Learning from Life – Morsi

Democracy and what happens in its name

June 17, 2019…the saddest day in recent memory. The day when Dr. Mohamed Morsi, the first democratically elected President of Egypt, died in a Kangaroo Court defending himself against ridiculous trumped up charges. He was not granted a public funeral, a mark of the fear that even the dead body of a man of truth, inspires in the cowardly hearts of those who manage to kill him. That is because humans can be killed but what they stood for, lives on and continues to inspire others, long after they are gone. May Allahﷻ grant this pious man the best of rewards in Jannah. May the Qur’an become his Hafiz in the Aakhira, as   he was its Hafiz in this life. His death underlines the fact that what is important is not whether we live or die, because everyone dies. What is important is how we die and what we die for. Morsi left his mark in history. I was in Egypt in 2014 and wrote this piece. https://yawarbaig.com/wherearetheleaders/if-i-were-president-of-egypt/

All humans make mistakes and all mistakes are opportunities to learn from. That is their only use. When we learn from them, we don’t make the same mistakes again. When we don’t, we are destined to make the same mistakes over and over until we learn. ‘Nations (people) that don’t learn from history are condemned to repeat it.’ Morsi was human and I am sure if he were alive, he would have been very happy to analyze what happened and what should be done differently the next time around.

This is my attempt at trying to learn some lessons from history. Let me warn you in advance that if any analysis is to make meaning or prove useful, it must be divorced from emotion. I know that many of my readers, indeed I myself, can think of many excuses for what Morsi did and explain each action away by seeking refuge behind ‘good intentions’, ‘commitment to Islam’, ‘personal piety of Morsi’ and so on. That would be totally counterproductive. The issue here is not how the supporters of Morsi see his decisions or the actions of his party, but how others did and do. It was that which brought about the tragic events leading to the reinstatement of dictatorship and the death of Morsi and hundreds of his followers. Surely, that is a sacrifice which should be enough for us to ask some tough questions and face some unpleasant facts.

Let us see how things were when Morsi and his party won the election in Egypt. Egypt is an African country but since its conquest by Amr ibn Al A’as ® and Abu Ubaida ® in the time of Omar ibn Al Khattab ®, it has been Arab. Arabic became its language and over the centuries it was the seat of several powerful Muslim Empires, including the Mamluks who in the Battle of Ain Jalut in 1260 defeated the army of Hulegu Khan, the grandson of Genghis Khan. The first time that a Mongol army had been defeated by anyone. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Battle_of_Ain_Jalut

In more recent times, thanks to its size, population, education, the Arab film industry, Al Azhar University and the global fame in recitation of the Qur’an, Egypt is the leader of the Arab world. Though it is an African country, it is more than likely that anyone who is asked to list the top three most significant countries in Africa and the Arab world, will list Egypt in the Arab world and not in Africa. So, what happens in Egypt has repercussions in the world in general but very particularly and powerfully in the Arab world. Egypt, apart from this is the only country in the Arab world which is not a hereditary monarchy and has had elected leaders, even if all of them, excluding Morsi were elected in sham elections and were really dictators. Yet they were never called ‘King’ or any of its variations and were always ‘President’. This is another reason why Egypt is important because it is a major departure from the norm of rulers and the ruled, in the region. When the so-called Arab Spring happened in Egypt, with the fall of the reigning dictator Hosni Mubarak and the election of Dr. Mohamed Morsi, it was a watershed. It was a marker in history that a new era was about to be ushered in.

The popularity of Morsi and his party was unquestioned. The symbolism of people in Tahrir Square, the energy they displayed, Muslims praying, with Christians standing around them guarding them from any would-be mischief makers, myriad images on TV, social media and print media of the events leading to the final removal of Mubarak and the swearing-in of Morsi, all signaled that the destiny, not only of Egypt, but of the Arab world, was about to change. Very heady stuff or very alarming stuff, depending on who was watching. All went well in the beginning. Morsi was welcomed at home. He met the Coptic Pope and assured him that his government would safeguard the interest of the Christian minority; which though a minority, is very significant and powerful in Egypt and has international support. He was invited by King Abdulla bin Abdul Aziz of Saudi Arabia to visit and was accorded full honors as Head of State and promised to help him with financial aid. The fact that he was a Hafiz of the Qur’an was mentioned with almost every mention of him as a person. His humility, piety, clean politics, innocence even, was the talk of the town, as it were. He was welcomed and applauded in all Arab countries and practically everywhere else.

