born in the mid-to-late 1970s are the last generation of humans on the planet
to have grown up without the internet. Social scientists call them the Last of
the Innocents. In his book The End of Absence, Vancouver writer Michael Harris
calls people who grew up prior to the popularisation of digital culture
“digital immigrants” — they have lived both “with and without the crowded
connectivity of online life.”
no person on earth will remember what the world was like before the internet.
There will be records, of course (stored in the intangibly limitless archive of
the cloud), but the actual lived experience of what it was like to think and
feel and be human before the emergence of big data will be gone.
demise of the Last of the Innocents will mean the loss of an entire plane of
human experience — the time when, faced with long hours of nothing to do, our
attention was allowed to wander; when there was time for reflection and
introspection and devoting attention to people we were actually with; when idle
summer nights could be spent in the yard catching fireflies and days would be
spent lying in the grass looking for faces in clouds. – The Guardian”
God! How true that is!!! I am so grateful that I am one of the ‘Innocents’. And
I can still recall what it was like to lie in the sand of a riverbed on a dark
night, looking up at the stars and wondering if what I was seeing was still
there. I didn’t even have a wristwatch because those were rare and, in any
case, I was too poor to afford one. Such beautiful days. I recollect this when
today, thanks to big data my words are transmitted all over the world to places
that I have never been to and probably never will. I have seen both worlds.
a disclaimer: Nostalgia alert: Not everything old is or was good. Not
everything new is or was bad. But nostalgia feels so good. Enjoy and keep the
the world before plastics, glasses were made of glass, or copper or silver and
water tasted better in them. Bottles were transparent glass or opaque ceramic.
But both were breakable and did. Plates were ceramic beautifully painted. Also,
breakable and did. We also had steel plates which didn’t break but were less
classy. Buckets and tubs were unbreakable, made of copper or galvanized iron
and made a loud clang when you put them down and dropped the handle. So, you
were careful to put the handle down gently.
bags were cloth, washed and reused until they wore out and then served as dish
and polishing cloths until they vanished. Chairs were wooden or metal – some
foldable, some not. All heavy and unstackable. So, when plastic bottles,
plates, cups, buckets and tubs and above all plastic bags came to be, we were
thrilled out of our minds. Transparent like glass but doesn’t break? Buckets
and tubs lifting which didn’t break your back? Chairs that could be stacked and
put away when you didn’t need them? Shopping bags that you could print your
label on and which the customer could use for other things or simply throw
away? No need to wash and dry and reuse. Truly a vision of convenience heaven.
were wooden cots without springs with cotton mattresses on them. Every year a
man would come with an instrument that resembled a great bow and would be shut
into a room with all mattresses. He would unstitch one side, pull out the
cotton, prong it with his bow until it was fluffy once again and then stuff it back
into the mattress. When you entered the room to give the man a cup of tea, you
had to look for him in the white cloud of cotton fluff and dust that he
generated. The drumming sound of him working was like an out of tune sitar.
What it did to his lungs breathing in the cotton fluff, is not something that
either he or we were conscious of but thanks to spring-less beds and firm
mattresses we didn’t have backaches. PUF was unheard of. Foam was on soaps, not
mattresses. And soaps were in the bathroom, not on TV. There was no TV.
home had resident wildlife – sparrows in the rafters making an infernal din
every morning belligerently defending their nesting sites from intruders. In
Urdu they are very aptly called Khana Chidiya (Khanchudi in Deccani) – house
bird. Their feathers and at nesting time, all the grass and other tidbits they
brought and then allowed to fall – they are incredibly messy nest builders –
meant that the house had to be swept twice or three times a day. Occasionally a
sparrow would get brained by a lazily rotating fan because they never seemed to
realize that trying to perch on a moving fan was a bad idea. We would pick up
the dazed bird and revive it and put it on a windowsill so that it could fly
away when it wished. It never occurred to us to de-sparrow the house.
Sweeping was preferable to an aseptic house devoid of the chirping of
the sparrow. Today with all the concrete and glass and pesticide sprays in
the fields, sparrows are gone.
water came when it came so everyone had storage tanks in bathrooms. If those
ran out there was the Bi-hish-ti (literally: man from heaven) who came with a
leather sack slung over his shoulder and topped up the tank. More usually he
would water the garden and simply sprinkle water in the yard after sunset to
cool the place down before our cots would be set out for us to sleep under the
stars all through summer. Those who didn’t have gardens had terraces or flat
roofs used for the same purpose. How did it feel to lie in bed and look at the moon
and stars through your mosquito net, secure in the thought that your house was
not being burgled while you slept? I don’t think I can even tell you to try it
out today. The world before plastics was different.
that world we had no computers, but we had time. We had no TV, but we had
friends. We had no cell phones, but we spoke to people face to face.
