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.

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?”

Be a Shameless Idealist

As I stand here at the tail end of 2018, just a few days before the new year is due to come in, I ask myself how I would like to be remembered. And the answer, hands down is, as a Shameless Idealist.

In your life, if you want to achieve anything worthwhile you must do two things. Firstly, surround yourself with positive people or walk alone. Definitely don’t be around negative people, no matter what you do. The reason for that is because negative people drag you down. I am sure you have had this experience in your life where you are all charged up about doing something positive, about bringing about positive change, about changing yourself, your habits, your goals or initiating change in society and in your enthusiasm, you mention this to your good friend.

His/her immediate reaction is, ‘You can’t do this. It is impossible. It is impractical. There is no way that you can succeed.’

Your heart stops, starts again, you won’t give up, so you must say something, and you do. ‘Why do you say that? I think it is such a good idea. Why won’t it work?’

‘Believe me, take my word for it. I tried this ten years ago and failed. It can’t be done. Try it and learn the hard way if you want. But I am advising you, forget all this. You can’t succeed.’

Does this sound familiar? If you have ever tried to do something worthwhile in your life, I am sure you came across someone like this. If you still succeeded, it was because you did what I am going to tell you to do now. Delete that ‘friend’ from your list. And do it fast. Never, ever tell them any of your plans. As I said, walk alone or find someone who will encourage you.

In 1999, at the turn of the century, the American Society for Training & Development (ASTD) did a survey to see what percentage of training sticks. They went to participants of a wide variety of training courses, three weeks after they had taken that course and asked only one question. ‘What do you recall about what you learnt in that training?’ Now, remember, they didn’t ask about application of the training. They only asked what people remembered. The assumption being that if you don’t even remember what you learnt, what hope of application? The result of the survey showed that only 15% of the people even recalled what they had learnt. That was not because the training was bad, or that people had memory problems. That was because there had been no attempt at putting the learning into practice. What we practice, stays with us. What we simply read or listen to, no matter how enthused we may be with it, is forgotten after a while. One of the major reasons people don’t practice is because their desire is killed in the cradle, by their cynical ‘friends’ who convince them that it is not even worth trying.

The reality of life is that everyone is born with the desire to do something worthwhile in life. Nobody wakes up in the morning and says to himself, ‘Today I am going to be the world’s greatest loser.’ Even if he did that, it would be remarkable because he would not be any ordinary loser; he would be the world’s greatest loser. Everyone wants to make a mark in life, to contribute, to change things for the better. If you don’t believe me, go to a primary school and ask those children what they want to become in life. You will find the greatest collection of pilots, firemen, kings and queens you have ever seen. My most inspiring moments are times that I spend with small children in primary schools. People think the kids gain something. I don’t know about that, but what I do know is that I gain more than all of them put together.

If you don’t have the time to do this, then just recall your first day, first job. What was in your heart? What did you want to do? Did you wake up that morning and say, ‘Ugh! Another Monday! Just let me get through the day.’ Or did you think to yourself, ‘Today I am going to do something that will be exemplary, something that will make a difference in life for me and others.’ I am not saying that you actually said this to yourself in so many words. Not many have that clarity of intention. But it was certainly in your heart, even if not verbalized or even felt clearly. So, I say to you that everyone is born an Idealist.

Then what happens? Life happens. You go to work and your boss tells you, ‘Welcome to this company. We are one big family here. If you need anything, my door is always open. Since you are new here and have a fresh perspective, I am going to ask you for a favor. Please shadow me for a week and give me your feedback about my management style. You are free to interview my direct reports also if you like. But I want you to be totally frank and open.’

You are thrilled. You came to the right place. Your boss is a man after your heart, so open, honest, humble. He is asking you, wet-behind-the-ears-first-jobber for your opinion about his management style. WOW! That is something to write home about. You are on to a great start in this company. You follow the man around. You shadow him. You take notes. You see things and hear things, many of which you wish you didn’t. But you persevere. You talk to others. You listen. Eventually the week is over, and you write your report which in one line reads, ‘Dear Boss, your management style stinks.’ Granted you didn’t actually write that. You are not that stupid. But in effect, that is what you said, because that was the truth and your boss had told you to be truthful, frank and open. You are an Idealist, remember?