Back home however, expectations were high; in keeping with domestic problems, the chief of them being employment. No matter who the President may be, people need jobs and food on the table. The burden that popularly elected leaders get to bear is to deal with high, most of the time unreasonably high, expectations of those who elected them. Part of the reason is the election campaigns themselves where leaders must promise to pave the streets with gold, in order to win elections. Nobody in today’s world will vote for a leader who speaks the truth and says, ‘After you elect me, you will still have to go to work and work very hard to feed your family. I will promise you a clean government, law and order, safety and security, an education system that will create skilled people over the years, a working medical and health care system and clean and safe cities. But you are responsible for yourselves and your families and you must pay taxes to enable the government to give you all of what I promised you.’ That is perhaps the best speech, which though totally truthful, is guaranteed never to get you elected. So, leaders promise to put not merely bread, but Biryani or Lahm Mandi on every table for every meal at the expense of the state. I am saying this figuratively but the idea in any election campaign is to make the alternative to status quo look so attractive that people will be inspired to do whatever it takes to bring in the new regime. This is the system followed all over the world with its consequences clearly visible to anyone who chooses to see. Most choose not to. Ditto Egypt.

Wikipedia has this to say about the events of the time:

As president, Morsi issued a temporary constitutional declaration in November 2012 that in effect granted him unlimited powers and the power to legislate without judicial oversight or review of his acts as a pre-emptive move against the expected dissolution of the second constituent assembly by the Mubarak-era judges. The new constitution that was then hastily finalized by the Islamist-dominated constitutional assembly, presented to the president, and scheduled for a referendum before the Supreme Constitutional Court could rule on the constitutionality of the assembly, was described by independent press agencies not aligned with the regime as an “Islamist coup”. These issues, along with complaints of prosecutions of journalists and attacks on nonviolent demonstrators, led to the 2012 protests. As part of a compromise, Morsi rescinded the decrees. In the referendum on the new constitution, it was approved by approximately two-thirds of voters.

On 30 June 2013, protests erupted across Egypt, in which protesters called for the president’s resignation. In response to the events, Morsi was given a 48-hour ultimatum by Egypt’s military to meet their demands and to resolve political differences, or else they would intervene by “implementing their own road map” for the country. He was unseated on 3 July by a military coup council consisting of Defense Minister Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, opposition leader Mohamed ElBaradei, the Grand Imam of Al Azhar Ahmed el-Tayeb, and Coptic Pope Tawadros II. The military suspended the constitution and appointed the President of the Supreme Constitutional Court of Egypt, Adly Mansour, as the interim president. The Muslim Brotherhood protested against the military coup, but the pro-Morsi protests were crushed in the August 2013 Rabaa massacre in which at least 817 civilians were killed. Opposition leader ElBaradei quit in protest at the massacre.

In simple terms what are we seeing here (what did the people see)?

  1. Someone who promised to be democratic, showing that inside the façade lives a dictator who didn’t take long to have himself declared, “granted him unlimited powers and the power to legislate without judicial oversight or review of his acts”. {Public perception: Alarm, chagrin, rage!!! Did we go through all this to get another Mubarak?}
  2. And then he does something that no leader must EVER do. He, “As part of a compromise, Morsi rescinded the decrees.”  {Opposition’s reaction: Ah!Gotcha!! He is weak. Bring him down. Get rid of him. We respect strength. Nothing else.} The rest is history.

Sisi took over; arrested Morsi, slaughtered protestors and the Arab Spring turned into a wet squib.

Morsi (and his party and government) made four cardinal mistakes, which proved suicidal.

  1. Instead of focusing on economic development, they got bogged down in ideology. Various statements were made, including by Morsi himself, praising democratic elections and thereby directly and indirectly criticizing (Arab) monarchies.
  2. Instead of focusing on building on the goodwill of the minority Christian and Jewish population and bringing them all together on one Egyptian identity, Morsi and his party raised the boogie of the Shari’ah and played right into the hands of their opposition as well as raising the alarm with others. The attempt at trying to get ‘unlimited powers and to legislate without judicial oversight’ were grist to the mill; a Godsend for anyone planning to bring Morsi and his party down. The tragedy is that the only people who seem to have been blind to this was Morsi & Co.
  3. Instead of focusing on internal issues of employment, hunger, health care, education and others, it appeared that there was more focus on external issues, be it the condition of Palestinians or giving aid to disaster affected people in Indonesia. This coming from a country which almost literally was living off aid from America and other Arab countries.
  4. Perhaps the most lethal of them; imagining that personal piety and incorruptibility is a substitute for political sagacity and wisdom.

It bears to note that Sisi was Morsi’s Army Commander, reporting to him as the President and at least in the beginning, at his command and mercy, even to retain his job. Yet Morsi failed to control, let alone neutralize him. Morsi’s death is tragic. But not surprising. His fate was sealed when he displayed weakness.

