Before God’s footstool to confess A poor soul knelt, and bowed his head; “I failed,” he cried. The Master said, “Thou didst thy best—that is success!”
It was December 1980. I was sitting on the veranda of my house in Guyana. It was about 9.00 pm, dark, balmy evening in the tropics. As usual on most days in this season, it had rained in the day and stopped. The air was heavy with moisture but the breeze, cool. Before me was the orange orchard of the Staff Hill, bounded on the far side by the forest. The rain-forest of Guyana. The evening had signed off to the night by the booming calls of the Howler monkeys who also announced the beginning of the new day. Scarlet Macaws flew to their roosts, talking to each other. I also heard the chatter of the Sakiwinki (Common Squirrel Monkey) families settling into their resting places. The forest was now relatively quiet, except for the singing of the Cicadas, whose song rose and fell in waves like those of the ocean. Sometimes they would fall totally silent, only to start again in the middle of my deep breath of relief, to remind me that the only way to live with Cicadas, as with some kinds of people was to get used to them. The forest is never totally silent because the forest is a living being. It has living beings in it, but it is itself a living unit which breathes, sings, groans and talks to those who know how to listen. The forest has its own language, which you need to learn, if you want to enjoy being in the forest. Otherwise the forest can be an alien, ominous, even threatening presence to those who don’t understand it.
I spent my whole life
from the school days, to this, in forests. Not that I lived inside them but I
lived near them and where I didn’t have forests near me, like now when I live
in a huge, concrete labyrinth called a city; I make the effort to go to the
forest at least once every quarter, simply to breathe. Otherwise I feel
suffocated and start dying slowly, inside. The forest rejuvenates me, gives me
new life, energizes me and enables me to go on for a while longer. So, that
night I simply sat on my veranda and was one with the forest.
But where does the poem
I began with, come into this story? You ask.
That night, I had finished a very long and protracted negotiation with the union, a marathon session over 72 hours, practically non-stop. But still at the end, we were waiting to see what the union would do. Accept or not. That is when I recalled this poem, which my very wise and dear friend and boss, Nick Adams had mentioned once. You will not be asked, ‘What happened?’ You will be asked, ‘What did you do?’ As someone said, ‘You don’t lose the race when you fall. You lose the race when you fail to rise.’ As long as you rise and keep running, you are in the race. But if you remain down, then you are out of the race. Who decides whether you rise or not?
We are brought up
wrong. In many more ways than one. Let me give you an example. Someone told me
a very tragic story about a highly successful Indian businessman in the US, who
one day, shot himself, his wife and two children, obviously not in that order.
When the case was analyzed, it turned out that he had fallen on hard times and
though he had property which he could sell to settle his debts, he would have
been reduced to penury and would have had to start all over again. He chose
instead to end it all and killed his whole family as well. Someone commented on
this story and said, “The problem is that he was taught how to deal with
success, not with failure. We must learn how to deal with failure.” That may
sound a bit like loser-talk; learn how to deal with failure? Think about it
while I tell you another story.
This is about Thomas Edison, the great inventor and founder of General Electric. The story goes that one night Edison’s famous laboratory caught fire. It was housed in a separate building and before anyone was alerted and could do anything, the whole building and everything inside was a huge conflagration. Edison’s son, Thomas Alva Jr. said, “I was very anxious about my Dad and rushed to see where he was. This was his entire life’s work going up in flames and I was afraid that he would perhaps do something drastic at this tragedy. When I found him, he was standing with his hands folded behind his back, watching the fire. He saw me and said, “Go call your Mom. She is not going to see such a magnificent fire in a hurry.” Thomas Alva says, “I couldn’t help myself but ask him, “But Dad, that is your entire life’s work!” Thomas Edison replied, “Tell me, how many people have the chance to have all their mistakes erased at once? Now go and call your Mother.”
I said that we are
brought up wrong because we are conditioned to seek outcomes and to not only
feel sad, glad, bad, mad based on them but to judge ourselves on the basis of results.
Now, don’t get me wrong. Especially those who know me and know how focused on
results I myself, am. I am not against focusing on results, but on focusing on
them to the exclusion of everything else. I submit that if you focus on the result
alone, that can be detrimental to the result itself and so it is a
What must I focus on,
if not on the result? You ask.
Focus on the process. Focus
on the way. Enjoy the effort. Monitor what you are doing and how you
are doing it. Put metrics on the effort and as I said, enjoy it. The reality of
life is that there are no final results. Every result is like a rest spot in a marathon.
You can stop for a bit, while the rules of the game get changed. Then you run
again. Not in the marathon; in life. The truth is that most of our life, we are
going to be engaged in the process. Most of our time, all our effort and resources
are going to be engaged on the way to get to our destination. If we don’t enjoy
that, then we are going to be very miserable. But if we enjoy the journey, then
we will live a very happy life. As for the destination, well, the right road will
get you there, but only if you keep walking. So, Johnny Walker, keep walking.
