying a customer.
If you punish employees for taking
decisions, which in their opinion were right, then they will stop deciding and
send the customer from one person to another, which is what we see in most cases.
Empowerment means that the employee knows that as long as they take a decision
in the interest of pleasing a customer, the organization will stand behind them
and will support the decision, even if it was wrong and cost the company some
expense. This doesn’t mean that your manager will not sit with you to
understand why you did what you did and explore what else you could have done.
But he/she will not reprimand you. Instead you will be praised and officially
appreciated for keeping the customer first. Every employee must know this and must
act with this confidence. Otherwise frontline employees will cover their backs
and the customer will be given the royal merry-go-round ride.
To be able to monitor and control
Moments of Truth you must know where they occur, and you must be able to record
and measure them. If you know what that point of contact is and can control the
interaction such that the customer’s experience is positive, then you have a
winning operation. If you either don’t know what your Moments of Truth are or
where they occur or have no control over them, then you have a losing
operation. It is as simple as that. However, knowing Moments of Truth and
controlling them is a matter of rigorous measurement and documentation which
most organizations are unwilling to do and so they blunder along and create
dissatisfied customers and lose business and, in some cases, quite understandably,
go under. The most significant fact is that most Moments of Truth happen at the
periphery of the operation in places which are manned by the most junior, least
qualified and mostly ignored members of staff. They decide your fate. It is
your security guard, your receptionist, sales representative, bus driver, telephone
operator, webmaster, helpdesk, the state of your waiting areas, washrooms and
cafeteria, the person who delivers your product to the customer and many such
people, who give your customer or potential customer a taste of your customer
service. In many cases, these people may not even be on your official roles and
may be contract employees because you have outsourced these activities. Yet,
they are your face. The customer sees them as your representatives and their
interaction with the customer, decides your fate. The customer doesn’t ask the
frontline employee he is dealing with whether he is a direct employee or an
outsourced contractor. He doesn’t ask, he doesn’t care. So, pay close attention
to them, train them, value them, appreciate them, make them team members in spirit,
even if not in letter. If not, you, not they, will pay the price.
Great customer service is about
concern. It is about being genuinely concerned for the customer. It is about
pride in your own operation and your own identity; wanting to be the best. It
is about wanting to add value to people’s lives; about seeing value in serving.
It is about being a shrewd businessperson; recognizing who pays you and
ensuring that he/she is not just happy to do so but simply delighted that you
are there to serve them. Great customer service is the only guarantee for survival
and growth and the only insurance and hedge against bad times.
Customers don’t remember what you did. They remember how you made them feel. That is the key.
the solution is – Kill loneliness before it kills you. Let me tell you how!
first an alert: This is going to sound a bit preachy.
Please bear with me. I am talking to myself.
when they tell you that age in a number and that it is all in the mind, believe
me, it is true. You are as old as you allow yourself to feel. This is not a pep
talk. This is fact. I am 63 and I know what I am saying. It is your call. Pick
work doesn’t kill you; retirement does. If you love what you do, you never need
to retire. Read on. I am going to tell you what I did. You can do that or pick
your own. So, here is my 9 – point program. 9 things you can do to kill
Accept it: The first thing to do is to
mentally prepare yourself that the day will come, sooner than later when you
are going to be alone. Deaths of loved ones may hasten it but one day it will
be upon us. All you need to do to accomplish it, is to remain alive. So, the
first thing to do is to get used to the idea and accept that one day you will
be alone. It is important to think about this, talk about it and reflect on it,
because it is inevitable. The sooner you start thinking and talking about this,
the easier it will be when it happens. I have seen both, those who do and those
who don’t. The difference is stark and the pain entirely avoidable. But
remember that this is a problem only if you hate solitude. Learn to love
solitude. Seek it actively. Keep a time in your daily life when you are alone
with yourself, thinking, reflecting, meditating, praying, reading, writing,
looking at the world go by, watching birds fly and grass grow, listening to the
wind in the trees, listening to the brook talking to itself as it flows past you,
and lying on your back and looking up at the dark star-filled sky (that
position doesn’t give you a crick in the neck). If you are lucky and have some
energy to go where you need to go to see them, you can also watch flocks of
geese crossing the rising sun, talking to each other. You can watch Baya
Weavers, weaving their complex nests, as they prepare to commit matrimony. You
can…okay, I will leave you to fill in the blanks. In short there is a huge
number of things that you can do for which you don’t need anyone else. Being
alone is not so bad after all. It can be very enjoyable indeed.
