I started working in India in the Anamallai Hills,
part of the Western Ghats as they tapered down all the way into the tip of the
subcontinent. Before that I had worked for five years in bauxite mining in
Guyana, South America and lived on the bank of Rio Berbice, in the middle of
the Amazonian rain forest. But that is another story.
The area that contained the tea plantations was
part of the Indira Gandhi National Park. The park is home to an amazing variety
of wildlife which thanks to the difficult terrain, plethora of leeches, and shortage
of motorable roads is still safe from the depredations of ‘brave’ hunters buzzing
around in their Jeeps and shooting animals blinded and frozen in their searchlight
beams. In the Anamallais if you want to hunt (it is illegal to shoot anything
in the National Park, but there are those who are not bothered about what is
legal and what is not) you must be prepared to walk in the forest, up and down
some very steep hills, be bitten by leeches and have a very good chance at
becoming history at the feet of an elephant.
However, if you are not interested in hunting and
killing animals, you have all the same pleasures and thrills with the animal
healthy and alive at the end of it. I want to see and photograph animals, not
kill them. I was looking for an opportunity to just spend time in the
environment that I loved. My job as an Assistant Manager in Sheikalmudi Estate,
my first posting with a princely salary of ₹850 per month, gave me all that I
could have wished for.
Sheikalmudi borders the Parambikulam forest. This
extends from the shore of the Parambikulam Reservoir (created by damming the
Parambikulam River) up the steep mountainside all the way to the top.
Sheikalmudi is the crown on that mountain’s head, manicured tea planted after
cutting the rain forest, more than a century ago by British colonial planters.
Where the tea ends, starts the rain forest of the Western Ghats. Anamallais is
the second rainiest place on the planet. In the early part of the century it
used to get more than three-hundred centimeters of rain annually and
consequently it rained almost six months of the year. Even when I joined in
1983, we frequently saw spells of more than a week at a stretch, when it rained
continuously day and night without any easing of the volume of water. I was
horrified the first time I saw this. I was used to rain in Hyderabad, where we
get about thirty centimeters annually.
Now here was rain and more rain and more rain. Yet
in all this rain, we went to work at 6.00 am every morning. Heavy canvas
raincoat, waterproof jungle hat, shorts, stockings and wellingtons. We rode our
motorcycles down treacherous hill pathways, slippery in the rain and covered
with fog as sometimes a cloud decided to rest on its journey across the sky. It
was very cold because we were between 3500 to 4000 feet high and so in the
first ten minutes, you lost all feeling in your legs, below your knees.
Walls of the bungalow would have mildew growing on
them in damp patches. Small leaks would develop in the roof and their yield
would be received in sundry pots and pans placed under them. This would create
its own music. Little frogs would emerge from every crevice and would hop all
around the house. In the night, they would find some resting place and add
their voices to the night chorus of frogs and insects in the garden, that would
rise and fall like an animal breathing. But sometimes the rain would be so
heavy that all you could hear was the rain on the galvanized iron sheet roof.
This sound would drown out every other sound. Within the first week of the
beginning of the monsoon, all telephone lines would be down. Power supply would
become extremely erratic. And more often than not, landslides would block
roads. So being cut off from everyone for several days was a common phenomenon.
When there came the occasional storm – every year we used to have at least two
or three – all these problems would get magnified.
Candlelight dinners with a roaring fire in the
fireplace were the fringe benefit of this weather. That and in my case, a lot
of chess by the fire. The year I got married, 1985, there was a storm in which
twelve-hundred trees fell on my estate alone, taking down with them all power
and telephone lines. There were two major landslides and we were cut off from
the world for a total of fifteen days. It rained almost continuously for this
period and my poor wife had a wet introduction to the new life ahead of her.
But typical for us both, we enjoyed this time, playing chess by the fireside.
She started by not knowing chess at all and I taught her the game. By the end
of our enforced seclusion she was beating me. Now take it as her learning
ability or the quality of my game but being rained-in has its benefits.
1983-86 were boom years for tea in South India.
Anything that was produced would sell. The biggest buyers were the Russians who
bought on the rupee trade agreements between the governments of both countries.
Anything that could be manufactured in South India was bought by the Russians. Sadly,
quality went out the window. Some people, including myself, were able to see
the writing on the wall and tried to get manufacturers to focus on quality and
to get out of the commodity market and instead create brand. That, however,
meant investing in brand building and hard work in maintaining quality
standards. Since people were making money, nobody was interested in listening
to anything that meant more work or investment. Eventually, the inevitable
happened. Russia collapsed and so did their buying trend and it almost took the
South Indian tea industry down with it. Some companies shut down. Others were
more fortunate. But the whole industry faced some very hard times.
Life in the Anamallais passed like a dream. Berty
Suares was the Assistant Manager on the neighboring estate, Malakiparai. And
Sandy (Sundeep Singh) was on Uralikal. Both dear friends. They would come over
to my place and we would spend Sunday picnicking on the bank of the Sholayar
River where on a bend in the river that passed through our cardamom plantation,
I had built a natural swimming pool. I deepened the stream bed and deposited
the sand from there on the near bank, thereby creating a very neat ‘beach.’
Sitting on this beach under the deep shade of the trees after a swim in the
pool was a heavenly experience. Add to it, eating cardamom flavored honey
straight from the comb, taken from the many hives that I had set up in the
cardamom fields for pollination. The flavor comes from the pollen of the
flowers which the bees take to make the honey. Depending on where you set up
your hives or where the bees go to find pollen, honey can have as many flavors
as there are flowers. While we lazed
about at noon, our lunch would be brought down to us and we would all eat
together. The joys of being a planter in the days when we had people who knew
how to enjoy that life.
If you walked down the river for a couple of
kilometers you would come to the Parambikulam Dam backwaters into which this
river flowed. I had built another pool there at the bottom of a waterfall,
thanks to a stream that flowed through Murugalli Estate. We used to keep a boat
in the dam to go fishing on the lake. There was a thickly wooded island in the
lake about half a kilometer from the shore on which one could go and spend the
whole day, swimming and lazing in the shade; a very welcome occupation, free
from all stress. The only sounds that you would hear would be the wailing call
of the Rufus Backed Hawk Eagle and the Fishing Eagle. In the evenings, Jungle
Fowl called the hour. If you stayed beyond sunset, the only danger was that you
could encounter bison (Gaur) as you walked home. That encounter was not
something to look forward to as I discovered one day. Mercifully, I was walking
softly and the wind was in my face, so the Gaur was as startled as I was. He
snorted, spun on his heels, and vanished, crashing through the undergrowth. I
was very fortunate.
The more time I spent with myself, the clearer it
became that it is important to be ‘friends’ with yourself. The more you are
self-aware and comfortable internally, the more you can enjoy the world
outside. When you are not aware of what is happening to you inside or are
unhappy with decisions you have taken, or with your own internal processes, the
unhappier you are likely to be with your surroundings. The normal tendency is
to blame the outer world, but if one looks within, it is possible to find the
solution. One rider however, that you will find only if you seek and only if
you have the courage to recognize what you see. That is where sometimes the
matter remains unresolved. Not because there is no solution. But because we are
unwilling to accept the solution or to implement it.
Time for another dip, then climb into the hammock
and gently swing in the breeze that comes blowing over the water. Those were
We are in the month of Ramadan Al Kareem. It comes
with great goodness and blessings and the promise of Allahﷻ’s Forgiveness and Mercy.
Abu Sa`id Al-Khudri (RA) reported that Rasoolullahﷺsaid,
‘Anyone who fasts for one day for Allah’s sake, Allah will keep his face away
from the Hellfire for (a distance covered by a journey of) seventy
years. (Al-Bukhari and Muslim)
Uthman ibn Abi Al-Aas reported that Rasoolullahﷺ said, ‘Fasting serves as a shield from
Hellfire.”’(An-Nasa’i and authenticated by Al-Albani)
Abdullah ibn Amr reported that Rasoolullahﷺ said, ‘Fasting and the Qur’an will intercede on behalf of Allah’s servant on the Day of Judgment: Fasting will say, “O my Rabb! I prevented him from food and desires during the day, so accept my intercession for him. And the Qur’an will say, ‘O my Rabb! I prevented him from sleeping by night, so accept my intercession for him.’ The intercession of both will thus be accepted. (Ahmad and authenticated by Al-Albani)
Contrary to ignorantly romantic notions, fasting in Ramadan is not prescribed to teach the wealthy what it means to be poor. Poverty is about insecurity, lack of choice, lack of dignity, compulsion, fear and despair. Poverty is about living on the edge without any safety net. It is not about present hardship but of looking ahead at a life of unending and ever-increasing deprivation. Anyone who thinks that he can know what poverty is by merely bringing breakfast forward and postponing lunch with a fridge full of goodies and special foods to break your fast with, is delusional. You will never know what it is to be poor until you are poor yourself.
Ramadan is a month which Allahﷻ sends as a boot camp to reset our lifestyles to a way that leads to success in this world and the next. This is the beauty of Islam. Islam doesn’t demand renunciation of this life in order to attain success in the Hereafter. Islam shows us a way of life that guarantees us popularity, influence, love, harmony, peace and prosperity in this life and Jannah (Heaven) in the Aakhira (Hereafter). The key to that is the concept of Taqwa.
Allahﷻ said about Ramadan:
2:183. O you who
believe! Observing As-Saum (the fasting) is prescribed for you as it
was prescribed for those before you, that you may become Al-Muttaqun (people
What is Taqwa? Taqwa is the over-riding concern,
never to displease Allahﷻ, who we
love the most, over and above anyone and anything else. The love of Allahﷻ is not like the love of anyone or anything else. It is a
combination of Khashiyyat (Awe) and Shukr (Thankfulness). This leads to the
Hubb (Love) of Allahﷻ, which,
as I said, is unlike any other emotion that we are capable of feeling. How do
we develop this love? We do it by focusing on the Glory and Majesty of Allahﷻ and on His blessings.