In Guyana I lived in a small mining town called Kwakwani, which clung to the bank of the Berbice River, with the ever-present forest threatening to engulf it in an unwary moment. We generated our own electricity using a generator that had a huge flywheel to take care of providing energy for the engine after it delivers the power stroke. Look it up if you are interested in the role of the flywheel in power generation. My point however is different. The flywheel, for those who have never seen one, is a huge wheel with spokes. The one in Kwakwani had a diameter of 30 feet and was made of cast iron. It was a massive piece of machinery. We never allowed the engine to stop but on the annual maintenance day, when the engine had to be stopped for a few hours, the sight of the restarting was very amazing and instructive. To get the flywheel to start turning, it took a huge effort because it was so heavy. After applying all the effort, it would turn just slightly. Sometimes it would simply settle back in place, a heartbreaking thing to see for those who had bust a gut to get it to move. But you never gave up because you knew one thing and that was, that once it started turning, it would go on turning literally forever. If those trying to get the flywheel to move, focus on results, they will lose heart, because for the longest while there are no results, despite all your effort. But if they focus on the process, see if they are pushing hard enough, do whatever it takes to keep pushing, then the result is inevitable and then all they need to do is to stand by and watch it happen.
My most inspirational
creatures in the wild are small birds. Birds which are so small that when they
perch on a blade of grass, it doesn’t bend with their weight. These birds,
their eggs and young, are prey and food for everything that eats meat. And they
can’t do anything to defend themselves or to protect their young. Yet they thrive.
How do they do that? They do it by focusing on the process.
Here is my conversation with one of them, who perched on a little twig right before me and my camera in Wilpattu National Park, Sri Lanka, with a neatly tied blade of grass in her beak. “How do you do it?” I asked.
“I am a bird. It is
my job to build a nest and raise young. I do that job to the best of my ability.
If in the process, my nest is destroyed, I simply start building again. If I build
the nest and lay eggs but before they can hatch a tree snake, a rat, a monitor
lizard or anything else finds my nest, then I escape and let the predator eat
the eggs. I can’t help it. I can’t protect them. But once the predator has left,
I build another nest and I lay some more eggs and I incubate them. It is
heartbreaking when predators find my nest with my young in it. Once again, I must
leave and watch my babies being eaten before my eyes. But then what do I do? I
build another nest. I lay some more eggs and I raise some more babies. That is
why in the end, I survive and my tribe increases.”
I ask you, ‘Have you
ever seen a depressed Bulbul?’ I haven’t. They have no time for depression. They
never give up. They know what they are supposed to do. They do it until they
succeed. No matter how many times they fail in the process. No matter how long
it takes. They keep at it until they succeed. And in the end, they always succeed.
This is a new initiative that I started this week. Leadership is a Personal Choice. It will be available on Google Podcasts (Android) also. Please listen to the introduction first which tells you what this is all about and what I am trying to persuade you to do. Then listen to the first episode, Differentiate. This and more to come, are the essence and extract of my own experience as a Leadership Development expert, gained over 35 years, on 3 continents, working with people of multiple races, religions, communities and nationalities.
This is my tribute to all those who contributed to my growth, all those who taught me life lessons and gave me opportunities to prove myself. All those who challenged me, stood by me, refused to accept anything but the best and who appreciated what I did. What I do today is because of what they did for me. Some of them have passed on. Others are still in my life and I thank Allahﷻ for both. They are too many for me to name and some wouldn’t like to be named. But I salute every one of them and they live in my heart.
I want to share this with you free and I hope you will benefit. Some people told me that I am giving away my capital (because for a Leadership Consultant ideas are billable capital). I said that I would rather give it away than take it to my grave. I don’t know anyone on the other side who needs this.
So, please listen and enjoy this. And if you like it, please share with others and please let us know. All the very best to you.
“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?”
We are now at the root of the problem and it is: Do I want to change my own
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.
(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.
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.
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?
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
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.
also a place of learning. I was alone. I had a lot of time. I loved reading. I
was used to being alone and to reflecting and liked writing down my thoughts.
All excellent ways to conceptualize life experience.
I love the bush and I loved hunting. So every
alternate weekend Peter Ramsingh and I would go on a long drive into the bush
to hunt what we could. Most of this was for the table because in the Kwakwani
of those days, if you wanted variety on your table you had to find it yourself.
And it was not in the Commissary that you would find it either. Mostly, we
hunted the Canje Pheasant found all along the Berbice and its tributary, the
Canje Creek. Another common game bird was the Powis (Curassow). It was as big
as a turkey and good eating. We would also on occasion get an Agouti (Brazilian
Agouti or Red, Orange or Golden Rumped Agouti) or two. And when we were very
lucky, a small Savannah deer. Bush pig, the Collared Peccary (called Javelina)
was also good game and though we both did not eat it, we had many friends who
welcomed our hunts because we were the only people who would shoot a pig and
then give it away.
Peter inherited my yellow Land Rover when the
sawmill started and I got a small Toyota pickup. Peter and I would take turns
driving the Land Rover over the bush trails. It contained in the back,
everything that we needed for our camping and in case of an emergency. A
chainsaw, thick rope, hammocks, spare petrol, an axe, a spade, the ever present
cutlasses and various odds and ends. We would put in a cooler filled with
drinks and some pre-cooked bananas or cassava and off we would go. What would
have been ideal was a cell phone or radio but the first hadn’t been invented
and the second we didn’t have. So we relied on ourselves. What we shot, we
would cook in the bush and eat. What we saved, we would bring home. Sometimes
in the bush we would come across a deep stream and would have to build a bridge
to get across. Sometimes we would get stuck in the sandy soil and would have to
tie the rope to a tree nearby and use the winch on the Land Rover to haul it
out. In the evening we would find a camping place, tie the hammocks to ever
present trees, all conveniently located so that we could tie our hammocks of
course. Then we would light a fire and put on the tea pot. Once we had a nice
cup of tea, we would put on the cooking pot. Peter, meanwhile, would have
cleaned the game of the day. We would get water from the stream nearby, water
that was coffee colored but perfectly clean and tasteless. The bush meat would
go into the pot with salt and chillies, some onions, and as it cooked we would
sit and talk about life.
