See with ‘THEIR’ eyes

See with ‘THEIR’ eyes

Have you ever been in the shower in a 5-star hotel, nice and wet all over and you reach for the shampoo bottle, only to find that there are three? That is not because you are drunk and are seeing triple but because you are faced with three identical bottles but with totally different contents. What is in the bottles is not a mystery of course. It has been helpfully printed on the label. However, the label was designed by a 20-something design engineer sitting in a sweatshop in India or Bangladesh, who has never seen the inside of a 5-star hotel shower and won’t until he gets old enough to need glasses to read and the money to pay for the hotel. Then he will realize what he did all his life when he is forced to play Russian Roulette with the shampoo, body lotion (complicated way to say ‘soap’) and conditioner. If you think this is funny, put conditioner on your head instead of shampoo and you will think that is even funnier. That is perhaps the reason why I had to decline a haircut recently which was for Rs. 350 on the plea that I refuse to pay more than Re. 1 per hair, aforementioned number being an optimistic hair-count of my head. The refusal of hair to adhere to my scalp may be ascribed to the times that I used conditioner instead of shampoo. No self-respecting hair can stand such treatment and so they decide to part company with me forever.

“What’s the big deal?” you ask me. “Why can’t you read the label?”

“I need glasses to read but I don’t need glasses to shower. So, I don’t wear glasses in the shower, which is where I need glasses to read the labels on the bottles.”

What is the solution?

Take all shower bottle label designers to a 5-star hotel, blindfold them, strip them naked and shove them into the shower.

Why blindfold them?

How else will they understand how it feels to hold the bottle in your hand and not know what is in it?

Customer Satisfaction and Customer Delight can be condensed into one phrase and that is, “See with their eyes.” The keyword being ‘Their’.

Let me give you another example. A good friend sent me this video: Titled Mumbai Motorman, peeing in front of local train. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=K5lt4avsHsM

As they say, ‘When you gotta go you gotta go.’ But then the question arises, where does he go? And what’s more, what if he had to do more than just irrigate the tracks? And even more critical, what if the ‘Motorman’ was a ‘Motorwoman’. Incidentally for those who may think that I am being facetious, let me assure you that I have seldom been more serious in my life. This, lack of facilities to do it decently and in private, is a major problem with Traffic Police Constables also, especially women Constables. Maybe the fact that we don’t have a distinct word for a woman police constable is an indicator of our blindness to their needs.

To return to our ‘Motorman’ video and the lessons from it, the reason the man has to do what he did is because the designer of the engine driver’s cab, never drove an engine in his life. If you think I am exaggerating, let me tell you another story.

In 2000 I was invited to teach a series of leadership courses, which we called From Managing to Leading, for the design team of one of the two major truck manufacturers in India. There were totally two hundred engineers who would take this 3-day residential course at their training facility. They were all graduates from the IITs (Indian Institutes of Technology) with a sprinkling from REC’s (Regional Engineering College); some of the most highly qualified engineers in the country. The IITs have an entrance test about which someone asked one of the professors of MIT what he would do if he had to write that test. He said, ‘I would leave, in tears.’ In short these were very smart people with arrogance to match. I asked for a meeting with the Head of the Division, the Head of HR and a cross section of the design engineers to understand their issues so that I could design a program that suited their special needs. This is how that went:

Me: “Many thanks for agreeing to meet me. I am hoping to understand from you, what you see as the special leadership challenges that you face and what you see as being the key deliverables for this course. So, let me begin with a question to all and each of you; Do you have a heavy license (license to drive a truck)?”

They: Thinking: Total silence. Odd looks. “Looks like we made a mistake. This guy looks like he’s flipped it. Heavy license? Why on earth would we, IIT grads, have a heavy license? Do we look like truck drivers to him?” But then this is India and he is older than we are, so we can’t just tell him that he is crazy. So, we remain silent.

Me: “Hmm! Does this mean that you don’t have a truck driving license? Nobody has one?”

They: “Yes.”

Me: “You mean that you design these trucks but none of you has ever driven what you designed?”

They: Thinking: “Now this is getting uncomfortable. How do we answer this?”

“No.”

Me: Thinking: “Expressive lot!!” 

“Okay, let me ask you another question; How many of you sat with the driver in one of your trucks as he drove from Chandigarh to Chennai?”

Eyes roll, silence is now so heavy that it is oppressive.

They: “Nobody.”

Me: “Okay, Chandigarh to Chennai is long, though your trucks are being driven on that route. But let me make it simpler; has anyone sat with the driver as he drove from Chennai to Bangalore?”

Eyes roll again. More silence.

They: “No.”

Me: Now I am twisting the knife: “So, you are telling me that you design trucks that you have never driven or ridden in?”

They: Sheepishly: “Yes.”

Me: “Let me ask you another question: Who makes the buying decision in the case of a truck?”

They: “The owner of the trucking company.”

Me: “Right and wrong. The owner ‘decides’ but he is totally influenced by his drivers. If the drivers like a certain brand of truck, the owner will always buy that brand unless there is a huge price difference between that brand and its competitor. No owner wants unhappy drivers who are constantly complaining about the truck which results in slower turnaround time, directly translating to lower profits. The owner wants the best, most efficient transport and his driver decides. Who is that driver? He is the one whose reality you have not even tried to understand. You were looking at me like I was crazy when I asked if you had a heavy license. What do you say now?”

Sadly, this inability to see with their eyes is widespread and is the real reason behind bad design and bad service.