His Glory and Majesty, Allahﷻ
described it in a way that nobody can equal or better. He said about Himself
and His Glory and Majesty:
Baqara 2: 255. Allah! La ilaha illa Huwa (none has the right to be worshipped but He), the Ever Living, the One Who sustains and protects all that exists. Neither dozing, nor sleep overtake Him. To Him belongs whatever is in the heavens and whatever is on earth. Who is he that can intercede with Him except with His Permission? He knows what happens to them (His creatures) in this world, and what will happen to them in the Hereafter . And they will never compass anything of His Knowledge except that which He wills. His Kursi extends over the heavens and the earth, and He feels no fatigue in guarding and preserving them. And He is the Most High, the Most Great.
Al Ikhlaas 112: 1. Say (O Muhammad ()): “He is Allah, (the) One. 2. “Allah-us-Samad (The Self-Sufficient Master, Whom all creatures need and He doesn’t need anything from his creatures). 3. “He begets not, nor was He begotten; 4. “And there is none co-equal or comparable unto Him.”
Hashr 59: 21. Had We sent down this Qur’an on a mountain, you would surely have seen it humbling itself and rending asunder by the fear of Allah. Such are the parables which We put forward to mankind that they may reflect. 22. He is Allah, than Whom there is La ilaha illa Huwa (none has the right to be worshipped but He) the All-Knower of the unseen and the seen (open). He is the Most Beneficent, the Most Merciful. 23. He is Allah than Whom there is La ilaha illa Huwa (none has the right to be worshipped but He) the King, the Holy, the One Free from all defects, the Giver of security, the Watcher over His creatures, the All-Mighty, the Compeller, the Supreme. Glory be to Allah! (High is He) above all that they associate as partners with Him. 24. He is Allah, the Creator, the Inventor of all things, the Bestower of forms. To Him belong the Best Names . All that is in the heavens and the earth glorify Him. And He is the All-Mighty, the All-Wise.
Allahﷻ reminded us about His blessings and said:
Ar-Rahman 55: 1. The Most Beneficent (Allah)! 2. Has
taught (you mankind) the Qur’an (by His Mercy). 3. He created man. 4. He
taught him eloquent speech. 5. The sun and the moon
run on their fixed courses (exactly) calculated with measured out stages for
each (for reckoning, etc.). 6. And the herbs (or
stars) and the trees both prostrate. 7. And the
heaven He has raised high, and He has set up the Balance. 8. In
order that you may not transgress (due) balance. 9. And
observe the weight with equity and do not make the balance deficient. 10. And the earth He has put for the creatures. 11. Therein are
fruits, date-palms producing sheathed fruit-stalks (enclosing dates). 12. And also corn, with (its) leaves and stalk for
fodder, and sweet-scented plants. 13. Then which of
the Blessings of your Rabb will you both (jinn and men) deny?14. He
created man (Adam) from sounding clay like the clay of pottery.15. And
the jinn did He create from a smokeless flame of fire. 16. Then
which of the Blessings of your Rabb will you both (jinn and men) deny? 17. (He is) the Rabb of the two easts (places of
sunrise during early summer and early winter) and the Rabb of the two wests
(places of sunset during early summer and early winter). 18. Then
which of the Blessings of your Rabb will you both (jinn and men) deny? 19. He has let loose the two seas (the salt water and
the sweet) meeting together. 20. Between them is a
barrier which neither of them can transgress. 21. Then
which of the Blessings of your Rabb will you both (jinn and men) deny? 22. Out
of them both come out pearl and coral. 23. Then which of the
Blessings of your Rabb will you both (jinn and men) deny? 24. And
His are the ships going and coming in the seas, like mountains. 25. Then
which of the Blessings of your Rabb will you both (jinn and men) deny? 26. Whatsoever is on it (the earth) will perish. 27. And the Face of your Rabb full of Majesty and
Honour will abide forever. 28. Then which of the
Blessings of your Rabb will you both (jinn and men) deny?
Naba 78: 6. Have We not made the earth as a bed, 7. And the mountains as pegs? 8. And We have created you in pairs 9. And have made your sleep as a thing for rest. 10. And have made the night as a covering (through its darkness), 11. And have made the day for livelihood. 12. And We have built above you seven strong (heavens), 13. And have made (therein) a shining lamp (sun). 14. And have sent down from the rainy clouds abundant water. 15. That We may produce therewith corn and vegetation, 16. And gardens of thick growth. 17. Verily, the Day of Decision is a fixed time, 18. The Day when the Trumpet will be blown, and you shall come forth in crowds (groups); 19.And the heaven shall be opened, and it will become as gates, 20. And the mountains shall be moved away from their places and they will be as if they were a mirage.
When we reflect; that is the key – reflection; on
the Glory and Majesty of Allahﷻ and all
that He blessed us with, we begin to love Him. The more we reflect, the more we
love Him. The more we love Him, the more concerned we become about never
disobeying or displeasing Him. That is Taqwa and that is why Allahﷻ sent Ramadan.
But how is Ramadan a boot camp?
Obedience is about boundaries. It is about doing
what we are told to do without question. Without question not because the
obedience is blind but because we recognize and know the One who is ordering
us. We obey because we know two things very clearly: 1. That Allahﷻ loves us, wants the best for us and knows what that is better
than we do. 2. That what He ordered us to do is for our benefit, because
nothing can benefit or harm him. This is basic logic. If Allahﷻ doesn’t know and if we know more than He does, then why are we
worshiping Him? In Islam we have settled these basic questions and know that
our Creator and Sustainer wants the best for us, knows what that is and has
told us to do what is good for us and to refrain from what is bad for us and
that to Him, is our return.
Ramadan comes to remind us about obedience by
making what is normally permissible, prohibited during a specific time, from
dawn to dusk. Why is something that is normally permissible, meaning that it is
beneficial for us, prohibited during this time in Ramadan? To teach us a lesson
that all permissibility and prohibition is for our benefit and is from Allahﷻ. Ramadan is not only about not eating or drinking. It is about
abstaining from all negativity and negative behavior. It is about abstaining
from backbiting, slander, lying, cheating, cursing and foul language, anger and
arrogance. It is not only about not initiating but of not even responding in a
negative way if someone abuses us. Rasoolullahﷺ told us to say, “I am fasting,” to someone who yells at us but
not to respond in kind. Rasoolullahﷺ said, “If you can’t control your tongues and behavior, then
Allahﷻ is not
in need of your hunger and thirst.”
Abu Hurairah (RA) reported that Rasoolullahﷺ said, ‘Fasting is a shield; so, when one
of you is fasting, he should neither indulge in obscene language nor should he
raise his voice in anger. If someone attacks him or insults him, let him
say: “I am fasting!” (Muslim)
Ramadan is about experimenting with total
behavioral change. With making a new lifestyle choice. To choose to live a life
of obedience and spread goodness around us. When we are ready to stop ourselves
from doing what we normally do and enjoy, only because Allahﷻ ordered us to do so, then how much more important is it to stop
ourselves from what Allahﷻ
prohibited for us throughout our lives? This is the essence of Taqwa which
Ramadan comes to teach us in a powerful experiential way.
That is why we need to ask if Ramadan entered us
or if we entered Ramadan. If we entered Ramadan, we will exit it on the 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:
Baqara 2:186. And when My slaves ask you (O Muhammad)
concerning Me, then (answer them), I am indeed near (to them by My Knowledge).
I respond to the dua of the supplicant when he calls on Me. So, let them obey
Me and believe in Me, so that they may be rightly guided.
Ramadan is a month of dua. Of asking Allahﷻ, of telling Him your story. He knows it but you still tell Him
because that is the essence of Uboodiyat. Learn to make dua.
Create your own style of asking Allahﷻ. He didn’t put any conditions on making dua. We can ask Allahﷻ in any language, in any state, in any condition, anywhere and
anyhow. It makes perfect sense not to have any conditions about making dua
because the slave asks when he is in dire need. And so he/she must be free to
ask in any way and from anywhere. So, ask Allahﷻ. Remember however that Allahﷻ said, “So, let him obey me and have faith in me.” Obedience
starts with making a choice to change our ways. To repent our transgressions,
knowing that Allahﷻ
promised to forgive every transgression, every sin of anyone who comes to Him
with sincere repentance. He said:
Zumar 39:53. Say: “O ‘Ibadi (My slaves) who
have transgressed against themselves (by committing evil deeds and sins)!
Despair not of the Mercy of Allah, verily Allah forgives all sins. Truly, He is
Oft-Forgiving, Most Merciful.
Tell me, who but my Rabb, Allahﷻ has the Mercy to call those who have disobeyed and angered Him
all their lives, “My slaves”? And then He says, “Despair not of the Mercy of
promises to forgive them and says, “Verily Allahﷻ forgives all sins.” And then he reassures us and says, “Truly
He is Oft-Forgiving, Most Merciful.” At each stage of this Ayah, one could say
that the meaning is complete. But then my Rabb in His Infinite Mercy goes
beyond what we can imagine and forgives us.
Remember however, that forgiveness of Allahﷻ is dependent on forgiveness of those you wronged, when it comes
to transgressions against people. If you wronged someone in any way, seek their
forgiveness in this life and compensate them and don’t carry that sin with you
when you meet Allahﷻ. Rasoolullahﷺ said, “Allahﷻ will
not forgive the slave until the one he wronged has forgiven him.” Remember that
distinguish between the Muslim and non-Muslim when it comes to oppression of
others. A Muslim is prohibited from oppression or wronging anyone. Muslim or
non-Muslim, human or animal, animate or inanimate. Muslims are supposed to
spread only goodness around themselves.