Conversation was an art, taught and learnt and grunts didn’t substitute for
words. Language had value and was acquired and husbanded – new words tried out
to see how they worked – phrases repeated, shared and appreciated. Poetry was
an actual form of self-expression that underlined the thought and the ability
to quote the right couplet at the right time was a mark of a person’s
education. Conversation didn’t simply revolve around politics or controversial matters,
but we talked about thought leaders, exemplars of our past and shared their
thoughts and writings, often verbatim – memorizing and quoting them being a
sign of our own worth. An hour or two passed in this way, drinking tea and
reciting poetry and marveling at the turn of phrase, expressing thoughts that
touched the heart was something to be looked forward to and back on with great
worked in the home or for our families for love or duty but never for money. We
were never offered money and would have considered it an insult to be offered
payment for doing something for our family members, no matter how distant. The
concept of paying children to work in the home was unheard of and considered
deplorable. Money was called ‘dirt on the hands’ – we dirtied our hands for the
experience. The dirt came as a result – we didn’t work for it. Mentioning what
anything cost, what anybody earned or what anyone had spent on a gift, meal or
any other form of hospitality was considered insulting and crass. Hospitality
was a value, not an industry. The guest was someone you invited home to a meal.
To take him to a restaurant was considered a lapse in the standard of
hospitality. Even if you did it, it was done under duress. Never as a choice.
If some family member informed us that he or she was arriving from another
city, it was the standard for us to meet them at the station and bring them
will never forget the picture of my great-uncle Nawab Ruknuddin Ahmed standing
on the platform on Chennai station with garlands when I arrived there in 1985
with my newly wedded wife Samina. He was staying with his daughter, Aunty
Jahanara, who we would be transiting with on our way to the tea gardens where I
worked. Even though it was not his home that we were going to, Mamujaan honored
us by personally receiving us at the station. But then what am I saying? How
can the daughter’s home not be his home? Just as my aunt’s home was my home. We
learnt from the actions of our elders. Tradition was to keep those memories
alive – not only by talking about them, but by emulating the actions. For a
family member to stay in a hotel instead of at home with us, was an insult to
our honor. The thought that elderly parents could be sent away to a ‘home’ was
unimaginable. Home was where we lived – not some place to shunt old
inconvenient elders to, to be taken care of by strangers. They were our elders.
We remembered what they did for us when we were little. To do the same for
them, was not only our duty but not even something we considered remarkable.
that world we played real games on real earth not virtual games on a gadget. We
ran, sweated, yelled ourselves hoarse, tore our shirts, fell down, skinned our
knees, got covered with dust and when it was raining with mud and considered
all this as having a whale of a time. In these games we learned leadership,
sharing, standing up for our friends, being done in by those we trusted and
learnt lessons from all of them. We learned to work as a team, strategize and
see the result of that strategy. We stood up for each other, never reneged on
our friends, even when we sometimes had to pay the price for that loyalty. We
settled with our friend in private but stood by his side in public. You didn’t
turn your back on your friends. It was as simple as that. It didn’t matter to
us what the color, religion or social status of the friend was. It didn’t
matter what car he drove because we all rode bicycles. It didn’t matter
what brand of clothing he wore because we all had clothes custom tailored by
the Darzee (tailor) in our Muhalla (neighborhood). Bell bottoms were in fashion
and we wore them. So were pointed shoes, and Brylcream in the hair. It didn’t
matter whether the friend was rich or poor because at the end of a good
football game, we all looked the same – the color of mud. It didn’t matter if
he was tall or short, handsome or ugly. What mattered was that he was my
friend. That was all.
that world manners were everything. Manners meant that you showed respect to
elders by greeting them first and standing up for them. By anticipating their
needs and running to fulfill them. Manners meant that if an elder had to carry
a chair to a place where he wanted to sit, it was an insult to you as the
youngster who stood by and watched. Manners meant that you spoke politely after
asking permission and listened more than you spoke. ‘That is why you have been
given two ears and one mouth’ – we were told. Manners meant that when guests
came home you served them, not servants. That you were in the middle of
studying for your exam meant nothing. Guests were more important than exams.
When the guests left you went back to studying and still got straight A’s. No
compromising on results.
that world, we read books. Not occasionally but every single day. We had our
favorite authors, but we still had to read the classics mandatorily. Books were
(and still are) our best friends, opening doors into worlds unexplored. We saw
the scenes as we read about them, laughed with the actors in those stories,
shared their joys and sorrows.
opened for us doors into the hearts and lives of the writers and their times
walking through which we discovered ourselves. We read everything. J.R.R
Tolkien, Ayn Rand, Alvin Toffler, Iqbal, Ghalib, Ibn Al Qayyim, Louis L’amour,
George Orwell, Romila Thapar, James Herriot, Gerald Durrell, John Steinbeck,
Munshi Premchand, Jakata Tales and many others, all spoke to us. They
influenced us and shaped our thoughts and values and taught us to question,
critically analyze and choose intelligently. Above all they taught us that we
are not unique or more special than anyone else. That others also cry tears and
laugh their way through difficulties and that in many cases our worst
complaints are the dreams of others. We read and we learnt to write. We saw and
we learnt to show by drawing vividly colored pictures with words. We dreamt and
learnt to deal with the reality that some dreams are simply that – dreams. But
that even the most unrealizable of them, opens vistas to that which might have
been and leads to that which can become a reality. We learnt the value of
philosophy and the solace it gives to a sore heart. We learnt to choose –
sometimes painfully – but learnt the lesson that we could and must make
choices. Sitting on the fence invariably gives you a sore crotch.
