Of Butler English etc.

Of Butler English etc.

You all know my butler Bastian who I have written about earlier. Bastian like most of his tribe spoke ‘Butler English’ and was very snobbish. My wife used to speak to him in the same way to make it easier for both to understand what was going on. So sometimes I would come in to hear, ‘Bastian, tomatoes got, not got?’ And Bastian saying, ‘Got Madam. But when Madam going Valparai please kindly bringing cream Madam. Need to make vanilla soufflé for Wood Dorai Madam’s dinner party. If Madam want, I am coming to Valparai with Madam.

“Why not telling you don’t have cream Bastian? I would have got it yesterday when Master went to the Club.”

“Not wanting trouble Madam. Going with Madam today to get it.”

The real reason being of course that he would be able to get together and chat with his cronies in Valparai during the day, because in the evenings, they would all be busy in their own jobs.  

Bastian had a habit of translating Tamil names into English and announcing anyone who came with his translation of the person’s name. He didn’t do that with the Doraimaar (Manager class) but did it with anyone else. Workers or union leaders didn’t come to the bungalow to meet the Manager. We met all workers, supervisors, staff and union leaders only at the morning Muster or in the Estate Office. This was a universal rule in all estates which was strictly adhered to. This has nothing to do with being snobbish or class conscious but with maintaining boundaries of work and personal time and space. We lived on the job, as it were and if we didn’t do this, we wouldn’t have had a single day’s peace. Having said that, there were some special people who had special privileges. In my case these were my tracker, who told me about the movement of wildlife in the forests adjoining our estates in the Anamallais, the supervisor who built the hides in trees or rocks for me to watch wildlife and the two Ramans who accompanied me on my hikes on Grass Hills. All of them came to the bungalow if they needed to meet me.

The norm was that they would first go to the back, to the kitchen and Bastian’s pantry and he would give them a cup of tea and they would chat. Then he would see what I was doing and if I was free, he would announce that so-and-so had come to see me. But the way he did it was to say the least, very funny. He would say, “Master, Seven Hills is here to meet Master.” Seven Hills being the literal translation of Yedumalai. Or he would say, “Master, Golden Mountain is here and wants to meet Master.” Golden Mountain being, yes you guessed it, Thangamalai.

When I was in Paralai Estate, my bungalow was just off the main Valparai road, opposite the Iyerpadi Estate Hospital, the domain of Dr. John Phillip and his charming wife, Dr. Maya. John and Maya were very good friends. John was one of the finest diagnosticians that I have ever had the pleasure of knowing, who could tell you what was wrong with your soul by looking at your toenails. Maya, in addition to being a physician, was a very creative artist and painted and made all kinds of beautiful things. One day, I had almost finished my morning rounds and had a nasty headache. So, on the way home for lunch, I dropped in at the hospital to meet Dr. John and get something for my headache.

As I drove into the hospital compound, I saw a lot of urgent activity with nurses and attenders running here and there. I asked Mr. Karunakaran, the Pharmacist, who held fort when Dr. John was away, what was going on. He said that there was a woman in labor who was terribly anemic and needed a blood transfusion. They were trying to find her family to donate blood. I said to him, “Take mine. I am O + and a universal donor.” Karunakaran looked surprised. A nurse standing by him, looked shocked. “You will donate blood for a worker woman?” she asked. “We are trying to find her people (Dalits) to donate blood.” I said to her, “Look, I have no time for this. Take my blood and give it to her. You don’t want her dying with her baby while you hunt for her relatives.” While all this was going on, Dr. John came on the scene and on being informed that I was offering to donate blood and the reluctance of the staff to accept it, he said, “He wants to donate his blood. What is your problem? Just take it.”

I was duly laid down and bled to the extent of two bottles of blood. It was thick and almost black with hemoglobin and had my friend John smiling in satisfaction. They disappeared with the blood into the operation theatre. I was kept under observation for a while and given some tea, just to ensure that I didn’t croak. I realized that in all this, my headache had disappeared. Clearly donating blood cures headaches. I then went home and had lunch and went off for my siesta. A most civilized practice that I learned to do in the plantations and have adhered to ever since. I am told it is also very good for the heart. It is certainly very good to rejuvenate you for the rest of the day. After my siesta of about forty-five minutes, I got up for my cup of tea, when Bastian announced, “Master, Golden Mountain and the entire Works Committee are here to meet Master.” I was surprised because it was my rule that I never met any union leaders at home, and everyone knew and respected it. What was so urgent today that they couldn’t meet me in the office?