Your boss takes one look at the report and while throwing it into the waste paper bin, says, ‘Thanks for the report. You have a lot to learn. I can see that. You can go.’

You are shocked, horrified. Your idol has feet of clay and they stink. But then as you walk down the passage, trying to ignore the glances of those ‘in the know’, you tell yourself, ‘Well, the report probably slipped out of his hand and fell into the bin. He didn’t mean to throw it in. After all, there is gravity. Maybe the poor guy had a bad night. We all do.’ You take a few deep breaths, grab a mug of coffee and carry on. But to your great surprise it doesn’t end there. There are other such incidents. Not only with your boss, but with others. Your Idealism is taking some hard knocks. ‘What on earth is going on?’ You ask yourself. Life is going on. That is what is going on. Your Idealism is strong, but the problem seems to be that the stronger it is, the more you get knocked. But you are still an Optimist and continue to look at the positive side of everything and refuse to believe the evidence of your experience.

But life is relentless. Things keep happening. People dump on you, they don’t keep their word, they make promises and break them, they claim to espouse certain values but do the opposite. They insist on being what they are, i.e. people. It is at about this time that you start becoming what we call a Realist. You are still enthusiastic but now more cautious. Nothing wrong with being cautious, you tell yourself. Especially on cold nights when the bruises hurt. But life is relentless. Things keep happening.

It is at about this time that you acquire a ‘wise’ friend. Someone who has seen life, has grey hair, maybe even a beard and wears glasses. He takes you to the cafeteria, gets you a mug of coffee and asks you, ‘Tell me, what are you trying to do?’

You look at him and don’t know how to say, ‘I am trying to change the world, because it needs changing.’

He says, ‘Look, we were all Idealistic when we were wet-behind-the-ears. But then we grew up. So, don’t feel bad, but you need to grow up. You need to get real. All this ‘always speak the truth; always stand up for the weak; integrity is the foundation’ stuff, sounds nice. But this is India, see?’

You don’t see. You don’t see what difference that makes to anything. How is integrity, truthfulness, compassion, fairness and moral courage any different in India or the US or Australia? These are universal values and good for all people, everywhere.

‘No, they’re not’, says your friend, the Cynic. ‘But Yawar says it differently’, you insist.

‘He has to. He can’t help it. What do you expect him to say? Will he tell you to lie and cheat? But let me tell you, he knows the reality just like I do. He says all this because that is his job as a leadership trainer. They all talk like this. Forget him. It is not his life. It is yours. Wake up or you will get knocked down again.’

Cynics are popular because they make sarcastic, cynical comments. But have you ever seen a monument to a cynic? Plenty to Idealists. But not one to a cynic. Ask why?

Now is your decision point. If you stay long enough in his company, you will become a Pessimist and then a Cynic and eventually both of you will come to the bottom of the pile and become Indifferent. You will stop caring. You will stop getting angry, passionate. You will stop shedding tears. You will pass by as if nothing happened.

But remember one thing and remember it well. The flame of Idealism in your heart which was alive and bright, will still be there. It will keep pricking you from time to time and will tell you that the stories you are telling yourself are the lie. Idealism is the flame that our hearts come with when we are born. All of us. And no matter what we do to try to extinguish it, it will continue to burn as long as we live. We can dampen it, but we can’t put it out. The flame will finally die when we die. Not before.

So, why do people fight you when you are Idealistic? Why do they try to tell you that you are wrong and try to take you off your Idealistic stand?