The big topic of conversation at the time was the
posturing of Venezuela, which bordered Guyana and had a border dispute. There
was some chance that this would escalate to a military conflict. The Guyana
Army was not in a position to face the much bigger and powerful Venezuelan
army, but nobody would admit that. There was some discussion about whether
Guyana would introduce conscription, so Peter was concerned if he would be
called to join the Army. I was a foreigner and so was in no such ‘danger.’ To
speak the truth though, I would have welcomed the adventure. However, as it
turned out, South Americans are far wiser than their northern cousins and the
matter was resolved peacefully.
Another topic was the government of President
Burnham. This was a dangerous topic to talk about in a dictatorship where even
your thoughts would be monitored if they could be, all in the name of freedom
and democracy of course. But we were far away in the bush and Peter was in the
company of a trusted friend. I was therefore the confidant of many ordinary
people who wanted to vent their frustration with the way the country was being
misgoverned. It was amazing to see how a country so rich in natural resources,
so fertile, and with such wonderful people could be run into the ground so
The bush in South America is different from its
counterpart in India or Africa because of the absence of major predators. The
only big ones are the Jaguar and the Anaconda, but neither will actually attack
a person except in special circumstances. So it is possible to actually sleep
very peacefully as long as you are not on the ground.
An hour or so later, once the food was ready, we
would take the pot off the fire, pull out the bread that we had brought, and
have our dinner. Then after some more discussion of world affairs, we would
climb into our hammocks and drift off into peaceful sleep looking at the
stars—possible only because we were at the river bank where the canopy did not
obstruct the view. Those days seem like a dream today. Almost as if they never
happened. And Guyana is so far away from where I am today that it seems as if I
will never see my friends again. Be that as it may, the memories are alive in
my heart and on these pages; they will live on in the minds of those who read
this. We live in the memories that we give others. So it is important to be
conscious of the memories we leave behind. This doesn’t mean that we live a
life for others. But it does mean that we remember one cardinal fact,
‘Everything we choose to do or choose not to do, reflects brand value and
character and is the stuff of memories.’
Remember when you read these pages that if I have
written about a stream, it is there and the water is good to drink. These are
stories of real life, real people, their hopes and loves and fears. And they
will live on until they are remembered.
Peter got another friend Leon Molenuex to build a
flat bottomed boat for me. It was 18 feet in length with a flat bottom, low
sides and a blunt prow. Its back was flat to fix an outboard motor. It had oar
locks and two oars. And it had an ice box in the middle with bench seats, a
plank each on either side of the ice box, forward and rear. Peter and I, and
sometimes Leon would also come along, would load up the boat every Friday
afternoon that we could get away and go up the Berbice River. What did we take
with us? Hammocks, cutlasses, one single barreled 16 bore shotgun each. Rope,
fishing line, hooks and a fishing net. Some rice, cassava, bananas and salt and
pepper. And most importantly some chicken guts in a plastic bag. The last being
what we called our ‘emergency ration’. Not that we ate them, but if we caught
nothing then if you baited a hook with raw chicken guts and trawled them behind
your boat you were sure to get some Piranha. Good eating.
It was a matter of honor for us that we would only
eat what we could hunt or catch. Since neither Peter nor I ate pork, it took
one of the most common items off our menu – Collared Peccary (Bush Pig) that we
would be sure to see. But we never returned hungry. We would trawl as we moved
along and usually caught some Lukanani (Peacock
cichlid, Cichla ocellaris) or Grey Snapper (Acoupa weakfish, Cynoscion acoupa), two of the delicacies of the Amazonian River system and
would roast them for dinner. If we were fortunate then either Peter or I would
also be able to bag one of the several species of Curassows that lived in those
forests. The most common were the Black Curassow (Crax alector) and the
Crestless Curassow (Mitu tomentosum). Or even an Agouti (Cuniculus
paca, Dasyprocta aguti) which is from the Paca family and a relative
of the rabbit and Capybara but much smaller. Game was in such abundance that
there was never a trip on which we had to go hungry but we would also bring
back fish and game for Peter’s family and the families of other friends.
Almost every other Friday evening, we would start
from Kwakwani going upriver, travelling until it got dark. Then we would find a
sandy spot on the river bank and camp for the night. That sounds a bit chancy
when you read it but we had our spots and knew them well so we just headed for
the first one. A sandy bank was necessary because like all the rivers in this
part of the world, the trees of the rain forest trailed their feet in the river
all along its banks. That made landing very difficult and camping impossible.
So you needed to look for a sandy bank. That happened at the bends in the river
where the river deposited its sand and this collected over the years to make
for some very attractive sandy crescents on which we camped.