Try an experiment. Walk down a street that you usually walk down. Notice how it looks and try to remember the details. When you get to the end of the street or if it is a long street, then when you have walked a few hundred meters, turn around and look up the street you just walked down. How does it look? Does it look like it had been a few minutes ago when you walked down it? Or does it look different? This is a good way to understand how perspective is a factor of position. What you see depends on where you look at it from. The same principle holds in life. One of my friends, a senior police officer was talking to me about human trafficking, which is a very big issue in India. She talked about how her subordinate officers seemed to have become calloused about it. She asked me for ideas about how she could get them inspired to solve human trafficking cases and bring the perpetrators of urban slavery to book. I told her, “Ask them to give the victim a name. The name of their daughter.” Simple as it sounds, it worked. Things change complexion when we put ourselves in the shoes of the ‘other’. The other is no longer a stranger to be ignored at best or at worst, maligned and hated.

We see the other, and in him, we see ourselves.

This is the origin of the Golden Rule: “Do unto others what you would have them do unto you.” Or as someone else put it: “Don’t do to others what you wouldn’t want them to do to you.” Or as yet someone else put it: “People may forget what you did but they will never forget how you made them feel.”

See with ‘their’ eyes

Before I end, let me assure you that this is not about business or winning customers. The biggest lesson I learnt in this context was one week after I got married. I married when I was thirty and had been living alone since I was eighteen. We got married in Hyderabad and left the next day for the Anamallais (where I was an Assistant Manager in the tea gardens) we arrived in Madras at my aunt’s place. Jahanara Aunty and Mohammed Uncle were absolute gems whose hospitality was legendary and recalled to this day by everyone who was fortunate enough to enjoy it. Two days later we boarded the train for Coimbatore from where we drove up the Aliyar Ghat of forty hairpin bends. Samina was violently sick all the way up the Ghat. Being prone to motion sickness anyway, the Ghat road was not doing her any good at all. I was very concerned because this Ghat road was a given if we lived in the Anamallais and with Samina being so sick on it, it didn’t seem to portend well for us. The prospect of a repeat performance every time we traveled was definitely not something to look forward to. But as it happened after a couple of trips Samina got over her motion sickness altogether. Maybe the Ghat road shocked it out of her system.

It was a tradition that estate workers welcomed the Assistant Manager when he returned with his wife. But it was not something that happened always. The workers decided who they wanted to welcome and who they didn’t. In our case as our car rounded the bend off the Sholayar Dam and came towards ‘Black Bridge,’ we were stopped and requested to alight. Samina and I came out of the car, glad for the chance to stretch our legs. The road was lined with girls who sang a welcome song and showered us with flower petals as we walked through this guard of honor. We were taken to a pavilion which I realized had been made by tying the best sarees of the women to the poles and decorated with lots of flowers. Tea garden workers can be the most loving people in the world and if you were good to them, they appreciated it and reciprocated. I saw many examples of that in my decade long career. We were garlanded and sat at a table on the two grandest chairs that they could find. Then we were served tea and biscuits and sweets. It was then that a depressed fly decided to end its meaningless life in my wife’s teacup. But Samina, being the perfect lady that she is, merely fished the fly out and drank the tea without batting an eyelid. An amazing performance which saved us from a lot of embarrassment.  

Then speeches were made, and the women danced and sang a song in our honor in which we were mentioned repeatedly in sometimes a humorous way and sometimes with great respect. The amazing thing was that this song was made up then and there and they sang about various habits of mine, including singing while I rode my motorcycle. People observe you and remember and respond to you the way they perceive you. People listen with their eyes. They don’t care what you say, until they see what you do. I have seen this in my life more times than I can possibly recall. All the more reason to ensure that whatever it was, remained good and honorable.

At the end of all this song and dance there were some speeches by the local union leaders and one supervisor and then I was asked to speak. It was permitted for the manager to speak in English and the speech would be translated. But I had learnt Tamil for occasions such as these and spoke it well, much to everyone’s delight. When I had finished and thanked them for all their trouble and expressed our gratitude for the honor that we had been granted, they gave my wife a gold ring as their gift as a mark of their love and honor for me. I was floored. These were poor people who had collected money for this, something which was not expected of them at all. What could I say? As I mentioned earlier, Managers and workers in the plantations form bonds that are more like family than anything else.

That story was the background for the lesson I mentioned earlier. A lesson in seeing with ‘their’ eyes. It was about a week later when one day I was saying something to my wife about my car and so on when she stopped me and said, ‘If you keep talking about everything as my-this and my-that, how will I ever feel that I share it with you?’ I was flabbergasted. I didn’t realize the effect of my perfectly innocuous speech on my wife. I had lived alone since I was eighteen and was used to thinking of everything as being mine. Sharing didn’t come into it as I’d had nobody to share with. But now I did. I realized that I needed to change my outlook. I needed to see with her eyes. Today, thirty-four years later, I am very happy that I learnt that lesson.

Attitude

Attitude can’t be enforced

“Can we change their attitude?”

“No.”

“Can they change their own attitude?”

“Yes.”

“So, what is our goal? To change their attitude, or to convince them that they need to change it themselves?”

“That is challenging, difficult, will take sweat and tears……….do I really want to even try it?”

“Ah! We are now at the root of the problem and it is: Do I want to change my own attitude?”