It is because when they look into your eyes, they see themselves as they were, one day, a long time ago. That frightens them, because in the reflection they see what they did to themselves along the way. Now when you come into their lives and they see you taking an Idealistic stance, they have two choices. Either they kill your Idealism and drag you down to their own level. Then they will be able to live comfortably with themselves for a few days longer. Or they must face what they did to themselves and undo it. The second choice is very difficult and painful, and most won’t choose that, at least initially. But if you remain Idealistic, if you don’t allow your flame to be dampened, then you will find that you will start to light their flames again. And gradually you will find people standing with you, following you, and if you are lucky, going ahead of you. The only condition is that you don’t give up.

I am a shameless Idealist. Have been all my life. And I will die a shameless Idealist. That is because in my mind, if I am not going to do what needs to be done to bring relief, hope, joy and courage to people who need it, then what is the point of living?

It doesn’t matter what others do. They are not my teachers. What matters to me is what I do. For it is not about them. It is about me.

If you think that you are too small to make a difference, too weak to stand up for what is right, too isolated, have no friends and supporters and so are sure to fail, then look at the life of Muhammadﷺ.

About him and his life, the French philosopher, poet and historian, Alphonse de Lamartine said, “If the grandeur of the aim, the smallness of the means, the immensity of the results are the three measures of a man’s genius, who would dare humanly compare a great man of modern history with Muhammad?”

(Extract from Alphonse de Lamartine’s Histoire de la Turquie Paris, 1854, vol. II, pp. 276-277)

When Muhammadﷺ first stood on the hill of Safa and called out to his people with his message of justice, compassion, equality and human dignity, the instant reaction was opposition, anger, hatred and aggression. In one instant he lost all his friends and supporters. He went from being the most beloved to the most hated. If an analyst were to be asked, looking at him standing alone on the hill, what odds he would give to this message being accepted not only by his people present there at the time, but by people still to come in lands yet untouched by it; I am sure the analyst would say that zero was a big number. His chances would be maybe minus ten thousand. But as they say, the rest is history. Fourteen centuries later, today one and a half billion people respond to his message and believe in him.

That will give you the courage to stand up for what you believe in, ignore all analysts and predictions and do what needs to be done, to make this world a better place.

 

Indian Muslims, Looking ahead

If you want to be successful, you must respect one rule: never lie to yourself.           
~ Paulo Coelho
UP elections are over and the results are out. They are surprising for some of us who have become used to living our lives in slumber. But for those who had their eyes open, the result in UP was neither unexpected nor sudden. It is the result of 90 years of dedicated effort by countless people who will remain unknown but whose effort bore fruit beyond their dreams. We Muslims on the other hand, remained content with complaining and begging. The world changed but we remained stuck in a world that no longer exists. UP election result was (or should be) enough to wake us from the deepest slumber so that we learn to deal with the new world in which we find ourselves. Unless we do that, the results will be far worse than what we may imagine.


So, what must be done now that we are faced with this fait accompli?


The principles of resilience are three:

1. Face the brutal facts without mincing words or looking through rose tinted glasses
2. Identify critical aread of impact and work on them. Not everything is equally important
3. Make necessary changes, no matter how painful

This is the framework which I am going to try to follow.

The Brutal Facts

BJP won a landslide victory. All the analysts were wrong. More than being divided, the Muslim presence in politics and the way it was portrayed to others, resulted in the Hindu vote getting consolidated behind the BJP. Muslims have become the bogeyman of Indian politics and it appears that the mere presence of a Muslim candidate is enough to bring out the worst fantasies in the minds of others. That none of this is based on fact is not important. Rumors don’t need facts to thrive. I am not going to make a long list of all that is wrong with the situation of Muslims today. I think we have the intelligence to see that. I will suffice to say that if we don’t wake up and do what needs to be done, no matter how painful, we are going to enter an era of darkness that none of us has faced in living memory. Our fate is quite literally in our own hands.