2. Get a hobby: It can be anything, but it must interest you. The sooner you begin, the better.
Pick one that needs you to do something, some research, some reading. Something
that needs effort. Connect with others who have the same hobby so that you have
companionship and can compare yourself and what you have with others. Not to
create unnecessary stress in meaningless competition but just to initiate new
friendships. It can be great fun and it opens doors to aspects of yourself that
you never imagined.
I started to learn Hindustani classical singing, the most amazing discovery I
made was that there is no actual record of what I sang (unless I recorded it).
Unlike writing which by default is a record, a note or a line of song you sing,
is a one-time thing. Whether you did it right or wrong, it remains a memory in
your mind or in the mind of others. But there is no physical record of it. That
was such a liberating feeling that I was doing something which would not return
to haunt me. It opened my eyes (and ears and heart) to a whole new way of
expressing myself. I recall one time, when I was standing in neck deep water of
a river in a forest in Tamilnadu, singing Raag Asaawari and watching how the water
that touched my throat seemed to ripple in harmony to the sound. Was I
imagining it? I don’t know. But I still remember it very clearly. I must have
looked rather peculiar to those who were watching me. In India there is always
someone watching you. But who cares?
also realized that singing has more to do with listening than to do with making
a sound. You can’t sing if your ears are not attuned to the difference in tone
from one scale to another. When you learn to sing, you learn to listen. The better
you can listen, the better you can sing. My teacher told me this and I experienced
it. I trained for three years, from 1994-97. Then I gave up formal training because
I went off to the US and got busy with building my consulting business there.
But there I got interested in the recitation of the Qur’an. Guess what turned
out to be a big help in that!! I would drive endlessly from one appointment to
another, reciting Qur’an in my car, conscious and thankful that what was
helping me then was the voice training that classical singing compels you to
do. Another place where this voice training helped me tremendously is in public
speaking which is a major part of my work as a trainer and keynote speaker. I
speak about leadership, teaching, raising children, the Glory of the Creator
and all the while, in the background what helps me to project my voice, to express
passion and emotion, to show feeling and to connect with people, is my voice training
as a singer. I teach conflict management and negotiation. This is another area
where listening for tone, helps me very much. There is much that people give
away in the way they say something. If you are listening to the tone, not only
to the words, it tells you a lot more than the words do, and usually more than the
speaker may want you to know. Learning to listen is a hugely important and
valuable skill and learning to sing is a very enjoyable way to learn it.
same thing happened to me when I started photography seriously. I was on a trip
with a dear friend of mine, Aditya Mishra who is an avid and excellent photographer
and showed him some of my photos taken with a point and click camera. He looked
at them and said, “I think it is time for you to get a decent camera and lens.” It took me a while to get what I now use, a
Nikon D-500 with a Nikon-Nikkor 200-500 lens but all through that journey which
continues, it opened my eyes to the world. Nobody sees the world like a photographer,
framing an object to photograph it. I photograph birds and animals and
sometimes landscapes. I learnt to pay attention to detail. I learnt to enjoy
color and texture and shade of light. I learnt to admire camouflage; to look at
a patch of scrub in dappled light, not high enough to hide a jackrabbit and
then to suddenly realize that I am looking into the eyes of a tiger. I would
never have seen that if I wasn’t looking at it through my lens. I learnt to
admire the flight of a falcon and then to watch it drop out of the sky to take
a pigeon on the wing, the force of her strike sounding flat like a gunshot in the
still of the early morning, with a puff of pigeon feathers to bear witness to
the play of life and death being enacted before my eyes. I learnt also to
simply put down my camera and look at the world outside the viewfinder. Thanks to
the camera I learnt to see. Not simply to look.
taught me major life lessons. Courage and resilience, for example. Not from
tigers or lions but from small birds which are defenseless. They can’t fight
anyone, they are on everyone’s menu, yet they survive, never give up, sing with
joy every morning, build nests, raise young, sometimes only for them to become
monitor lizard food. But they don’t despair, don’t go into depression, don’t commit
suicide. They build another nest, lay some more eggs and raise some more young.
In the end, the little bird wins every time its youngster takes to the air.