Attitude is at the root of everything. Attitude decides whether we will succeed or fail. Whether when in difficulty, even that which seems to be life threatening, if we will survive or perish. Attitude decides if when hit by life (or by someone) we stay down or get up. And how many times we get up. And what the result of getting up every time we fall, will be. Attitude, not wealth, dictates happiness. If you don’t believe me, watch slum children leaping into pools of rainwater after the first rains. Do they look happy? Then go and watch your children, who will most likely be complaining about the rain. And ask yourself, “Who has more wealth?” I know that is a dumb question, but then to decide to remain dumb is an attitude issue. To decide to remain blind, even though we have eyes is an attitude issue. To witness a crime in progress and to decide to take a video to post on Instagram, instead of taking action to prevent the crime or to help the victim, is a matter of attitude. Cherophobia (the fear of being ‘too happy’ because you feel that if you allow yourself to feel happy, then disaster will strike), is a matter of attitude. Satisfaction, gratitude, ambition, courage, compassion are all attitudes. So also, are their opposites. And each one has an impact on our life.

The first Kural in Thirukkural is:

Agara mudhala ezhuthellam aadhi
bhagavan mudhatrey ulagu

(As Agara – A – is the first letter of the alphabet, so also God is before all creation)

In the same way, attitude comes before all situations and circumstances and decides how they will affect us. Incidentally, another A-word; affect. Let me tell you some stories to illustrate what I mean.

It was 1987 and I was doing a course at XLRI, Jamshedpur. One evening my friends decided to show me the sights around Jamshedpur. As we drove in the Hindustan Ambassador car, which was provided for us, the road suddenly deteriorated. My friend announced, “This is where Jamshedpur ends, and Bihar begins.” We continued onwards, headed towards Dimna lake and bird sanctuary. This is a lake made by Tata Steel and provides drinking water to Jamshedpur. On the way we stopped at a traffic light. The road was a patchwork of potholes joined together by bits of tarmac to prove that once upon a time when the world was young, it had been surfaced with bitumen. As I was contemplating life and its trials, a young boy came coasting down the slope on his bicycle a bit oblivious to his situation and hit a pothole, bounced out of it and yelled, ‘Wah! Kya khadda hai!’ (Wow! What a pothole!). Today I am writing this on July 13, 2019, 32 years later, but the incident is fresh in my memory. I remind myself that nothing changed for that kid or for me. The road, the potholes, the responsibility of the government, the use of taxes, you name it, everything remained the same. Yet that kid decided to be happy. So, when he hit a pothole, he appreciated the pothole instead of complaining. A matter of attitude.

In my view the best thing about attitude is that it is entirely in my control. Nobody can give it to me or take it from me or change it for me or do anything at all with my attitude. I, and only I, can have whatever attitude I want to. So only I, can decide if I want to be sad, glad, bad, mad or whatever. That means that until I want to change it, nobody can help me and if I want to change it, nobody can stop me. That is power.

In 1978, soon after I finished graduation with a BA in history, political science and Urdu literature, I boarded a flight for Guyana where my father was on a one-year assignment, with the Guyana Mining Enterprise hospital in Linden. It was a long flight and a long story. I flew from Hyderabad to Bombay to London to New York to Miami to Georgetown which took more than 24 hours. I flew in a SE 210 Caravelle, Boeing 707, McDonnell Douglas DC-10, and Boeing 707 once again. I flew on Indian Airlines, British Airways, Pan Am (Pan American World Airways), Delta and BWIA. And at the end of it all, more than 24 hours after I left Hyderabad, I arrived literally at the other end of the world, without my baggage. My baggage apparently had other travel plans and I have no idea which country it was destined for. But for me that meant that not only did I get to lose all my worldly possessions but also the proof of my education, my degree certificate, which I had kept in my checked-in baggage for safety.  

Guyana, my first home

I should have been devastated. I wasn’t. It took me about ten minutes to come to terms with the fact that I was walking with all my worldly assets, the shirt on my back. I found this was a very liberating idea. In Guyana I got a job, lived and worked in a small mining town in the middle of the rainforest. My experience of the five years that I spent there was far from negative. It was one of the most enjoyable and rewarding periods of my life during which I made lifelong friendships, had many unique experiences, and learnt a huge amount about human relations and conflict management which has stood me in good stead throughout my career, now many decades later. I will talk about those days in context in the articles and podcasts that will come later but want to say that all this happened because of the way I approached the challenge.

For one thing, I didn’t see it as a ‘challenge = difficulty’, at all. I saw it as the possibility to have great fun and great learning, each day filled with new possibilities. I was in a new country, totally new (alien!!) culture, food, climate, language, working with people who were completely different from me in every way, living in a part of the world that I had never been in and which was as different from my life in Hyderabad as to make it seem like I was on another planet. Yet it turned out to be one of the best periods of my life which I recall very fondly today, more than forty years later. The reason was attitude.

Attitude therefore is how you choose to see what you are faced with. You can choose to appreciate the good in it and enjoy it and to see the difficulties as you look at weights in the gym; something that is tough to lift but can only benefit you if you do. Who makes that choice? You.

Back home in India, I worked in the plantation industry for ten years, managing tea, and rubber plantations with coffee, cardamom, coconut and vanilla thrown in, before striking out into the field of leadership consulting. During my last three years in the company, I was posted as Manager of the company’s operations in Kanyakumari District in Tamilnadu. That comprised of two rubber estates, two factories and a higher secondary school. The challenge there was the labor force, which was highly militant, unionized, communist union (CITU – Marxist) and a history of tension between the management and union. To spice up my life I had an immediate task of introducing Controlled Upward Tapping (CUT) in rubber. This involved the tappers using special tapping knives to tap upwards instead of the normal downward tap. This put a strain on their shoulders and initially it could be uncomfortable, even painful, until they got used to it. The standard response to this was to refuse to do it. That led to tensions and some ugly situations before I got there, including an Assistant Manager having been grievously assaulted. My challenge was to get the workers to accept this method of tapping, which meant that I had to convert their dislike and resistance to liking. To change their attitude from resistance to acceptance.