I walked out on to the veranda to see Thangamalai, who was the head of the union, Madasamy who was his Deputy and entire Works Committee with them. I was a little apprehensive also, because usually it is not good news when the whole committee wants to meet you urgently. We made our greetings. Then I asked them why they had come. They didn’t say a word. Thangamalai stepped forward and bent down to touch my feet. I stepped back in amazement and irritation because I never encouraged the touching of my feet. They knew this. I told them, “Why are you touching my feet? You know I don’t like this and don’t allow anyone to do it.” Thangamalai said in a grave tone, “Yes Dorai, we know. But today you will have to allow us to touch your feet. So, please don’t stop us.” He then bent down and touched my feet. And all the others followed suit. I stood there, totally amazed at all this. When they had all finished, I asked them, “So, tell me, what is all this for? What did I do?”

Thangamalai said, “Dorai, today you did something that has never happened in the more than one hundred years since this tea was planted. You gave your blood for one of us. No manager ever did this. So, we must thank you.”

I said, “What is so special about that? Wouldn’t you have done the same for me?”

“Yes Dorai, we would. But Doraimaar (Manager class) don’t do it for us. You are the first one and the only one who ever did it.” Then he said something which has stayed with me ever since. He said, “Dorai, this is our land. It is our land not because we were born here but because we will be buried here, if we die. It can never be the land of the Managers, because if you die, they will take you away to your hometown to bury you. They will not bury you here. The land you are born in is not your motherland. It is the land you die in and are buried in that belongs to you. But from today, this is also your land because your blood is now our blood.” I had tears in my eyes and to this day when I think of this whole event, it fills my heart with warmth and love for these simple, lovely people. I have never believed in caste and class divisions and never practiced them and that day, they accepted me as their own. I was a Dalit for them and for me that was the greatest honor.

Lower Sheikalmudi Manager’s bungalow where we used to live

There is a very happy ending to this story. Almost twenty-five years later, in 2010, I returned to the Anamallais with my wife Samina and some friends of ours from South Africa and my nephew Aly, to show them one of the most beautiful places on earth. We stayed for two nights in the bungalow we used to live in, the Manager’s bungalow on Lower Sheikalmudi Estate. We walked the trails that I used to walk and met all those workers and staff who were still there. Many had retired. Some had passed away. But those who were there, remembered me and left their work and came to meet me. I was taken in an informal procession and ‘installed’ in my old Muster. Someone put a shawl on the chair for me to sit upon. Others brought tea and vadas from the teashop which every estate has. Many of my old workers brought their children to meet me and told them, “This is the Dorai we have told you about.”

One young fellow came up to me, greeted me with, “Vanakkam Dorai.” I returned his greeting. He asked me, “Do you recognize me?” I always find this question very disconcerting. If you don’t remember them, it puts you in an embarrassing position. You can try to wing it by saying, “Of course I remember you. How can I ever forget you?” But some horrible fellows won’t let you get away with that. They will persist, “Then tell me who I am!” Then you must say, “You are the one for whom I pray every day that your socks should shrink in the wash and that you should discover after having showered that you forgot your towel in another room and that when you are in a rush to urgently go to the toilet in the airport, after you have done the deed, you should discover that you were in the toilet meant for the opposite gender.”

Manjaparai view – Sholayar Dam in the distance

No, I didn’t say all that. I said to him, “I am sorry I don’t recognize you.” He said, “Not surprising Dorai. The last time you saw me was twenty-five years ago. I am the little boy who you would always give a ride to school on your bike. I would be walking down the road to the school and you would come down from the office and you would always stop and ask me to hop on behind you and you would take me to school. I can never forget you.” Then I remembered him of course. For me it was such an unremarkable thing to do. I like children and this little fellow was so happy to ride behind me and it made him such a big shot before all his friends that I always gave him a ride. Of such simple, unthinking, spontaneous actions are enduring memories made.

