I was poor, relatively speaking, by which I mean that I didn’t have cash in hand. But that was a source of benefit. Pocket money was unheard of. We got money for a specific need like bus fare, to buy a book or suchlike. This was true of most of my generation who grew up in the 50’s and 60’s in Hyderabad. We had very few resources and no gadgets, so we learnt to be resourceful and creative. There was no cut & paste or delete or spellcheck so we learnt to write more carefully and thoughtfully.
Kids get more pocket money today than my father’s salary on which my parents brought up five children, yet we lacked for nothing. Our parents fed, clothed, schooled, and entertained us. We wore clothes our elder siblings had outgrown. Because I was the eldest, I had new clothes but not that often. The purpose of our clothes was to serve the body, not the ego, and so they lasted a long time. We shared everything and recycled everything before the word came into our vocabulary.
We had leisure and we used it well. I would spend hours in the garden, digging, making flower beds, and composting all vegetable waste to be used back in the garden. I raised chickens and ducks and knew them by name, and they knew and recognized me and would come to my call. I hand fed them, treated them when they were sick, and slaughtered them just before they died so that we could eat them. Lessons learnt in loving and parting. We never threw anything away.
Our lives were full of little happy incidents and full of wonder and joy, not jaded and bored. We learnt the joy of taking pleasure in the small things. If you can laugh with joy at a sunset, you will laugh every day. If you wait for a big incident to make you happy, you will wait a long time. I can’t remember ever being bored. I always had something interesting happening in my life, not because there were so many interesting things happening but because I chose to see them as interesting. Anyone who is inquisitive and who can read can’t be bored. I loved and still love reading.
I grew up in Hyderabad in the late 50’s and 60’s – a planet away from what it is today. I went to one of the best schools in the country, the Hyderabad Public School, as a boarder when I was 6 years old. People felt sorry for me to have to live away from home at such a young age, but I was thrilled. Life was an adventure, meant to be lived fully. As I grew older, I learned to love forests. I was mentored by two wonderful people – Mohini Rajan and her brother Venkat Rama Reddy. Aunty Mohini civilized me. Uncle Rama taught me about the jungle. Between them I learnt the meaning of integrity, love, concern, morals, ethics, and how to have fun in life. Of material resources I had almost nothing. But who needed material when you had the whole of the Sahyadris to roam? The Sahyadri Hills are the hills in Adilabad District in Telangana through which flows the River Kadam.
Dry summer heat of high 40’s Celsius, bare deciduous trees, their leaves now a crackly noisy carpet on the forest floor that you must walk carefully over if you are not to scare away all game. Very carefully I edge my way to the waterhole in the Dotti Vaagu, a tributary of the Kadam, where I know some water always remains, attracting wildlife from miles around. Because the truth is that no matter who you are – you must drink water. I hide myself in the middle of an Acacia bush, armed with two-inch thorns waiting to rip all the clothing and most of my skin and flesh away if I allowed it to. But the judicious trimming of some branches and careful removal of debris ensures that I have a safe and secure hide within watching and shooting distance of the waterhole. On a hot summer afternoon, there is no better place to be in. And if you sit absolutely still and remain silent, you will see a whole new world unfold before your eyes.
I settle in and watch. And what do I see? Ah! That is a story in itself – not for this page but if you are interested, I will tell it to you another day. Even better, I will tell you about a cold, cold, night at a seepage full of slush, waiting for the Sāmbhar stag to come and roll. His treatment to keep the biting horseflies away from his skin. It is a full moon, clear sky, which means that there is no blanket over the earth to hold what little heat remains from the day, and it is bitterly cold. But we can’t light a fire because it will scare away the Sāmbhar. Shivaiyya, my Gond friend and companion, and I wait in silence, unmoving. It is difficult to hold the stillness because the mosquitoes are hungry. Then he comes. I sense something but can see nothing. Suddenly he is there with his head held high, antlers laid along his back, nostrils flared to catch the scents of the night, walking with an exaggerated tread, muscles tensed to launch him into instant flight at the slightest hint of danger. He snorts more to calm himself than for any other reason. Eventually he enters the slush and kneels, then rolls in it like a horse rolling in hay or sand after a long hard ride. The slush covers him, and when dry, gives him an armor against the bane of his life – the biting horseflies. He does all this in less than a minute acutely aware of his own vulnerability as he is down. Then he rises, shakes himself and looks in our direction. Something is not right. He can sense it. His caution tells him to run. His curiosity tells him to check. And that is how deer die. However, I was not going to shoot him. I gently clear my throat. An electric shock would have been slower – his reaction is so fast. In a flash, he honks, spins on a dime and crashes through the undergrowth leaving only a memory behind. A memory that is still alive and well, forty-five years later.