had never heard of recycling, but we always wore clothes that had graced the
bottoms of our elder siblings. We used and reused them until the thing simply
fell apart. Only then did we get anything new. Clothes covered our bodies, not
our egos. Manners, not possessions were our statement. Not to say that we were
always good mannered – one of the things we prided ourselves on was the ability
to describe another’s ancestry in colorful terms for ten minutes without
repeating ourselves. A skill that comes in handy when one needs to de-stress.
The secret is to do it alone facing a wall. Otherwise it increases stress
levels instead of de-stressing.
we didn’t have copy paste or auto correct, we learned spelling and wrote
clearly in longhand. Ah! The joy of the feel of a fountain pen gliding smoothly
across the page – these were the days before ball pens came into being. You
chose your pen depending on the width of the nib. Sat with an inkpot and
medicine dropper, filling the pen. Then screwed the top back on and carefully
wiped the residual ink on your head and you were good to go. We wrote letters
not only to give news but poured out our thoughts and feelings. Sometimes you
would get a letter with a circle around a suspicious stain labelled ‘tear’.
Then we waited days and sometimes weeks before we got a reply.
couldn’t see the face, didn’t get instant responses and had to struggle with
translating emotion into words – so we learned to write properly. Our
vocabulary was a lot more than, ‘Ugh!, gr8, Like, youknowwhaimean? LOL. We
didn’t explore – we checked. We didn’t reach out – we contacted. We didn’t try
to reach – we reached. We used shorthand to take notes and short forms only for
telegrams. We learnt to imagine, anticipate and adjust. We learned patience and
we learned to write legibly because the addressee had to read what we wrote. We
learned to write concisely because we didn’t want the reader to get bored and
throw the letter away. We learned to write correctly and grammatically because
not to do so was a sign of ignorance and a poor education. It still is.
this world without instant coffee or tea bags we learnt the value of process –
warm the tea pot before you pour in the hot water – and the reward of a
properly done job – drink a cup of freshly ground coffee and you’ll see what I
mean. And the lesson that everything had a use – used tea leaves are excellent
mulch for roses. Drinking tea was also about demonstrating upbringing – hold
the cup by its handle between three finger and thumb with the little finger
(pinky) sticking out and you don’t slurp or blow on the tea to cool it. And god
forbid, never slurp it out of the saucer. Not to say that doesn’t have its own
pleasure but you didn’t do it.
that everything in the plastic-less world was hunky dory – we had power cuts or
to put it more correctly, we were delightfully surprised when we had power. But
we had candles and lamps. We had no cooking gas and so our rotis came with a
wood smoke flavor. Corn was always on the cob, roasted on live coals, rubbed
with half a lemon dipped in salt and eaten hot. What all this cooking on wood
did to the forests is another story. We had no refrigerators, so we gave away
all leftovers and always ate fresh. Milk would be stored overnight in what was
called a Hawadaan (literally: air container) – a cupboard with a wooden frame
and mesh sides. If it still turned, we converted it either into a sweet or into
ghee. As I said, we recycled out of necessity and it was very enjoyable.
My generation is a generation that straddles times and change. We have seen more fundamental change than both our predecessors and successors and we love it.
friend said to me, “I am with you. But how do we get this back?”
out into the open. Go sit on the grass. Don’t worry about your clothes. Get them
dirty. Sit under a tree, in silence and listen to the tree. I mean that
seriously. Listen to the tree. Trees talk to those who listen to them.
Sometimes it sounds like the rustling of leaves in the breeze. Sometimes, it
sounds like birds talking to each other. Sometimes, when the breeze turns into
a wind, it sounds like a tired man straightening his back. Sometimes, you can
hear what sounds like rain drops, but there is no rain. That is the water that
the tree sends back to earth from transpiration. If you are in a forest, you
will hear it, sometimes making you wonder if it is raining. It is, and it isn’t.
The key to all this is to be totally silent. Silent as in absence of sound.
Silent as in absence of movement. Sit still, breathe gently and take deep breaths.