What could he and his party have done? Here’s my two-cents worth as a rank outsider who by virtue of that, perhaps has a clearer view than those involved. Objectivity and perspective are a function of distance.

  1. Homework. What seems to be clear is that the entire turn of events, winning the election, overwhelming support of all people including those normally opposed, culminating in being able to form a government, came as a big surprise to Morsi and his party. I don’t believe they really believed that they could win. So, they were not prepared to move from their position of at best being in opposition, to being the ruling party. Their reactions seem to me to be just that, reactions, and therefore unplanned. They were acting in the moment without a clear (or any) view of why they were doing what they were doing or what the likely consequences of that may turn out to be. Everything seems to have been a surprise; some pleasant and some shocking. Clearly for all aspiring leaders, homework is critical to success. The Shadow Cabinet in the British Parliament is a brilliant example of preparation. Nothing like simulation to understand the complexity of leadership and how to prepare for it. But then, only those who expect to win, prepare for it. And sadly, those who don’t prepare, squander the gains.
  2. Celebrating is for others. Keep your head squarely on your shoulders and forget about celebrating. Let others do it. You, the leader, must understand that when the celebration is over, it is you to whom everyone is going to look for the future. So, what do you have to show them? Can you deliver on what you promised? If yes, then when? If no, then what is your plan to mitigate the inevitable disappointment? Once again it comes down to preparation, anticipation and the ability to deliver on your promises. People expect a change in status quo. That is what they voted for. They didn’t vote for everything to be the same except the name of the leader. No matter how ‘unreasonable’ that may seem to you, the leader, that is what people expect and you must give it to them. Maybe not everything, but enough to keep their hopes high. If you don’t, then the disappointment after an unexpected victory is proportionate to the joy.  
  3. Focus. For any leader, even more for the head of a major nation like Egypt, there are a million demands on his attention; a million causes all clamoring for him to deal with them. Focus in the art of ignoring fluff. What is fluff in this case? It is everything that didn’t get you elected. Other countries didn’t get you elected, neither did their rulers. Neither did anything except the hopes of your own people. So, deal with them before you do anything else. People elected Morsi not only because they loved him (many didn’t) but because he represented a change from the horrible dictatorship of Mubarak. If that change is not clearly visible, then it raises anxiety. By definition, that anxiety will be disproportionate especially with those who were perhaps anxious in the first place and elected Morsi because they had no alternative. That means the Christians and Liberals. They need reassurance. Constant reassurance that their decision was not wrong and that they picked the right leader who will deliver on his promises and safeguard their interests.

In such situations, people’s patience, tolerance and the willingness to take pain, are always in very short supply. In Morsi and his party’s case, they bore the burden of the negative image of Islam and his party which was created by the global Islamophobia industry that all Muslims are the target of, but at a much higher level. Fears arising out of that, no matter how illogical they may have seemed to Morsi and his supporters, had to be allayed. Perception is reality, even when it is erroneous. You can’t run away from it. You must face it and lay it to rest through your visible actions. As they say about justice, “Not only must it be done, but it must appear to be done.” This holds true even more in this situation. Solution? Communicate, communicate, communicate. Morsi didn’t. On the other hand, his government’s actions fanned the flames and enhanced those fears. The resultant protests and all that followed was certainly not unexpected, except to those who refused to see the writing on the wall.

  • Economic Development. Generate employment. Infrastructure projects, service projects, education and tourism. I have mentioned these in detail in my other article quoted above so won’t repeat that here. But basically, give people something to think about other than politics. Get them off the street and out of the tea shops and into the workplace where they can earn some money. This was all doable provided there had been a focus on it. Apart from the aid from other countries, I have mentioned in my article different ways in which a government can access funds and resources to generate employment and boost the economy. Egypt is a resource rich country with a highly capable population. To make it economically strong is not a difficult task. What has drained is decades of dictatorship and the corruption that generates. A democratically elected, clean government was just what the doctor ordered for Egypt. Sadly, it never took off.
  • Act with decisiveness. A wrong decision pushed through does less damage than a right decision that you are tentative and hesitant in implementing. Morsi’s hardest task was to deal with a military that has gotten used to ruling. Like Pakistan, where the army runs the show behind the scenes and political leaders dance to their tune. This was probably the hardest task that Morsi had; a legacy not to his liking or of his creation, but his responsibility, nevertheless. What should he have done? I don’t think any elaboration is necessary. The supremacy of civilian rule needed to be established and institutionalized in a hostile environment. That needed a level of wisdom, diplomacy and ruthlessness, which Morsi was not capable of. Like major life saving surgery, it would have been painful and messy but needed to be done with decisiveness and speed. That didn’t happen. Maybe Morsi was too decent a human being for that. Whatever be the reason, the result was the resurrection of dictatorship.