I spoke to another company in Kerala who were using this technique and had good results. I requested their management to allow me to send my tappers to visit them to see their tapping, meet their tappers and talk to them about the technique. I wanted them to do this freely without any supervision, so I didn’t go with them. I sent them in a bus and arranged for them to have a nice sumptuous meal with their hosts and to be given CUT knives as a take-away gift (for which we paid). I told them to go and see the work, ask any questions that they wanted to ask their compatriots and satisfy themselves that this method was a good method for them to earn more income as well as something which would not be difficult to do after they had gotten used to the new angle of tapping. All this was treated with suspicion to begin with, given the history of management labor relations, but I expected that and didn’t react to it. However, the prospect of a company paid holiday was tempting and unique and so they went. After that, as they say, the rest is history. They returned enthusiastic about trying out the new technique and when they saw that as promised, their yield was better resulting in better earning, there was nothing more for me to do.

What I had been able to do was to get them tuned into the channel that everyone listens to; WiiFM (What’s in it For Me). That is the key to attitude change. Get people to see what’s in the change for them. Help them to see how they will benefit. Naturally they must really benefit. It is not a PR exercise. If there is really no benefit, then you will lose credibility big time if you try to sell it. But it happens often that people don’t see the benefit until you can show it to them. Once they see how they will gain by changing their attitude, it happens easily enough. The challenge is for us to show it to them.

What is essential for the one wanting to bring about attitude change is to put himself into the shoes of the other and see their world through their eyes. I had a very interesting experience in this context. I was doing a series of coaching skills workshops for senior management at ICRISAT in Hyderabad. This required helping people understand the fact that you can never coach anyone effectively if you don’t see their world through their eyes. In other words, you need to put yourself in their shoes. To illustrate this, I took off my shoes and said to the Deputy Director General, the most senior manager who was sitting right in front, “Please get into my shoes.”

He got up very reluctantly and started to take his shoes off. I stopped him when he had taken one shoe off. I asked him, “What are you doing?”

He looked surprised and replied rather testily, “Taking off my shoes.”

I asked, “Why?”

He looked really exasperated and said, “How else can I get into your shoes?” Then it suddenly dawned on him and he almost yelled, “Wah! What an insight!! I can never get into your shoes until I take my own shoes off. Wah! Sahab Wah!”

It is often as simple as that. The lesson is simple but very powerful.

If we want to change people’s attitudes, we need to first change our own. We must own up that we need to see their world as they see and feel it. We must empathize and understand. Then we need to show them how they will benefit from the change. Only then will it happen.

Differentiate

Differentiate

If you asked me to tell you in one word; only one word, the secret of success, I would say, “Differentiate.”

Let me begin with a question; “What do you ask for when you go to the corner store to buy toothpaste?” Do you say to the attendant, “Please give me toothpaste?” If you did, what would happen? Maybe you should try this out the next time you go shopping. What would happen is that the store attendant would ask you, “Which brand would you like?” You will face the same situation if you went to buy almost anything in the market, unless it was buying mangoes from a street vendor. Products are known, recognized and bought by their brand.

I teach career management in global corporations and have been doing that since 1994. You can see my presentation on career management on my YouTube channel https://www.youtube.com/user/YawarBaigAssociates . The link to the presentation is Careers in Global Corporations http://bit.ly/2ZY3KW5 . I’ve taught this course in GE, Motorola, IBM, Microsoft, National Semiconductor and many other corporations in America, India and elsewhere. But more importantly this is what I practice myself, in my lifelong effort to add value to others and thereby to myself. That is how I define my career. That is my differentiation. Adding value to others.

What is differentiation?

Differentiation is to stand out. Not blend in. Incidentally that is also how I define leadership. Let me give you another example; how do you introduce yourself? More than likely you say, “I am an IT professional or engineer, doctor, teacher, whatnot.” Well, so are a million other people in the world. You are one in a million in the wrong sense. You need to become one in a million in the sense of that proverb. That is differentiation.

Why Differentiate?

Because Differentiation creates Brand

Brand inspires Loyalty

Loyalty enables Influence

Without differentiating you are one grain of rice in a sack. You are still rice, but one grain in a sack. Nobody knows you exist. Nobody cares. Nobody understands this better than Apple. Or Coke for that matter. And that is why these brands inspire loyalty that seems extreme and even absurd to others. But it is neither. It translates into a totally loyal customer base which is money in the bank and make Apple and Coke the most valuable brands in the world.

In the podcast that goes with this article, I will tell you a story about brand that happened with me in 1996 and has stayed with me all these years and is one of the most powerful illustrations of the power of brand. Don’t miss that podcast. Please subscribe to our channel and you will be alerted every week with a new episode.

How can I differentiate, you ask? Let me tell you a story from my life. But first, the principle; you differentiate by doing what the rest of the world is not doing and doing it in a way that is graceful, dignified and beneficial to all concerned. Differentiation is not about being freaky. It is about standing out in a way that inspires respect and the desire to emulate in those who see you.

It was 1989 and I was a Manager in the tea plantation industry in South India. I had been in the industry since 1983 and had developed a reputation for high productivity and excellent labor relations. A very big advantage in a highly labor-intensive industry with a militant unionized workforce. I was ambitious, high-energy and looked forward to a fast-track career. At that time, I was transferred to our company’s garden in Assam. The job was at the same level as I was at but came with better perquisites and a slightly bigger span of responsibility. What it also came with was the ‘opportunity’ to be as far away from the company headquarters as is geographically possible, when your company HQ is in Chennai. For some this may have looked like a good thing. To me, it didn’t. In the corporate world, ‘out of sight is out of mind’. So, I declined the transfer. This was not easy for me or my bosses. This was a trying period because suddenly I had no specific job. I had to leave my job as the Manager on Lower Sheikalmudi Estate because that job had already been assigned to another colleague. That left me literally homeless as there were no bungalows in the Anamallais where I could live. It is a measure of my reputation with the company and the understanding of my superiors that I was not simply sent home for refusing to accept the transfer. I was sent off to Mango Range until the management could decide what to do with me. We stayed there for six months. I was getting my salary, but I had no work. No office, no superiors to report to. No assignment. Nothing to do.