Remember that you are sitting under an oxygen generation plant. Take the
benefit of that. Let the buzzing in your ears, subside. That is the noise of
the city that came with you into the forest. It will go if you let it go. Then
you will start hearing the forest and its own sounds, which are not the
discordant, disruptive, distressing noise of manmade things and lifestyles. These
are the sounds of nature, before man came on the scene and which will remain after
the earth has rid itself of yet another pestilence. These sounds are soothing,
calm, peaceful, relaxing and eternal. Be prepared to feel like a chain-smoker
on a sixteen-hour long haul flight. That will give you an indication of what you
have done to yourself. Essentially, it will tell you how sick you are. I mean,
the stress you will feel by your self-imposed ban on using your mobile phone. The
best thing is to leave it in your car or home. Don’t bring it with you. Feel the
lack of it. You need to know what you have done to yourself, so that hopefully,
you will be inspired to free yourself from your voluntary enslavement.
in the rain. Don’t carry an umbrella or even a hat. Feel the water on your
face, head, trickling down your back (it tickles). If the rain is light, it
will be very pleasant. If it is heavy, you will get soaked and it will feel even
nicer. Don’t worry, you are not made of salt. You won’t dissolve and flow away.
I am saying this to people living in the tropics. Those living in Europe and North
America must not do this because thanks to colder climates, you may catch a
cold or worse. But even there, in summer? All power to you. I hope you don’t live
in a place where the rain is acid. How tragic that we have polluted our world
so badly that we must fear even the rain!
you are wet enough, find a nice tree with thick foliage and shelter under it.
Just sit quietly and listen. There is nothing more relaxing than the sound of rain
on the leaves overhead and in the surrounding forest. Some rain will drip on
you but that doesn’t matter because you are wet already. That is why I told you
to walk in the rain first. Then go under a tree. Otherwise you will spend your
energy trying to stay dry instead of enjoying the rain.
I can tell you a lot more but let us leave it at this. When you have done this
and start enjoying it, then tell me and I will tell you what the next step of
the detox process is. And remember, it all starts with your phone. Or more correctly,
I was in the Anamallais, just married a few months and a lowly Assistant Manager in Lower Sheikalmudi Estate. My wife and I lived in the ‘haunted’ bungalow near the tennis court and I was busy trying to make a career and stand out in a fiercely competitive environment. I loved my life as a planter, which had all the requirements for heaven on earth as I conceptualized it. It was almost entirely outdoors. Walking up and down hills along forest boundaries with the certainty of seeing at least three or four species of mammals and countless birds, was not just possible but it was what I was being paid for. I can still hear the joyful cacophony of the birds, which I would hear every morning as I rode my bike or walked along the fire line that was the boundary between the tea and the forest. I know how to make sense of the sounds, to identify the sounds and distinguish the alarm call from the political argument. The political argument was of little interest to me, but the alarm call could mean the difference between being a spectator and a meal.
The Anamallais rain forest are home to tiger, leopard, bear, elephant, gaur, sambhar, barking deer, mouse deer, king cobra and many other snakes and langur and lion-tailed macaque. This is by no means an exhaustive list but one of some of the species that one could expect to encounter on a walk on any given day and all Sundays. The rain forest is too thick to walk through. Also, it is home to poisonous nettles called Anaimarti which if you rub against it in your foolish attempt to walk through the forest, creates an extremely painful reaction with swollen lymph nodes, high fever, violent rash and if you are very allergic to it and don’t get treatment, even death. Add to this the incidence of leeches in uncounted numbers whose presence on your body you only discover when you have emerged from the forest and step into the shower and wonder why the water is so red. That is the color of your blood as it flows freely from the number of leech bites you returned with. Leeches are hematologists and inject heparin into the small wound they make as they bite you. That ensures that your blood doesn’t clog and stop flowing. Then the leech attaches itself to the wound and simply fills up like a balloon with your blood. Once it is filled, it simply drops off. It you try to pull it out, it rips out and leaves its mouth parts in the wound to fester and give you grief for weeks after. When you live in these parts, you learn to share yourself with your neighbors. That is why it is said that tea is grown with sweat and blood.
In all this bounty, the thought that stayed with me was, ‘What will I do when I retire? Or even before that, if I should need to leave planting for any reason?’ This was because like any highly specialized career option, planting was only good for planting. Meaning that the direct skills are not transferable to other industries. To make matters worse, recruiters in other industries have no experience of planting and have no idea about the daily challenges that a planter faces. Recruiters of non-planting industries have a Tolly+Bollywood impression of the life of a planter. According to them, planters spend most of their time being waited upon hand and foot by an army of servants presided over by a butler and their main focus is a round of golf at 4.00 pm every afternoon followed by propping up the bar in the local plantation club. That is why there are very few success stories of planters making it big in other industries.
A planter, if he utilizes his time properly, is training to be a polymath. I don’t know of any other career which provides this opportunity. Except that even most planters are not aware of what the career has the potential to provide. The challenges a planter faces, unremarked and unknown to outsiders, range from handling labor conflicts which can sometimes escalate to life threatening levels, negotiating settlements, building bridges, both real and metaphoric, surveying and laying roads, taking care of the welfare of workers and their families, running schools, creches, hospitals, temples and stores; and in my case building a tea factory. Dealing with government officials, contractors, labor union leaders, politicians, teachers, doctors, tractors, machinery, trucks and elephants who decide that walking on top of your aluminum water pipeline and making it crack, is such an entertaining activity. All this ends up making a highly competent and versatile personality but sadly the ‘outside world’ has no clue. So, planters plant until they can plant no more and then retire to two-bedroom apartments in a city and live out the rest of their days dreaming of days gone by. I was very sure that I was not going to be a part of that.