All that remains is to mourn the passing of a good man and of the chance of a change of destiny for Egypt. May his memory be honored, and may others learn lessons so that what he wanted to achieve may one day be achieved by others. For men die. Not ideas or dreams. Dreams live on in the hearts of people, to one day emerge and usher in a world that others, like Morsi died for.

Leadership is about living your values

Leadership is about living your values

Me with my staff in Lower Sheikalmudi Estate, Anamallais

In the plantation world we had two cadres of staff: Covenanted and Non-covenanted. Covenanted Staff started at Assistant Manager (or Assistant Superintendent) and Non-covenanted staff ended at that level. There were very few exceptions to this ‘rule’ and where they existed, you could tell them a mile away. This system was an outcome of the fact that the British planters who ‘opened’ the plantations and for almost a century later, were all army-men, almost to the last one. They implemented the Army/Military system of Officer Staff and NCOs in the plantations also. The ‘glass ceiling’ was made of toughened, almost armored glass and was very rarely penetrated and never broken. Interestingly the same system exists in India, in the army and police (IPS Direct Recruits) to this day.

The pecking order of the servants in the bungalow was that the butler was on the top, followed by the Chokra (a Hindustani word with a derogatory tone which literally means ‘urchin’). This worthy was the assistant of the butler who did all the cleaning, scrubbing, and polishing work in the bungalow. Then there was the gardener who did all the work outside. If you had a cow, there was the cow-keeper. There was the dhobi (washer man) who washed and ironed your clothes. All these for you as the Assistant Manager in South Indian gardens. I am informed that Managers in Assam and Bengal had more servants and bigger bungalows.

When you got promoted and went to the Big Bungalow, you got an additional servant inside the bungalow and a driver for your car. The pecking order remained the same. The pecking order was very strictly followed. Almost always the only person you spoke to or who spoke to you was the butler. He was the one who handled the money. You would give it to him, to give to the others or to the provision merchant from whom food for the bungalow was bought on credit. Credit played a major role in life as most assistants had no money. Many who liked high living had club bar bills that took up most of their salaries and so they lived on credit. This was obviously an evil because apart from the obvious reasons, many butlers set up their own kickback systems as a result. It was a given that you would pay more for provisions than other people but that was the burden of being the Chinna Dorai (Small Boss). Some managers were very stingy and corrupt and set up systems of gratuity and underhand payment in kind that they would write off to some estate expense or the other. These systems were well learnt by their subordinates who added to these systems of subterfuge and deception and ran a very corrupt ‘ship’ as it were.

One cardinal fact of plantation life always took its toll – nothing in planting life was private. If you took a bribe, its exact amount, who gave it, and for what, was the subject of much conversation in the bazaar. If you refused to be corrupt and lived a life of honesty, that also became common knowledge. The result was that the actual love and respect that you received from the workers and staff was directly proportional to the kind of life you lived. And in the end, it affected your own success, the loyalty that people showed you, and the peace of mind you lived with. People spoke with great respect about managers who were incorruptible and with disgust and disdain about managers who were corrupt. And in a place where you were the subject of most conversation, public opinion made a very big difference to your success as a Manager.

Most people understood the responsibility and meaning of being ‘Covenanted Staff’ and that it was precisely the superior moral position that gave them the ‘command authority’ that neither any special educational qualifications nor social order bestowed on them. They understood the importance of these unwritten rules and respected them. But there were others who abused this position much to everyone’s disgust. They didn’t realize until too late that the resultant loss of respect was the most expensive loss they would ever suffer and something that was never redeemable. People spoke disparagingly about such managers who stole or womanized or got drunk and made fools of themselves and the resultant loss of respect plagued them in their administrative duties. In my decade in planting, I had the opportunity to see both kinds. People for whom I developed the highest respect and those for whom pity, and contempt were the only emotions possible. But the saddest was when some of those who I respected the most showed that their previously uncompromising principles were okay to compromise when it came to what they thought was good for their own careers. They supported someone who was clearly corrupt on the plea that he was able to ‘get results’. I went through a lot of anguish trying to convince them that to get business results you don’t need to be corrupt, but to no avail. What hurt was that these very same people were the ones who spoke about integrity and the importance of never compromising values. So, what happened to that? I guess this was a part of my own growing up to accept that my idols had feet of clay which stank.