Our routine was always the same. We would draw the
boat up on the bank and I would collect wood for a fire. Peter and I would then
sling up our hammocks from the trees that bordered the bank, first clearing the
undergrowth around their trunks to ensure that we didn’t end up with unwanted
sleeping partners. We would trawl as we travelled upriver and so we would have
a couple of good size fish in our ice box. Once the fire was lit, Peter would
put the kettle on and I would gut the fish and clean them. Then I would rub
salt into the fish and prepare it for the bake. Taking two large yam leaves (or
any other large leaf), I would wrap the fish securely in it and tie the whole
bundle with a thread. Then I would dig in the river bank for clay and cover the
fish warp with clay and make a ‘brick’ of clay – one for each fish. Once that
was ready, I would remove the kettle from the fire, move the coals aside and
dig in the sand and bury the clay bricks in the hot sand. I would then put the
coals back on top and light the fire again. By the time our tea was ready so
would the fish. We would then dig out the bricks and crack them open, remove
the leaf covering and we had the most delicious baked fish you can imagine for
dinner. There is nothing to beat fresh fish cooked with a little salt, in its
own juices, with a bit of butter melted on top.
When dinner was done, we would climb into our
hammocks and chat about whatever was at top of the mind until I would hear a
snore in response to whatever I was saying. I would know then that Peter was
off on his trip to dreamland. The rainforest is a safe place as long as you
didn’t do anything stupid like sleeping on the riverbank. As long as you are
off the ground nothing bothers you and I am living proof. There are many
animals which are dangerous in these forests but none that will take a human
being by choice. So as long as you stay out of their normal pathways you will
Lying in the hammock waiting for sleep to come, I
would listen to the sounds of the forest and try to identify each one. The
Amazonian rainforest is a rather silent place in the night, unlike Indian
forests. The animals are less vocal and the forest itself muffles sound thanks
to its density – you don’t hear much except insects. If you are near the river
there are not many mosquitos but you do get vampire bats and so you need to
cover up unless you wish to be bitten by one of them. That doesn’t turn you
into a vampire or anything so romantic, but the wound can bleed for a long time
as there is heparin in the bat’s saliva which prevents blood from clotting. In
addition, I am sure vampire bites are not exactly what any doctor would order
so it is better to stay off their menu.
Early next morning, we would start out at first
light, or sometimes even a bit earlier, going over what looks like boiling hot
water because of the ‘steam’ rising from it. That ‘steam’ is the mist that gets
created when the warm water vapor laden air meets the cold river surface and
gives the whole atmosphere an ethereal quality. Engine buzzing with Peter at
the rudder, we would travel in companionable silence, eyes ever watchful for
floating logs. These were the only real danger because if you hit one full
tilt, it would take the bottom out of the boat. A fate not to be contemplated
as the Berbice has Piranha, Cayman, and other interesting forms of life.
The Berbice is a wonderful river that changes its
nature all along its course. Downriver from Kwakwani it is deep enough for
large vessels to negotiate it. Bauxite ore from Kwakwani would be transported
on barges pushed by a tug boat all the way to New Amsterdam on the coast to the
smelter. These tugs would normally have a tow of four barges; each sixty feet
in length which when fully loaded would sink to their gunnels with the weight.
The tug boat captain’s job was a very complex one, negotiating bends in the
river a hundred and fifty feet ahead through frequent blindingly heavy rain
showers and through the night. Since tug boats and barges are about the
clumsiest of watercraft and with the kind of weight the barges carried, this
was no mean task. It was a tribute to the training and skills of tug boat
captains that there had never been any instance of the barges heading out of
the river, cross country across the rain forest.
Going upriver, however, the nature of the Berbice
changes. It is no longer the deep river but spreads wide and shallow with frequent
sandbars; so shallow in places that one could easily wade across. So much so
that on occasion we would have to pull in the outboard motor and drag the boat
over the sandbank. In this also there was a twist. In this river sand, there
were two kinds of dangers. One that it could be quick sand with so much water
under it that if you stepped into it, you could easily sink in over your head
and die a horrible death. To guard against that we would get out of the boat
only one at a time and hang onto the side of the boat until we were completely
sure of our footing. Only then would be let go of the boat and then the other
person would also get off and we would drag the boat over into water deep
enough to float it.
The second danger was that of Stingrays. These are
fresh water rays with a poisonous sting in the tail. Their favorite pastime is
to lie buried and invisible in the sand of sandbars, just under the surface and
wait for something to come within range and then they would sting by shooting a
poisonous spike into it and then wait until it dies to eat it. Their normal
prey is small fish but if you were to step on or close to one of them, then
they would sting you out of fright. I am sure there are more painful things in
life than a stingray sting—I just I don’t know what they are. And if you happen
to be allergic to the poison then 50 kilometers up the Berbice River in the
middle of the Amazonian rain forest is not where you want to discover this.
Even if you are not allergic, the sting means
several days of fever, swollen lymph nodes, swollen foot and almost
incapacitating pain. So what we would do is to put on our boots before we
stepped into the water. Alternatively, you could use a stick and hold it ahead
of you and push it in the sand ahead of you as you walk to ensure that you
disturb the Stingray and drive it away before you get too close to it.
As we went upriver, we would sometimes pass single
houses on stilts on the bank of the river with a little patch of garden at the
back growing cassava, banana, and a couple of jackfruit trees. The house was
one large room built on a high platform with a leaf or grass thatch. The walls
were of woven mat with holes for windows. There would be a couple of dugout
canoes tied to one of the poles with a rickety step going up to the platform.