I loved every minute of my life as a planter. I became very good at what I did. I acquired a reputation for being effective especially in high tension situations with troublesome labor. This was thanks to my conditioning by fire in Guyana, which is another story. But that came in very handy in the Anamallais. But I knew that this couldn’t last and that if I didn’t prepare myself, I would have no alternatives to fall back on. The big question was, what could I do while remaining in planting, both because I loved the job and because I needed it. I had to train myself for another career while doing a full-time job in this one, with no money to pay for the training. Quite an interesting problem, if you ask me.
It was then that I attended a training session in the Clarks Amer hotel in Jaipur. It was a two-week experiential learning session conducted by ISABS (Indian Society for Applied Behavioural Science) where you sat on the floor and learned to get in touch with your feelings, observe your own and others’ behavior, give and receive feedback. Why sit on the floor? Well, we are Indian, you see; so, we sit on the floor, even when we never do that in ‘real life’. That was an expression I learnt there and so deduct two weeks from my age as that was not ‘real life’. However, what opened my eyes was the value of leadership development and how this could become a very satisfying career. The challenge for me was two-fold. There were (and are) no formal courses which one can take to qualify as a leadership trainer. And location wise, I was sitting in the hills while all the action in this line was happening in the cities. What I did and how I did it is another story. But for now, I want to talk about a very important lesson that I learnt; the real meaning of opportunity.
Commitment is the line you cross between wanting and doing. Unfortunately, most people never actually cross the line. They argue that they did not have the opportunity. This may be true in some cases, but in most it is commitment that they did not have; the opportunity was always there.
The reason why many people don’t seem to get enough commitment to accomplish large goals is rooted in two causes:
Lack of clarity about the benefits at the end.
2. Impatience – giving up midway due to lack of immediate results
Clarity about the end
It is in the nature of extraordinary goals to inspire extraordinary effort. Nobody rises to low expectations; people rise to high expectations. It is essential that the final result is visualized clearly and is as real as possible to the person who sets out to accomplish it. The more desirable the final result, the more people will be willing to take the inevitable drudgery and the mundane, which is a major and essential part of all endeavors. It is the promise of great reward that drives the soul when the body has passed the boundaries of exhaustion. It is the expectation of that which is dearest to the heart that holds the hand when the night is dark and cold, and you are alone.
I became most aware of the power of the extraordinary goal when I was in Vietnam, fifteen feet underground crawling through the tunnels where the Vietnamese fought the Americans. I was doing the tourist routine in Cu-Chi where the tunnels are, wondering what it must have been to experience the real thing. The Vietnamese Tourism Authorities have widened one of the tunnels slightly and strung a couple of light bulbs so that it is not pitch dark. The tunnel is just about hundred meters long. You go down through a trap door at the bottom of which the tunnel begins. You have to lie flat on your belly and crawl. Does wonders for your clothes. Then at the end of the tunnel you come out into the pit at the bottom of the other trap door and climb out. And of course, you don’t meet a snake coming the other way, nor are there bombs falling overhead. I was drenched in sweat to the extent that my shirt was soaking wet. There were two-hundred-and-fifty miles of these tunnels at three levels. They had hospitals, ammunition dumps, sleeping quarters, eating quarters, meeting rooms, and even burial rooms. They were cold and dark and damp. And overhead flew the American B52 bombers whose instructions were to drop all they had after every bombing sortie in this area. The Americans tried everything from flooding, gassing, chemicals, and napalm.
Yet the Vietnamese fought back, often using discarded ammunition, booby traps made from empty Coke cans, nails, spring steel, fire ants, scorpions and snakes. Talk about invention and ingenuity. Talk about a very nasty way to die. Do that tour and then see the Vietnam War Museum in Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) and you will learn the meaning of determination and resilience. Read about these in the books that are for sale there. Read also about the Tunnel Rats – American, Canadian, and Australian soldiers who volunteered to go into the tunnels and fight the Vietnamese, working alone. Makes you wonder what motivates such people. Irrespective of what one may think about the justification of the Vietnam War, one can only admire the courage of the soldier who chose to go into a tunnel, often with nothing more than a knife or a hand gun. The tunnels were built for the small, wiry Vietnamese, not for big Americans. So, it was the small, short ones from the American Army who volunteered. Amazing stories of some very brave people on both sides.
What kept the Vietnamese going? The same thing that kept Nelson Mandela and Ahmed Kathrada alive and mentally healthy for eighteen years on Robben Island. The same thing that drives the freedom fighters of today wherever they may be; the drive for freedom.