The truth is not difficult to see but difficult to swallow.
~ Mirza Yawar Baig
Muslims must understand that their development and future in the country is not restricted to government largesse or elections. It is in our hands and depends on the overall sentiment about us as people, as neighbors, as fellow citizens. Today all this is at an all-time low. I don’t say that this is entirely our fault. A lot of it is the result of systematic propaganda against Islam and Muslims which our neighbors believed. However, our inward looking and exclusionist stances have facilitated the misunderstandings and stereotypes. When people don’t know you personally it is easy to believe the worst about you. This has happened to us and this must change.
Elections apart, we simply have to win the hearts of the person on the street, the person next door and the person sitting next to us at work. If we do that well, then the sentiment will protect us from those who seek to harm us. We need to be seen as beneficial for all people. Incidentally this is what Allah described us and our mission – selected for the benefit of people. We need to therefore redefine how we look at ourselves vis-à-vis others and decide what we need to do to change the negative image into a positive one.  

“In order to change an existing paradigm, you do not struggle to try and change the problematic model. You create a new model and make the old one obsolete.”      
~ R. Buckminster Fuller
All change is painful. Drastic change is even more painful. But the most painful is annihilation. That is what must be remembered when we want to complain about what I am about to propose. Annihilation, not literally but in every other way as productive, influential and important citizens of the country. We are facing a future where when the words of the Constitution are spoken, “We the people of India”, 200 million citizens will not be included in the term, ‘We the people.’ Once again, if that comes to pass, it will be with our active or tacit agreement. Nobody to blame but ourselves.
I believe that there are three areas we must address urgently.