Become friends with yourself: Learn to like your own
company because you are going to get a lot of it. Develop an interest that
doesn’t need your immediate family to share it with. In today’s world of social
networking that is not difficult to do. Technology can be your friend or a stranger,
even an enemy. That depends on you. You don’t need to become a rocket
scientist, though there is no law against that. But you can certainly learn to
become techno friendly. My Hindustani classical music teacher who was 75, had a
486 PC with a camera. Behind the computer on the wall, she got someone to print
out the whole sequence of things she needed to do to start the machine and logon
to Skype – days of DOS-OS remember? –and off she would be talking to various
friends and family across the globe. By today’s standards, the connectivity,
speed, picture and audio quality were enough for one to pull out all his hair
in frustration but in 1994, a 486 was state-of-the-art and lightning fast and a
huge improvement over the 386. Life is relative.
a routine. A routine is your best friend. With a routine you are never at a
loss for something useful to do. That keeps you and your mind active and out of
brooding and depression. Develop an interest or a hobby. Where possible, keep a
pet. Not a bird in a cage or a fish in a tank. But a real pet like a cat, or a
goat or a horse. Or a chicken. Country chickens have great personality and
attitude and make lovely pets. Depends on where you live, of course. But if you
want to know what it feels like to be looked down upon and be valued purely as
a meal ticket, keep a cat. Those who have millennial children, need not keep
cats because they know what that feels like very well. Gardening, and that can
be one pot, is another wonderfully therapeutic hobby. Keep a bird feeder in
your yard, balcony, on your terrace. Keep water out for birds in the summer.
Grow your own veggies in pots in your balcony or on your terrace. The idea is
to do something that requires your contribution and where you can see it making
a difference. That responsibility, even if sometimes it seems arduous, is what
keeps you alive and the Big A at bay.
Don’t lose the ability to make friends: One
of the first things that older people lose is the ability to make new friends.
And when they lose their old friends, as we all do, they are left all alone.
The big reason we lose that ability is because we refuse to relate to people
different from ourselves. As we grow older, we become judgmental and demand
(albeit perhaps unconsciously) that others must conform to our standards,
before we allow them into our lives. Instead we must become more open to new
ideas, new ways, new standards. I am not talking about what is clearly good and
evil, moral and immoral, ethical and unethical, respectful and insulting. I am
talking about, for example, hairstyles, way of speaking (not ill manners, just
a different way of talking), cell phone use. If he looks like he stuck his
finger in the power socket and has all his hair standing on end, it is okay.
His head is his piece of real estate. Not yours. He is still a nice kid with a
brain and your eyes and ears into his world. But only if you can get past the
for cell phones, I have never heard anyone complain if a youngster has his head
buried in a book. But if that same head is buried in a phone, we have major
issues. Why? Maybe he is reading a book on his phone. Maybe he is browsing the
net and accessing information that he wouldn’t have found in a hundred books.
We oldies must become more tolerant, while maintaining our boundaries of what
is fundamentally good and evil. When we are with youngsters, we feel younger,
more energetic, we learn new things, we see the world in a different light. And
we are challenged to add value to them, so that they don’t get bored with us.
doesn’t work is when you start your stories with, “In my days, you could get
one dozen eggs for one rupee and one goat for three rupees and one cow for ten
rupees.” Someone went on like this for a while until one of the youngsters
said, “Uncle that is great. So, in your father’s time, everything must have
been free.” Live in the present with them. When I was 15, almost all my friends
were 30 years older. I learnt from them. Today I am 63 and most of my friends
are 30 years younger. I learn from them. We have a great relationship, and both
enjoy it. Ask them, if you like.
Prepare your body: It is critical to
ensure that you are physically fit. The vast majority of geriatric ailments are
lifestyle related, not illnesses. Watch what you eat. Eat natural, not
processed foods. Sleep early and wake early. Exercise moderately. Don’t do any
heroics, thinking about what you used to do at age 20. Today you are three
times that age. Don’t try it or you will suffer the consequences until you die.