I was assigned a bungalow in a forest thicket, which was in a dilapidated condition. The location of the bungalow was lovely, and it was a joy to wake up to bird calls every morning. However, the house itself looked like it would collapse on our heads at any time.  Of particular concern were the walls, which were so waterlogged that they had fungus growing on them in huge patches. My wife is an amazing homemaker and all her talents were put to test in this place. Out of this dilapidated house she created a lovely home which we enjoyed living in.

Now, this is where differentiation comes in. Anyone else in my position would have done one of two things. Either they would have resigned and tried to find another job. Or they would have considered this period as a paid holiday and enjoyed it. I enjoyed it alright, but not as a paid holiday and I didn’t leave or even try to find another job. I loved my job in the plantations and had no intention of leaving until someone kicked me out. So, I wanted to ensure that didn’t happen. Since I had no regular job, I decided on doing two things:

For a long time, I had been talking about the need for systematic training of new assistant managers. The current system in the plantations was that a new assistant would be put under a manager and what he learnt or didn’t depended on the capability, interest, and energy of himself and his manager and field or factory officers. If the assistant was lucky and got some people who were both knowledgeable and interested in teaching, then he learnt a great deal. If not, he remained guessing. This is a highly undesirable system, which is very time and energy intensive and does not give standard results. I had been advocating for several years the need for a standard textbook on tea plantation management, which could be used to provide standardized training. Any additional inputs that the young man’s manager and staff could give him would only add to this, but he would not be deficient in the basics.

During my stay in Mango Range, I decided to write this book and in 6 months, I produced a 200-page Manual of Tea Plantation Management. Remember, this was before we had access to computers. The best we could get was a 386 desktop and DOS-OS. So, I wrote the book on an ordinary typewriter and then re-entered it all on a 386 at the head office when it was done. No copy paste, no cut and paste, no auto-correct or spell check. Windows were in the wall and what sat in your lap couldn’t be typed upon. At the time of its publication there was no such book on the market, and it was a source of great satisfaction for me. My company published it as an internal training book and though it was never a commercial publication, it did get fairly wide publicity and was used by many new managers. The biggest lesson for me was about the power of the written word and its high credibility in making your customer base aware of what you have to offer. I never forgot that lesson and today, I have just published my 35th book. After that book there was no way that I could be ignored, not that I feared that. I had a lot of people who I had dealt with over the years rooting for me in the company.

The second thing I did was to spend a lot of time in Mango Range factory and hone my expertise in CTC manufacture of tea. I was very fortunate in that Mr. T.V. Verghese, who had retired as a General Manager in Tata Tea and was consulting with our company on CTC manufacture, was a regular visitor and we became good friends. He shared his knowledge freely and I learnt a great deal. He was a practical teacher, which meant that I got to spend a lot of time on my back on the floor meshing CTC rollers with grease anywhere on my face and body that grease would stick. I learnt all aspects of manufacture hands-on, further reinforcing my belief that learning comes from doing – not from talking about doing. In Murugalli Estate, I’d had a lot of experience in Orthodox manufacture, and even though I had built Mayura Factory, the premier CTC factory in South India, I was moved as soon as the construction was over – thanks to a motorcycle accident. Consequently, my knowledge of CTC manufacture was weak. In Mango Range, as a student of Mr. T. V. Verghese and thanks to his willingness to teach, I rectified that deficiency. It was ironic that thereafter I went to Ambadi, which was a rubber plantation and never really used this knowledge, but it did come in use for writing a paper comparing Orthodox and CTC methods, which I presented at the UPASI Annual Conference in 1989.

Mango Range was an interlude in my career. I was marking time and waiting for some positive change to happen, and in the meanwhile, I enjoyed myself. It has long been my philosophy to live one day at a time and to try to create as much happiness for myself and around me as possible. I have learnt that the two are the same. You can only be happy if those around you are happy. This is true whether you are an individual, an organization, or a country. Imagine what a wonderful world we would have if instead of competing, we collaborated and shared resources. We would all be wealthier, happier, and healthier. I have always held that the secret of happiness is to be thankful for and enjoy the small things in life. There are far many more of them than the big events. If we can enjoy the small things, then we can be happy all the time. The key to enjoyment is to appreciate them and be thankful for them. An attitude of gratitude. The key to contentment is not amassing material but in being thankful for what one has. The happiest people are those who are content. Content people are those who are thankful. Material wealth has nothing to do with it. 

