Attitude

Attitude can’t be enforced

“Can we change their attitude?”

“No.”

“Can they change their own attitude?”

“Yes.”

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

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

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

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

The first Kural in Thirukkural is:

Agara mudhala ezhuthellam aadhi
bhagavan mudhatrey ulagu

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

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

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

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

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

Guyana, my first home

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I asked, “Why?”

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

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

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

The Great Slide

The Great Slide

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nations and Forest Fires

Nations and Forest Fires

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So, what must we do?

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

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

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

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

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

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

It’s not about Sri Lanka

It’s not about Sri Lanka

It’s about me.

This is such a time

My mind is numb, my heart is heavy, the tears have dried,

Yet the day dawns and life must be lived,

Unanswered, unanswerable questions,

Actions, reactions, a vicious cycle that must be broken.

As I sit down to write this, my biggest struggle is with myself, ‘Should I write this or not? What use is it? Surely the next planner or executor of the next atrocity is hardly going to ask – Let me see what Yawar Baig has to say before I do this. So why write?’ It is easier to simply do nothing. Withdraw into my shell and hope that one day what happened in Sri Lanka yesterday, doesn’t happen to my own loved ones. How then did I break out of this stupor of grief? By reminding myself of one thing: Those who were killed in Sri Lanka were my dear ones, because anyone who is killed because of his/her religion, race or nationality is my dear one. So, I will speak. I will raise my voice. And I will do it, even if I am alone. Especially if I am alone.

In my view the real purpose behind these actions is not the elimination of any population. That in today’s world is literally impossible. The real purpose is to sow discord and hatred, so that we are all reduced to the same level as the perpetrators of these crimes. Then we become malleable and controllable and are controlled through fear. Fear of our own neighbors, brothers and sisters, fear of our own family members in the global family of humans. This is done by first focusing on the differences in our diversity and then teaching us that these differences are things to hate. That leads to the logical conclusion of hating the person and the entire group that he/she belongs to. It is an age-old tactic, the only thing remarkable about which is that it still works. This is what was used against the Jewish people for centuries in Europe and Russia which led to their ghettoizing and eventually to Hitler’s infamous Final Solution, which educated, moral and (presumably) kind people, watched in silence. Today Muslims seem to be in that boat. It is salutary to note that Hitler’s gas chambers were built by highly educated engineers and scientists. So, for those who think that large scale violence amounting to genocide is something that is left to Attila the Hun, it may be shocking to see that education as we know it is not the solution to our problem. Because our problems are moral and ethical. Problems of our humanity. Not problems of not knowing enough math and science. There are lessons in history and one of the most powerful ones lies in the Jewish Holocaust. It is essential to learn the lessons because nations that don’t learn from history are condemned to repeat it.

As I mentioned earlier, the main purpose of hate attacks is to cause chaos and disruption of society and turn one person against another. This creates a smoke screen which hides real issues. When people are immersed in grief and anger and are looking to hit back, they are not thinking clearly and all they need is a target. That is provided by implying that anyone from the community, religion, ethnicity, race or nationality of the criminal is like him and so can be made a victim in ‘retaliation’. That allows people to vent their anger on innocent people, creates an atmosphere of terror and buys time for those who want in reality to draw the curtains over their own faults and deficiencies i.e. the failure of leadership to solve people’s real problems of hunger, unemployment, lack of access to public health and education, lack of clean drinking water and housing. The issues vary from nation to nation, but it is always a mix of these. Don’t solve real problems, divert people’s attention to hating others, allow them to vent their anger on those who are helpless, and you buy some more time. Those who should really be held to account, voted out, removed from leadership and made to pay, are let off free to plan the next episode in this macabre horror drama called ‘Life in the Modern World’.

But all this will happen, only if we allow it to happen. That is the key and the reason we must ask ourselves, “Do I want this cycle to continue?”

Given that this is a no-brainer, what is the solution? Let me tell you about a unique experience I had just two days ago, on Saturday, April 20, 2019. I was invited to a Passover Seder dinner by some very dear Jewish friends. This was the first time that I was going to a Passover Seder and so I was very interested in what I would see and experience. To accommodate my inability to participate in a meal during which wine would be served, in a completely unprecedented and totally gracious gesture (very pleasant surprise for me), this family made the meal completely alcohol free and drank pomegranate juice instead of wine. This they did despite the fact that drinking four cups of wine is a part of the Passover Seder ritual. What amazed me even more was that the Rabbi who led the proceedings, also accepted this accommodation. Truly a most gracious gesture which left me feeling so very valued and appreciated.

The Passover Seder is about the Exodus of the Jews from Egypt, which is a story that as a Muslim, I grew up with. The story of Musa (Moses) and how he liberated the Jews from the slavery of Pharaoh, is familiar to every Muslim child. It is one of the major stories in the Qur’an as Musa (Moses) is one of the major prophets of Islam, believing in whom is a part of our creed. But what was new to me was the whole Seder meal and what is read during it. The overall theme of the readings was thankfulness. Thankfulness for all the bounties of God that He gave the Jews and of course all of us. What struck me the most was the song of fifteen stanzas each line of which ends with the word, Dayenu (meaning ‘it would have been enough’), but He gave more. This struck me because this is precisely the Muslim understanding of God (Allahﷻ) and His Grace, Mercy and Generosity, that He gives without counting. The overall and overwhelming sense that I came away with that night was that of belonging, not of difference. Strange thing perhaps to hear from a Muslim talking about a Jewish household and ceremony in today’s times. But that is how I felt, the warm glow of which remains with me.

Why is this important and why am I mentioning this here?