Get out of your house and hit the gym and the park. Walk a few kilometers every
day and do some strength exercises. Don’t get over ambitious, don’t try to
impress anyone, don’t try to break any records but also don’t let a day pass
that you have not exercised. The main thing is to get out of your house into
the open and connect with nature. Eat sensibly. Don’t dig your grave with your
teeth. Let them use an excavator. The biggest curse is excess weight. It drags
you down, makes you lethargic, makes everything a burden and gradually kills
you very painfully. A pot belly is not a death warrant, it is a lifelong pain
warrant. Death is inevitable. Pain is not. So, get rid of it. Think about that
with every morsel of carbs you eat. Make sugar Haraam on yourself. Avoid all
fizzy sugar drinks. Stop eating sugar. Sugar kills. And (sugar free) Aspartame
gives you cancer. Take your pick.
I won’t even talk about cigarettes. If someone wants to pay for cancer, who am I to object? Makes no sense to pay for cancer, because cancer is free. Do you get my point? If your body is healthy, half the battle is won. So, pay close attention to that. The slide is insidious, seductive and lethal. Stay away from it.
Prepare your mind: Keep your mind healthy.
Read. Read. Read. Pray. Pray. Pray. Focus on your mental and spiritual self. If
you are like most normal people, both would have been hugely neglected. Repair
your connection with Allahﷻ. You will need it soon enough. Learn a new
language. It doesn’t matter if you never master it. The act itself is important
because it will challenge your brain and keep it active. Play games that
require cerebration. It means use your brain. Consciously look for the positive
things in life and shut out all negativity – especially what you can’t control.
I love watching wildlife and nature movies and I love wildlife and bird
photography. Again, it is good to want to be the best at whatever you do, but
don’t worry if it takes you a long time to get there. Keep at it. Don’t watch
the news, talk shows, TV debates and all the totally negative, toxic media that
we have allowed to take over our lives. Focus on the positive. There is plenty
of it, and if you can’t find it, create your own. Nobody can stop you from
doing that. Go help people. Visit hospitals and talk to strangers. Pay their
bills if they can’t afford to pay them. Visit schools, especially in poor
neighborhoods. Offer to teach for free. Connect with children, listen to them,
talk to them, sit with them, laugh with them. This is therapy and it is free. I
do this 80% of my time, every year. People think I am doing great public
service. But I know why I am doing it. Believe me, it works. Also, since 2000,
I have written 35 books, done over 2500 short lectures and over 650 longer
ones, all free. Question to ask yourself is, ‘What am I prepared to pay for my
Stop living in the past: Yes, our good
old days were good, but not as good as we like to recall now after fifty years
They were as good and bad as today, with the only difference that what was good
and what was bad, differed. Prices were cheaper but we had very little spending
money. Competition for jobs was less but there were all of four career choices.
Schools were less crowded, but we did rote learning and had corporal
punishment. We didn’t have high medical treatment costs because we had almost
none of the medical facilities that we have today. Life is relative. Live in
the present because that is the only thing we really have. The past, both the
good and bad of it is gone. The future is only a thought. We may never see it.
And the older we get, the truer that is.
Appreciate what we have today: An
attitude of gratitude is the cure for all ills. We have air travel that is
cheaper than it has ever been. We have Wi-Fi and smart phones which help us to
connect to the world. We have Google which the opens doors of almost every kind
of knowledge that we choose to learn, sitting in our homes and free of cost. We
have far superior medical aid than we ever had. We have appliances at home and
apps on our phones. We have all sorts of conveniences that our parents didn’t
even imagine. And what’s more, far many more of us have these than was the case
in our parent’s time. My driver has a fridge and my cook has a microwave oven
and both have air coolers in their homes. During my childhood, microwave ovens
didn’t exist, neither did air cooling or air conditioning and fridges were as
rare as polar bears in the Antarctic. Yes, Hyderabad was cooler than it is
today, but believe me, all those sweaters in March are only in your
Stay away from doctors and hospitals: That
may sound strange to you, but I have seen so many elderly people who seem to be
obsessed with health checkups and medicines. Let’s face it. You are not getting
younger, stronger, faster, healthier or sexier. I am willing to contest that
last one but not the others. What are the tests going to show you? What will
that do to your morale? What is the good of that? We all die. Some die before
they stop breathing. Those are the ones who are obsessed with medical tests.