Freedom is a very powerful goal. A very basic and intense need of the human being. It is something for which a person will sacrifice anything. That is what those who seek to enslave forget; the fact that paradoxically, enslavement strengthens the desire to be free. The more you try to enslave, the more people want to be free. And in the end, the slave masters always lose. It is the thought of freedom that kept the Vietnamese fighters alive and striving for their goal for twenty years. Thousands of them died and never saw the goal fulfilled, but in the end, it was their sacrifice that ensured that the most powerful nations in the world had to retreat.
Giving up midway
Have you ever seen a traditional weighing scale in a shop in India selling food grains? There is an extremely important life lesson to be learnt from this. The next time you go to buy rice or some other grain, notice what the seller does.
First, he puts the weight measure in one pan. Say twenty kilos. Then he uses a scoop and starts to put rice into the other pan. As the pan fills, even when he has put nineteen kilos in it, what change do you see? Nothing.
There is no change in the situation. The pan with the weight remains firmly on the counter top and the pan with the rice remains in the air. However, the man does not stop putting the rice into the pan. He continues to do that until he sees a small movement in the pans as the pan with the rice starts to descend. Once that happens and the pans are almost level, the man changes his method of putting in the grain. Now instead of the scoop, he uses his hand. He takes a handful of rice and very gently he drops a few grains at a time into the pan. And then lo and behold, the pan with the rice descends to the counter top and the pan with the weight rises in the air.
When I saw this, I learnt two essential lessons in life, both equally true:
Lesson # 1: Up to nineteen kilos, nothing will happen.
Lesson # 2: At 20 kilos, the pan will tip.
Believing in the ‘impossible’
Finally, if there is one thing that my life has taught me, it is the truth of the fact that nobody knows the best that they can do. This of course does not mean that you act with all passion and no planning. Passion is the key. Then comes the hard work of planning, scheduling, monitoring, measuring, taking feedback, course correction, and the final results. This is where the gap is created and enthusiasm fizzles out. However, if you plan well and make a good road map with milestones, then it helps to keep the passion alive. More importantly it helps to keep the passion kindled in the hearts of your followers.
Any great enterprise needs people. People who you can share your vision with, people who resonate to your tune, people who can hear the drumbeat to which you are marching. This is the biggest challenge that any leader faces. How do you make others dream your dream? Like most things in life, this also involves a paradox. On the one hand, as I have said earlier, the goal must be big enough to make it worth the effort. But a big goal is scary, and it can scare away a lot of people. On the other hand, if you water it down, then it will attract the wrong kind of people and fail to arouse the interest of those who can potentially share your dream. So, the goal must be big and exciting, even scary. Then it must be reduced into steps on a plan that will convince people that it can be accomplished. It is possible that you may end up with a plan that does not completely add up and leaves some room for a leap of faith but remember that if the gap looks like the Grand Canyon, it is unlikely that you will find any takers for your vision. There can be a gap, but the gap must be reasonably feasible. This is the beauty of a real stretch goal. It is big enough to excite and energize, yet not so big that it scares people away into not trying at all.
A good plan with graded steps plays the role of bringing the stars within reach. It also indicates that enough thought-share has happened in the genesis of the plan. Potential supporters look for this consciously or unconsciously. For example, when venture capitalists are listening to a business plan, more than looking at the numbers, they look to see if there is enough passion behind the idea, if enough due diligence has been done, and if enough alternatives have been generated and answered.
Generating alternatives is all about thinking outside the box in terms of what you do. Of using your creativity to approach problems from a different angle, which often opens doors that you did not imagine, existed. Taking advantage of opportunities is therefore more about commitment than about some unique, inspirational idea.
One of the first things that strikes you as you enter any ‘Tea District’ is the tea factory. These in many if not most cases are over a century old, build entirely of wood on a structure of steel girders. The machinery, especially in the Orthodox factories is fit for a museum. For the uninitiated, ‘Orthodox’ refers to the type of manufacture and not the religious inclinations of the manager. This was the case when I entered planting in 1983. Then in 1985 our company, Parry Agro, decided to build a spanking new CTC (another way of manufacturing tea) in the Anamallais. I was closely associated with the project from the word ‘Go.’ The factory was built on Lower Sheikalmudi Estate and AVG Menon, my first manager was made responsible for the project, since he was the Group Manager for the Sheikalmudi Group. He appointed me as his assistant for the day to day supervision of the construction and so I became the defacto Site Manager of the project. At this time, I was the Assistant Manager in Murugalli Estate with responsibility for Murugalli Factory (Factory Assistant). I now had two jobs, reported to two managers and no additional pay. I was delighted, and it didn’t even occur to me to ask for more money for doing almost double the work that anyone else was doing. Not because I am allergic to money but because I was going to get a chance to build something that others had only done a century ago; build a tea factory.