I was 24 when the plane landed with me but without my luggage in Guyana in 1979. My first move from home and I lost every possession I ever had. I felt light and thrilled – though the loss of my graduation certificate did occupy me for all of ten minutes. Then I reasoned to myself that nobody in Guyana was likely to have heard of Osmania University anyway so what did it matter? It didn’t. What did matter was that I had an opportunity to start life on my own – alone, without anyone to support me. Just the way I liked it. Today, decades later, I have yet to change my mind about this.
I have seen life – from the perspective of an insider – as one who lived it, passionately, every moment of it. When I was anywhere, doing anything, it occupied my complete attention. I lived in the moment, savoring everything it offered. The result is that today, forty-four years later, I can still feel the breeze on my face as I lay swinging gently in my hammock on the bank of the Berbice River, fifty miles upstream in the middle of the Amazonian rain forest with only my dear friend Peter Ramsingh for company – well, sort of company as I can hear his snores – dead as he is to the world. As the darkness lightens, I can hear the call of the Howler Monkeys announcing the break of dawn, Macaws talking to each other as the pairs go off to find breakfast and the splash of the fish leaping in the river – perhaps to escape predators of the deep or perhaps for the joy of life. Who knows why a fish leaps?
I have always been aware of a force greater than I, watching over me, guiding me, protecting me and hiding my faults, saving me from my own follies and gently steering me in a direction that always brought me good. I learnt to listen to my heart. To trust what it told me to do and to take risks, sometimes with only what I could hear. I was aware of all this until one day I learnt who it was. And then it all made sense. Now I ask and I am answered. I rejoice in the sound of His Word. I seek His pleasure and I await the Day when I will meet Him. What can be more joyful than that?
From the Amazonian rain forest with Anacondas, Jaguars, and Howler monkeys; Ruby-throated Hummingbirds, Toucans and Macaws to South Indian tropical forests with Asiatic Elephants, Tigers, Leopards, Wild dogs and King Cobras – was my idea of heaven, joined together by the entire globe between the two. Five years in bauxite mining with Communist Unions in Guyana, then ten years in tea and rubber with Communist Unions in India taught me the foundations of leadership in a way that was unique and irreplaceable. I learnt the rules by practicing some, watching others being practiced, and then writing my own. I learnt how to handle conflict with my own life and career on the line. I learnt how to influence without authority, how to coach, how to negotiate, and how to stand up against apparently insurmountable odds. I learnt all these and more, not in a classroom but on the ground with real stakes to pay for my mistakes. Consequently, I made very few. Not because I was so clever but because I knew I couldn’t afford them. I recommend this method to everyone – nothing demands more attention and there is no faster method of learning than staking your life and job on it. Not that I did all of it voluntarily. It happened, it was done for me. I was the actor, the puppet on the end of the string in the hand of the One who is most powerful and kind.
I learnt to speak five languages. I learnt to sing (Hindustani Classical vocal). I learnt to ride and train horses and dogs, swim in rivers, drive fifty-ton Caterpillar dump trucks, bulldozers and front-end loaders. I held the record for the fastest off-road driving for the five years that I lived in Kwakwani (sixty miles in sixty minutes). I learnt to shoot a partridge on the wing or a wild boar at full gallop and hit both every time. I learnt tracking, reading sign and protecting myself so that I remained alive in forests where for many others who also lived there, I was food. I steered boats on the river, flew in small planes over the never-ending rain forest, and drove a battered yellow Land Rover over any kind of terrain. Roads are not necessary when you have a Land Rover with 4-wheel drive. Shotgun in the cabin. Pulley on the front. Chainsaw, rope, tow-chains, hammocks, ice box, and toolbox in the open back. And my friend Peter either at the wheel or by my side if I was driving. Same gear except the pulley if we were in the boat. What a life that was!! We also worked.