The two Ramans, my partners in all my jungle hikes, which we did regularly, came to meet me. One of them is the son of Kullan, who had passed away, about whom I have written in my book, ‘It’s my Life’. Kullan who would visit me in the evenings, and we would sit on my veranda and Kullan would tell me stories of the ‘old days’ (Palaya Gaalam). Wonderful stories of struggle, pain, joy, success and the inevitability of life, which tells you that after all is said and done, you must get up tomorrow morning and go to the field. Raman the Elder said to me, “Dorai, you have not forgotten your old ways. You came walking up the path from the old coffee area, where there is a lone elephant. But then you know the signs and you are not afraid. Do you want to go up to Manjaparai? Let us plan for that tomorrow.” Manjaparai is the highest point, a rock rising out of the forest that was the top boundary of the estate. Raman had built me a hide, a machan in a tree, above a waterhole from where he and I would go on full moon nights to watch elephants come, to drink. He recalled that and said, “Our machan is gone but we can still go up and sit and watch the sunset.” And that is what we did.

My machan tree and the stream – now almost dry – 2010

After two days, we went to Paralai to the new Anamallai Club and stayed in the chambers for another two days. The new club is a concrete building without the charm of the old one. It is just a building sitting in the middle of nothing. The old club in Valparai had tennis courts, a nine-hole golf course and a very charming colonial bungalow style building which we all loved. Sadly, that became the victim of Indian politics and our elected representative from the district, a servant of the people, no less; came one day with a huge mob and ransacked the club and demolished most of it and tried to illegally occupy the land. The police came as usual conveniently after all the damage had been done to the relic of capitalist India and locked up the ruins. And that is how that has stayed and remains to this day, to the best of my knowledge. Meanwhile planters needed a club and so the company I worked for, donated the land and all the other companies contributed the money to build the new club.

The day after we arrived, word got around to the workers of Paralai that Baig Dorai had come after twenty-five years and many people came to meet me. In the course of that, came two women and a man. The man was an old servant of ours who had worked as Bastian’s assistant, Asaithambi. He greeted me, “Vanakkam Dorai.” Then he gestured to the two women to come forward and asked me, “Do you know who they are Dorai?” I had no clue. He said, “This one is the one you gave your blood to. And this is her daughter. Without that blood they would both have died that day. It is with your blood in their veins that they are living. And Dorai, this girl is studying medicine in Coimbatore.” I wept with joy and gratitude. That is all that I could do.

Bastian was a brilliant cook and claimed that he knew more than 100 recipes for soufflés and puddings. I have no doubt he did, and I was the beneficiary of many, if not all. His cream soups were brilliant. So were his fruit soufflés. He would top some of them off with caramelized sugar like an elaborate web. Very stylish. But for the love of anything, he wouldn’t teach anyone else how to cook those things. My wife and many other ladies tried every trick to learn. Bastian would very politely say, ‘Of course Madam. I will teach Madam. Madam come when I am making it.’ But when Madam went there, at the final moment, he would do something to distract attention and there it was all ready and made and Madam would have to wait for the next opportunity. After a few such attempts, Madam got the hint and satisfied herself with eating Bastian’s cooking without trying to learn how to cook it. On one occasion, my wife suggested to Bastian that he should teach the houseboy who was his assistant in the kitchen. Bastian’s response was classic. He said, ‘No Madam. Chokra dull Madam. Can’t learn anything.’ And that was that. Chokra dull Madam. This was so funny that when my wife said something to me and I didn’t get it immediately she would say to me, “Chokra dull Madam.”

If only Bastian’s tribe had taught others what they knew they could have created very competent successors. But Bastian’s kind were very jealous, even insecure, about their positions and knew that it was their cooking skills which were their biggest asset. They guarded them jealously, never trained anyone else and took their skills to their graves. Very sad but very similar to what a lot of talented and skilled people in the corporate world do.

I always praised Bastian for his cooking, which was a delight to come home to. My wife is also a very good cook but doesn’t do it regularly. But once in a while when she felt like it, she would make something. When it came to the table, I, not knowing who had cooked that dish would automatically say to Bastian, “Bastian this bake is lovely.” Bastian would promptly say, “Thank you Master.” Taking all the credit for it and not telling me that he had not cooked it. But on the occasion when my wife made something and there was something the matter with it, and I said to Bastian, “Bastian, there is too much salt in this.” His immediate response would be, “Madam fault Sir.”

 Butlers were an institution and we planters exchanged many ‘Butler stories’. One dear friend told us this story about his butler. The worthy would give him brown soup every single day. After some time, my friend got tired of eating the same soup and asked him if he didn’t know how to make some other kind of soup. “I giving Master two different soups,” says the butler. “Which two different soups?” “Thin brown soup and thick brown soup, Sir.” Another time, the Field Officer said to my friend, ‘Sir I am sorry to report but the quality of bread from your bungalow has gone down.’ When my friend asked him how he knew anything about the quality of the bread in his bungalow, the man replied, ‘But we are buying bread from you Sir.’