One of the things that I was very appreciative of and thankful for was the leisure that I had in Mango Range. I had no specific work except what I decided to do for myself. And I was still getting my salary. So, I decided to learn golf. I got a caddy from Ooty Golf Club to come and stay with me in the estate for three weeks. His name was Frank Augustine (I used to call him Frankenstein) and he looked like a dried prawn. When he swung the club though, he always hit the ball with that sweet phut that all golfers love to hear. And the ball would travel straight like a bullet down the freeway. Whereas my club would come up with a good measure of earth and top the ball to boot. Shows that technique and not strength of the arm is what works in golf. As it does in many other things in life. Frankenstein believed in hard work – meaning, making me work hard. He set up a practice net, produced a set of one hundred used golf balls and we were good to go. I would hit the ball into the net until I felt my arms would drop off. All the while, Frankenstein would sit on his haunches under the Champa tree that was to one side and watch me and make clucking noises. The effect of all this clucking and my swinging at the ball became clear when one day about midway in our training Frankenstein suggested that we should go and play a round at the club. So off we went on the three-hour drive to Ooty. After a cup of tea and a sandwich, I teed off and that is where all the practice paid off. Ooty Golf Club has very narrow freeways bordered by spiky gorse. If you didn’t hit your ball straight, you would send it into the gorse and then you may as well forget about it –  or pay to get the ball back by leaving your blood on the gorse and acquiring gorse thorn furrows in your hide. As Frankenstein continued his mother hen act, I could see the distinct improvement in my style and capability.

Differentiation creates Brand. I got noticed and appreciated and was rewarded with one of the toughest jobs in the company. I was sent to New Ambadi Estate as its Manager. Two estates, two factories in Kulasekharam, Kanyakumari District of Tamilnadu, which is geographically in Tamilnadu and spiritually in Kerala. Highly militant, unionized, communist unions with a history of violence. And to top it all, I didn’t know the first thing about rubber estate management. I had not even seen a rubber tree in my life until then. That is another story of great friends, like Arun, who taught me all about rubber. I successfully faced the tough unions and not only won but made lifelong friends with the union leaders, so that when I was leaving Ambadi three years later, the General Secretary of the CITU, came to my farewell party, unannounced and delivered such a speech that he had us all in tears. But as I said, that is another story.

Learning from Life – Morsi

Democracy and what happens in its name

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Great Slide

The Great Slide

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nations and Forest Fires

Nations and Forest Fires

It was 1984. The second and last formal employment of my career was in the tea plantations in the Anamallai Hills in Coimbatore District of Tamilnadu. I worked there for seven years, one of the most enjoyable and instructive periods of my life. Fires and estates are companions. Not surprising given the combination of people who smoke and don’t always bother to put out their cigarettes, and forests with semi deciduous trees that regularly carpet the floor with their leaves every summer. A forest fire is easy to start. One cigarette butt is enough. But if it catches, then it can’t be put out until there’s nothing left to burn. In the end, all that is left is ash. We used to take a lot of preventive steps including clearing fire boundaries where we would clear a wide swathe of ground of all undergrowth and leaves and keep it swept clean so that even if a fire started it could be contained. We had also constructed water tanks and dammed streams to create small reservoirs, which would be useful if we needed water in a hurry to put out a fire. These reservoirs were also very useful as watering holes for wildlife in the summer and a source of endless delight for me to watch animals as they came down to drink.

One day late in the afternoon someone came running to the office (days without mobile phones or walky-talky radios) and said that a fire had started in the Murugalli coffee area. In the plantations, emergencies were everyone’s affair. News would go to all those who could be informed, and they all rushed to the aid of the estate which had the problem. All who could go would go, regardless of whose estate it was.

As soon as the runner caught his breath, I put him on the back of my motorcycle to guide me and we were off. When I reached the place, I realized that this was a fairly large forest fire. There were about thirty of our workers and two supervisors who had been working in the area. I marshaled them all and got them to clear a belt and start a counter fire. The idea was to burn an area across the direction of the fire and clear it of all inflammable material so that when the main fire reached this place it would simply starve to death. We started the counter fires and once the dry stuff was burnt, we beat out the flames with green leafy branches that we had previously cut and kept at hand. The main fire was moving very fast as it was being pushed by a tail wind. As it came up to us it was our task to ensure that it did not jump the cleared boundary. Every time a flame jumped the fire boundary, we beat it to death. There was no water available where we were, otherwise, we would have also wet as much area as possible as a preventive measure. The story didn’t end here but for this article, this is enough.

The whole logic of fighting forest fires is about preventing them from starting. And if they do start, then trying to prevent them from growing. If this is not done, then once a fire grows beyond a certain size, nothing can put it out until everything that can burn has been burnt. The fire will die only when everyone and everything is dead. And all that is left is ash.

Today, as I reflect on global politics as well as its local reflection in my country, I am reminded of forest fires and my own experience of fighting one in the Anamallais. It appears that none of the leaders either on the global stage or the even more critical local ones, has ever seen or fought a forest fire. That is why they so blithely ignite and stoke the fires of hatred. Racial hatred, communal hatred and religious hatred. They know not what they do but regardless, we, every single one of us, will burn if we allow this to go on unchallenged and unanswered. Fire can’t be fought with fire. It must be fought with something that is cool and which is not inflammable. So also, hatred can’t be fought with hatred, but with love. Loving someone who hates you is not easy. It seems impossible. But the alternative is to burn in the same fire.

In human relations terms, ignorance is combustible. It is the substance that is used to ignite the fire of hatred and to stoke it by demonizing the object of hate. The real purpose is to sow discord and terror, so that we are all reduced to the same level, joined only in our fear of one another rooted in ignorance. Then we become malleable and controllable through fear. This is done by first focusing on the differences in our diversity and then teaching us that these differences are things to hate. In a society like ours which is based on caste differences that discriminate against other people based on their ethnicity (race), to get people to hate someone for something as ridiculous as what they eat, drink, wear or worship is very easy. We already live in a society where we are taught that some of us are superior to others for no fault of ours or theirs. It is just that we were born into this or that caste and so that not only makes us superior, but it means that we get to look down on others and consider them to be dirty, sub-human, unworthy of associating with and to always be treated with contempt. Since this entire edifice is built on an accident of birth, it means that it is permanent and there is nothing that anyone can do to change that. That leads to the logical progression of despising and hating the person and the entire group that he/she belongs to, because that makes me feel superior and good, once again free of cost.

