SEE WITH YOUR HEART
I was on the treadmill in the gym in Hyderabad when my Nokia phone rang. I answered the call and it was the Visa Officer from the Saudi Embassy in Delhi. I couldn’t hear him thanks to the deafening music in the gym, so I got off the treadmill and went out to talk to him. He said to me, “Shaikh we want to invite you to speak at the International Haj Conference in Makkah which is held just before Haj. Would you be able to accept our invitation?”
I was resting in my tent in Mina when I was paged. It was an official from the Royal Palace in Mina. He had a register in which he requested me to sign, in token of having received the invitation which he brought. It was an invitation in the name of His Majesty King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz Ibn As-Saud (May Allahﷻ have mercy on him), the noble son of the King who received my grandfather, inviting me to a banquet at the Royal Palace in Mina. This was totally unexpected. I didn’t expect to be invited to a Royal Banquet, but there it was. The man then advised me about the protocol with respect to meeting the King.
Guests were very special firstly, because they were few and far between and because they came from the ‘outside’ world and brought news of what was happening there. Remember I am talking about the period 1983-93. The time before almost everything we know and take for granted today. This was pre-Google, Apple, mobile phones, even TV. Where there was TV, it was Doordarshan. Cable TV didn’t exist in the plantations.
Those were the days my friend
We thought they’d never end
We’d sing and dance forever and a day
We’d live the life we choose
We’d fight and never lose
For we were young and sure to have our way
On a side note, today when I talk to people about parenting, I think of my parents and the parents of our friends, who didn’t think twice about allowing two teenagers to take their horses and go off camping all night in the bush. I would go off for weeks to the farm of my friend, Mr. V. Rama Reddy in Sethpalli, in the middle of the Adilabad jungles, with no communication to my parents from the minute I left home to the minute I returned, but they never prevented me from doing it. That is what built our character. We were not mollycoddled or over parented by anxious mothers and paranoid fathers. Of course, the world was also a different place.
‘Horse riding’ was a bit of a misnomer really and it should have been called character building. Our Ustaads didn’t just teach us riding. They taught us character, manners, discipline, commitment, and responsibility. They didn’t achieve this by ordering us around. After all, they were instructors in the Riding Club. And we were not troops under their command, so they had no real authority over us. However, they offered us opportunities, most of the time unspoken, but clearly what resulted thereafter was the result of the choices we made. It was their way of influencing without authority – one of the most important lessons I learnt in my life. A lesson that has continued to yield results, working across cultures and nationalities both in the corporate world and later as a consultant and teacher. Naturally, they had no idea all this would happen. But I would be a gross ingrate if I didn’t acknowledge their contribution, albeit unconscious.
Walking under the trees in the Shola forests is an experience that is impossible to describe but which once lived is never forgotten. Your footing is very uneven and slippery and so you must walk carefully. The ground is soft and damp and usually inclined, so you have one foot higher than the other as you walk. Not very conducive to long walks. But as you walk, suddenly you hear a rustle and a loud cackle and you see the fast disappearing tail feathers of a Jungle Cock and his harem, who were busily feeding on seeds and insects until you disturbed their breakfast. At this altitude in South India, it is the Grey Jungle Fowl that you will see. This is literally the grandfather of all chickens, as all chicken species are supposed to have descended from this one. The females, as in the case of many birds, are a plain brown, their beauty lying only in the eyes of the beholding roosters. However, the males are flamboyant (takes more to attract a woman, I guess) with literally fluorescent, scintillating colored feathers, especially on the neck, which we call the hackle. These feathers shine and change color depending on the angle of the sunlight. The head is topped by a blood-red comb and the tail is a flowing graceful postscript to the whole story of the Grey Jungle Fowl. Just to see them move is a joy. Having extolled their virtues, let me add that they are very good eating, though a lot more gamey than farmed free-range chickens. The hackle makes extremely good flies for fly fishing and a couple of hackle feathers in a hat look very attractive indeed. However, farm chickens are easier to get, and the hackle looks far nicer on the neck of the rooster, so leave them alone and shoot only with your camera.
There are critical incidents when as a leader you must take a call. At that moment you are alone. You believe in the depths of your heart that you can succeed. You know in your gut the real challenge that you must face. You are afraid, but you don’t show it. You take the first step forward and then you stand aside and watch yourself. For the rest is already written. And it is waiting for you to take the first step, so that the script for the right scene can be played out. Once you take the first step, doors open from undiscovered places. Once you take the first step, angels descend and walk with you and turn aside the hand that rises to strike you. And AllahY puts love and respect in hearts where once resided fear, anger, and hatred. All this, however, depends on the first step. For that one instance, you are alone and all of creation is waiting to see what you will do. It is the choice you make that decides what the consequences will be. We are free to choose. But no choice is free. Every choice has a price tag.