And if they don’t, they are answerable to the
Highest Authority from whom nothing is hidden and whose justice nobody can
escape. That is why Allahﷻ called
the taking of a single life equal to the annihilation of all humanity and the
saving of one life equal to the saving of all humanity. He said:
5:32. Because of that
We ordained for the Children of Israel that if anyone killed a person not in
retaliation of murder, or (and) to spread mischief in the land – it would be as
if he killed all mankind, and if anyone saved a life, it would be as if he
saved the life of all mankind….
Finally, the crowning glory of Ramadan is Laylatul
Qadr – the Night of Decree. The worship in which is better than continuous
worship for one thousand months. Not equal to continuous worship for one
thousand months, but better than that. How much better? In keeping with the
Glory and Majesty of the One who said it is better. He said:
Al-Qadr 97:1. Verily! We have sent it (this Qur’an) down
in the night of Al-Qadr (Decree) 2. And what will make
you know what the night of Al-Qadr (Decree) is? 3. The
night of Al-Qadr (Decree) is better than a thousand months (i.e.
worshipping Allah in that night is better than worshipping Him a thousand
months, i.e. 83 years and 4 months). 4. Therein descend the angels
and the Ruh [Jibreel (Gabriel)] by Allah’s Permission with all
Decrees, 5.Peace! (All that night, there is Peace and
Goodness from Allah) until the appearance of dawn.
May Allahﷻ bless our mother, Ayesha Siddiqua (RA) who asked Rasoolullahﷺ what dua she should make if she were to find Laylatul Qadr.
‘Aishah (RA) reported: I asked: “Ya
Rasoolullahﷺ! If I get
Lailat-ul-Qadr (Night of Decree), what dua should I make in it?” He (ﷺ) replied, “You should make this dua:
Allahumma innaka ‘afuwwun, tuhibbul-‘afwa, fa’fu ‘anni (O Allah, You are Most
Forgiving, and You love forgiveness; so forgive me).” [At-Tirmidhi, Book
I remind myself and you that all goodness comes
from making thoughtful choices. Ramadan comes to enable us to do that. To
recognize the Glory and Magnificence of Allahﷻ, to seek comfort and courage in His Mercy and Forgiveness and
to remember that one day we will meet Him and answer to Him. On that Day
nothing will be with anyone and nothing can help anyone except their deeds.
Ramadan comes to enable us to repent, rethink, reset and reboot our lives to
make them obedient to Allahﷻ, which
means to live according to the Sunnah (Way) of Rasoolullahﷺ. Study his life and live like he did and die as he did. That is
what Ramadan comes for. Let us remember that and use Ramadan to start a new
positive, powerful, meaningful and fulfilling phase of our lives. I ask Allahﷻ for His help and Mercy.
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.
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
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
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
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.”
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.
also a place of learning. I was alone. I had a lot of time. I loved reading. I
was used to being alone and to reflecting and liked writing down my thoughts.
All excellent ways to conceptualize life experience.
I love the bush and I loved hunting. So every
alternate weekend Peter Ramsingh and I would go on a long drive into the bush
to hunt what we could. Most of this was for the table because in the Kwakwani
of those days, if you wanted variety on your table you had to find it yourself.
And it was not in the Commissary that you would find it either. Mostly, we
hunted the Canje Pheasant found all along the Berbice and its tributary, the
Canje Creek. Another common game bird was the Powis (Curassow). It was as big
as a turkey and good eating. We would also on occasion get an Agouti (Brazilian
Agouti or Red, Orange or Golden Rumped Agouti) or two. And when we were very
lucky, a small Savannah deer. Bush pig, the Collared Peccary (called Javelina)
was also good game and though we both did not eat it, we had many friends who
welcomed our hunts because we were the only people who would shoot a pig and
then give it away.
Peter inherited my yellow Land Rover when the
sawmill started and I got a small Toyota pickup. Peter and I would take turns
driving the Land Rover over the bush trails. It contained in the back,
everything that we needed for our camping and in case of an emergency. A
chainsaw, thick rope, hammocks, spare petrol, an axe, a spade, the ever present
cutlasses and various odds and ends. We would put in a cooler filled with
drinks and some pre-cooked bananas or cassava and off we would go. What would
have been ideal was a cell phone or radio but the first hadn’t been invented
and the second we didn’t have. So we relied on ourselves. What we shot, we
would cook in the bush and eat. What we saved, we would bring home. Sometimes
in the bush we would come across a deep stream and would have to build a bridge
to get across. Sometimes we would get stuck in the sandy soil and would have to
tie the rope to a tree nearby and use the winch on the Land Rover to haul it
out. In the evening we would find a camping place, tie the hammocks to ever
present trees, all conveniently located so that we could tie our hammocks of
course. Then we would light a fire and put on the tea pot. Once we had a nice
cup of tea, we would put on the cooking pot. Peter, meanwhile, would have
cleaned the game of the day. We would get water from the stream nearby, water
that was coffee colored but perfectly clean and tasteless. The bush meat would
go into the pot with salt and chillies, some onions, and as it cooked we would
sit and talk about life.
The big topic of conversation at the time was the
posturing of Venezuela, which bordered Guyana and had a border dispute. There
was some chance that this would escalate to a military conflict. The Guyana
Army was not in a position to face the much bigger and powerful Venezuelan
army, but nobody would admit that. There was some discussion about whether
Guyana would introduce conscription, so Peter was concerned if he would be
called to join the Army. I was a foreigner and so was in no such ‘danger.’ To
speak the truth though, I would have welcomed the adventure. However, as it
turned out, South Americans are far wiser than their northern cousins and the
matter was resolved peacefully.
Another topic was the government of President
Burnham. This was a dangerous topic to talk about in a dictatorship where even
your thoughts would be monitored if they could be, all in the name of freedom
and democracy of course. But we were far away in the bush and Peter was in the
company of a trusted friend. I was therefore the confidant of many ordinary
people who wanted to vent their frustration with the way the country was being
misgoverned. It was amazing to see how a country so rich in natural resources,
so fertile, and with such wonderful people could be run into the ground so
The bush in South America is different from its
counterpart in India or Africa because of the absence of major predators. The
only big ones are the Jaguar and the Anaconda, but neither will actually attack
a person except in special circumstances. So it is possible to actually sleep
very peacefully as long as you are not on the ground.
An hour or so later, once the food was ready, we
would take the pot off the fire, pull out the bread that we had brought, and
have our dinner. Then after some more discussion of world affairs, we would
climb into our hammocks and drift off into peaceful sleep looking at the
stars—possible only because we were at the river bank where the canopy did not
obstruct the view. Those days seem like a dream today. Almost as if they never
happened. And Guyana is so far away from where I am today that it seems as if I
will never see my friends again. Be that as it may, the memories are alive in
my heart and on these pages; they will live on in the minds of those who read
this. We live in the memories that we give others. So it is important to be
conscious of the memories we leave behind. This doesn’t mean that we live a
life for others. But it does mean that we remember one cardinal fact,
‘Everything we choose to do or choose not to do, reflects brand value and
character and is the stuff of memories.’
Remember when you read these pages that if I have
written about a stream, it is there and the water is good to drink. These are
stories of real life, real people, their hopes and loves and fears. And they
will live on until they are remembered.
Peter got another friend Leon Molenuex to build a
flat bottomed boat for me. It was 18 feet in length with a flat bottom, low
sides and a blunt prow. Its back was flat to fix an outboard motor. It had oar
locks and two oars. And it had an ice box in the middle with bench seats, a
plank each on either side of the ice box, forward and rear. Peter and I, and
sometimes Leon would also come along, would load up the boat every Friday
afternoon that we could get away and go up the Berbice River. What did we take
with us? Hammocks, cutlasses, one single barreled 16 bore shotgun each. Rope,
fishing line, hooks and a fishing net. Some rice, cassava, bananas and salt and
pepper. And most importantly some chicken guts in a plastic bag. The last being
what we called our ‘emergency ration’. Not that we ate them, but if we caught
nothing then if you baited a hook with raw chicken guts and trawled them behind
your boat you were sure to get some Piranha. Good eating.
It was a matter of honor for us that we would only
eat what we could hunt or catch. Since neither Peter nor I ate pork, it took
one of the most common items off our menu – Collared Peccary (Bush Pig) that we
would be sure to see. But we never returned hungry. We would trawl as we moved
along and usually caught some Lukanani (Peacock
cichlid, Cichla ocellaris) or Grey Snapper (Acoupa weakfish, Cynoscion acoupa), two of the delicacies of the Amazonian River system and
would roast them for dinner. If we were fortunate then either Peter or I would
also be able to bag one of the several species of Curassows that lived in those
forests. The most common were the Black Curassow (Crax alector) and the
Crestless Curassow (Mitu tomentosum). Or even an Agouti (Cuniculus
paca, Dasyprocta aguti) which is from the Paca family and a relative
of the rabbit and Capybara but much smaller. Game was in such abundance that
there was never a trip on which we had to go hungry but we would also bring
back fish and game for Peter’s family and the families of other friends.
Almost every other Friday evening, we would start
from Kwakwani going upriver, travelling until it got dark. Then we would find a
sandy spot on the river bank and camp for the night. That sounds a bit chancy
when you read it but we had our spots and knew them well so we just headed for
the first one. A sandy bank was necessary because like all the rivers in this
part of the world, the trees of the rain forest trailed their feet in the river
all along its banks. That made landing very difficult and camping impossible.
So you needed to look for a sandy bank. That happened at the bends in the river
where the river deposited its sand and this collected over the years to make
for some very attractive sandy crescents on which we camped.