To be disillusioned is never easy. To see that your leaders who spoke very strongly about values buckled under when it came to stand by them and sided with the corrupt instead of standing up against corruption, only made me pity them and accept their weakness. It also strengthened me. I have been stubborn with my principles and have learnt from experience that the price you pay to live by your principles, no matter how painful it may seem, is always much less than what it costs to compromise them. Once you compromise your principles, you can never look those who you used to inspire, in the eye. Maybe some can live with that shame. I can’t. I am grateful that there were others who stood by me and that I never compromised my own principles and ethics. I paid the price by making enemies who did their best to hurt me in every way. That they didn’t succeed was the grace of Allah and not a measure of my own strength or the support of anyone else. I learnt the lesson that if you want to lead you must learn to like being alone. For the tiger walks alone while sheep have plenty of company. We define ourselves and world accepts that definition. Who am I to argue with how you define yourself?

Traditionally, like in the army, there has always been a social distance between the Managers and other staff. There is social interaction, but in a very formalized and rule bound way. Most of it is restricted to ceremonial occasions around festivals. The Manager was the ‘Headman’ of the estate and was expected to be completely secular to the extent that he was supposed to preside at all festivals irrespective of his or the celebrator’s religion. We had Hindu and Christian Managers presiding at Eid celebrations and Muslim Managers flagging off the cart bearing the deity at temple festivals. This tradition came out of the history of plantation labor almost all of whom were Dalit and in their own homelands, were not allowed into temples as they were considered ‘untouchable.’ But in the plantations, thanks to the fact that they were all displaced and almost all from the same caste, they created their own religious customs. So many temples in the plantation districts have Dalit priests, an anomaly in itself. Later, some Brahmin priests who were perhaps short of money in their hometowns started to come and preside at the temple, but the shots were called by the Dalits who built the temple and paid their salary. So, Dalits could not be prevented from entering the temple and were treated respectfully by the Brahmin priest. That is why the religion of the Manager didn’t matter; by definition, a Christian or a Muslim were untouchable in the Hindu caste system anyway. But in a world comprised of untouchables, everyone was touchable.

The Managers were initially all British, Christian, and white and lived by their own traditions which were more British Military than Christian. Many of them were only nominally practicing Christians for whom the daily pilgrimage to the local Planter’s Club bar was more sacrosanct than weekly attendance at the Church. Over the years, more out of necessity than ‘equal opportunity,’ the British planters started recruiting Indians to the ‘Covenanted Staff’ cadre because British youngsters were not willing to go out to India. These people came from upper class families, sometimes local nobility (which is how we had a number of Hyderabadis from the noble families of erstwhile Hyderabad State). The key, non-negotiable requirement was social acceptability. The logic was that everything else could be taught. But Covenanted Staff needed to be people who held themselves apart and considered themselves somewhat superior to others. To give this a positive spin, it was probably not racism alone but the need for the Officer Cadre to have the moral authority to command. However, there was a thin line which a lot of times got very faint indeed.

These people and their families automatically got membership in the Planter’s Club and were strictly supposed to follow tradition. Almost everyone did to the extent that many even spoke their own languages with a British accent. I used to have a very hard time trying to keep a straight face when I heard emanating from a black Tamilian face the words, “Angamootoo yenge da irkain??” in a very British accent. Those of my readers who know Tamil can probably imagine how funny this would sound. There is a very funny story about one of these black-outside-white-inside managers driving to visit another manager friend in an estate where he was not familiar with the roads. He stops his car and calls out to a worker who was walking down the road, “Dey, payyan inge wa da. Inda wali yenge pohudoo?” The man, obviously irritated replied, “Dorai inda wali nayra Englandu ku pohudoo” (Sir this road goes straight to England). Once again those who know Tamil will see how highly disrespectful this entire conversation is towards the worker. There is nothing more pathetic than someone who disrespects his own people and imagines himself to be superior and different because of his pretensions.

This internalization of British tradition is exemplified to this day in the fact that while the racist signs (Dogs and Indians not allowed) have come down the ‘formal dress’ in most ex-British Clubs is still lounge suit or dinner jacket and if you, Mr. Indian, make the mistake of imagining that your country’s national dress is more holy and come dressed in it, you will be stopped at the door of the Club lounge and told politely that you will be able to sit on the veranda. But if you entertained any hope of having dinner in the formal dining room you would have to go home and get changed into ‘decent’ clothes. At last count, it has been over sixty years since we became ‘independent’ from the British. As I always tell people, nobody can enslave you. You enslave yourself. And you have nobody in the world to blame for it. We Indians are particularly good at this voluntary enslavement. At the time of this writing, we are very busy exchanging traditional British chains for American ones. But seeing that the British have themselves done that already, it is hardly surprising that their erstwhile colonials are following suit, never having truly shed the colonial baggage themselves.

I remember with amusement my first job interview in 1978 with the Kannan Devan Tea Company (now Tata Tea) in Munnar, Kerala. I was asked to report one day prior to the date of the interview. An old friend, who was an Assistant Manager and knew the ropes, told me that this was to see if the candidates would fit the social scene. I was to wear a tie and lounge suit, he said. We would start in the Men’s Bar and after the drinks were over, we would be asked into the dining room to have dinner which we would have all together. While we did this, different people would come and talk to us. And all this would be observed and would count in our favor or against us in the interview the next day.