In my tea planting days, one of the things that I was very proud of was my knowledge of and relationship with my workers. I knew them all by sight, most by name and of many, I knew their family connections as well. They, in turn, treated me more like a tribal chief cum family elder rather than the Manager of the estate. This meant a pressure on my time because people would come to me with marriage issues, domestic violence complaints, children not doing well in school and needing some talking to and so on. But it was worth it because of the relationships that I was able to build. To do this successfully you need to be genuinely interested in people and want to help them. Acting can’t be sustained and people see through the sham. But if you are really interested and want to to help, they respond far more than you may have expected. That is so heartwarming and beautiful, that I can’t even begin to describe it.
The Anamallais are also home to the Gaur (Indian Bison). Since they have plenty to eat in the rain forests of the Anamallais, they grow to huge sizes. As they live in thick forests, their horn span is not too wide, but the animals themselves grow to enormous sizes. There was one particular bull that lived in the coffee estate that Tata Tea owned, about halfway between Sheikalmudi and Valparai. He had been named Tyson by some rather unimaginative planter. We would almost always see him when we returned from the Anamallai Club late at night. He was totally harmless if you did not trouble him, as are all Gaur, but he was huge. Easily standing over six feet high at the shoulder and weighing probably in excess of two-thousand kilograms with the signature white socks on his massive legs, he was a magnificent animal. He was probably an old bull because he was always alone and had probably been driven away from the herd. If that was the case, I would have liked to see the one that drove this one away. For all their size Gaur are amazingly agile. This bull would clear the 6-foot-tall barbed wire fence with the electric wire over the top in a single standing leap without even a run up. You can imagine the power in those hind legs which could make two tons of body airborne.
The biggest learning for me in this entire incident was the difference between theory and practice. I knew from all my reading and talking to experts that even if you get to the stage where you are facing an elephant which snorts in warning, all you need to do is to start moving back slowly. Not run. Not make any noise. Just move back slowly. Continue to face the animal but keep moving away and increase the ‘trigger distance,’ which can precipitate the charge. Now, does this work in practice? Who knows? What I did and what you will also probably do if you are ever in such a situation, is to turn around and run like hell. Knowing fully well that a person has as much chance of outrunning a charging elephant as they have of outrunning an express train. And that unlike an express train, this one is not bound by the railway track. But then there is a force that protects that is more powerful than the elephant, which will pick you up by the scruff of your neck and put you high above harm’s way. So, theory is good. But practical life sometimes plays tricks with theory.
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. 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.
From Nawab Nazir Yar Jung, I learnt the importance of commitment to quality. He never once used the word, but he never accepted anything but the best. Be it in breeding dogs or in their training, or in training horses. Attention to detail and insisting on the best. He was an expert in Judo and that also added to the quality of what he taught us. He taught us many self-defense techniques using our bare hands or ordinary objects of everyday use that are always at hand and can be converted into weapons to defend yourself and make the attacker think twice about attacking you. Martial arts training is more about training the mind than about the body. Martial arts is about living with awareness, studying your opponent, discovering his weakness, and exploiting it to your advantage. It is also about building your opponent a bridge of gold to retreat over – as Sun-Tzu calls it. But to do that you have to conquer your ego before conquering your enemy. The worst enemy is an overindulged ego.
Snakes have always had a fascination for us. We fear them, some people worship them, we hate them, and we kill them. Those who don’t do any of this and instead, appreciate them for what they are; rodent controllers, snake population controllers and just plain law-abiding citizens with as much, if not more, right to be left alone in peace, than we do, are a rare breed. The reason is the prevailing ignorance about snakes and the proliferation of myths. Ignorance breeds myths and that leads to hatred. This is the basis of all stereotyping, demonization and violence; ignorance about the subject. Applies to all subjects, be they snakes or people.
I am so grateful that I am one of the ‘Innocents’. And I can still recall what it was like to lie in the sand of a riverbed on a dark night, looking up at the stars and wondering if what I was seeing was still there. I didn’t even have a wristwatch because those were rare and, in any case, I was too poor to afford one. Such beautiful days. I recollect this when today, thanks to big data my words are transmitted all over the world to places that I have never been to and probably never will. I have seen both worlds. My generation is a generation that straddles times and change. We have seen more fundamental change than both our predecessors and successors and we love it.