Our routine was always the same. We would draw the
boat up on the bank and I would collect wood for a fire. Peter and I would then
sling up our hammocks from the trees that bordered the bank, first clearing the
undergrowth around their trunks to ensure that we didn’t end up with unwanted
sleeping partners. We would trawl as we travelled upriver and so we would have
a couple of good size fish in our ice box. Once the fire was lit, Peter would
put the kettle on and I would gut the fish and clean them. Then I would rub
salt into the fish and prepare it for the bake. Taking two large yam leaves (or
any other large leaf), I would wrap the fish securely in it and tie the whole
bundle with a thread. Then I would dig in the river bank for clay and cover the
fish warp with clay and make a ‘brick’ of clay – one for each fish. Once that
was ready, I would remove the kettle from the fire, move the coals aside and
dig in the sand and bury the clay bricks in the hot sand. I would then put the
coals back on top and light the fire again. By the time our tea was ready so
would the fish. We would then dig out the bricks and crack them open, remove
the leaf covering and we had the most delicious baked fish you can imagine for
dinner. There is nothing to beat fresh fish cooked with a little salt, in its
own juices, with a bit of butter melted on top.
When dinner was done, we would climb into our
hammocks and chat about whatever was at top of the mind until I would hear a
snore in response to whatever I was saying. I would know then that Peter was
off on his trip to dreamland. The rainforest is a safe place as long as you
didn’t do anything stupid like sleeping on the riverbank. As long as you are
off the ground nothing bothers you and I am living proof. There are many
animals which are dangerous in these forests but none that will take a human
being by choice. So as long as you stay out of their normal pathways you will
Lying in the hammock waiting for sleep to come, I
would listen to the sounds of the forest and try to identify each one. The
Amazonian rainforest is a rather silent place in the night, unlike Indian
forests. The animals are less vocal and the forest itself muffles sound thanks
to its density – you don’t hear much except insects. If you are near the river
there are not many mosquitos but you do get vampire bats and so you need to
cover up unless you wish to be bitten by one of them. That doesn’t turn you
into a vampire or anything so romantic, but the wound can bleed for a long time
as there is heparin in the bat’s saliva which prevents blood from clotting. In
addition, I am sure vampire bites are not exactly what any doctor would order
so it is better to stay off their menu.
Early next morning, we would start out at first
light, or sometimes even a bit earlier, going over what looks like boiling hot
water because of the ‘steam’ rising from it. That ‘steam’ is the mist that gets
created when the warm water vapor laden air meets the cold river surface and
gives the whole atmosphere an ethereal quality. Engine buzzing with Peter at
the rudder, we would travel in companionable silence, eyes ever watchful for
floating logs. These were the only real danger because if you hit one full
tilt, it would take the bottom out of the boat. A fate not to be contemplated
as the Berbice has Piranha, Cayman, and other interesting forms of life.
The Berbice is a wonderful river that changes its
nature all along its course. Downriver from Kwakwani it is deep enough for
large vessels to negotiate it. Bauxite ore from Kwakwani would be transported
on barges pushed by a tug boat all the way to New Amsterdam on the coast to the
smelter. These tugs would normally have a tow of four barges; each sixty feet
in length which when fully loaded would sink to their gunnels with the weight.
The tug boat captain’s job was a very complex one, negotiating bends in the
river a hundred and fifty feet ahead through frequent blindingly heavy rain
showers and through the night. Since tug boats and barges are about the
clumsiest of watercraft and with the kind of weight the barges carried, this
was no mean task. It was a tribute to the training and skills of tug boat
captains that there had never been any instance of the barges heading out of
the river, cross country across the rain forest.
Going upriver, however, the nature of the Berbice
changes. It is no longer the deep river but spreads wide and shallow with frequent
sandbars; so shallow in places that one could easily wade across. So much so
that on occasion we would have to pull in the outboard motor and drag the boat
over the sandbank. In this also there was a twist. In this river sand, there
were two kinds of dangers. One that it could be quick sand with so much water
under it that if you stepped into it, you could easily sink in over your head
and die a horrible death. To guard against that we would get out of the boat
only one at a time and hang onto the side of the boat until we were completely
sure of our footing. Only then would be let go of the boat and then the other
person would also get off and we would drag the boat over into water deep
enough to float it.
The second danger was that of Stingrays. These are
fresh water rays with a poisonous sting in the tail. Their favorite pastime is
to lie buried and invisible in the sand of sandbars, just under the surface and
wait for something to come within range and then they would sting by shooting a
poisonous spike into it and then wait until it dies to eat it. Their normal
prey is small fish but if you were to step on or close to one of them, then
they would sting you out of fright. I am sure there are more painful things in
life than a stingray sting—I just I don’t know what they are. And if you happen
to be allergic to the poison then 50 kilometers up the Berbice River in the
middle of the Amazonian rain forest is not where you want to discover this.
Even if you are not allergic, the sting means
several days of fever, swollen lymph nodes, swollen foot and almost
incapacitating pain. So what we would do is to put on our boots before we
stepped into the water. Alternatively, you could use a stick and hold it ahead
of you and push it in the sand ahead of you as you walk to ensure that you
disturb the Stingray and drive it away before you get too close to it.
As we went upriver, we would sometimes pass single
houses on stilts on the bank of the river with a little patch of garden at the
back growing cassava, banana, and a couple of jackfruit trees. The house was
one large room built on a high platform with a leaf or grass thatch. The walls
were of woven mat with holes for windows. There would be a couple of dugout
canoes tied to one of the poles with a rickety step going up to the platform.
Children playing on the step or in the canoes would yell and scream at us with
great excitement and delight. If we had time we would stop by and pass out some
sweets or bananas that we would carry for such occasions. Otherwise we would
wave to them and they would continue to wave and yell until we rounded the next
bend of the river out of sight. I always wondered what would make a person go
and live so far up the river in the middle of nowhere, alone without access to
electricity, medical aid, and schooling for his children, and without any
amenities. These Amerindians would hunt, gather honey and balata (wild rubber
latex) and farm a little and would occasionally come to Kwakwani to buy a few
things and sell their balata and honey and some wild meat. But they would not
work at a regular job for love or money nor would they live closer to town.
They preferred to live miles upriver and paddle their canoes several hours to
get to Kwakwani and longer to return, paddling against the current on their way
It was a wonderful experience, buzzing along up
the river hour after hour, listening to the sounds of the forest. Macaw pairs
flying high over the canopy, talking to each other. Macaws believe that
conversation makes for happy marriages and it seems to work for them as they
pair for life and talk all the time. Toucans screaming whatever they scream
about. The booming call of the Howler Monkey sentinel, answered by his
counterpart in another part of the forest. The sudden crash in the undergrowth
as you come around a bend and scare away something that was drinking at the
edge of the bank. From the sound of the crashing you can guess whether it was a
Collared Peccary or a Tapir. Deer and Agouti move very quietly and you wouldn’t
even know that they had been there.
One weekend we decided to go as far as we could
and eventually we must have gone more than a hundred kilometers when we came to
place where the river widened into a huge pool. We entered the pool from the
side that the river flowed out of. On the opposite side where the river flowed
into was a series of rapids and short waterfalls. The sides of the pool were
sandy and made excellent camping ground. We were delighted with the whole
prospect. It was a very beautiful place indeed. Peter and I decided to camp for
the night and pulled onto the sand and dragged the boat far up onto the sand.
No telling if the river would rise in the night and float the boat away. That
is not a prospect to be contemplated, being a hundred kilometers or more in the
middle of nowhere without a boat. Trekking through rain forest is not an
occupation to be thought of easily.
I got the fire going while Peter hung up our
hammocks. Suddenly, I noticed on the far end of the pool near the rapids, a
permanent structure on a concrete platform, a room roofed with corrugated iron
sheets. It looked like a government structure and I wondered what it could be.
Once we’d had our dinner and before it got dark we decided to go across and
take a look at what it was. When we tied up to the little jetty there, an
Indian Guyanese man came down to the water and greeted us. With him was an
American who looked like some kind of technician by the way he was dressed, in
overalls. We made our mutual introductions and it turned out that the structure
was a weather monitoring station with some equipment from Motorola, which
needed repair. The American engineer was from Motorola and had come to repair
the equipment onsite. In the course of conversation, he asked me where I was
from. I told him that I was from India.
He asked me, ‘Where from in India?’
I replied, ‘Hyderabad.’
He got very excited and told me, ‘I have been to
Hyderabad. I have a friend there. His name is J. J. Singh and he works at the
Administrative Staff College. Do you know him?’
I rolled my eyes and said, ‘Do I know him? Of
course, I know him! But look at this, what is the probability that I would be
in the middle of the Amazonian rain forest, hundred kilometers up the Berbice
River, where I would meet an American who I had no idea would be there and we
would have a mutual friend? If there was someone betting on this we would both
be millionaires, man!!’ And we both had a great laugh. Whenever someone tells
me, ‘It’s a small world’, I tell them, ‘Yes, but much smaller than you think.’ And
I tell them this story. To date, nobody has told me a story more unlikely than
Mutual respect are what I call my three Cardinal Principles of happy marriages.
Please notice that I am not using the word ‘love’. Love comes out of these
three things. What is called love is usually physical desire. The shape or size
of someone’s body is not the inspiration for love; it can be the inspiration
for infatuation and lust but not love. For love to happen, the lasting kind
that is, the kind that grows with age and the longer you spend time together,
you need truthfulness, caring and concern for one another – putting the needs
of the other before your own; and mutual respect. Without respect there can’t
be any love. One needs to respect one’s spouse, appreciate their strengths,
make them your role model, icon and be proud of them and proud that they are
your spouse. That kindles love in the heart which grows with time because the
reasons for respect also grow with time. Physical attraction reduces with age.
It is programmed to do so. Nobody grows more beautiful with age. You mature
with age, grow wiser, more mellow, more patient and forbearing and more worthy
of respect. The love that comes out of that also grows with age.