1. Societal impact
2. Approach to religion
3. Politial presence

1.     Changes for Societal Impact
Become beneficial and be seen as beneficial. The way to the heart is through the belly as they say. This means that people need to feel and taste the goodness of anything to believe it. Words are cheap and today we are looking at a society that has become intensely cynical and has no trust in anyone’s words. Action speaks; not just louder than words but it is the only thing that speaks. People don’t care what you say until they see what you do. The change must come within our community. We must shed our exclusivist image and communicate with others (non-Muslims). Talk to your neighbors, colleagues, customers. Just talk. Not talk theology but just normal everyday talk. Help them even if they don’t help you. Be good to them even if they are not. Greet them in their terms and thank them for any service; for example, thank the taxi driver, the bus driver, check-in and check-out person, the waiter, the doorman, anyone. Thanking increases blessing and changes hearts. This must be done such that people change their perception about us.
I know this is difficult especially in a society that has become very polarized and Muslims are denied housing and jobs. It is difficult but that is why it is even more critical to do it. As for polarizing society, it is good to remind ourselves that we are equally responsible for it with less justification because polarization is suicide for a minority, yet we did it and allowed it to happen. That is the reason we must change this perception by being genuine and approaching our fellow countrymen and women with love, respect, openness and acceptance. It is critically important to give this message to our children who mirror what they hear at home. Listening to the young ones of all communities tells you a sorry tale about the kind of psychological conditioning that is taking place in our homes. All of us, Hindu, Muslim, Sikh, Esai (Christian) – remember the song?? Today these are empty words. I weep when I recall my own childhood when a friend was simply a friend. His name wasn’t a flag to his caste. We lived in each other’s homes, ate each other’s food, called each other’s parents, Amma, Mataji, Dadji, Papa, Baba. Where did we lose it all?  
When the truth must be spoken, silence is culpable.
~ Martin Luther King, Jr.
 We must set up a fund to create the following institutions open to everyone:
Legal Aid Cell
·        Establish Legal Aid Cells in every city and take up cases of all those who need legal aid – not only Muslims
·        Make a list of cases that need to be tackled in order of priority and ease of winning
·        Make Law a primary study focus for students
·        Ensure that no attack on anyone goes unchallenged
·        Because injustice to one is injustice to all
Focus on education
·        Set up high quality English medium schools which teach vocational skills
·        Open them to everyone – not only Muslims
·        Make it compulsory for every child to go to these schools until the high school level
·        Make Madrassas only for higher education – graduation and above. Not for primary and secondary education
·        Make every child a potential entrepreneur
Employment
·        Set up a Zero Interest Venture Capital Fund and an Advisory Council to help startups
·        Open both to everyone – not only Muslims
·        Send our youth into the army and police both at officer and serviceman levels. This will inculcate discipline and a sense of belonging to the nation, both of which are missing today
·        Teaching, judiciary, journalism & media are professions of choice
·        Zero unemployment is possible with entrepreneurship
Social Development Fund
·        Set up a Social Development Fund to help anyone in need – not only Muslims
·   Focus on prisoners who need bail, hospital expenses, clean water, sewage, housing, vocational education, entrepreneurial development, orphans, widows
·    Focus on women’s economic and educational development to ensure empowerment of women
·        Demonstrate the real face of Islam to the world of helping everyone to be well
Funding for all the above
·        Central collection of Zakat Funds.
·        Capitalizing of Awqaf (Religious endowments).
·        Voluntary contribution of Rs. 100 per person per month.
·        Additional charitable donations.
2.  Approach to religion
Change our ways
The change must begin within us, individually, within our families and within our community. We need to clean up our lives of all forms of disobedience of Allah and ensure that we spread goodness all around us. Islam doesn’t distinguish between Muslim and non-Muslim when it comes to justice or welfare. Neither must we. Our presence must be seen as a blessing in the community we live in, our cities and villages. This message must be spread by all of us in our different capacities. The major share of this lies on the Ulama who have access to the Friday congregations. Their message must be about distinguishing ourselves through service, bringing hearts together and against every form of divisive thought, ideology and message. We need to root out the social evils that our society is plagued with, chief among them being alcoholism, gambling and ostentation. Our ostentatious weddings are a case in point. To celebrate weddings the way we do when our own people are as poor and deprived as they are is immoral and criminal. To participate in such functions is to aid and abet the crime. These are destroying us at all levels and must be forcibly stopped if persuasion doesn’t work.
We must not only consciously not propagate differences and divisiveness but we must forcefully do the opposite. Preach and promote by word and action, inclusiveness, acceptance and brotherhood. Universal brotherhood, because that is the way of Islam. Universal brotherhood is a message that is unique to Islam. That and mercy and forgiveness from one person to another. These two must be revived urgently because our lives are currently desolated and deprived of both. Today, let alone preaching divisiveness with respect to non-Muslims, we preach it with respect to Muslims who don’t belong to our particular cult, juristic order (Madhab), culture or region. This is completely Haraam. It is not in the scope of this article to quote from the Qur’an and Sunnah to prove my statement but there are plenty of lectures of mine with all references that you can listen to.
Secondly on the national front the following actions must be taken with respect to our Madrassas and the AIMPLB. Our Madrassas are a symbol of great dedication but very poor quality. The result is that graduates are maladjusted and incapable of being productive members of society and are looked down upon and treated with disdain. To change this, we need to change what we teach and how we do it.
Madrassa Education
·    Set up a Central Madrassa Board to ensure the following:
·    All Madrassa teachers must be qualified to teach & have a teaching degree. Our Madrassas are perhaps the only schools where teachers need not be trained to teach. This is so incredibly insane that I feel ashamed to write it.
·        Corporal punishment to be banned and punishable if practiced.
·        Madrassas only for higher (college) education. Not earlier.
·      Centralized curriculum, syllabus and examination system. Present curriculum and syllabi to be redesigned to make them current, relevant and effective. Please see my paper on this.
·        Centralized management of funds by the Madrassa Board so that funds can be allotted to those who need them and not be squandered by those who happen to have the ability to raise them.
·        Transparency in all matters and merit being the only consideration.
·   Establish the Maktab system to educate children in Islam. This is very successfully practiced in South Africa, the UK and elsewhere and can be replicated in India.
AIMPLB
·        AIMPLB to abolish triple Talaq and not oppose UCC. Let the government introduce the UCC which will be debated nationally in which we can also participate. No need to say anything until then. The image of being regressive must be changed.
·        AIMPLB membership must be democratized and operations made much more efficient and relevant.
·        AIMPLB to be the sole dispenser of Fatwas on any matter. All random Fatwa dispensers to be stopped.
·        No knee jerk reactions and no working in slow motion.
Subsidies & Reservations
·        Demand that the Hajj Subsidy be abolished. It is a subsidy to Air India, not to Muslims. Refuse to take it.
·     Hajj is not Fardh on anyone who can’t afford it. We don’t need to give our detractors another stick to beat us with.
·        Any travel agent can get us better fares than Air India.
·        Demand that Hajj Committee be abolished. It gives little benefit and with the removal of the Hajj Subsidy its purpose will vanish.
·    Ditto for all Reservations. We don’t need them. Nobody respects beggars. We need to become self-sufficient. Reservations have never solved anyone’s problems and they won’t solve ours. They are yet one more stick for our detractors to beat with.
3.    Political presence
Leave politics as contestants
UP elections have proved that as things stand Muslim presence in politics as contestants only serves to drive everyone into the arms of the Hindutva brigade. Their absence will enable those who stand for principles instead of caste to have a voice to try to steer Indian politics away from a purely caste-based contest. This may sound drastic but I believe our situation today has reached such a desperate state that we need to consider drastic changes. Like invasive surgery and chemotherapy despite the pain and evil after effects become acceptable when life is at stake, I believe we have reached a stage today where our survival as viable, functioning members of society as Citizens of India seems to be at stake.
As I mentioned earlier, it appears that in the future, when the words of the Constitution are spoken, ‘We the people of India’, somehow 200 million citizens will not be included in this definition. So, we should not stand for election any more at least for a five-year period. If you are not there, you can’t become the bogey man. Muslims must break out of it. We must reject all extremist talk and ideas. Polarization may help some individuals but it is suicide for the community. We must partner and cooperate with all those who stand for justice, human rights, dignity and solidarity of the nation.
Conclusion