To continue to feel good, all I need to do is to perpetuate this lie from generation to generation and ensure that the hatred and contempt stays alive. For this there are some requirements; deny anything good that the target population may have done, no matter how clear and substantial the evidence. Mock and disparage their identity, beliefs, culture and customs and demonize them by interpreting them in negative ways. Re-write history in a way that removes all evidence of their contribution to the nation and world and replace that with cherry-picked or manufactured stories of their ‘sins’. Pick a time period that is ancient enough to ensure that nobody from the time is alive to defend themselves and do all this so aggressively that those who are alive today, are intimidated enough to remain silent and watch their heritage being trashed. The idea is to eventually have a situation where even the memory of the contributions of those people is lost and all sense of self-esteem is taken from them. It is an age-old tactic, the only thing remarkable about which is that it still works.

Once again, what is the solution? For a solution we must find and implement if we are not all to be consumed in the forest fire that we lighted or allowed to be lighted while we watched. The first part of the solution is to reject every ideology that teaches that you are either superior or inferior because of the accident of birth. All such ideologies of being the ‘chosen of god’, are an insult to humanity and God. All such ideologies are false, dangerous and destructive and must be trashed. For the record as far as my own religion, Islam is concerned, let me quote from the sermon of the Prophet Muhammad(S) during his last Hajj where he said, “All mankind is from Adam and Eve, an Arab has no superiority over a non-Arab nor does a non-Arab have any superiority over an Arab. A white (person) has no superiority over a black, nor does a black (person) have any superiority over a white; except by piety and good action.”  Now that is clear enough and needs no elaboration. We are all equal in our humanity and the only measure of goodness is the goodness we spread around us.

The second part of the solution is to give names and faces to the labels that we are confronted with. Labels seeking to create the ‘Other’ in our minds. Labels that if we don’t question and see them for what they are, make it possible for us to reject others. Labels are distant, disembodied and impersonal. That makes it possible to hate those to whom they apply. Names are known and personal; faces are recognizable. They make us stop to consider what we think, say or do about those people. Let me illustrate with my own example, how a name changes the complexion of a label.

I am Muslim. But when I hear the label ‘Agnostic/Atheist’, I see Aunty Mohini and Uncle Rama’s faces. The two people who were my mentors in childhood and youth and role models, lifelong. They enabled me to discover myself and opened my heart and mind to appreciate others. When I hear the label Sikh, I see the faces of Gurcharan, Gurveen Kaur, Anup and Sandy. When I hear the label Hindu, I see the faces of AMM Arunachalam, Renuka & Aditya Mishra, Purba & Sanjoy Sanyal, Nikoo Rawlley, Arun Menon and Gudducha (Jaikant Chaturvedi). When I hear the label Christian, I see the faces of Berty & Jenny Suares, Thambi Kurien, Ranjan Solomon, Norman & Lorraine Wood. When I hear the label Buddhist, I see the faces of Rose, Ivo and Alvito Baretto. When I hear the label Jew, I see the faces of Kathy, Dennis Goodman, David and Jeffrey Solomon. When I hear the label Christian Missionary, I see the faces of David and Miriam Ramse and Thurston Riehl. When I hear the label Parsi, I see the faces of Jehangir Ghadiali, Naushi and Mehru Tarapore. When I think of communal riots, I think of Uncle Raman Kumar who came with a police escort through the curfew to give us food grains. I think of Norman Lindie in Guyana who shielded me with his own body from a man who had come to attack me with a knife. I think of Peter Ramsingh, who was my constant companion in our innumerable camping trips through the rain forests, up and down the Berbice River. These are by no means the only people I know under these ‘categories’. There are many, many more. This is only to make my point that when you have a face to a label, it becomes personal. With each of them, I have many pleasant memories associated. Of happy times, helping one another, just being with one another and enjoying each other’s company and difference. So, deal with people, not labels.

The benefit of becoming personal is that I have a frame of reference when I hear or read something hateful about the ‘category’ which in my mind and life experience is represented by a name and face of a friend. I find it impossible to hate anyone, but even if this were not the case, I would have cause to stop and reflect, if I have a frame of reference against which to compare what I am being asked to believe. Without that and given the unique human tendency to believe the negative more easily than the positive, rumor becomes real and the lie becomes the truth. Today the problem is that thanks to our highly urbanized and apparently self-sufficient (but really isolationist) way of life, we manage to live in the same apartment building for decades without even knowing the name of our neighbor, let alone anything more. Our civic spaces are disappearing.  Hence civilized interaction and dialogue. Even schools are ‘segregated’. Not officially but children don’t seem to have friends, except among their own kind. Racist language is rampant and normal. Discrimination seems to be the order of the day. Even the question of a child going to the home of a friend, not from his/her religion or ethnicity, to spend an overnight or weekend with their family, doesn’t arise. Our conversation mentions other people, their religion and culture, but always in disparaging words. Never with respect and appreciation. Our world view has become totally color blind – black and white. We don’t even see the racist overtone in the term, Black & White. We have lost our frame of reference. We are blind, waiting to be led down the road of someone else’s choosing.