Sure enough, that evening we were asked to present ourselves at the High Range Club, sharp at 7.00 pm. About twelve of us in various styles of suits and ties found ourselves in the Men’s Bar (women not allowed). We were asked what we drank. When it came to my turn, I said that I would like to have a soft drink. People looked at me with various expressions; the barman with pity, fellow contestants with derisive smiles, and other inhabitants of the bar with a variety of expressions related to whether they thought I was a poor fool, uncultured, or just plainly idiotic. To put the record straight, someone in the meanwhile gave me a fresh lime soda.

As I sat there (I was all of twenty-two years old) wondering about the job that I had applied for and what drinking alcohol had to do with it, I heard a loud, “Hello there!” I looked up to see a florid red face in a body without a neck and a large smile looking at me. “So you don’t drink, eh?” he asked. Seeing that I was drinking a fresh lime soda (what else can you do with an FLS?) and that he could see what I was doing, I decided to keep silent and simply smiled and nodded. Smiling and nodding is an excellent strategy to allow people to interpret whatever they want.

“Tell me something young fellow,” he said, “Do you play cricket?”

I said that I did, but others who played with me wished that I didn’t.

Then he asked me, “Are you a Mason?” At that time, not being aware of the Free Masons Society I thought he wanted to know if I could build walls. “No, I’m not,” I said.

He looked me up and down with a sad expression on his face and said, “You don’t drink, you don’t play cricket, and you are not a Mason. Boy! You don’t have a chance.” Then looking at my face once again, he said, “Anyway, don’t worry, I am not on the recruitment panel.”

As it turned out, that did not make any difference to the outcome since those who were on the panel had the same views. I was asked a lot of questions about everything other than planting tea and given the ‘kiss of death’ – “Thank you very much, we will get back to you.” In plain English this means, “We are very glad that we are seeing the back of you.”

Thinking back over this incident, what is clear to me is the principle behind this method. In a place with a limited population (you did not count the estate staff and God Forbid, the workers as people) that you could socialize with, it was essential that you hired people who were socially acceptable. So social values that matched those of the locals had overwhelming importance. The skills of tea plantation management were all trainable. On the other hand, eating at table using the right fork for the right meat, drinking yet not getting drunk, making conversation that was inane yet interesting, dancing with the manager’s wife and so on were all skills that were either thought to be not trainable or too much trouble. So British managers (including their acolytes, the Brown Sahibs) hired young people from backgrounds that were socially acceptable to them and then trained them for job related skills, on the job. I obviously didn’t match and so was rejected.

The Sahib’s prediction was right, even though he was not on the panel. Brown Sahibs were always more conscious of snobbery; who wanted a fellow who neither drank nor played cricket? The British indoctrinated Indians so well in what was ‘decent, socially acceptable, and respectable’ that Indians adopted their ways as their own. Take the issue of clothing for example. Even though India has its own national and regional attire, the official attire for all ‘business, formal, decent’ occasions is Western clothes. Even today, nobody in their right mind would even dream of going for a job interview in an Indian company, knowing full well that the hiring manager is also Indian and that there is not a British person on the rolls of the company, in anything but Western clothes. And if he did turn up in a dhoti-kurta or a sherwani (the national attire of India), it is more than likely that he would not be hired for that reason alone – over sixty years after our official Independence from British colonial rule.

People adopt new standards because they like them and see them as adding value to them. Even when it can be argued in some cases that there is no real value addition, as long as people feel that there is, they will take to the new standard. The British, in order to demean Indians, made their doormen dress like Maharajas, in a Sherwani and turban. Sadly, to this day, this is the dress of our doormen at most hotels.

The most common lament that I hear today has to do with the fast disappearing “Eastern/Indian values,” which are being replaced by Western Pop culture. We tend to blame various agents for this, the chief being TV. My question is, “Why is it that our ancient cultures and their values are so weak that they are so easily replaced by some silly trend popularized on TV?” Blaming is of no use to anyone. What we need to do is to ask these questions and find answers, no matter how painful the process. Why is it that we and the generation before ours have not been able to communicate and sell the values we talk about so nostalgically to our children? What have we done in our own lives to reinforce those values? To what extent are we responsible for creating the exposure to the values we criticize? For example, we complain that our children do nothing but watch TV serials, music videos with all their shamelessness, and play Nintendo and other video games. But we never ask ourselves, “Who bought the TV, the Nintendo Game Controller, and the cable connection?” Do we sit with the children after they have watched something to analyze that program and derive its learnings? Do we spend time to understand what it is that they like about programs that we disapprove of? In short, do we have a conversation with our children? Or are we seen as mobile ATM machines that can be manipulated to get money to do what the kids want to do and can then be ignored until the next urge surfaces?