First, when they tell you that age in a number and that it is all in the mind, believe me, it is true. You are as old as you allow yourself to feel. This is not a pep talk. This is fact. I am 63 and I know what I am saying. It is your call. Pick a number.
Life has now come full circle for our generation. We, who left our homes, cultures, countries and families and lived and worked in alien environments. It is now time to consider our own relevance to the next generation. Do they need us? Can we communicate with them? Do they understand us, and do we understand them? Are their any real connections between us apart from the fact that we share genes? Genes have no feelings; we do. What will happen to us when we sit in the chairs that our parents spent their last hours of life in, staring at blank walls? I realize that perhaps I am being a bit over-dramatic but better to be prepared than to be sorry. What is the solution?
Anyone can teach you what to do. But hard taskmasters teach you standards. That is the biggest favor that anyone can do for you. That is what I owe to AVG and Ahmed. Both were the kindest of people off the job, but on the job, it was a different matter. If you did well, not only did they appreciate it, but they made sure that your work was highlighted as yours and they didn’t take credit for it. But if you were careless, or brainless, then you were in for a chewing. Mind you, if you made a well-intentioned mistake in trying to achieve something new or introduce an innovation, your ‘mistake’ was praised. But if the mistake was because you had not applied your mind, were just being plain lazy or stupid, then you learned about that pretty graphically.
Tea planting was a way of life. It was not a job. You loved it and thrived. Or you didn’t and left. I loved every moment of it and still do. You can’t be a good planter if planting is merely a job for you. Planting is a lifestyle, which even to this day, I will be very happy to return to, if someone is ready to give me a job, mentoring youngsters who join planting. For me, just to live in the Anamallais is a privilege. Any takers?
Raman and I would discuss the reasons for corruption in our system. Our people, the vast majority of them are good, simple, and have sincere hearts that have learned to become helpless. Every conversation ends with the same refrain, ‘Ah! But what can we do?’ The reality is that if anything can be done, it is only we who can do it. But this remains an elusive concept. Having put that to rest, we would watch the fire and simply sit in companionable silence, waiting for dawn. Raman proves that he is made of gold by pulling out a flask with piping hot tea and he and I share the tea and wait for the night to pass.
Gradually our talk runs out and we doze in spells. The fire starts to go down and every once in a while, either Raman or I put another log into it. Time passes. We see the owls that had left the previous evening, return to their perch and they have a long conversation recounting tales of the hunt. I have no idea whose story was more impressive, but both seem to have a lot to talk about. The sky is now starting to lighten. There is a strange blue light and I feel as if I am looking at the world from the bottom of the ocean. Then an orange tinge starts at the very bottom of the horizon and gradually grows upwards as if a fire has been started and is strengthening. And indeed, it has.
Our Blacksmiths kept machinery which should have legitimately been given a decent burial in the 19th century, alive and kicking – generating electricity, running pumps, factories and what-have-you. Amazing work, mostly unsung but hugely appreciated by those who benefited from it. These ‘Blacksmiths’ were able to keep not only the Crossley engines running but handled anything that moved with equal confidence and aplomb. This included tractors without generators or starters, motorcycles with temperamental carburetors and even the Peria Dorai’s (PD) car. All passed through the hands of the Estate Blacksmith and lived to tell the tale.
Life was simpler in those days. We had less technology and more time. People were more open, warm, and less complicated. People looked at commonalities and bonded on that basis. If I think about how many differences there were between me and some of my dearest friends, I can tell you that we differed on many things. But what we had in common was enough to keep our hearts together for now over forty years. That is the real meaning of respect. Not to demand that everyone becomes vanilla flavor; one ‘official, approved version’. Real respect is to respect difference and the right of everyone to live that difference without demanding that they change or even explain why they are the way they are. Real respect for each other is to accept our differences like the giraffe accepts the elephant’s trunk while the elephant accepts the giraffe’s long neck. That’s it for now. Vanakkam!
One cardinal fact of plantation life always took its toll – nothing in planting life was private. If you took a bribe, its exact amount, who gave it, and for what, was the subject of much conversation in the bazaar. If you refused to be corrupt and lived a life of honesty, that also became common knowledge. The result was that the actual love and respect that you received from the workers and staff was directly proportional to the kind of life you lived. And in the end, it affected your own success, the loyalty that people showed you, and the peace of mind you lived with. People spoke with great respect about managers who were incorruptible and with disgust and disdain about managers who were corrupt. And in a place where you were the subject of most conversation, public opinion made a very big difference to your success as a Manager.