Truth is to express feelings as
they are and not to have any pretensions. Caring is to treat the other with
concern because you know that with you s/he has no barriers or safety nets.
Respect is to acknowledge the value of the trust that is placed in you in
allowing you into that inner most of places in the heart in which nobody else
has been allowed before. To treat that privilege with the respect it deserves
and never to abuse it for any reason.
Is there a formula to be happy in a
Marry someone you believe is worthy of emulation;
someone you can look up to and learn to forgive them. The formula of an unhappy
marriage is to marry someone who you believe you can change. That is a sure
recipe for disaster. When you marry someone who you think needs to be changed
you are accepting that they are not good enough as it is. Also, in most cases
you would not have asked them if they want to change and that too to your
preferred model. And then you will lo and behold that they have other ideas
about changing and your marriage will be the casualty.
The second part of the formula is to be forgiving. We need to forgive one another. What tends to happen in many marriages is that we expect the other person to forgive us, but we hold them to standards that we are ourselves unable to live up to and become curiously blind to this unreasonable stance. That doesn’t work. Good to remember the saying, ‘Sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander.’
One thing that people should consider while
choosing one’s partner is compatibility of core values. Core values means both
are pulling in the same direction even with their different personalities,
styles of working and interests. Minimizes contradictions in bringing up
children in the domain of values.
Share in each other’s lives. Take interest in what
the other does. Don’t be nosey but learn and add value. Conversation is both
the key to a happy marriage and a metre to judge its health. Marriages that are
getting sick start to lose conversation. When there is nothing left to talk about
after 10 minutes and when your idea of spending time with your spouse is to sit
in front of the TV or stare at your phone in the same room, then you can safely
say that your marriage is falling sick. In happy marriages there is a desire
for the company of the other. Not for the company of others. You hurry home
because your spouse is there. You don’t hit home and bounce off to the club to
sit with your cronies or to some other place to be with other friends. You want
to spend time with your spouse not because otherwise s/he will complain but
because you genuinely want to do it. Because your spouse is your best friend.
How do you make a marriage work?
By working at it. We use this term, ‘Make a marriage work’, but we forget that a lot of it is actually ‘work’. It takes effort, time and energy, is measurable and produces results. Making breakfast for your wife is work. Offering to do her errands is work. Taking the trouble to look nice when your husband comes home instead of like animated laundry is work. Going to the airport to meet his flight is work. You get the drift? Doing what does not come naturally or doing something that is important for the other even if you don’t like doing it, is work. And all of it produces results in terms of appreciation and love.
If you find that you can’t love your spouse any more, be honest and speak to them about it. See what can be changed and what must be accepted. But don’t go seeking solace elsewhere. That is dishonest, dishonorable, despicable and cowardly. If things are at a stage where it is impossible to live together, part company with grace. Not cheat behind their backs, pretending that everything is fine. Those who collude with other’s spouses and carry on relationships with married men and women are slimy invertebrates which must crawl back under the flat rock they came out from under and not despoil human society with their presence. I never cease to marvel at people who allow another marriage to be destroyed by their cheating, but who would be up in arms if their wife or husband did the same. “Just because you have a good excuse does not make a wrong thing right.”
As I say, ‘If I wanted to marry a nag, I would
have married a horse. At least it would have carried me from place to place.’
Nag is a gender-neutral term. There are male and female nags, and both are
equally painful. Finally, companionable silence is also an indicator of a good
marriage. You don’t have to be talking all the time. It is the quality of the
companionship, the quality of the silence. You will know it without anyone having
to explain, let me assure you. But pay attention to it if there is tension or
boredom in it.
How can you try and make an unhappy
marriage a happy one?
This is a tough one because there is a pre-clause
to it. Once you satisfy that pre-clause then it is very easy. The pre-clause
is, ‘DO YOU REALLY WANT IT TO HAPPEN?’ Now that may sound like a strange thing
to ask but I have seen in many years of counseling that all the failures that I
saw were because the partners did not really want to make it work. They were
not sincere and were merely going through the moves with the idea of satisfying
themselves or others that ‘they made the effort’. Now that is a lie because
they never made an effort. They acted a drama with a precluded ending.
Once you are sincere about turning things around
then you need to sit down and write down all that you like about your spouse.
After all there were things about them that you liked enough to marry them.
What were they? Then when you have that list, you write down the problem areas.
Look in the mirror for one of the major ones. Usually that works like magic.
Marriages go bad most often because we don’t appreciate the good enough and are
not thankful for what they have. I often ask couples, ‘How many times a day do
you thank your wife/husband? How many times a day do you hug or kiss them? How
many times a day do you tell them that you love them?’ No, that is not a
Western idea nor is it from Bollywood. Humans are not mind readers and even
those that are, need to be told if you love them. After all, most spouses don’t
hesitate to inform them about the opposite. So, why not this?
Is the idea of a soul mate just a myth – or
is it simple communication between people?
Soul mates are made, not born. And they are made
over time. Sometimes a fairly long time. Then you see them sitting together and
smiling at things that only they understand. Or looks that have meaning only
for each other. Or speaking in a language that only the other understands.
Phrases that they use only for each other and which may even be gibberish to others,
but which touch their hearts. This is the stage when every time you look at her
you fall in love all over again, 30 years into your marriage. And laughing.
Laughing is important. Laughing together at the same things. Showing each other
things so as to add to the joy by sharing.
What kind of initiatives and actions
dictate a happy marriage?
Back to the basics: Truth, caring, mutual respect.
Every action or initiative must pass this test. Are you being truthful? Is her
need coming before your own? And are you showing the respect you feel? I
remember that my grandmother used to serve my grandfather his meals. Every
meal. She would put food on his plate, refill it, offer him the choicest pieces
of meat, watch to see what he needed and give it to him before he asked for it.
She would eat every meal with him, without exception in a house that was a
mansion with several servants. But no servant was ever allowed to give my
grandfather anything directly. They brought the tray to my grandmother and she
served him. All this she did with such a look of love and devotion on her face
that I can see clearly in my mind even today 50 years later and more than 30
years since both of them died. Why did she do this? Just because she liked to do
it. It really is that simple.
He fully reciprocated this. He never did anything
without asking for her advice. He never went anywhere without her. He wore what
she gave him. She had complete control of his money. He never touched it. He never
asked her for any account with a level of trust seldom seen today, even though
it was his money, so to speak. He never raised his voice to her for anything.
He never even looked at her except with love. He never made fun of her and she
never made fun of him. Both laughed together. He was passionate about chess and
played chess every evening with his brother and cousin who all lived together
in the same house which my great grandfather built. She never played chess in
her life. Different interests but the real interest was in each other. She was
his whole life in every sense of the word. In Tamil there is a word for wife –
Samsaram. It is the same word for the world. That is how it was for my
grandparents. They were each other’s world. Complete in themselves, content
with each other, reflected in every moment of their lives.
He loved her and she loved him, and it showed. She
died first. He died three months later of a broken heart. But they left
memories for their children and grandchildren about how to be married and how
to treat your spouse.
How much involvement should parents and in
laws have in a marriage?
None whatsoever. This is the single most potent
recipe for disaster. Parents should be involved in their own marriages. Once
your children are married, they are not children any more. Leave them alone and
let them work out their problems. They are adults and that is why they got
married. The problem with many parents (mostly mothers) especially in our
society (Indian) is that they are most anxious about getting their children
married and then they start feeling insignificant and so become competitors
with their own daughters in law. Remember that if you become your daughter in
law’s competitor, you lose if you lose and you lose if you win. Both ways you
lose. So, get out of the way. Leave them alone. Visit them for 2 days, not
more, every six months – every year is even better. Don’t talk for more than 5
minutes on the phone. Don’t chat on Skype or Yahoo or WhatsApp or anything
else. Don’t ask personal questions. And above all, don’t ask, ‘Are you happy?’
I have yet to see a marriage survive the attention of parents and parents in
At the same time, I would advise young couples
also to take steps to kindly discourage this involvement if you see it
happening. If you are old enough to get married, you are old enough to solve your
own problems. If you are running to your parents with your problems, then put
on your diapers. You are not ready for marriage. If your Mom calls and asks
you, ‘So what did he say when you told him such and such?’ Tell your Mom, ‘Mom,
sorry I won’t tell you what he told me.’ Smile and say it but say it clearly.
Spend time with your spouse, not with your mother. I am not asking you to
neglect your mother or father but remember that your spouse has first call on
your time, once you get married.
How does one make compromises?
They are not called ‘compromises’. They are called
‘adjustments’. It is not the semantics of it but the attitudes that language
indicates and dictates. We make compromises when forced to do so. We make
adjustments to things so that we can enjoy them more. One of the things that
most young couples don’t bargain for is the aspects of sharing ownership, time
and privacy that marriage brings with it. Nobody told them about it, and they
didn’t think about it when they had stars in their eyes. Honeymoons are in
hotels and sharing a hotel room is different from sharing your own bedroom and
your own cupboard. Changing from ‘I’ to ‘We’ is often a difficult process.
Having said that, decide on what is important to
you. Don’t make compromises on issues of principle. Explain to your spouse why
you won’t compromise, and wise partners will respect that. But issues which are
important to the other and which you can live with changing, change. Remember
the point about concern for the other? It is good to remember that everything
is not a test of your masculinity or femininity. By ‘giving in’ to something
you don’t lose face; you win hearts. Do it unless it is something that goes
against your fundamental values.
It is a very good idea to have some frank sharing of
thoughts on what is important to you, before getting married. If you didn’t do
it then, do it now. It will be more difficult but then that is what you chose. When
your spouse is talking, simply listen. Don’t justify, agree, disagree or argue.