When I joined CWS (India) Limited, I heard a story about one of the GMs, Mr. Douglas Cook. Mr. Cook had a butler called Xavier. Mr. Cook lived in India alone but loved to entertain his friends. One day he invited some of his British friends and after dinner, he asked them if they would like some Cognac. Then he went to his bar to pour the drinks, only to discover that his Remy Martin was missing. Clearly very embarrassing. He apologized to his guests and they made do with something else. After everyone left, Mr. Cook was alone in his drawing room, when Xavier came in to bid goodnight to the Master as all the servants did each night. This was a standard ritual with the butler, being the highest-ranking individual in the household saying with a bow, “Anything else Master? Good night Master.” When Xavier said, “Anything else Master?” Mr. Cook asked, “Where is my Cognac Xavier?” Xavier mumbled something, reversed out of the drawing room and disappeared into the pantry. Next morning Xavier took the tray with Mr. Cook’s bed tea, into his bedroom and greeted him as usual, “Good morning Master.” Mr. Cook replied, “Where is my Cognac?” Later at breakfast, at lunch, at tea, when serving dinner and when he came to say, ‘Goodnight’, the same ritual; “Where is my Cognac?” To give him his due, Xavier took this for three days. Then on the fourth day, Xavier disappeared for good. Mr. Cook’s Cognac and his butler were never seen again.

Butler English was not restricted to butlers. I once had one of my Field Officers come to me, very happy one morning, saying, “Congratulations Sir. My wife delivered a baby yesterday.” Not having had anything to do with that development, I was in a quandary whether to accept the congratulations or not. Accepting seemed very much like admitting to the crime. Not accepting would have seemed rude. I am still thinking about that. Another Field Officer came one morning to the Muster, wanting his backyard to be fenced. To emphasize the point, he said very passionately, “I need this badly Sir. My backside is completely open.” I had no desire to verify this and so quickly agreed to allot the labor and barbed wire for his ‘backside’.

Life was simpler in those days. We had less technology and more time. People were more open, warm, and less complicated. People looked at commonalities and bonded on that basis. If I think about how many differences there were between me and some of my dearest friends, I can tell you that we differed on many things. But what we had in common was enough to keep our hearts together for now over forty years. That is the real meaning of respect. Not to demand that everyone becomes vanilla flavor; one ‘official, approved version’. Real respect is to respect difference and the right of everyone to live that difference without demanding that they change or even explain why they are the way they are. Real respect for each other is to accept our differences like the giraffe accepts the elephant’s trunk while the elephant accepts the giraffe’s long neck. That’s it for now. Vanakkam!

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

Those were the days

Those were the days

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Prambikulam view from Murugalli

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

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

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

What is Ramadan?

What is Ramadan?

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

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

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

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

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

Ramadan is about recognizing that you are not Calvin

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

Allahﷻ said about Ramadan:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Allah reminded us about His blessings and said:

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

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

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

But how is Ramadan a boot camp?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rain forest days and nights

Rain forest days and nights

Peter and I would sometimes go fishing in the night. If you floated with the current down the river keeping to one of the banks and shone your torch into the water, you would attract fish to the light. Then it is a matter of spearing them. The spearing takes some skill because thanks to parallax error of refracting light in the water, the fish is actually not where you see it. But once you get the hang of correcting for it, it is a simple matter of spearing the fish and pulling it up flapping on the end of your spear. I have seen Amerindians even shoot fish with their arrows with great accuracy. They would have a light line tied to the arrow so that they could then haul it in.

On these excursions, if you shone your torch over the surface of the river, it would appear as if the water was sprinkled with diamonds. Shining stars, eyes of Caiman, young and old, out fishing, floating on the river with only their eyes and nostrils above the surface. Like alligators and crocodiles, the Caiman is a fish eater but not above taking the unwary to add variety to his diet. They also eat turtles and so their jaws are adapted to taking in broad prey and exerting tremendous biting pressure to crack their shells. You definitely wouldn’t want to go swimming with one especially as a big one can grow to 6 meters (20 feet) in length. Caiman are seen as a nuisance by riverside dwellers as they destroy fishing nets and sometimes attack cattle. I hate to think of little Amerindian children playing in the water all day jumping in and out of it – I expect when one did not show up at home at night is when you know that something had happened. But at night, the shining eyes used to be an amazing sight and I loved to shine our torch and look at it. During the day you would almost never see Caiman as they lie up in the mouths of creeks that flow into the Berbice in the thick shade of riverside trees, waiting for the night to descend. What we would see a lot of in daylight was Terrapins; little turtles taking the sun on any available rock, log, tree root or even floating debris. They would sit there with their necks stretched out and a quizzical expression on their faces. If you got too close, in a flash they would slide into the water, much faster on their feet than you would likely give them credit for.