This must change. This is the fire-break that we must build. The essential fire prevention strategy if we want to protect ourselves from annihilation. We must open our eyes and ears, homes and hearts, to others. We must stop ‘Othering’ each other. We must learn to observe with respect and without being judgmental. We must learn to appreciate difference and not reduce all difference to good (like me) and bad (different from me). It is variety that adds color to the scenery. Variety is another name for difference. We must consciously examine the assumptions that we have become used to and treat as ‘The Truth’. We must face the fact that they are baseless assumptions, rooted in bigotry. As Reza Aslan put it very aptly, ‘Religion doesn’t make people bigots. People are bigots and they use religion to justify their ideology.’ The question each one of us needs to ask is, ‘Am I a bigot?’ I can imagine that in today’s world, the answer may well be, ‘Yes’, in all cases with a difference only in degree. As a starting point, I would say that it is enough to ask this question and then ask another one, even more painful. ‘Am I willing to do anything to change this?’ That is when we can start thinking of what we must do.

So, what must we do?

Monitor conversations. At home, in the workplace, especially in our schools and in public. It is ‘domestic legends’ which shape our worldview from a very early age. We need to reflect on how we were conditioned and become conscious of how we are conditioning our children. Most conditioning is unconscious and extremely powerful and very difficult to undo, unless we make a serious effort. Monitoring conversations will give us diagnostic evidence of the degree of change we need to make. It is important to do this objectively with a no-praise-no-blame mindset. The idea is to see how serious the terminal disease which afflicts us is and see what we need to do, to cure it. For terminal it is. Hatred is fire. All fires burn and the result is always ash.

Then we need to create civic spaces to meet in and practice being civilized. We need to develop the skills to speak about each other, our beliefs, culture, customs and traditions with respect. We must visit each other, participate in each other’s lives and do it with respect and without being judgmental. We must ask questions, respectfully and strongly oppose all mockery of people different from us, even if and especially when it is done in the name of ‘humor’. Laughing at someone is not humorous. Reject outright anyone who preaches hatred or mocks others; whether that is your priest or preacher, teacher or political leader, uncle or mother. We need to become open-minded enough to try to understand the reason why other people do things differently from us and not only accept that but appreciate it as another way of life which has an equal right to exist. We must deal with the fear that if we do this, we will need to ‘convert’ to their way. We won’t. What will happen though is that our minds and hearts will expand, which is a very good thing for all minds and hearts. Even ours. We will become more understanding, accepting, respectful and impervious to manipulation by those who wish to fill our hearts with hatred for others, so that we become tools in their hands to achieve their own ends.

It was a very hot day in May, 1991. Very dry, at the peak of summer with the monsoon another month away. I was driving through Thirunelveli District on my way back from Madurai where I had gone to attend a Labour Court hearing. These were the days before car air-conditioning in India, so the car was a moving oven. Suddenly the moving oven stopped moving. A tyre was punctured. My driver Santiago pulled over to the side. I got out of the car as it was simply too hot to sit inside. Santiago didn’t need any help, he said, so I looked around. I saw that we had stopped by some fields which in the monsoon would be planted with rice, but which at this time were simply baked, dry clay fractured into pieces according to whatever natural law was at work. There was not a blade of grass or anything green in sight. Except that is, for two small Neem trees, which had been planted by the roadside. Beside the trees, with its back to them and facing the field was a mud hut. It must have been about twenty feet long and had a grass thatch roof. Between the trees, which were at either end of the hut, the ground had been swept clean and sprinkled with sand. Under each tree, in the scant shade was a stone bench. It was really a stone fence post laid flat on two short raisers about two feet in height. I was intrigued to say the least about how this whole thing was obviously planned and prepared. Who would bother to make this seating arrangement and why?

I sat on one of the benches to see what would happen. In a little while a young boy came out of the hut with a brass water pot and a steel tumbler and poured me a tumbler full of tepid water. I had many thoughts about the origin of the water and its hygiene but didn’t want to interfere with whatever was at work here. So, I accepted the water and drank it. The boy went to Santiago and poured some water for him also. Then he set the pot down and sat with Santiago to provide him with moral support in changing the tyre of the car. A couple of minutes later, his mother called him. He took his pot and departed, only to emerge with two glass tumblers of tea. His mother came out as he finished giving the tea to me and Santiago, with a plate of Murku – the twisted savory snack that is very popular all over Tamilnadu and South India. I thanked her and took one, thinking all the time that the mystery had been solved. We had been fortunate enough to break down near a tea-shop and so we were now being served.

We finished our tea and the tyre was changed. I got up and asked the boy how much money I owed them for the tea and snack. He looked at me in surprise and said, ‘Onnum illayingay.’ (Nothing, Sir.) He used the respectful form of address which given the difference in our ages, our mutual social positions and the culture of Thirunelveli was natural. I thanked him but told him to ask his mother. He went into the hut and the lady came out, her head covered with the tail of her sari (pallu) and said, ‘This is not a shop Sir. Your car broke down, so I thought that maybe you would like a cup of tea and made it for you. That is all. There is nothing to pay. You are our guest.’ I didn’t know what to say. There was nothing in my experience to handle this, except unless I went back almost 30 years earlier to my time with Gond tribals in Adilabad, where I also encountered such generosity of spirit from people who had nothing. In this case, it was Diwali next day. So, I took out Rs. 100 and folded the note and put it in the pocket of the youngster and said, ‘This is for Diwali sweets for you.’ His mother tried to object but I said to her, ‘I am like his elder brother. Please allow me to give him a gift for Diwali.’ She smiled and nodded. And we left. This happened in 1991. This is 2019. The memory is alive.

Our education and sophistication seem to build walls and teach us to despise one another. These people were among the poorest in the world, deprived, discriminated against, so-called lower caste. Yet their hearts were full of compassion, generosity and abundance. What is the secret? It is to see another human being as a human being. Shorn of our titles and labels. Just another human being. This is what we need to learn and teach. This is the secret of putting out fires and of survival. This is our lifeline.