Just listen respectfully and then decide what you love, what you can live with,
what you can change in yourself and what you need to talk to the other person
about. Most couples, in the courtship stage are too busy on appearing their
best and get into a pretense mode that has no relation to what they are really
like. Acting can’t be sustained and the mask comes off sooner than later with predictable
results. Speak to each other frankly and then decide if you want to get
married. During this conversation speak clearly and tell them what the
non-negotiables for you are. Don’t try to be politically correct or polite or
whatever and hide or play down things that you really feel strongly about.
Maybe it is something to do with practicing your religious beliefs, or about
family values or that your Mom will live with you or that the cat shares your
bed or whatever. No matter what it is, if it is important, then say it. That is
far more positive and far less painful than having your spouse discover it
later. Some things may seem ‘silly’ to you but if they are important enough for
the other person then they will cause you serious trouble if you don’t respect
When does one know that a marriage is not
working? And when should people do something about it?
A marriage is ultimately an agreement between two
people to live together for mutual benefit. When you find that there is no
mutual benefit and that the living together is causing more grief than joy then
you know that it is not working. Then you must ask yourself the questions:
Am I willing to make it work?
What will it take to make it work?
Am I willing to do what it takes?
If the answer
to all of them is in the affirmative, then get on with it and work. If not,
then it is time to call it a day. The important thing to do even if you decide
to divorce is to remember the first three rules: Truthfulness, concern for the
other and mutual respect. Ensure that you don’t do anything that is not
scrupulously honest and completely above board. Show concern and ensure that
the other person does not leave with any bad feeling. The divorce is bad
enough. Don’t add negative baggage to it. Show respect for each other. You
deserve it and your marriage deserves it. Part company if you must but do it in
a way that is respectful and honorable.
How to make efforts to making a marriage
work – for the man and woman?
It is essential to differentiate between Core Responsibilities
and other things. In my view it is the Core Responsibility of the man to work
and earn a living and take care of the financial responsibilities of the
family. It is Core Responsibility of the
woman to make the home a place of beauty, grace and harmony and to focus on the
upbringing of the children. I know this may sound old fashioned to some but
just take a look at what the result of the Yuppy and Puppy culture is, and you
will come back to the basics soon enough. Having taken care of the Core
Responsibility, naturally the man must help around the home, take care of
children, water the garden, wash the car, mow the lawn, take out the garbage
and not sit in front of the TV with his feet propped up and a bowl of popcorn
at his elbow – or whatever passes as its equivalent in your culture.
Similarly once the Mom has taken care of her Core
Responsibility then it is good if she waters the garden, washes the car, mows
the lawn, takes out the garbage and does not sit in front of the TV with her
feet propped up and a bowl of popcorn at her elbow – or whatever passes as its
equivalent in your culture. I am sure you understand what I mean. Dividing
responsibilities is a very good idea. Do it whichever way you like but do it.
Role clarity is essential in a happy marriage and role conflict causes the
maximum stress on it. It is essential for one of the spouses to be dedicated to
the upbringing of children; teaching them life skills, manners, tools of
thinking, decision making and teaching them core values of life. Today in the
Yuppy and Puppy cultures the idea of bringing up children is to feed them,
ensure that they are washed and dried and entertained. That is what you do with
the dog. Not with your child. Children need a jolly sight more than food, clothing
and shelter if you want to develop a human being who will be your legacy to the
world. I believe you need to dedicate yourself to that because it is important.
If you don’t agree, use condoms. That is far
better than producing children who are a nuisance at best and a painful reality
in the lives of others, as long as they live.
responsibility is it to make a marriage happy?
Naturally it is the responsibility of both people
like in any agreement. It is important to recognize and accept this
responsibility so that you will then do what it takes to fulfill it. As I
mentioned above, I advocate sitting down and having a dialogue before you get
married about what each one is supposed to do. Say it to each other and agree
on it. Don’t leave it to guesswork and discovery. That leads to
misunderstanding and disappointment. A good marriage is a dream. To make it
come true you must wake up and work. If you expect your wife to cook for your
friends who you will bring home from time to time, say it. And say what time to
time means. If you expect your husband to pick up the food on the way home with
his friends from the restaurant, say so. If you expect your wife to make
breakfast for you and sit with you watching you get outside the eggs and toast,
say so. If you expect your husband to bring the eggs and toast to you in bed
(never really liked the idea of eating without first brushing your teeth), say
so. What I mean is that in marriages, it is often the so-called ‘silly things’
that lead to trouble. So silly or not, say it if it is important to you.
My second Cardinal Principle – Concern, is what is
most important to remember. If you apply the Golden Rule – Do unto them as you
would have them do unto you – you can’t go wrong. The virus that kills marriage
is a two-letter word – ME. To get you must first give. What you have in your
hand is your harvest. What you sow is your seed. To get a harvest you must
first sow the seed. Remember that the harvest is always more than the seed. So,
give and give with grace, with love, with joy. And you will get much more than
you bargained for. Show consideration for your spouse. Do things without being
asked. Be aware of what they like the most and do it. Try to please them. Don’t
play power games. The marriage is not a contest to get the better of the other.
You are not in a race or in a WWF wrestling match or in a competition to see
who is more powerful. Remember that every time you ‘win’ the other person
loses. And losing is something that nobody enjoys. So, at some point they will
get tired of losing and you will have no marriage. And that is the biggest loss
that you brought on to yourself. A marriage is a relay race – long term,
passing the baton to the other at each stage and the team – in this case the
two of you – wins.
In today’s times of
pre-nups, fast track divorces and even websites as matchmakers, what kind of
mindset should people have when getting into a marriage?
Today we live in a world where selfishness is not
a sin anymore. However, changing your mind about an evil does not make it good.
You will get sick even if you fall in love with the virus. People wanting to
get married must learn to think about the other and to consciously give him or
her precedence and preference. If you can’t do this, your marriage will break
down sooner or later. Our lifestyles, the internet, social networking and
talking to people across the world from other cultures, the TV with its unreal,
fantasy world of soap operas, are all designed to destroy marriages. They
promote ideas that are either directly destructive or lead to the killing
fields of marriages. Today in the world of social media, Instagram, Facebook,
Twitter, Snapchat and God-alone-knows-what, there is so much pressure on making
public what must be private that no marriage can survive it. People live in a
fantasy world of pictures which show the best, project an unreal lifestyle and
raise expectations that are impossible to meet. You are not in competition with
the Kardashians or anyone else, so get real. A good marriage is about living in
the real world, not in a world that is neither bold nor beautiful.
Is the 7-year itch
based on statistics or research? In your mind, does it exist?
I don’t think there is any such thing. Looking
outside your marriage for companionship which can then lead to a breakup, is a
sign of intrinsic unhappiness. If you feel it, the thing to do is to deal with
it. Not look outside. The problem with 7-year itches is that every 7 years you
are older and less desirable. Then where will you go?
How important are
children to have a happy marriage? Some couples cannot have children, others
choose not to.
I don’t think children either make a marriage
happy or unhappy. It is more their upbringing that makes the home happy or not.
Children give the parents a common interest but for a marriage if the only
thing in common is the children then something is wrong. On the converse side
children take a lot of time and attention and energy and this can be difficult
to handle for many people. But if the spouses share in the work of bringing up
children and take the trouble to bring them up well, with good manners, values
and attitudes, then they can be a huge asset for the marriage.
What can couples do
to keep the bespoke “spark” in the marriage?
Appreciate each other and express this appreciation
daily. Catch each other doing right. Do things for one another only to see the
smile on the face. Invent your own language which only the two of you
understand. My wife and I used to keep a book on a table in the house in which
we would write things we liked about each other or something nice we wanted to
say to one another. We did say it as well but sometimes writing is easier. Give
flowers and chocolates. Men also like flowers, remember. Second most important
rule: Don’t react to everything that the other says. Take ten deep breaths.
Then forget it. Reactions produce reactions and, in the end, it is taken out of
Finally, never go to bed, mad at each other.
Always make up before you go to bed. Cuddle up together and sleep. Never
quarrel in the bedroom. Never in bed. Make this a rule. If you have a problem,
deal with it in the morning. Usually by the morning it would have solved
Well, depends on what is meant by ‘fighting’. If
it means trying to get the better of each other in an argument and using all
kinds of means to do so then it is definitely not healthy. If it means arguing
as in a friendly fencing match between equal intellects that leads to good
feeling, then it is good. Avoid power games like the plague. Many marriages
turn into daily competitions between the spouses to see who can control the
other. This takes many apparently benign and legitimate forms. But they are all
illegitimate, subversive and destructive to the marriage.
Some people use religion as a means of control and
invoke religious rulings and promise the other brimstone and hellfire for
disobeying some whim or fancy of theirs. In many cases it is people (mostly men
in this case) who have not done anything significant in life and are suffering from
an inferiority complex and can sense that they really don’t command any respect
on their own, who use religion and religious rulings to enforce their will on
the woman. Women use religion to compensate for their own feelings of
inadequacy where they feel that they are not loved or desired as much as they
would like to be. ‘Should’ is the most useless word in the language. If people
did what they should then the world would have been a different place. Both
need to look at the real drivers behind their apparent religious orientation
because it has nothing to do with the Almighty. Power games come in many
packages. Spouses use children as pawns in their games at getting the better of
each other. Others use health concerns, eat more, eat less, joint family rules,
cultural taboos and many other things. All are power games, and all are
How important is
money to keep a marriage happy?
Not important at all. Both financial hardship and
plenty can be a source of bonding or a source of drifting apart. It is mutual
respect and concern for one another that counts. And that is a result of
character, piety, learning, nobility of conduct and deportment, confidence,
trustworthiness, dignity and grace, genuine desire to please one another and to
place the need of the other before and above one’s own. None of these are
things that money can buy or that we need money for. Marriages are happy or
break up for reasons other than money. Money problems are not money problems
even when there are money problems; if you see what I mean.