It was a beautiful idyllic existence doing all that I loved to do and doing it all for free. I know that you could spend thousands of dollars to take a trip up one of the major rivers in the Amazonian system, camp on a sandbank by a fireside and spend the night in a hammock gazing at the stars over the river. And I did all of this and more at will, free of cost. I am indeed very fortunate and most grateful to Allah for it. Early in the morning, well before dawn Peter and I would wake and take our boat to check the nets which we would tie at the entrance of several creeks that flowed into the Berbice. Fish go up into the creeks to feed in the night and a net across their path is an easy way to ensure that you don’t come away empty handed. We would float on the current or paddle and pull in the nets and haul in our catch. Then as the sun rose we would return to our camp to cook our breakfast.

One day as usual we went inspecting our nets while it was still dark. We floated silently down river to the first creek where we had tied a net. Peter steered the boat and I sat at my station in the prow looking ahead. The night was very silent, waiting for dawn, when all hunters and prey are at rest. The Howler Monkeys are not awake yet, nor have the Macaw flights started. Everything is waiting for the sun. At that time almost nothing moves except hunters like us, checking on their traps, snares, and nets. We reached the creek mouth and Peter pulled up the net. The boat dipped with the weight of what he was pulling. “Man!! Looks like we got something big!!” he said. That river at that place was home to the largest fresh water fish called the Arapaima and so I was very excited. But what came up was something totally unexpected and unwelcome.

Looking at us intently was a flat triangular head with sharp bright eyes – a full grown Anaconda which had got himself entangled in the net. He went after a fish that was caught in the net and having swallowed it along with the part of the net that it was entangled in, he tried to get out and managed to get himself into such an unholy mess that he was completely entangled. He was definitely not amused at his plight and hissed at us to tell us what he thought of us. He was so big that pulling him into the boat to try to free him surely meant sinking the little boat. Leaving him as he was would condemn him to a slow and painful death as he was so entangled in the net that he could never free himself from the nylon mesh. So reluctantly we decided to shoot him. While Peter held the net out on an oar raising the part where the snake was entangled, I shot his head off with a 16-gauge shotgun that I always carried on these trips. The snake went into such a convulsion that had Peter not wisely dropped him back into the water he would have upset the boat and dumped us both into the Piranha infested waters of the Berbice in the darkness of pre-dawn. A decidedly unpleasant prospect.

From left: Me, Leon, Fridolin, Rudolf, Peter Ramsingh

Once the snake was dead, we tied the net to the side of the boat and rowed back to the camp. We pulled the boat up on the sand and cut the snake out of the net, completely ruining it in the process. I was definitely not amused as nets were valuable. Then we measured him. He was 22 feet long and both Peter and I together, could lift him only with great difficulty. I was very sorry to have killed such a fine animal but we had no alternative. We took off his skin and I had it with me until I met a young man called Fridolin Stary who came from East Germany to Guyana on holiday and liked it so much that I gave it to him. Fridolin told me how he helped his girlfriend to escape from East Germany. Today with the wall gone, I hope they are living happily somewhere. Sequel to this last sentence: Thanks to the power of the internet, I actually found Fridolin, who was a top manager of a chemical company in Germany until he retired in 2017. He remembered the time we spent together and we exchanged some mails and met in 2011 when Fridolin came to India. It was a lovely meeting, as if all those decades had not intervened at all. Fridolin came home and we had a typical Hyderabadi meal, which he seemed to love. We discovered that we share many core values, respect for the environment, love of the wild, importance of justice, and owning responsibility for our actions. Small world, made smaller and flatter by the internet.