I lived in a bungalow that was midway between Murugalli Factory and the site of the proposed Mayura factory and was the proud possessor (company issue) of a Royal Enfield 350 cc motorcycle. This ran on a mixture of petrol and faith aided by gravity when coasting down hill after its engine periodically decided to give up the ghost. I would then roll down the road to its end and hand over the bike to its resurrector, Thangavelu, our mechanic who had no formal education in automobile engineering but could make anything with wheels run, when all others had given up on it. It was (and is) a fascinating fact about our tea gardens, factories that for literally over a century, they are run by people like Thangavelu who learnt their art as apprentices with some other mechanic and run machinery that would be a major challenge for highly qualified engineers. These people have no diagnostic tools, no meters, just a spanner and a pair of pliers; but with that they moved mountains. This is an unsung lot who work from generation to generation and disappear quietly into the environment, none the wiser or even grateful that thanks to them, they (the unwise and ungrateful) got their daily cuppa.
Thangavelu looked like he had lube oil in his veins. His clothes looked like leather, thanks to the amount of oil they had absorbed. He had three teeth in his top jaw and a few more in the bottom, all visible because he never stopped smiling from ear to ear, come rain or sunshine. He never walked. He trotted. His heart was made of gold and he was my brother. He still is, and now retired, I hope he has a long and happy life. Apart from his genius with motorcycles, he repaired tractors, cars, factory machinery and worked a lathe machine. I wanted a pruning knife, a wicked blade 18 inches long and curved at the end, sharp enough to shave the hair on your arm (that is how we used to test it). Thangavelu started with a broken piece of truck spring blade and created a knife nestled in a handle made of Sambar horn (they shed annually), bound with brass hoops. It was a work of art and I had it for many years, until the Deputy Forest Officer coveted it and expropriated it in exchange for releasing ten of my workers who got arrested for killing a barking deer. But that is another story.
I mentioned Thangavelu (that is him but without his smile because he thinks this photo taking is serious business) because I mentioned my Royal Enfield motorcycle, my sole means of transport. And that, because one day it died. Truly forever. That left me in the situation where I was in-charge of two projects, Murugalli Factory and the Mayura construction project and no transport. I asked my Manager who was my immediate superior and who had not been happy at all at my appointment with additional responsibility for Mayura, if he could let me have another bike. He said to me, ‘Who told you to accept the additional responsibility? Now ask whoever appointed you.’ That meant that I was to ask AVG Menon who had asked for me. I refused to do that as I had no intention of getting in the middle of company politics. In any case, I was very pleased with the appointment and didn’t want to go to AVG with this kind of stuff. So, I used to walk every day twice, to both factories, clocking in about 15-16 kilometers all told. That continued until one day I was hoofing it when a car drove up from behind me and I heard a cheery, ‘Hello! Yawar!’ It was Mr. Rawlley, the Visiting Agent (an old British period title that was still used in those days even after the Agency system no longer existed), on his inspection tour of our group of estates. ‘Why on earth are you walking?’ he asked. I told him the story and that evening, much to my manager’s acidity and flatulence, I got a new bike.
Mayura was unique for many reasons. For one thing, it would have a capacity to process one-hundred-thousand kilograms of green leaf per day. At a time when the average production was two-thousand-five-hundred kilograms made-tea per hectare, this was a huge figure, one that nobody thought could ever be reached. It was the vision of Mr. K. Ahmedullah and Mr. N. K. Rawlley, who were the General Manager and Visiting Agent respectively. They proposed the theory that creating capacity would stimulate production as it would put pressure on the estates to supply the factory. Initially, nobody believed them except the Murugappa family; Mr. Alagappan and Mr. AMM Arunachalam in particular. But that was enough as they were the ones who were funding the project. Once the factory was completed, Ahmed’s and Nickoo’s vision was proved right. The production of the estates went up from two-thousand-five-hundred to four-thousand kilograms per hectare. Needless to say, this did not happen by magic. A lot of people put in a lot of effort, but there is no doubt that it was the presence of Mayura that pushed us all to excel. Once again this proved to me the value of vision.
Since the Anamallais is hilly, locating a huge factory was no easy task. It involved leveling the land first, to create the construction site. The main building was on columns, but we still needed a level site to locate all the rest of the buildings and bays. We had two bulldozers brought up from Coimbatore to do the cutting and filling of soil on the hillside to get enough level land to start building. I went down to the site on the first day that the work started. The bulldozer operators were already on their machines with the engines running. I called the leader of the team to give him instructions. He switched off the engine and came to me. I showed him from which part of the hillside I wanted the soil to be cut and where I wanted it to be moved and dumped so that eventually we would get a flat surface. He listened in silence, then handed me the key and said, “Why don’t you show me how to do it?”