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

People listen with their eyes

People listen with their eyes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“For you Dorai!” he said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mahmood, making sure that I got properly married

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

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

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

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

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

The Great Slide

The Great Slide

“So, how did things get so bad?” I am sure you must have heard, asked or thought about this yourself. So have I. Many times, over the years whenever I saw a badly-behaved child being fed with the help of an iPad, a spaced-out teenager who seems lost in his electronic world where Facebook friends are more real to her than real human ones or when I read reports of rapes and murders being filmed on smart phones by stupid people. And my instant reaction is, “It was not like this 40 years ago. What went wrong?” And there would rest the case; until the next episode. This is 2019 and so when I say, ‘40 years’ we are talking about two generations; that is the 1980’s. It is not to say that everything was hunky-dory until 1980 and suddenly in 1981 it all collapsed. But it is a live demo of the truth of the ‘Boiled Frog Syndrome’.

For the uninitiated, this has nothing to do with cuisine, but with gradual social change which suddenly becomes starkly visible, having been unperceived for a long time before that. The parable is that if you put a frog into a pot of hot water, it will jump out. But if you put the frog into a pot of water at room temperature and allow it to get comfortable in it; then you light a fire under the pot and gradually heat the water, the frog doesn’t register that the water is getting hotter. It continues to feel comfortable in the water which is getting hotter and hotter until it reaches a point when it does register that things are not the same but by then it is too late, and the frog gets boiled. That is what happens to people and to societies. That is what I believe has happened to us in India.

Let me do a flashback to the time that I was growing up, which was in the 60’s and 70’s. We (me Muslim) lived in a multi-religious society, as we do now, but with a big difference. Nobody had TV’s or smart phones (we didn’t even have stupid phones), so our social life was with our friends. We played football and cricket; yes, really! I mean in the maidan (open field) near our house. We went to their homes and they came to ours. We participated in their festivals; not the religious ceremonies, but the fun and games, eats and sweets. And they did the same with ours. We knew them and their culture and religion, respected it, understood their boundaries and adhered to them, took an interest in their culture and they did the same with ours. We spoke about all this because there was no football or cricket  to speak of and as far as I can recall, (cricket was a 5-day Test Match – a test of patience for everyone), politics was a given (Panditji was alive after all) and so there was hardly any discussion about that. We needed people and they needed us. So, we appreciated each other.

We lived in joint families, referred to our elders by our relationship with them or an honorific in keeping with their age. So, it was Dadaji, Amma, Baba, Mataji, Dadiji, Chachi, Chacha and so on. Hardly anyone was ‘Uncle’ or ‘Aunty’. There were some but not too many. It was the job of all elders to discipline us, teach us, tell us stories, guide us in our religious or cultural norms, customs and practices and when they were doing that, if any of our friends was around, they would get the benefit of this teaching, no matter which religion they came from. They listened with respect and so did we. Our culture was distinct from that of others, but I don’t remember anyone in my family ever referring to the culture of others in any even remotely derogatory term. I don’t believe that my family or elders were unique. They were ordinary people of the time. We learnt our cultural norms, manners, taboos, customs and practices from our environment and those around us and since we lived in joint families, there were plenty of those. It didn’t matter that Dad was away at work, Mom was always home and even if she went anywhere, one or both grandparents, an uncle or aunt or two were always around to ensure that we ate, slept, were safe, studied, went out and played and when it was time, prayed. Mom and Dad didn’t need to do these things exclusively.

We never ate out because it was considered uncultured to eat in a restaurant. People asked you, ‘Don’t you have a home?’ If you took a friend out to a restaurant it meant that he was not close to you or that you didn’t really respect him. Otherwise you would have brought him home. It was normal to eat at each other’s homes, no matter that in some cases the food laws are very different and rigid. But Brahmins, Marwaris, Kayasth and Reddy friends all ate regularly at our place. When those we knew to be particular about their food laws were coming, strictly vegetarian food would be cooked. Those that ate meat at our house did that because they wished to. Nobody forced of even suggested it to them. Once again, this was not unique. This was the norm. I recall dropping in at the home of my good friend from school, Gurcharan Singh. I said, “Sat Sri Akal” to his mother (Mummy), Dad (Dadji), Grandmother (Mataji) and “Hi” to his sister and brothers and him. They all said, “Come and eat”, as they were having lunch. His mother said, with a big smile on her face, “Aaloo paratha bana hai. Tujhe pasand hai na!” because she knew how much I loved it. As I sat down, Guru’s father pointed to a covered dish and said, “Usay utthay rakh do.” (Put that there; signing to the sideboard); meaning, take that dish away from the table. Guru jokingly said, “Dadji koi problem nahin hai. Yawar yahan kha lega.” His father was distinctly not amused. He said, “Khana hai tho kahin aur ja kar khaye. Ithey nahin.” (If he wants to eat, let him go and eat somewhere else. Not here.) What they were talking about was pork vindaloo. I would not have eaten it anyway, but for them it was not a joking matter. We respected each other’s traditions and unless someone volunteered to break his own tradition, it was not broken for him. Some Muslims went to their Hindu and Christian friends to drink alcohol, but nobody forced them to do it. If they chose to do it, that was their choice, just as it was the choice of vegetarian Hindus to eat meat in their Muslim friend’s homes, if they wished. Needless to say, many Hindus are not vegetarian and eat meat and fish.