Children playing on the step or in the canoes would yell and scream at us with
great excitement and delight. If we had time we would stop by and pass out some
sweets or bananas that we would carry for such occasions. Otherwise we would
wave to them and they would continue to wave and yell until we rounded the next
bend of the river out of sight. I always wondered what would make a person go
and live so far up the river in the middle of nowhere, alone without access to
electricity, medical aid, and schooling for his children, and without any
amenities. These Amerindians would hunt, gather honey and balata (wild rubber
latex) and farm a little and would occasionally come to Kwakwani to buy a few
things and sell their balata and honey and some wild meat. But they would not
work at a regular job for love or money nor would they live closer to town.
They preferred to live miles upriver and paddle their canoes several hours to
get to Kwakwani and longer to return, paddling against the current on their way
It was a wonderful experience, buzzing along up
the river hour after hour, listening to the sounds of the forest. Macaw pairs
flying high over the canopy, talking to each other. Macaws believe that
conversation makes for happy marriages and it seems to work for them as they
pair for life and talk all the time. Toucans screaming whatever they scream
about. The booming call of the Howler Monkey sentinel, answered by his
counterpart in another part of the forest. The sudden crash in the undergrowth
as you come around a bend and scare away something that was drinking at the
edge of the bank. From the sound of the crashing you can guess whether it was a
Collared Peccary or a Tapir. Deer and Agouti move very quietly and you wouldn’t
even know that they had been there.
One weekend we decided to go as far as we could
and eventually we must have gone more than a hundred kilometers when we came to
place where the river widened into a huge pool. We entered the pool from the
side that the river flowed out of. On the opposite side where the river flowed
into was a series of rapids and short waterfalls. The sides of the pool were
sandy and made excellent camping ground. We were delighted with the whole
prospect. It was a very beautiful place indeed. Peter and I decided to camp for
the night and pulled onto the sand and dragged the boat far up onto the sand.
No telling if the river would rise in the night and float the boat away. That
is not a prospect to be contemplated, being a hundred kilometers or more in the
middle of nowhere without a boat. Trekking through rain forest is not an
occupation to be thought of easily.
I got the fire going while Peter hung up our
hammocks. Suddenly, I noticed on the far end of the pool near the rapids, a
permanent structure on a concrete platform, a room roofed with corrugated iron
sheets. It looked like a government structure and I wondered what it could be.
Once we’d had our dinner and before it got dark we decided to go across and
take a look at what it was. When we tied up to the little jetty there, an
Indian Guyanese man came down to the water and greeted us. With him was an
American who looked like some kind of technician by the way he was dressed, in
overalls. We made our mutual introductions and it turned out that the structure
was a weather monitoring station with some equipment from Motorola, which
needed repair. The American engineer was from Motorola and had come to repair
the equipment onsite. In the course of conversation, he asked me where I was
from. I told him that I was from India.
He asked me, ‘Where from in India?’
I replied, ‘Hyderabad.’
He got very excited and told me, ‘I have been to
Hyderabad. I have a friend there. His name is J. J. Singh and he works at the
Administrative Staff College. Do you know him?’
I rolled my eyes and said, ‘Do I know him? Of
course, I know him! But look at this, what is the probability that I would be
in the middle of the Amazonian rain forest, hundred kilometers up the Berbice
River, where I would meet an American who I had no idea would be there and we
would have a mutual friend? If there was someone betting on this we would both
be millionaires, man!!’ And we both had a great laugh. Whenever someone tells
me, ‘It’s a small world’, I tell them, ‘Yes, but much smaller than you think.’ And
I tell them this story. To date, nobody has told me a story more unlikely than
The Berbice River was one boundary of Kwakwani to
which it clung in fright from the forest which loomed behind it, threatening to
engulf it in an unwary moment. The mines were the reason Kwakwani was created
and the reason it existed. Kwakwani was owned by the mining company, Guyana
Mining Enterprise, Kwakwani Operations. The Administrative Manager of Kwakwani
Operations was the defacto ‘Mayor’ of Kwakwani. He was not only responsible for
the company’s operations but also for the welfare of the people of the town.
The hospital was owned by the company, which employed the doctor and staff. The
company ran the only store, which was called the Commissary. This store stocked
all basic essentials which, given the resource starved economy, did not amount
to much. The store stocked Dishikis and shirts, cutlasses, axes, pickaxes,
crowbars, hardware and plumbing items, food – mainly staples and some meats in
the freezer section and of course, a very well stocked liquor store. Guyanese
can drink. Man! Can they drink!! The most popular drink is rum; Demarara Rum,
drunk neat or with Coke. A black drink that looks like lube oil. Guyanese eat
large quantities of meat and drink large quantities of rum and they are among
the most friendly and jolly people in the world.
The town was divided in two parts. Kwakwani Park,
which had the workers quarters, some of which were barracks, some twin houses
with two rooms each, and some individual homes in the Self-Help area. Most of
the houses were built with wood, plenty and cheap in Guyana, on stilts with a
short stairway of 6 or 7 stairs leading up to the front door. The stairway
(called ‘Step’) was not only for going up to the house but more importantly for
people to sit on and socialize. Once the work of the home was done, the women
would come out onto their steps and carry on conversations with the neighbors
sitting across the street on their step. In the evening once the men returned
from work, they would carry their drink in their hand and sit on the step and
talk about the day gone by. The Self-Help area was an area that the Government
of Guyana and the company had promoted where people owned the houses they
helped to build. That is why it was called Self-Help. This was a big departure
from the usual norm in Kwakwani where all housing was company built and owned.