A lifetime later, in Malaysia, I am speaking to an audience of 10,000 people in the colossal masjid of the International Islamic University – delivering the Friday Khutba (sermon) talking about the migration of the Ruby-throated Hummingbird across the Gulf of Mexico as it goes to winter on the Mississippi. How did this happen? How did the boy come out of the rain forest, climb the Grass Hills of the Nilgiri Mountains and end up in Malaysia speaking to hundreds of Islamic scholars about the glory of the One who created us all? That, in itself, is a miracle and another story.
Though much can be said in favor of vision and strategic planning for a successful life, the fact remains that much of life is really unplanned, unexpected and therefore exciting. The greatest skill therefore is to be able to take advantage of what happens to you and turn it to your advantage. Enjoy it, leverage it, learn from it, apply it, improve it, and pass it on. The most important skill to be able to do all this is conceptualization. This means to take an incident, reflect on it, and ask, “What can I learn from this?” You won’t always have an answer. But you will have an answer more often than not. Then ask, “Where can I apply this learning?” Once again, you may not have an immediate answer. But the lesson gets filed away in your memory and then one day when you need it, the answer pops out. Having said all that, it begins with one thing and that is to enjoy your life’s experiences.
I have written about my life and times in Hyderabad which was a world away from what it is today. Nostalgia apart some things were better and other things not as good as they are today. My reason for writing is twofold. One, to record a time that seems like a dream today, so that people know that it was real. Second, to ask the question, “How can we get the goodness of that time back in our lives and society again?” What was that goodness? Mutual respect, concern and compassion, hospitality, kindness, good manners, no discrimination based on religion, race, or anything else. There was more but this is sufficient for us to try to get back. I hope you will agree that it is worth the effort to create positive change in our society.
Having said that, I hope you will simply enjoy the stories. Every story is true. To paraphrase one of my favorite authors, Louis L’Amour, “If I write about a stream, it is there, and the water is good to drink.” I say, “If I have written about the stream, the stream was there, and the water was good to drink.” I say ‘was’, because things have changed in India and environment protection has sadly not been a priority and many streams have turned into sewers.
I was born in Hyderabad in the house built by my mother’s grandfather, Shamsul Ulama Nawab Aziz Jung Bahadur, called Aziz Bagh. I went to the Hyderabad Public School where I was a boarder from age 6 and got used to living alone and taking care of myself, early. I tasted the love of reading very early in life and have been a voracious reader of almost anything, to my great advantage. I made (still do) friends easily, some of whom were much older and so I had the benefit of great mentors who moulded me, gave me values, and taught me standards which have stood me in good stead all through life. Today, at age 67, I hope they would have been happy to see what they helped to create.
My time in Guyana, taught me cross-cultural understanding and respect in a very real sense, living for five years in a culture and among people with whom the only thing that I had in common was that we were all human. Everything else was different. Race, religion, language, culture, and cuisine were all as far away from what I was born and raised into as Kwakwani is from Hyderabad. Yet, I formed friendships which are alive and well even today, more than forty years later.
So why this writing?
Well, why not?
After all, it’s my life (another song, eh!). Or as my Malayali friends would say, ‘Simbly!’ However, having said that, I hope it will be a source of enjoyment, some learning, and drawing hearts closer for those who read it.
As they say, ‘The bird doesn’t sing because he has a message. He sings because he has a song.’ This is my song.
My deepest fear is that I will simply die one day
Crying for what might have been
The earth will be free of carrying my burden
And there will be no trace of my passing
What use such a life?
That one lives and one dies
Yet there is nothing to show that either happened!
Nothing was changed
No oppression relieved
No ideas ignited
No lives touched
Just that I had lived
And now I am dead
Chase your dream and know
Dreams want to be caught
To live, the dream must come true
Until then it is only a dream
I walked alone through the desert
I walked alone by the ocean
I walked alone through the forest
I walked alone on the mountain
For I was born to die
But I was not born to die without meaning
I was given the chance to make what meaning I desired
For that is what would define me when I was gone
I ask myself, ‘What did I do?’
What more could I have done?
For in the end it was not about others
It was about me