Remember that health care has become an industry. It is no longer about curing
the sick or even better, keeping people healthy. How does an undertaker make
money? By people dying. How does a doctor make money? By people being or
believing or imagining and trying to find out if they are sick. ‘Health care’
is a misnomer. Today’s health care has a stake in sickness, not in health. That
is the problem with becoming an industry. The only focus then is on profit and
return on investment. There are too many glaring examples in our society. I
don’t need to give you any examples. I am sure you have your own. Sorry
doctors. My father was a doctor, but he died penniless because he didn’t treat
people who were not sick. He had a stake in people’s health, not in their sickness.
don’t need a doctor to tell you if you are sick. If you wake up in the morning
with your usual aches and pains, you are as healthy as an old horse. Do what
the old horse does. He does his business and goes about his business, if you
know what I mean. If you don’t, go visit a farm where old horses are out at
pasture and you will see what I mean. Then one day, when his time is up, he
lies down in a nice patch of grass in the sun and stops breathing. What do we,
who are obsessed with health checkups, do? We spend our last days hooked up to
various machines, in an ICU, with tubes coming out of our orifices until we
stop breathing, but all the while making doctors rich. If that is how you want
to go, please do. I don’t. So, I made a ‘No Hospitalization Will’. And I pray
that I will never need hospitalization. Read, ‘Being Mortal’, by Dr. Atul
Gawande. Amazing book that talks about this. He is a consultant in Harvard
Medical School, so he should know, right? As I told you, if it is your idea to
spend your hard-earned money on unnecessary hospital bills, please do. That’s
me, if you do all this, it will keep you so busy that you will have no time to
feel lonely. You won’t sit there yearning for people who passed away to walk in
through the door. If they did, you would walk out of your skin. Instead, your
new friends will walk in through the door and take you for a walk. That is why
you have friends.
yes, I forgot to mention, stop saving money. Spend it. You can’t take it with
you. And your children can look after themselves. Enjoy yourself, go on a
cruise, tick all the boxes on your bucket list. Help others. That gives more
satisfaction than the cruise and the bucket list. But do both. And then lo and
behold, it will be time to go. May that time and that day be the best day of
your life because on that day you will meet the One who made it all possible.
‘If you want to see
what someone values, see what they measure.’
Mikel Harry, Motorola, 6
Many years ago, in the 1970’s I remember seeing a Russian tractor. India used to have a bilateral trade agreement with the USSR by which we bought all kinds of goods from Russia and paid for them in Indian Rupees, whereby we were able to conserve our meagre foreign exchange. You can read more about that agreement here http://www.commonlii.org/in/other/treaties/INTSer/1953/16.html
Russia bought tea from us; huge quantities of rather poor-quality teas and supplied us with manufactured goods. This tractor was one such, representing perhaps ten years supply of the morning cuppa to a Russian farmer. What amazed me was its size. It was massive. Not merely big or huge, but massive. Later someone told me that these tractors were failures and people went back to buying the smaller and lighter, Massey-Ferguson tractors, even though they came from a place which was ideologically inferior to the Great Socialist Republic.
knew the answer but asked him why Massey-Ferguson tractors were considered
superior and why the Russian tractor had failed. And sure enough he said, ‘We
use tractors to plough in rice fields. A heavy tractor sinks into the soil and
even if it has the power to get out, it churns up the soil so much that it
spoils everything. Sometimes it gets stuck so badly that we have to yoke
bullocks to it to haul it out. Why buy a tractor if you still need bullocks?’
did some research into why Russian tractors were so heavy. Massive blocks of
steel. The answer I got was that Russian factories measured output by the
amount of steel consumed. If you were a factory manager and had to show high production
figures, you had to show that you were consuming a high tonnage of steel. There
are two ways to do that. Make lots of lighter tractors or fewer but much
heavier ones. Which is easier? You guessed it. And there you have, massive
tractors, that make the Production Reports look good. How do they work in the
field? Depends on the field. Maybe they worked fine in the Russian steppe,
ploughing to grow wheat or corn. But in India, in rice fields they failed. To
this day in some villages you can see a massive steel tractor gently rusting,
testimony to an age of mindless industrialization where progress was measured
You get what you
measure… so let us ask, “How do we measure human worth?”