The water of the river changed complexion throughout the day. Early in the morning it has, what looks like steam rising from it. So you would be floating through this cloud of vapor looking ethereal and ghostly. As the sun rose and it got hotter – we were sitting close to the equator, remember – the mist would disappear and you would see the colors of the trees reflecting in the river. If we were planning to stay another day we would spend a couple of hours walking in the forest, following some track or the other simply to enjoy the experience of being in the rain forest. We were not hunting seriously and only the unwary animal with suicidal tendencies achieved his objective at our hands. We were more interested in watching Humming Birds flit from flower to flower looking like moths more than like birds. They beat their wings so fast that you can’t see them and they are the only birds that can actually fly backwards. They fly up to a flower and hovering before it on buzzing wings, insert their specialized beaks deep into it for the nectar, then fly backwards to get out of that flower and go to another one.

Mornings would be announced by the booming call of the Howler Monkey answered by his cousins everywhere and so for a while there would be cacophony in the forest. Macaws taking off for their daily commute would also be talking to each other and you would hear their calls. Toucans would call to each other as they hunted for fruit in the tops of giant figs. You would hear the crash of branches as Sakiwinki (Spider Monkeys) took off on their highway a hundred feet in the air, throwing themselves from one forest giant to another with gay abandon. They would be followed by others, heavier than them and the branches would crash more loudly. Ah! The difficulty is in trying to describe what the eye sees, what the ears hear and what the heart feels in mere words on paper. It is the whole atmosphere of the forest when you become one with it, when time has no meaning and the daily grind and work pressure feel like a bad dream that you woke up from.

Some weekends Peter and I would drive into the Backdam (bush, veldt, outback – depending on the country they all mean the same thing – uncharted territory) and camp and hunt on land. That had its own interest and excitement. These lands were not truly uncharted because people, mostly Amerindian hunters and loggers, had long gone along the trails that we drove on. I have no idea who made these trails originally but they were ideal for the small yellow Land Rover that Peter drove. So we would load up the car, which had a cab and an open back, and off to the jungle. Peter had a great sense of direction, so we always got back safely two days later even though I had no clue where we were going. I would just concentrate on the driving or on watching out for game. Hunting in the rain forest is very tough because though it is teeming with wildlife, the forest is so thick that you can’t see more than a couple of feet on either side of the trail. So you had to concentrate on the trail, watch for tracks and when you did see something, be quick and accurate if you wanted to eat.

The canopy was so thick that more often than not we would be driving in semi-darkness. But that didn’t mean that it was cool. It was more like a sauna with very high humidity and almost no breeze. Sometime if you got lucky you came into a forest clearing when you would feel the breeze as the jungle was open enough to allow for airflow. That has to be one of the most pleasant experience of mankind – the feel of the cool breeze on hot sweaty skin. The thick cover resembling a green ocean as you fly over it in a small plane, is very deceptive in that the trees have very shallow roots. Most rainforest soil is very poor with all the nutrients largely remaining at surface level. Because of this rainforest trees have very shallow roots. Some very tall trees have developed ways of obtaining much needed additional support by forming buttressed roots, which grow out from the base of the trunk sometimes as high as 15 feet above the ground. These extended roots also increase the area over which nutrients can be absorbed from the soil. The forest floor is carpeted thickly with leaves on which grow mosses and lichens. Roots of trees take from this thick carpet and go very little into the earth. The soil beneath this thick cover of leaf mould is sandy and loose. As the trees grow they literally hold up one another with their intertwined branches and the many creepers and vines which climb up the trunk of one giant and across the canopy of another.

A clearing is created usually when one of these giant trees falls, either the result of logging or when with age and disease it succumbs to the wind. When that happens it usually takes down a few others with it and an opening is created in the thick canopy of the forest. The open soil gets quickly washed of its nutrients with the almost daily rainfall and is taken over by grasses and other secondary growth. A piece of rain forest is thereby lost forever. This is the problem with the slash and burn agriculture so common in these parts as well as with the indiscriminate logging that takes place everywhere. For every tree that is actually harvested, there is a huge swathe of forest that is laid bare, never to regenerate; gone forever. The rainforest is a very fragile and delicate ecosystem, easily destroyed and impossible to repair.

Forest clearings however, are good for hunters because herbivores come to eat the new grass and where trees have been burned, to eat the ash, and if you sit quietly just inside the forest bordering the clearing, you can usually get a clear shot. Clearings are also where you can get a breath of air as there is space for airflow and so if you are walking in the rainforest you welcome a clearing when you come to it.