Almost all houses in Kwakwani Park had vegetable
gardens; most of them right behind the house in the rain forest which was never
far away. People employed the slash-and-burn type of agriculture, as mentioned
earlier, a method that is widely practiced all over Guyana but is very
destructive to the rain forest. But then again, what do you tell people who
live on the margins and who have to do something or the other to make ends
meet? These gardens provided food for the family as well as some small income
for those who worked harder as they could sell the produce in the market. The
gardens were also a source of protein because they attracted wild pig (Collared
Peccary), deer, capybara, agouti, and curassow. The wily farmer, especially
immediately after the burn when the ash was on the ground and a great
attraction to the animals, would sit in hiding either on a platform on a nearby
tree or on the ground and shoot whatever came. Hearing gunshots in the night
was not uncommon and not anything to be worried about. Some Amerindian farmers
would also set snares with spears and arrows or even sometimes with a stick of
explosive (easily available from the mines) for pig. One, therefore, had to
watch very closely and walk carefully when negotiating a farm in the forest to
avoid becoming an unintended victim of the hunter.
People mostly grew bananas, cassava (tapioca),
pineapple, and sweet potato. The typical Guyanese farmer in Kwakwani was a
person of African extraction; a mine worker in the day who would drive a truck
or some earth moving or mining equipment, or work in the machine shop and then
in the evening he would put on his farming shirt – a much patched, seldom
washed and therefore odoriferous garment smelling of honest sweat – and would
go to work in his farm. He would carry a shotgun in one hand and a cutlass in
the other. He would wear a floppy hat from under which he would look at you and
smile; a smile that would light up his whole face. Then if you said anything
that was even remotely funny, he would shake all over and laugh so heartily
that his whole body would laugh with him; the world would become a better place
for a little while. Laughter and rhythm are the two hallmarks of the African
person. I always say that nobody can laugh or dance like an African. It is
something that is visceral and intrinsic to being African. I have even prayed
behind an African Imam in the US who would do a quiet little dance as he
recited the Qur’an. Highly objectionable in law but then the question is, how
come you were looking at the Imam instead of concentrating on your prayer, eh?
The company had kindly allotted me the house that
my parents had lived in for the year that they were in Kwakwani, so I didn’t
have to move from Staff Hill, which was the senior officer’s enclave. My
father, who started work in Linden at the main Guymine hospital was transferred
to Kwakwani as the head of the small hospital there at about the same time as I
got my job. So for one year we lived together in Kwakwani. Then they left,
returning home to India and I stayed on for three years thereafter. That is how
I was in the house which the company allowed me to retain after my parents had
left – another of Nick Adam’s favors. The house overlooked an orange orchard on
the far side of which was the ever present jungle. Behind the house was a large
open area cleared out of the jungle and then there was the jungle. The orange
orchard used to be well maintained with its grass cut and the orange trees
pruned and fertilized. The orange tree has a lovely shape and on a moonlit
night to sit in my veranda simply looking out across at the orchard was
something that I greatly enjoyed. This was one of the many joys of a TV-less
existence. This orange orchard was also the first time I saw Leaf Cutter ants (Atta cephalotes) at work. I woke up one morning to find one
tree almost completely defoliated. When I went to examine what had happened, I
saw a long line of ants with pieces of leaves in their mandibles busily walking
to their nest. This was a mound about 2 meters in height and double that in
circumference at the edge of the forest boundary. I had read about these ants
and how they use these leaves as a substrate to grow fungi to feed on, but this
was the first time I was seeing them in action. I also knew the cure for them,
which was to collect the refuse from the mound and place it around the base of
the tree, which they then avoid. This, I found to be true. It is said that this
remedy works for up to 30 days but in the case of Kwakwani where it rained
almost every afternoon, it didn’t last that long. These ants have a very
elaborate and complex society and I recommend you read about it.
The house itself was a low roofed bungalow with a
veranda in the front and on one side. It had three small bedrooms with two
bathrooms and a main hall which served both as a dining and living room. It was
very sparsely furnished, so I made some furniture. I got the sawmill people to
saw me a few Wamara planks—with their lovely double colored grain—and got a few
fire bricks and lo and behold I had a complete shelf system in which I used to
keep my books and other some local handicrafts. To one side was the kitchen
with a big gas cooker. The gas cylinder was housed in a small enclosed shelf in
the veranda behind the kitchen and the gas was piped to the stove. I would make
my own breakfast and Naomi, my very large, very concerned, and very domineering
cook from St. Lucia, would come in and make my lunch and dinner. For breakfast
I would usually toast some crackers with cheese on them in the oven and make
myself a cup of tea.
One day, with this intention, as usual, I prepared
my tray of crackers with slices of cheese on them and opened the gas oven to
light it. I smelt something funny, but didn’t give it much thought and struck a
match. Instantly there was a huge explosion and I was thrown back against the
wall. The glass of the oven shattered and my tray of crackers flew out of my
hands. I had a burning sensation on my face but otherwise seemed to be alright.