we live in a world where dignity has quite wrongfully been linked to material
wealth. No matter how learned a man or woman may be, or how kind or truthful or
trustworthy, if they are not wealthy, they are treated with disdain. Net worth
has only one meaning. And I can’t think of a more dishonorable meaning; to
equate a person to the amount of money in his pocket. HNI; what if it meant
Person with the best character? Instead of Person with the most money, no
matter how he earned it and no matter what his character is like. Not to say
that all rich people are evil. They aren’t. I am talking about what we measure
which shows what we truly value. If we measured character, truthfulness,
kindness, compassion, courage, dignity, concern for the underprivileged, the
weak, elderly, poor, sick; then that is how we would define ourselves. High
Networth Individual would mean the kindest, most truthful, most compassionate,
most courageous person in that society. We wouldn’t glorify ostentation, waste,
self-centered consumption, cruelty, oppression. We would call Aristotle, ‘The
Great’, instead of Alexander, whose only claim to fame was that he left
Macedonia to rape, plunder and loot his way across a million square miles of
others’ homes and societies. Who we glorify and celebrate, tells a much bigger
story about who we are than about who they were.
what would the implications of living in such a society be on people’s
happiness and self-worth; real self-worth, not pretentions to it. I believe
this is something to think about.
we applied today’s standard of HNI – High Networth Individual, how would people
like Hillel and Shammai, Al Ghazali, Al Biruni, Ibn Sinna, Abu Hanifa, Ahmad
bin Hanbal, Jalauddin Rumi and so many sages and scholars of so many
traditions, look? How would you judge the Networth of Aristotle, Epictetus,
Plato, or even the prophets like Moses, Abraham, and perhaps most of all Jesus (Peace
be on them all) – about whom Muhammad (Peace be on him) said, “The sky was
his roof and the earth his bed.” Today he would probably be in a homeless
shelter after having been arrested from a park bench or pavement and taken
there by the police.
if we applied an ethical and moral standard to decide who was an HNI and who
wasn’t, how would Jeff Bezos, Warren Buffet, Bill Gates, the various Middle
Eastern Potentates, and the many billionaires in different countries, look?
Especially if you consider the fact that the poorest countries in the world
today seem to have the highest number of billionaires. Many of them living in
high-rise palaces with their feet grounded in the misery and squalor of the
daily lives of the poor. Not ashamed, not troubled, not even giving it a second
thought as they go about trying to outdo each other in vulgar display of
wealth; not by competing in charity but in wastage and excess.
Rabbi Elazar said: The reward for charity is paid from Heaven only in accordance with the kindness and generosity included therein and in accordance with the effort and the consideration that went into the giving. It is not merely in accordance with the sum of money, as it is stated: “Sow to yourselves according to charity and reap according to kindness.
is very particular about preserving the dignity of the receiver so that he
doesn’t feel demeaned because he needs to accept charity. Islam says that the
one who receives, honors the one who gives because by giving the giver is
receiving reward from Allahﷻ
whereas the one receiving is only getting something material from another human
being. So, the giver gives and thanks the receiver for accepting it.
you want to know what someone values, see what they measure.’
is a wonderful story about the Regent of the Moghal Emperor Akbar, who came to
the throne at the age of ten and had a Regent who ruled in his name until he
came of age and who was his mentor, teaching him how to be King. His name was
Abdur Raheem and his title was Khan-e-Khanaan (The Khan of Khans – Chief of
Chiefs). He was a very learned man, a polymath, a scholar of Islam and known
for his great wisdom and sagacity.
day Abdur Raheem Khan-e-Khanaan was traveling from Delhi, the capital, to Agra.
Needless to say, he was preceded by his massive entourage and surrounded by his
escorting troops and personal bodyguard. On the way he saw a man standing at
the edge of the road with a glass bottle in his hand in which were a few drops
of water. The man would tilt the bottle until the few drops of water were at
the lip of the bottle, in danger of falling out, and would then straighten the
bottle so that they didn’t fall out. This he kept doing over and over. Abdur
Raheem ordered his carriage to stop and ordered his treasurer to give the man a
bag of gold coins. This was done.
evening, when he was in camp and his Durbar had been set up and he was
receiving petitions, his treasurer asked him, “Your Grace, why did you
give that man a bag of gold coins? Who was that man?”
Raheem Khan-e-Khanaan said, “I am surprised you are asking this question.
Didn’t you see what the man was saying?”
treasurer said, “Your Grace, all I saw was that the man was tilting the
bottle until the water in it almost flowed out, but he would save it at the
last moment and didn’t allow it to fall out. But what does that mean?”
Raheem said, “It means that the man was saying, “I have lost
everything except two drops of honor. And now even that is about to go.”