It is because in this lies the seed of the solution to hatred. Hatred comes from not knowing about each other, which leads to the situation among most people of being able to believe the worst about them. This is the way stereotypes are formed and strengthened until they become ‘THE TRUTH’, to be believed unquestioningly. On the other hand, when we take the time to learn about each other, we are often faced with some startling facts, which lead us to question our blind beliefs and stereotypes and hopefully allow us to change our stances. I recall my childhood where I grew up among Marwari Hindus as neighbors and went initially to a Christian (Anglican) Missionary school and began my day singing the Lord’s Prayer in the Chapel. I come from a family of practicing Muslims and so my own religion was always familiar. As a result of this eclectic upbringing, I didn’t convert to either Christianity or Hinduism but grew up learning a lot about both religions and communities, by living with them. We lived in each other’s homes, ate together (keeping to our own food laws strictly), celebrated each other’s festivals and didn’t feel that our own religion was threatened by this mutual understanding. I have written about this in detail in my book, ‘It’s my Life’ and so won’t repeat it here. Please read the book. You’ll enjoy it.

I am speaking of this here because the one big thing that happened thanks to this upbringing is that today, when someone tries to tell me about how bad and vicious Hinduism or Christianity are, I have the frame of reference of both from my own life experience against which to check what I am hearing. I reject these messages because I didn’t experience these religions or those who follow them, in that way at all. Ditto Judaism, from my experience which I described above. Therefore, the first and most important thing to do is to ensure that we get to know one another, personally, experientially and closely.

I am therefore able to distinguish and differentiate between the action of someone who professes to belong to a particular religion but does things that are prohibited in that religion. That, in my opinion, places that individual, outside his religion. He is not a representative of his religion and his actions are the result of his rejecting his religion, not of practicing it. So, I reject that individual and his actions, not his religion. In my view, in the case of those who are responsible for the mass murder in Sri Lanka that happened on Easter Sunday, April 21, 2019; those people are criminals and must be treated as such. They must be caught and punished to the full extent of the law. On no account must we accept their professed logic of representing this or that religion and on that account buy into the negative, toxic philosophy of hating that religion or its adherents, who are our neighbors and family. We must do this because we must defeat this hate-filled thinking that is sought to be imposed on us. We can only do this if we reject it. Not if we buy into it.

If not me, then who? If not now, then when?

 I am reminded of a story I heard in 1997, about the man who used to stand before the White House every night holding a candle, in his struggle to have the UN sanctions against Iraq, lifted. One night, it was cold and wet and windy. But the man was there in his place, holding an umbrella and trying to protect his candle from the rain.

The guard at the gate, who used to see him every day, came out to him and said, “Tell me why do you do this? Do you really think you can change them?”

The man replied, “I don’t do this to change them. I do it so that they won’t be able to change me.”

It is very important that we speak out. The time for silence is over. The time for action is here.


Example for our times

They say that reading biographies is perhaps the best way to learn real life lessons. That is because a biography is a record of practice. Of what worked and what didn’t. The life of Muhammadﷺ is perhaps one of the most well documented in human history. Having said that one may ask why his life and all the detail is important at all?

The answer lies in the facts related to his life which are public knowledge. Here was someone who in a period of 23 years, took his people from being the weakest, most despised and oppressed in their community to being the leaders and role models in the same community. And he did all that without lies, cheating, corruption, violence or bloodshed. My question is, ‘Would you like to know how to do that? Would you like to know how to bring about not incremental but transformational change in your society? Then read the life of Muhammadﷺ.’

In the words of J. Krishnamurty, ‘It is no measure of health to be well adjusted to a profoundly sick society.’ I don’t think there is anyone, including the 1% who appear to have it all who will disagree that we are very sick. Humanity is sick. The earth is sick. We are all very sick. We need action. And we need it now.

Call it a strange coincidence but 5th Century Makkah was a microcosm of our global capitalist, pluralist, multicultural, multiracial society. I want to hypothesize that because Muhammadﷺ despite being a person with almost no resources, support or political power, could bring about a complete transformation of his society, then we have reason to hope that the methods he used can work today for us as well.

To quote Alphonse de Lamartine, in his book, ‘History of Turkey’ who said, “If greatness of purpose, smallness of means and astonishing results are the three criteria of a human genius, who could dare compare any great man in history with Muhammad?”

Muhammadﷺ didn’t focus on bringing about any materialistic changes in the lives of people. The changes he brought about ideological, ethical and moral, changed not only their lives but also changed the structure, laws, freedom and behavior of Arab society. Muhammadﷺ brought about changes in the way people thought, in their ideals and benchmarks which led to a change in what they considered important, which in turn led to a change in their behavior which brought about a change in society. As they say, it all begins at the top; in the mind. Once we change our attitude, our behavior changes which leads to perceptible results in and around us. All change must begin with us internally, with how we view the world, what we want from it, what we find satisfaction in and what we are prepared to do (and not do) to get it. We need to define the meaning of a ‘good life’ and be clear about what investment we are prepared to make, to get it.

There are two critical requirements that distinguish all real human development. These are the reasons we remember all great leaders who changed the world. They are concern and compassion. Muhammadﷺ exemplified these in his life and message. Any development that is not based on compassion is not development but regression to a time when the one who had the sword chopped a man in half to test its sharpness, legally. What’s legal is not necessarily right. Example: Apartheid is official and legal in Israel today.

But is it right?

 

 

For more please read:

Leadership Lessons from the Life of Rasoolullahﷺ

Kindle link to Free e-book  – http://www.amazon.com/Leadership-Lessons-Life-Rasoolullah-ebook/dp/B00ED0JC70/

Amazon link – http://www.amazon.com/Leadership-Lessons-Life-Rasoolullah-techniques/dp/1479284033/

Link to free e-book which can be read on any device: http://bit.ly/1zzEC8t