I ran to the bathroom mirror and discovered that I was minus eyebrows and
eyelashes and my face was very red. The hair on my forearms was also singed
off, but otherwise I seemed none the worse for the shock. What had happened was
that there was a gas leak in the oven and the oven was full of gas. That was
what I had smelt when I sat in front of the oven but hadn’t recognized the
aroma. When I lit the match, it ignited the gas and it exploded. Mercifully, I
had to open the glass oven door to light it and so the glass didn’t shatter in
my face. Having a face full of toughened glass wouldn’t have been any fun. My
beard saved the rest of my face and apart from feeling crinkly with the hairs
being singed, the beard was also intact. It took me some minutes to get over
the shock of having the oven explode in my face and to be thankful for having
been saved. But after that it was off to work with an interesting story to tell
my friends and have them say with great concern in their voice, ‘Man! Ayo
All the truck drivers and bulldozer and earth
moving equipment operators became my good friends and I learnt to drive their
huge machines. To drive a Caterpillar D9 dozer and literally move a mountain
gives you such a kick that I remember the feeling even now, more than thirty
years later. Men can’t move mountains, but they have invented machines that
can. Such are the marvels of technology.
I have reason to remember the D9 and its power in
a personal way as well. One day I was driving to Linden and decided to take a
short cut through one of the Linden mines. As I was driving over the sand
over-burden (this is what the soil that coves the ore is called) I suddenly
started to sink in it. I put the Land Rover into 4 wheel drive and thought I’d
get out fast enough. What happened, however, was that the vehicle simply dug
itself into the sand right up to the axels and I was well and truly stuck.
As I stood there wondering how I would get out, I
saw one of my friends in his D9, who having seen me, was driving towards me.
When he came close he shouted over the noise of the engine, “Man! Baigie!! Get
into your car and put it in neutral.” I yelled back at him in alarm, “Chinee!”
That was my friend Morris Mitchell’s nickname as thanks to large quantities of Amerindian and maybe even Chinese genes, he had the flattest face of anyone I have ever seen.
“What the hell do you think you are doing. You
ain’t pushing my car with that dozer!! It will collapse.” “Man!! Ya do wa I
tell Ya na Man!!” goes Chinee. So I got in and put the gear in neutral. Chinee
dropped the blade of the dozer while he was a dozen yards away from the back of
my car and built up a small hillock of sand between him and me. And this
hillock of sand pushed the car out. The dozer did not touch it. Ingenuity of
people who use these machines day in and day out.
The path through the forest that I mentioned
earlier was one of the most interesting nature walks that I’ve ever taken. I
would walk silently and suddenly come upon various animals and birds doing
their own thing. The hummingbird hovering on invisible wings gently probing the
center of a flower for nectar. The wings beat at such a speed that like the
blades of a fast turning fan, they become invisible. Now the path was gone,
claimed by its owner, the jungle.
One day walking down this path, I saw a boa
constrictor, a young one about eight feet long, slow and lethargic after his
meal, lying across the path basking in a rare patch of sunlight that managed to
sneak through the forest canopy. He made a halfhearted attempt at getting away
and then a fairly serious attempt at attacking me as I lifted him up and took
him home. I built a square cage of 1” thick planks nailed together with big
nails. Inside the cage I put a log of wood, which he would use to drape himself
over. He seemed to like the arrangement especially as it was partially in the
sun under which he liked to soak in the mornings. Boas eat only live prey and
so every few days I would put a small chicken into the cage. The snake would
lie as if he were dead. Totally still, so that you could not even see him
breathe. The chicken, initially ruffled about its treatment and protesting
loudly would quieten down and start scratching in the dust in the cage.
Eventually it would hop onto the log right next to the snake. Talk of bird
brains especially of farm grown broiler chickens who have never seen a snake in
their lives. Then, suddenly, viola!! Magic!! In a flash, no chicken and a large
lump in the snake.
I am very fond of animals and so I had quite a
collection in Guyana. Apart from this snake I had a young Collared Peccary (a
wild pig that lives in the Amazonian rain forests). This thing thought of me as
its mother and followed me everywhere. I did not mind that but drew the line at
him following me inside the house. So he would curl up with my boots which I
left outside the door.
I had a young Tapir, which loved cassava (sweet
potatoes) and I had a lot of trouble keeping him out of other people’s gardens,
which would have been decidedly unhealthy for him and myself. But thankfully,
Guyanese being as they are, though they loved tapir meat and hated anyone
tampering with their vegetables, knowing that this thing belonged to me, they
only yelled at it and sometimes at me. All this was done in a very friendly
way. They would say, ‘Man!! Baigie, you should be with the girls. Instead, you
walk around the forest by yourself and collect these animals. Okay, so eat the
thing man!! Or call us and we gonna cook he for you. But na!! You gotta keep he
as ya frien. You need a gyurlfrien man!! Not a tapir!!’
One day one of them asked me, “Man!! Yawar, ya
raas aint got no guyrlfrien, you ain’t married, you don’ drink, tell me why you
alive, haan??” Then he got philosophical and asked me, “A’yo Indians all like
dis man?? Then tell me how come you so many?? How you mak alladem babies man??”
Simple people with good hearts were my friends from Kwakwani.