If he had come and begged me for charity, it would be at the expense of his
honor. So, I ordered you to give him the gold so that his honor is preserved,
and nobody knows that he received charity.
as we speak there is a raging debate about the abrogation of Article 370 in
Kashmir. On one side are those who claim that this is good for the people of
Kashmir who will now be able to sell their land and become wealthy. They say
that this will bring in much needed new business and tourism and thereby jobs
and boost the economy. Even those who normally walk the high talk of ethics and
morals supported the bill in Parliament on the plea that it was ‘good for the
people of Kashmir’. On the other side are those arguing that you can’t take
unilateral action without consulting the people, on the plea that it is good
for them? Why were the people themselves, whose welfare seems to be everyone’s
concern, not taken into confidence before taking the action of abrogating a
Sovereign Guarantee enshrined in nothing less than the Indian Constitution?
What is a Sovereign Guarantee? It is a guarantee given by the Nation. Not by the government in power at the time. But by the Nation, to fulfill whatever it was that was guaranteed. No matter if the government that gave the guarantee changes. The guarantee would still be valid and sacrosanct. Especially where it is enshrined in the Constitution, it is inviolate and inviolable. However, it looks like today we seem to have changed the meaning of Sovereign Guarantee. Does this mean that a Sovereign Guarantee can never be changed? No, it doesn’t. It means that it can’t be changed unilaterally. If the two parties in the guarantee mutually agree to change it, then it can be changed honorably. But both parties must be involved in the re-negotiation and must come to a new agreement. For one party to unilaterally change a Sovereign Guarantee is not honorable. Do we even know what honorable means today? After all, today our highest criterion for decision making seems to be political expediency.
am not against economic development. I am against giving it precedence over
honor, truthfulness and integrity. After all, if we do that, then what’s wrong
with drug dealing, stealing, bribing, human trafficking and a plethora of ways
to make money? It is only truthfulness, the sense of right and wrong, virtue
and sin that is the demarcating line between what is honorable and what is not.
Al Capone was an entrepreneur, wasn’t he? So is Bill Gates. Is there a
difference? Who would you like to be? If I break my word once, then what value
does my promise have in the future? It takes a lifetime to build trust but to
destroy it, all it takes is one instant. Take an expensive crystal vase and
drop it on a stone floor. As it shatters into a thousand pieces, you will
perhaps understand what I mean by keeping and breaking promises. Can it be put
back if you are able to collect all the pieces? Perhaps it can. But it will
never be the same. You will always be able to see the fault lines. Another
simple way to understand this is to ask yourself this question, “Who would I
rather deal with? A person who keeps his word or one who is liable to betray it
if it suits him?” A Sovereign Guarantee is not about the matter that you are
guaranteeing. It is about us as a Nation. It tells the world who we are. Or
more accurately about how we choose to define ourselves. The world merely
Mikel Harry said, ‘If you want to see what people value, see what they
measure.’ Let us ask ourselves, what do we measure? Not just pay lip service
to. But measure because we value it.
It was 1980. I was working in Guyana, in a small mining town on the River Berbice, called Kwakwani. I had saved up money to take my first holiday and planned to go to London. As I was going to pass through the United States, I thought it would be a good idea if I could stop by and visit some friends and see New York. But there was one problem. I applied for a visitor’s visa to the US but was refused. The Immigration Officer thought that as I was young, single, and unattached, I would stay on in the US illegally. So, sadly, I only transited in New York and went on to London. In 1982, when I decided to return to India though I would need to transit through New York and was dying to see the city, I did not even plan to apply for a visitor’s visa as I was sure I would be refused again for the same reason.
However, one weekend a few months before I was due
to leave, I went to visit my good friend Rev. Thurston Riehl who was the Vicar
of Christchurch Vicarage, the Anglican Church in Georgetown. He lived in a
lovely wooden bungalow in the Church compound with his wife Clarissa Riehl, who
was the Public Prosecutor in the High Court. Father Riehl told me that he had
invited a few people over that evening and one of them was the Deputy Consul
General of the United States, a man named Dennis Goodman. Father Riehl said
that he would recommend my case to Goodman to see if it would help. I agreed.
That evening when the introductions had been done, Father Riehl said, “Yawar is
going back to India and wants to see New York. He had applied for a visa in
1980 but was refused. Do you think there is a chance that he can get a visa
Goodman turned to me and asked, “What is the guarantee that you will not stay on illegally if we give you a visa. Please don’t be offended. This is a very common thing and something that the visa officer will need to be convinced about.”