I believe the time has come for Indian Muslims to rethink their very existence in this country. We are Indians by choice. We love our country and want to contribute to its development. Therefore, it is time to stop living in isolation and start participating in every aspect of life in our country as CONTRIBUTORS. Not merely whine and complain about negative things that happen to us but do nothing positive to help others. Nobody can harm us – unless we allow it. All this will take time and effort. All this will be painful at least to some. All this needs serious investment of funds. But without it, we will cease to exist as relevant and significant members of this society.

The writing is on the wall. The choice is ours.

Never try to change your spouse

Never try to change your spouse

There are two kinds of correctional institutions. One is called prison. The other one is, but is called marriage. One has a specific term you must serve. The other one is for life. In one you get paid to be there. In the other, you pay to be there. Both specialize in trying to make you something which you don’t want to be but which the powers that be have decided, that you must become. You have two choices in both. Fight to the bitter end. Or succumb. There are those who are stupid and those who are smart. The stupid ones’ fight and fight until they can’t fight any longer. If they are lucky, they die fighting. If not, they gradually weaken and end their days in forced submission, their hearts aflame and fluttering like caged birds, yearning to be free, even if it is by death. The smart ones decide early enough that prisoners that fight can never win. They system is stacked against them. So, either they escape. Or they learn to like the smell.
 
The worst, most degrading, most toxic thing in a marriage is to live under the cloud that you are not good enough. Many children live this life during childhood but with the consolation that they didn’t ask for the parents they got. But what is the consolation for the adults who get into such a situation voluntarily? Living this life is a constant barrage against your self-esteem which can have only one end – bitterness and hatred. But it is amazing how few of those who have power, realize this.
That is why I called it a ‘correctional institution’.
 
It appears when you look at some marriages that the only reason one person married the other was to change them into something that was compatible to their imaginary model. I say ‘imaginary’ because I have yet to come across a spouse who had a model which was both positive and negative. All models that spice want their spice to become are all- positive as defined by them. That is like wanting a ‘white Christmas’, in the Sahara Desert. It is by nature and definition impossible. Trying to do something which is impossible, is to set yourself up for failure. The results are always, without exception, catastrophic. Yet we continue to do this, generation after generation.
 