What are the worst things couples can do to
Lie, betray trust, cheat, play power games. Also
making fun of one another as in mocking. Showing disrespect in the name of
humor. Humor is to laugh with someone, not to laugh at them. Lastly but by no
means the least, by being overly self-focused and showing disregard and no
concern for the other. Honesty is still the best policy in 2019 and will still
be the best policy in 3019 if the world lasts that long.
resort to white lies or tiny lies to keep the peace?
There’s a difference between telling lies and not divulging
all the details. Not divulging all the details, for example about your
friendships before marriage, is not wrong and is a very wise thing to do. The
spouse has no need to know and it is something that does no good to the
marriage no matter how ‘broadminded’ the spouse may be. But to tell a lie is
wrong and goes against the grain of all that I have said above. Incidentally
‘white lies’ is a racially color biased term, like ‘black sheep’, ‘nightmare’,
‘black heart’ and so on; the legacy of English which is originally the white
man’s language. Knight in shining armor can be all black too – black shines
even more than white if you notice.
Having said that, telling ‘the truth’
inappropriately or in a harsh manner does no good either. Being silent is an
option that is worth exploring. For example, if the toast is burnt or the food
has no salt or something is not to your liking there are many ways of saying
it. But you also have the option of remaining silent in honor of all the times
that it was delicious. If the husband comes home cranky it is irritating but
you have the option to remind yourself that a nice cup of tea and talking about
something else is probably more productive than saying, ‘Don’t bring your
office home.’ You would be justified in saying so, but sometimes it is better
to be kind than to be justified. Diplomacy and wisdom are great virtues and
most useful in a marriage. Not rubbing their nose in it is wise. Turn away
gracefully. Don’t watch their discomfiture. Spouses realize that they are wrong
but may not necessarily grovel at your feet and beg forgiveness. It is wise to
leave them alone and not demand groveling. People’s dignity is important to
maintain. Be it a management – union negotiation or a domestic disagreement, it
is important to allow the one who is wrong to ‘save face’. To insist on
humiliating them is to burn bridges to future relationship. Remember that you
are also human and will surely be wrong one day. Don’t create a situation where
the other is waiting for that day to return your favor.
Does it help couples when they talk about
their problems? To whom, a stranger or someone they know?
It is helpful for couples to talk about their
problems to someone they respect and whose advice they are willing to listen
to. Usually it is better to talk to strangers as they are perceived to be
fairer and more objective, as they don’t know either party but really it
doesn’t matter as long as it is someone you respect and who you have decided to
listen to, meaning, to obey his or her advice. As I have said earlier, before
you go to talk to anyone, decide if you are going to listen to what they say
even if they don’t agree with you. If you are going to someone with the
expectation that they must agree with you and support your stance no matter
what it is, then don’t waste your and their time. No self-respecting, honest
arbitrator with any dignity will agree to be biased in favor of one party or
the other. If they do, then they are not fit for the position.
In conclusion I would like to say that a marriage
can be as good or as bad as you would like to make it. It is literally in your
“So, Comrade Baig, you have been living here for two years. What are your impressions about our country?” The interviewer was from Guyana Chronicle, the main English newspaper. I was being interviewed because I was there. Comrade was a gender-neutral term used to address anyone because Guyana was a socialist (communist) country ruled by an iron-man with an iron fist, not always in a velvet glove. My interviewer had come in preparation for a great event, the visit of the President, Hon. Linden Forbes Sampson Burnham who was the leader of Guyana from 1964 until his death, as the first Prime Minister from 1964 to 1980 and as second President from 1980 to 1985. I lived in Guyana from 1979-83 and so in the middle of the reign of the President Linden Forbes Sampson Burnham. We called him Comrade Burnham; meaning we referred to him as that. When he visited Kwakwani, he arrived by helicopter, which was a grand spectacle in itself and for many Kwakwani people, including myself, it was the first time any of us had seen a helicopter. The helipad on Staff Hill was surrounded by people all waving PNC flags and screaming their welcome above the roar of the rotors. As the helicopter landed, the dust thrown up effectively shut everyone’s mouths. Since he was the guest of our company, Guymine, Berbice Operations and I was the Assistant Administrative Manager, it meant that I got to stand to one side with the senior managers including the CEO who welcomed Cdr. Burnham. There was Haslyn Parris, the CEO of Guyana Mining Enterprise (Guymine), Stephen Ng Qui Sang, the Berbice Operations Coordinator, Walter Melville, Personnel Coordinator, James Nicholas Adams, Berbice Operations Administrative Manager and my boss and George Schultz, Berbice Operations Mines Manager. All of them were in the front-line welcoming the President.
Among the things that were peculiar to the reign of Forbes Burnham, (I use the term because to all intents and purposes he was a ‘Ruler’ more than a leader. Some called him ‘Dictator’) was his no-nonsense style, which translated into no-opposition to his policies. Guyana of those days had a pall of fear over it and if you knew what was good for you, you didn’t talk politics. I knew what was good for me. Burnham was dealing with the aftermath of freedom and he and his party chose the socialist way. Guyana was called the Co-Operative Republic of Guyana and was closely aligned with Cuba and Soviet Russia, though it was officially part of the NAM (non-Aligned Movement). This was not to the liking of either the Americans or the British, Guyana’s erstwhile colonizers but that was reality. Guyana paid a high price in facing political blockages resulting in shortages at home. However, in today’s terms, things were easy. Unlike today, Guyana had not discovered that it had oil and so nobody was particularly interested in what Guyana did or didn’t do. There was bauxite and sugar. There was some gold, but it was not really extracted in any big way. There were and are major rivers but no hydro power. There was no organized or large-scale agriculture or ranching though there was land enough and more for both. Guyana was poor. What was also happening was the reality about payback time after any revolution leading to freedom. People who struggled for the freedom remember the promises made during the struggle and are looking to live happily ever after, forgetting that that is only a last line in fairy tales. To develop we need education and very hard work.
Burnham’s policies drove Guyanese out of Guyana and many migrated to the United States, Canada and the UK. As it used to be said at one time, ‘There are more Guyanese in Brooklyn than there are in Guyana.’ True or false, there were too few in Guyana and those that remained were people who really couldn’t leave or were in government jobs where political affiliation counted for more than any competence. The results on the economy and society were hardly surprising or beneficial. On that day Comrade Burnham ascended the podium that had been constructed and spoke, short and clear. I still remember this line in his speech. He said, “A-we Gainese wan far go-va-men to give us everytin while we sit upon we sit-upons and wait. Lemme tell ayo dat if ayo wan devlopmen, ayo gon hav to wok fo it. But we like to sit upon our sit-upons and talk about what the Go-va-men mos do an vat Mistah Bonham mos do but nevah about wa I mos do. That won’t work. Unless we decide to get up and help ourselves, nothing will change.” To me, that made perfect sense. And if someone didn’t like the man because he spoke plainly, well, that is their choice. Burnham was also known for and liked or hated for some of his policies, among which was the banning of wheat flour and the promotion of rice flour. Guyana grows rice while wheat was imported. Naturally this went against the established food habits of people and they didn’t like it. Burnham did it to reduce the import bill, but economic policy succeeds or fails more for subjective emotional reasons than objective logical ones.
Burnham decreed a policy of self-reliance and many imports including food staples were banned. Among the things that were banned apart from wheat flour were also Irish Potatoes, which was rather ironic seeing that potatoes are actually South American and were imported into Ireland. The result was that one night someone came to my house and rang the bell and looking over his shoulder, presented me with ‘forbidden fruit’, three Irish potatoes, smuggled in from Suriname, no less. For an Indian, getting three potatoes as a gift was strange to say the least, but since I lived in Guyana and was totally acculturated, I knew what a great honor and sign of friendship that gesture represented. Forbes Burnham was feared and respected, loved and hated. All hallmarks of strong leaders.
Kwakwani Park Labor Club was an institution. This was a place which had a large hall which doubled as a cinema with a stage at one end. It had a long veranda along one end on which were placed tables at short intervals where people played dominoes with great passion and noise. Inside was the bar, the place for many a meeting, fight and romance. The level of noise in it can only be experienced, not described. The Club could be heard before it was seen. And its smell was never to be forgotten. Playing dominoes in the Kwakwani Club seemed to consist of smashing the domino on the table with all your might and shouting at the top of your voice. I can vouch for the fact that going by this criterion the people who played dominoes in Kwakwani Club must have been world champions. If the game is more than this, then I must beg forgiveness for my ignorance. The Club was also remarkable for its smell. Imagine a combination of stale sweat, beer, and rum floating on heavy humid air in an invisible cloud that came at you as soon as you were within reach. Then it clung to you and entered every exposed pore and remained with you and your clothes through several baths and washes. But this did not seem to bother anyone to the best of my knowledge.
The people of Kwakwani were mostly of African
descent. This, however, is a generalization because in Guyana the racial
mixture is so rich that most people seem to be a combination of many different
races – Amerindian, Chinese, Indian, African, and European. Demographically,
Guyana had at that time about sixty percent people of Indian descent who mostly
lived on the coast. They used to work on the sugar plantations, having been
brought in by the British as indentured labor from India. Another main
occupation of theirs was small time trade. Twenty percent of African descent who
were the descendants of African slaves and also worked on the sugar
plantations. When the emancipation of slaves happened, they walked off the
plantations and settled in the hinterland, engaged in timber extraction and
whatever else they could do. The timber and mining industries are dominated by
them, as are also the Army and the Police. The last twenty percent consists of
the indigenous Amerindian tribes, originally hunter, gatherers who have been
exploited mercilessly by everyone else. They still live in the forests, though
many now live and work on the fringes of whichever town or village that happens
to be nearby. They have the least paying jobs and live mostly by selling wild
meat, fish, honey, balata (wild rubber), and sometimes by working as guides for
In this final section of the population are also
the descendants of the Chinese laborers who were brought by the British to work
on the railway, most of which has fallen into disuse and is rotting away. There
was and continues to be a free mixing of the races though the Indians seem to
keep to themselves and away especially from people of African origin. Indians
everywhere seem to be oriented towards fair-skinned people and practice their
own brand of ‘apartheid’, wherever they live in appreciable numbers, including
in India. The best example of this can be seen if you read the matrimonial
advertisement page in the Sunday papers in India. Almost every single ad will
ask for a bride who above all else is ‘Fair,’ which has nothing to do with her
love for justice, believe me. A very sad practice that harms Indians more than
anyone else, but they have yet to learn this lesson.