“I give you my word that I will not stay on
illegally. More than that, I can’t do.” I said. Dennis Goodman simply looked at
me in silence and then said, “Please come and see me the next time you are in
So promptly the following week I went to the US
Consulate to see Mr. Goodman. Those were the days before the security
nightmares that you have to face today, and I was conducted straight away to
his office. He gave me an application form, and after I had filled it in, he
accompanied me to the Visa Section next door. There he asked me to wait at the
window and went behind the counter. The window had a glass panel and a mike
into which you had to speak.
As Dennis Goodman walked into the office, the lady
at the counter turned to talk to him and forgot to switch off her mike. So, I
was unwittingly privy to their conversation.
Goodman: “Can you please give him a visitor’s
visa? He is going back home and wants to see New York.”
“Hi Dennis, give me a second.” The lady checked
her records and said, “Did he tell you that his brother is already there? This
guy is not leaving once he lands in New York, believe me.”
Goodman: “He gave me his word that he will leave.”
“His word?? What on earth is that?? Don’t tell me
you believe him!!”
Goodman: “As a matter of fact, I do. So please
give him the visa. I will guarantee that he will not stay illegally.”
“Okay Sir, it’s your neck!!”
Then she turned back to the window where I was and
said to me, “Please come in the evening and collect your passport.” I thanked
her and left. Neither of them was aware that I’d heard their entire
I landed in America, stars in my eyes. I was given
a stay permit for three weeks. I was however not prepared for the reception
that I got. After the initial welcome, all my friends got after me to find a
job. I tried to tell them that I had not come to stay and that I was only
visiting on my way back to India. The conversations all went something like
“I have a friend who runs a restaurant and is
looking for help. You can start waiting at tables and then see where it takes
you. Nothing to worry. We all start the same way in this country but see where
we are today. Here they pay you by the hour. No way you can get that in India.”
“I haven’t come to stay. I am going back home. I
got my visa on the promise that I wouldn’t stay in America illegally. So, I am
not going to.”
Looks of incredulity. Where is this guy from? I
mean which planet? Promise? What is he talking about anyway? Let me ask.
“I promised the Consul General in Guyana that I
wouldn’t overstay my visa and wouldn’t remain in the US illegally.”
“Yeah! Tell me about it! We all did that. So, what
happened? Everyone knows, we are not doing anything illegal. We are just
hustling for a living. So, can you. Who cares?”
“Staying without a visa is illegal. Who cares? I
“You are just plain lazy. You don’t want to work
hard. Do you have a job in India? What will you do there? You will starve. Look
at so-and-so, see how he made a success. Started pumping gas. Now he owns the
gas station. So can you if you only work hard.”
“In India I will have to work harder. It is not
about hard work. It is about keeping my word. I promised Dennis Goodman that I
would not stay back. (I tell the whole story again). He told the consular
officer to give me a visa on his guarantee. How can I go back on my word?”
“Dennis Goodman is not watching you. He doesn’t
“Yes, you are right. He is not watching me. Dennis
Goodman doesn’t know. But I do.”
End of conversation. Nobody is convinced. Nobody
shows me any respect for standing by my principles. But it doesn’t matter to
me, because I couldn’t have done anything else. I don’t budge, because my word
is my bond. And I gave my word.
When I reached England, enroute to India, the first thing I did was to buy a postcard of Big Ben, stuck some nice British stamps on it and mailed it to Goodman saying, “This is proof that I have left the US as I had promised.” I never heard from him and don’t even know if he got the card. Postal services to Guyana were rather shaky at the time, but if he is still around and reads this, I want him to know that I remember his kindness and appreciated his belief in me. And I want him to know that I kept my word and did what I’d said I would. Maybe he can show this to the lady who’d said to him, “It’s your neck.” His neck was safe.
The world is round and what goes around, comes around. Today almost forty years later, I have been lecturing American diplomats at the Foreign Service Institute (FSI) and have lived and worked in America and traveled there many times. Every time I do, I think of Dennis. Very interestingly also, a dear friend, who heard this story, found Dennis on the net. I am hoping it is him and that I will be able to contact him, so that the story can have a proper end. Shows how the world is both a small and a big place.