Manners were a very big thing. You never addressed an elder by name. Or even as Mr. So-and-so. You either called him Uncle So-and-so or just Uncle. Same thing for the Aunties. If a boy whistled at a girl, anyone older around would simply thrash him right then and there. You asked permission, said ‘please’ and ‘thank you’. The role models you looked up to or who were mentioned to you were people who were known for their honesty, integrity, hard work, compassion; always for their values. What people owned was not the subject of discussion firstly because most people owned similar things, drove similar cars (if they drove a car at all) and lived in similar houses. The differences were not major and it was considered crass and highly uncivilized to mention money or the price of anything. If someone asked you how you were, you replied, “Very well Uncle/Aunty. Thank you.” You didn’t say, “I’m good”, because that is first of all, not the right answer because the person was not asking about your moral condition but your physical well-being and secondly because we thought it was their job to tell us if we were good or bad. Not ours to announce.

Money was in short supply though we never wanted for anything. We wore each other’s handed down clothes. We wore shoes until they became holey. Our clothes were hand-made to measure because that was the cheapest option. Readymade clothes were expensive and jeans you only saw in pictures. Pocket money was unheard of. You got money for the bus fare to school and that was it. Whatever else you needed had to have a reason behind it, and “I want it” was not a reason. We lived in bungalows on large plots of land because our parents had inherited them from their parents. We didn’t go on holidays and looked very enviously at those very few who went to Ooty for two weeks every summer so that they could return to Hyderabad’s heat and appreciate it better. But then, at that time you wore a sweater from November to February and the swimming pool (Public Swimming Pool in Fateh Maidan – does it even exist anymore – where Jeelani Pairak was the coach) only opened its doors in the middle of March because it was too cold to swim before that.

There were all of four career choices, medicine, engineering (mechanical or civil), Civil Service or Army. You picked one or if you didn’t, it was thrust upon you for all kinds of reasons out of your control and then you studied for the exams. When you got 80% you got presents and gave a party. If you got 90% people thought that you had cheated. Life was simple, uncomplicated and moved on at its own pace.

Then came the 80’s. TV came on the scene with its soaps, serials and news. The world suddenly opened. Education changed. Multiple disciplines became available to study leading to hitherto unheard-of career options. The Middle East opened up for jobs, so did America and Canada. Young people left to make their fortunes. In some cases, the wives and children remained behind. In most other cases, it was only the elderly parents who saw off their children at the airport to return to empty houses and loneliness. All in the name of money. Thanks to repatriation of funds and the effect of the TV, suddenly money was easy and material things, appliances, clothes, cars, motorcycles, all became affordable. Rapidly these became not only nice to have but grounds for competition with neighbors, friends and strangers. Suddenly we discovered that our neighbor’s name was Jones and we had to compete with them (Keeping up with the Joneses).

The 80’s sound like ancient history today in 2019 going on the magic number 2020. What do we have today? Hatred. We hate each other and that sells, that gets you elected, that gets you followers, it is chic, it is fashionable, and it works. It is most preferable to hate Muslims, but anyone else will also do, if there are no Muslims around. As long as you hate. That is the only thing that counts. So, our world has shrunk. We meet people like ourselves, who talk like we do, eat what we eat, like what we like and dislike what we dislike. We hate the same people and in each other’s rhetoric,  we find solace. We live in our echo chamber and that has become our world. There are those among us who were born in this echo chamber. They don’t know anything else. But there are those who were born and lived in a world that was very different from this one. A world where there were no echo chambers, like there were no mobile phones, laptops, social media and even television. A world that was real. Today in our echo chamber, we sometimes ask ourselves this question, “What happened to that world?” Then we correct ourselves and ask, “What did we do to it?”

Those were the days

Those were the days

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Prambikulam view from Murugalli

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

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

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