Driving on the forest tracks also threw up a unique challenge, which when it happened for the first time, was very shocking. We came around a bend and without warning Peter stopped the Land Rover. Right ahead was a deep gully about 20 feet across at the bottom of which flowed a stream. Land Rovers, for all their excellent qualities, can’t jump or fly. So what do we do? Peter was having a laugh at my expense, I could see that. He got out and stretched and then said, “All right! We gaffa build a bridge.”

The bridge we built across Crocodile Creek

Build a bridge? This I had to see. Peter took out the chain saw and we went hunting for trees of the right thickness. We wanted something with a straight trunk and thick enough to have the strength not to snap with the weight of the vehicle. We needed eight logs; four for each wheel track. Once we had cut the eight trees, we trimmed the branches off with our machetes and cut the trunks to size ensuring that we had a good length on either side of the gully. Then we laid the first set of four logs across the stream, standing each one up and dropping it across and then fixed them together by hammering in thick wooden pegs on either side so that they wouldn’t slide apart when the Land Rover wheel ran on them. Then we went across the little bridge and pegged it on the other side in the same way. Once we had one track in place, we drove the Land Rover up to the track to get an idea of how far apart the other track needed to be and repeated our bridge building. Then I went across to direct Peter over the bridge and he drove across. Took us about an hour of sweaty work, but then we were off on our journey. This bridge building is a very important activity to be able to do and the main reason why anyone driving in the bush would always carry a chain saw or axe and machete. If you couldn’t build a bridge you would have to turn back because thanks to the thick forest on either side of the road, there was no way of going around the gully. Another important survival lesson I learnt is that whenever you come to a bridge, you always stop and carefully inspect it to ensure that it was strong enough. Green wood doesn’t last too long in the rainforest and a bridge built a few weeks earlier can be seriously damaged by insects such that if you drove across it without checking you’d most likely find yourself in the gully head first. So we always inspected each bridge and when necessary strengthened it by cutting new logs and replacing any doubtful ones.

One day Peter and I decided to drive to the Corentyne River on the Orealla Trail. Orealla is small Amerindian village on the Corentyne River, overlooking Suriname. It is a lively and friendly place and we intended to drive there, spend a night, look at Suriname across the river and return to Kwakwani. The trail itself, if you walked would take about three days but since we were driving, we didn’t expect to take more than the day. What we didn’t bargain for was the condition of the road. For one thing, we had to build bridges in two places and that took a couple of hours out of our schedule. Then we came to a place where the road was deeply dug up by timber trucks so that the two tracks were more than three feet deep and the center was high up. If we drove the Land Rover into those tracks, it would hit the oil sump and either smash it or jack up the car with the wheels spinning uselessly in the air. Peter came up with a solution. He put the Land Rover in 4×4 drive and rode one wheel on the center median, the whole vehicle tilted and tipped over to one side where the cab rested on the high side of earth bank that bordered the road. Two wheels on the opposite side were up in the air. And slowly the vehicle moved, with two wheels in the rut, two occasionally touching the median and the cabin sliding along the earthen bank. I can tell you that it didn’t do much good to the cabin but then that Land Rover was already so beaten up that it didn’t matter. At the end of this track I stood on the runner which was in the air to tilt the vehicle back onto all four wheels and off we went on the trail. As always, our rule of eating what we shot was maintained and I shot a couple of Curassows and at midday we decided to take a break and cook our lunch. I made the fire and prepared the camp while Peter cleaned the birds. As always, first the tea, then the rest. By the time the tea was ready, the birds were also ready for the pot and while we drank tea the birds cooked. Then we both had hot Curassow stew with potatoes and red pepper, with bread which we had brought. A good lunch, a bit of a stretch, and then off again to Orealla.

We reached Orealla late in the evening and found a place to stay. There was a guest house and we took a room. Then we went out to get something to eat and ate some very fine fresh Corentyne fish curry and bread. The water front was like all Guyanese water fronts, with very noisy bars which got noisier as the night progressed and people’s spiritual levels increased. Mercifully, there was no violence the night we were there but tempers tend to run short and it is a matter of an instant for a bottle to be smashed on the edge of a table and then used to carve up the opponent in the argument. Dominos, as always, seemed to be popular with the people – probably because of its amazing noise making potential – slamming the dominos on the table with great force accompanied by a huge shout. Peter and I walked to the bank of the river and watched the lights across in Suriname for a while. It would have been illegal for us to cross over as we didn’t have visas. In any case this place was famous for smuggling and so it was not safe to be caught on the river in a small boat at night by the Surinamese and Guyanese patrol boats which cruised the waters.