Guyana had become independent less than 10 years
before I got there. So, ideology, in this case communist, was still very strong.
As I mentioned earlier, people called each other ‘Comrade,’ which depending on
the tone of voice could be given any kind of connotation from the most warmly
cordial to the positively hostile. As in many such cases, not everyone was a
‘believer,’ but to appear to believe was required. Since ideological alignment
was more important than everything else, efficiency suffered and people who
claimed to be loyalists of the ruling party, the PNC, had personal power far in
excess of their official position.
On Sundays a film would be screened in the Club. Most of the spectators apparently believed that they could influence the outcome of whatever was happening on the screen if they shouted at the actors. So, they proceeded to do the same with great gusto. But strangely nothing seemed to change. The actors continued to do whatever they had intended to do in the first place. Much like government policy in our so-called democracies, which seems to be independent of the screaming and shouting of their poor enslaved populations who have not realized the fact that the script has been written by someone else and will not change with their screaming. Little did I realize while attempting to watch a film in Kwakwani, I would live to see a real-life version of this behavior, thirty years later.
About a kilometer away from Kwakwani Park, up a
small hill was the Officers colony called Staff Hill. In typical British
colonial style, the rulers were separated from the ruled. Even ten years after
independence, Staff Hill was informally out of bounds for ordinary people. It
was meant for Officers, in this case, all black West Indian or East Indian
(people of Indian origin) and though we no longer had a fence and guards as
used to be there in the past, nobody from Kwakwani Park actually came up the
hill except to bring some visiting relative for a short drive to show them how
the other half lived. White and black is not about color; it’s about social
status and attitude.
Staff Hill had two kinds of houses. Bungalow type
houses with 3 bedrooms and a veranda all around them for most of us. And big
wooden houses on stilts with parking underneath them for the really big bosses.
The houses were arranged around a quadrangle with an orange orchard all around
them. There was a swimming pool to cool off. There were tennis courts, a Club
House with a bar, guest rooms, dining room (excellent cooks to boot) with
proper dinner service, uniformed waiters, table tennis table, and a library.
The rules of this Club were very different. The
barman wore a uniform and gloves. You could not play dominos here. And you
could not come to the Club in your shorts and nothing else. You could not shout
at the top of your voice and you could not curse. And no matter that the
British were long gone – as in the case of India, their ways had been adopted
by their erstwhile slaves and upheld as a sign of their own ‘superiority’ over
their own brethren. I am not saying that there is something intrinsically good
about cursing and yelling and unwashed shirts. I am merely pointing at the
reasons we do some things and how we use certain norms to demonstrate our own
superiority over others.
In Kwakwani Park was the hospital where for a year
my father was the resident doctor, Nurse Liverpool the Head Nurse, and
MacFarlane the Compounder. All wonderful people who ran a very good hospital
indeed. Kwakwani was a lovely small town where you knew everyone, and everyone
knew you. There were no strangers in Kwakwani. Everyone knew what was happening
in your life and had an interest in it. And you in theirs. People had the time
to stop whatever they were doing to chat with you when you came past. Nobody
passed anyone on the street without saying, “Aye! Aye! Maan!! Ow ya doo’in!!”
Remember to end on a high note as you say that, to know how it sounded.
They may add, “Ow de Ol Maan?” (Could mean your
father or your husband, depending on who you were). “Ow de Ol Lady?” (wife or
mother). “Ow de Picknee?” (Believe it or not, that means children). And
remember that had nothing to do with whether you were married or not, as I
learned to my own embarrassment one day when I went to the Income Tax office to
file my tax return. The lady at the counter offered to help me fill out the
form, which I gladly agreed to have her do. She asked me at the appropriate
column, “Married?” I said, “No.” She then asked, “Any children?” I said, “I
already told you I am not married.” She looked up at me and said, “Wad de hell
dat ga fa do wid anytin Maan!!” To end this line of discussion, I immediately
accepted defeat and said, “No children.”
The language of the Guyanese is called Creolese.
It is an English Patois and as distinct with its own flavor as French Patois is
from French. Creolese has the taste of Cookup, the sound of the Steel Band. and
the aroma of the rain forest. It is a language of the people and reflects their
culture. I used to speak it so fluently that new locals I met wouldn’t believe
that I was not a native.
They would ask me, ‘Weya fraam?’
‘Me-no-da bai, A-mean weya from in Giyana?’
‘Me-na from Giyana, me from India.’
‘Ah! (That is said as an exclamation in a high
rising tone) – Ya tak jus laka-we’
And that was a great compliment. It is really
impossible to render Creolese into text because it is spoken with so much
emotion and voice modulation that without those sounds, it’s not done justice.
It is a language that comes straight from the heart. Creolese has many proverbs
and funny stories with morals that are typical of the language and the people.
For example, there is a famous proverb: Han wash
han mak han com clean (When two people help one another, they help themselves).
Another one: He taak caz he ga mouth (He talks
As for stories, there are several. And in them,
the people of color may appear lazy, but are smart and the White man is the
butt of the joke. Here’s one:
One day a black man (Blak-maan) be ga-in about lookin
for sometin ta eat when he com upon dis garden in de bush. Dey he saw dis great
big bunch of ripe bananas. De man! He very appy! He put he arms around the bunch
of bananas an sey, ‘De Lord is my shepherd and I shall not want.’ He hear a
voice saying, ‘If you don tak ya hands off dem bananas, I gon lay ya down in
Dey bin the owner of the garden watchin over he
garden when dis man go dey.
And knowing the Guyanese, once this happened, I am
sure the owner would have given some bananas to the hungry man to eat. I don’t
know of any Guyanese who would chase a hungry man away. Guyanese have big
Another one involves an Amerindian guide and his
white employer. They are walking through the rain forest. The Vyte-maan (White
man) sees that the Amerindian is walking barefoot, carrying his boots on a
string over his shoulder. So he laughs at him and says, ‘You ignorant
Amerindians are so stupid. Why are you carrying your boots?’
The Buck-maan (Amerindian), he na say nothn.
Then they come to a stream. The Vyte-maan tak off
he shoe and the Bok-maan, he put on he shoe.
The Vyte-maan laugh at he again and seh, ‘This is
really stupid. Now that we have to wade through the water you put on your
shoes? The shoes will get spoilt.’
The Buck-man, he na say nothn.
As they wade through the stream the Vyte-maan get
hit by a stingray. He scream in pain and fall down. The Buck-maan drag he out
onto the other bank and seh, ‘Now who stupid? When me eye cyan see, me na need
no shoe. But when me eye cyant see, is weh I need de shoe maan. So, who stupid,
me ah you?’
Another brilliant one is about this Blak-maan who
goes looking for work. In Guyana, the custom is that the employer feeds the
worker. If the worker works for the full day then the employer gives him a lunch
break and lunch. So, this Blak-maan comes to the mansion of a Vyte-maan. The
Vyte-maan says to him, ‘I have a big tree in the back garden that fell last night.
You must saw it. But you guys are lazy. You take too long to eat lunch. So,
what I’m going to do is to give you food now. You eat first then you work
through till the evening without a lunch break.’
The Blak-maan agrees. The Vyte-maan gives him
banana and cassava and mutton and tea and the Black-maan, he eat like it is his
last meal. When he done, the Vyte-maan tell he, ‘Come over to the back and I
will show you the tree you have to saw.’ The Blak-maan goes around the house
and there is this huge tree that has fallen. The Vyte-maan say to he, ‘Alright,
you see that tree over there, you have to saw it.’
The Blak-maan he look carefully and seh, ‘Me na
see no tree.’
The Vyte-maan can’t believe his ears. ‘What do you
mean you can’t see the tree? It is that great big tree over there!’
The Blak-maan ben down and look heah and deh and
seh again, ‘Me na see no tree.’
Now the Vyte-maan is really angry. So he shouts at
him, ‘You stupid man, can’t you see that great big tree over there?’
The Blak-maan seh again, ‘Me na see no tree.’
The Vyte-maan is in a rage and yells, ‘What do you
mean you can’t see the tree? I saw you see the tree.’
The Blak-maan seh, ‘You saw me see the tree? But
you aint go see me saw it.’
I can still hear the voice of my dear friend and
first boss, Nick Adams telling me this joke and both of us laughing our heads
off. You have to listen to a Guyanese tell these stories with the sing-song
tone of their voice and their actions illustrating what is supposed to be
happening in the story. I can’t put that into this narrative here. But if we
meet one day, remind me and I will tell you the stories in Creolese as they
should be told.
Mail took an average of one month to get to Guyana
from India. That it actually arrived is a marvel of the system which in today’s
email world we seem to have forgotten. But it did come and in the 5 years that
I spent in Guyana, I never had a letter that was lost. As postage depended on
weight, I used to write on very thin, semi-transparent tracing paper with a
very fine nibbed pen to try to get as much matter into it as possible. And
since Mr. Gates had not yet created Windows and laptops were not for machines
and notebooks had 100 pages of 15 lines each, you could not cut & paste or
delete or drag & drop. So, you needed to write after due thought if you
wanted to save yourself the trouble of writing what you wrote all over again.
This is how I learnt to express myself in writing.