I recalled how we used to travel from Linden on
the rickety Kwakwani bus with Joyleen Crawford as the conductor and George
Sears the driver. I remember these two very well as they used to bring the mail
from Linden for which I used to wait like a fish out of water….out of breath.
Kwakwani people never understood why I, a bachelor and a very eligible one at
that (young, nice looking, had money, a regular job, etc. etc…..) was never
interested in the Kwakwani girls. Joyleen tells me today (she mailed me one day
in 2010 having seen my address in some other mail and said, “Yawar is that
you??”) that all the girls of Kwakwani used to bet with each other to see who
would get me. None did, and I did get very lonely sometimes. Lonely and
depressed, yearning for companionship that never came through. The night
outside was dark, as I sat on the veranda gazing into the shadows of the orange
orchard, listening to the sounds of the jungle around my home. The night inside
me was darker still, strange forms and shadowy shapes in the murky depths.
Menacing and frightening and I, without the cognitive tools to deal with that.
It is when I reflect on those days that I realize how AllahY gave me the strength and support when there was
nobody else. Today I realize that His plan for me was better than my plan for
myself. I recognized my Rabb in the breaking of my dreams and learnt to trust
Him and the inner voice in my heart more than the noise of my desires in my
In those years, I learnt the meaning of rejection,
parting, and loss. I also learnt how to pick myself up from the depth of
depression and rebuild my self-esteem, not on the shaky basis of other people’s
opinions, but my own assessment and acceptance of myself. I learnt to like
myself, to forgive myself, to hold myself accountable for what happened to me,
and to stop blaming others. I learnt that it was I who was in control of my
feelings. Other people could do whatever they wanted, but that it was I who had
the authority to decide what I wanted to feel about what they did. I learnt the
freedom of saying to myself when someone did something unpleasant, “I will not
allow him or her to decide how I am going to behave or what I am going to
People may be abusive. We choose to feel hurt
because we accept what they say about us. People may reject us or treat us as
less than themselves. But it is we who decide to agree with them and feel bad.
People may feel threatened when they encounter us in work situations because we
challenge them when we demonstrate our own competence. We feel bad about their
reaction, but fail to realize that to pretend to be incompetent to please
someone else’s ego is not an option. I learnt that the key is to realize that
it is we, not they, who define us.
Nobody can MAKE us feel anything. We feel whatever
we choose to feel. People don’t like to accept this fact because with it comes
the understanding that if I am feeling bad about something, then I am the one
who is responsible for it. It is either a frightening or a freeing situation,
depending on how we choose to look at it. It is frightening if we refuse to
stop looking around trying to find someone to blame for what is happening to
us. It is freeing if we choose to realize that if we are in control then we
don’t need to feel bad if we don’t want to. Slavery is comforting and freedom
is frightening to many people, so they go around feeling bad and blaming others
for what happens to them, refusing to recognize their own role and
responsibility in it. Not willing to face the fact that this attitude only
makes matters worse, not better. Typical ‘victim’ mindset.
Another game we play with ourselves to justify
inaction and copping out, is to express the problems we face in global terms.
We talk about the problem as if it is a problem of the world. We say, “This is
the problem with people today.” Whereas the reality is, “This is my problem
today.” Let me illustrate. If I say to myself that the biggest problem for the
Third World is poverty and a lack of education. Then you ask me, “So what can
you do about it?” I feel justified in saying, “Well, I am one man. What can I
do to solve the illiteracy problem of the Third World?” But instead of this, if
I define this problem to say, “Can I educate one child other than my own?” Then
the problem is solvable. If I do this and I spread the word to others and
encourage them to pay for the education of one child, then eventually we will
see the impact of this on the global screen.
We globalize issues because the solution also
becomes global and then we feel justified in feeling helpless and in sitting
idle and taking no action to solve the problem. But if we choose to redefine
the problem in personal terms, we will find that there are solutions where we
did not think they could exist. The issue of course is that it then becomes
very uncomfortable for us to sit by and do nothing. We are forced to take
action and in that is hope for the world.
I decided in those years that I would consciously
choose the ‘Master’ mindset in every situation that life may put me in. I did
not know these terms then. I invented them more than 20 years later. But they
are grounded in the throes of personal growth and the pain of accepting my own
personal power. Strange to see how accepting that you are powerful can be
painful. But there it is!!
If we think about it, in every situation, no
matter how many things are actually not in our control, there are always things
that are in our control. At the very least, how we choose to feel about the
situation is in our control. How we choose to behave in that situation is
always in our control. To ask instead of telling, to offer instead of
demanding, to contribute instead of consuming, to stand instead of running, to
respond instead of reacting, are all in our control. What we choose to speak or
do is in our control. To choose to do nothing is also a choice and that too is
in our control. Take a simple matter like being stuck in a traffic jam. Most
people start fuming, their blood pressure rises, they start getting restive,
then irritated, and then furious because someone accidentally honked. Road rage
statistics in the US show that the maximum number of cases of verbal and
physical violence happen in traffic jams. And at the end, you are still stuck.
However, there are those who use the same situation and time to catch up on reading, some meditate, some pray, some actually start conversations, and make friends in traffic jams. All in the same situation as those who are ready to kill each other. Lesson? It is our choice whether we want to treat our situation as a problem and complain or as an opportunity that hardship provides and take advantage of it. Problems need solutions, not complaints.