Why does this happen?
 
I believe it is for two reasons; arrogance and ingratitude.
 
Arrogance because one of the spouses considers themselves to be superior to the other and makes it their life goal to ‘improve’ them and bring them on par with themselves, and so make them worthy of being their spouse. What they forget is that they married someone they liked. They forget what they liked. They are only conscious of what they discovered after the honeymoon; that which comes with the packing and which they didn’t realize because they didn’t read the fine print of the Creator. So, they set about trying to change that. To do that, they must necessarily be dissatisfied with what they have because it is dissatisfaction with status quo that drives every improvement or correction initiative. They thus condemn themselves to ignoring the good that is also in the package because they are so focused on the ‘bad’. That they have cursed their own life, they are oblivious to. That they have become the curse in the life of the spouse, they don’t care because they consider themselves to be a blessing and not a curse. And since they are neither interested in ‘customer feedback’ nor are inmates of correctional institutions empowered to give feedback, the opinion of the subject of their attention is immaterial.
 
Ingratitude because every person has both positive and negative qualities in them. This hardly needs reiterating but it is so often forgotten or ignored that I must state it upfront. Imagining that something in the spouse is negative because you don’t like it, is arrogance. Ignoring the positive in them and treating it as something that is your birthright is gross ingratitude. Both these attitudes are damaging for the other because it is as if his/her entire existence is being judged worthy or not on one parameter alone – does it please the other person. Before the 18th century that used to be called ‘slavery’. I would submit therefore that if you find that some of what I have said applies to you, please reassess your marriage and ask yourself if you are in a marriage or running a correctional institution?
 
To be brutally frank, marriage is actually a ‘honey trap’ that exists for the propagation of the species. It exists for one reason only, that children may have a stable nest in which to grow to fledgling-hood. All the rest is fluff to make it look attractive to those who are going to do the work and pay for it. Anyone who thinks that marriage is for companionship, supporting each other and so on can easily see that all that costs less to do by itself without signing your warrant for lifetime incarceration. A friend, your therapist, a one-time gift, all cost less, have no complications and leave you feeling good and positive. I have yet to see someone unhappy after meeting a friend or giving a gift.  
 
So, children come into the world with two parents to care for them, change nappies, pay their bills, buy them the latest gadgets and set them up in life to believe that the world owes them a living. Children born without two doting parents imagining that their piece of meat is God’s gift to mankind never learn this lesson and live in the world knowing that they must struggle to succeed. Hardship that doesn’t kill you always strengthens. So, those who suffered while growing up always beat the living daylights out of those who lived the sheltered life; just as the tree that grows in the crevice clinging to the rock weathers every storm while the one with a lush canopy and shallow roots, is knocked flat by the first gale. If children were not in the equation, marrying someone and pledging to care for them all your and their lives, subjugating yourself to their demands and considering yourself and your life a success or failure based on their subjective judgment, makes no sense at all.
 
So, what must you do?
 
Go look in the mirror and tell yourself that the only one in the world who thinks that you are an unqualified blessing is perhaps your mother and that too, perhaps. Tell yourself that you married your spouse because you liked them, not because you found them when they lost their way to their shrink. They didn’t come to be changed. They came to be friends, to share their lives, to slog their butts off to keep you in the style to which you have become accustomed. Surely that deserves a ‘thank you’? Look at their good side. The side you married them for. 

Get a selective memory that doesn’t stockpile all the garbage that every human relationship generates. Remember the good. Get amnesia about the bad. Ask not what your spouse can do for you. Ask what you can do for your spouse. Thank you, President Kennedy. And finally remind yourself that your spouse is human and whatever he or she came with or without is what any other human would come with or without. If you don’t believe me, ask Elizabeth Taylor. And if you don’t like what human beings come with, marry a gorilla.
 
Does that sound crazy? You bet it is. So, pray that your spouse remains crazy and never gets cured or he will wake up to the fact that your correctional institution has no walls or gates.