I was taken aback by this obvious insubordination so early in the morning. But I took the key from him, climbed up on the track of the dozer and into the seat. I started the engine, engaged gear, and started cutting the soil. I worked for about half an hour. Then I parked the machine, switched off the engine, got off the machine, and handed the key back to the driver and walked away, all in silence. I had a hard time keeping a straight face at the look of shock on the driver’s face for having called his bluff. The long and short of this was that I never had a problem with that driver again for the duration of the land clearing stage. When the work was done, and the drivers were going back, he came to me and said, “I apologize for challenging you on the first day, but tell me where did you learn to drive a bulldozer?” I told him, “In future, before you challenge anyone, find out what they know.”
My knowledge of bulldozers and machinery was acquired in Guyana in the mines, when I was doing a Job Evaluation exercise in the company and had to evaluate the difficulty of each job. Knowing how to do the job yourself is obviously a big advantage and not one that most non-technical people have. I had very good relations with the bulldozer, truck (50 ton CAT dump trucks) and dragline crane operators and they gladly taught me how to drive them. For them I was a curiosity, a young Indian boy in his early 20’s willing to learn from grizzled West Indian African experts whose hands were like steel encased in sandpaper. That I was their superior in rank meant nothing. That I was willing to learn and not throw my weight around meant everything in my favor. I was welcomed. We joked, shared our meals and I spent many happy hours in the cabin of a truck or bulldozer deep in the Amazonian rain forest or in the great mine pit.
My learning in this incident of the bulldozer at Mayura fatory, many years later, was the fact that to build credibility it is important to be able to lead from the front. You don’t have to do people’s jobs for them. It is not even desirable to do this. But you do need to demonstrate that you know what they do and can do it if necessary. It is when subordinates get the impression that you know nothing about what they do, that it makes them nervous and lose motivation. The good ones feel a little lost. The crooks take you for a ride.
Mayura Factory’s construction was a time of learning for me. The site engineer was a wonderful elderly gentleman called Mr. D.R.S. Chary, who stayed with me in my bungalow throughout the project. He was a very well read and learned man, many years my senior but with a great sense of humor. We hit it off from the first day and became great friends. Chary taught me a great deal about constructing large buildings. I found this a fascinating time and used every opportunity I could, to add to my knowledge. On the factory site, the contractor’s site engineer was another wonderful man called Mr. Dakshinamurthy. He also became a good friend and was helpful in many ways.
Chary and I lived in the bungalow behind the tennis court. We could see the construction site from our veranda. Since Chary was a Brahmin, out of consideration for him, I had instructed my cook and butler Bastian, not to cook any meat while he was staying with us. No meat was cooked for over six months in our kitchen. I would go to some of my other friends like Berty Suares and Taher for my meat fix.
The bungalow had a somewhat shady history in that it was supposed to have been the estate hospital in the remote past during an epidemic and many people had died in it. It also had the dubious distinction of having a resident demon. There was a small shrine at one end of the garden, which I was told was a shrine to Karpuswamy (literally means: Black God), who the people described as a very powerful and evil entity that needed to be placated with an annual animal sacrifice. The sacrifice itself was not done in the Bungalow garden because it was done at a larger temple, but every morning one of the tea plucker women would put some flowers at the shrine. Chary, like most highly educated Hindus, did not believe in any of this, given more to keeping to the social norms than any real religious belief in the mythology.
Some weeks after Chary and I moved into the bungalow, some rumors started to circulate in the estate to say that my bungalow was haunted and that people had seen Karpuswamy near the bungalow at night. I saw nothing and was not perturbed by the rumors. I don’t believe in ghosts and don’t believe that anything can harm or benefit anyone except the Creator Himself. I slept well. Chary told me one day when he was leaving after the completion of Mayura Factory that he never seemed to sleep well in this bungalow. But I was not sure how much of that was because of some unconscious effect of the rumors and how much of it was plain indigestion or some such thing. He was over sixty years old at the time, after all.
I had recently bought a used Ambassador car. It had the dubious distinction of having belonged to the son of Marri Chenna Reddy a former Chief Minister of Andhra Pradesh. Among its other attributes was the fact that it was graced with a carburetor that was cracked down the middle and was held together with a wire. Now hold on – before you go making sly remarks about Ambassadors, ask yourself, ‘which other car would still run in this condition?’ And run it did. However, it did need long hours in the workshop. In the plantations the workshop came to you, as did most other things. One night, Velayudhan, the mechanic, was working on the car in my garage behind the house. He worked late into the night and promised to return the next day to complete the job. The next morning there was no sign of him and when I sent someone to look for him, the man returned and said that Velayudhan was in hospital.
I was very surprised and concerned as the man had been working in my house the previous evening and had been well and healthy. What could have happened to him for him to be hospitalized? He was a cheerful and willing worker and I had a very good relationship with him, so I was genuinely concerned for him. I went to the hospital and first asked the doctor what the matter was with Velayudhan. The doctor told me that he had been brought to the hospital late the previous night in a hysterical state, his heartbeat racing and in a semi-conscious state. He was so bad that the doctor had been afraid the man would have a heart attack or a stroke. All this seemed to have been brought about by intense fear. He had to be given a heavy dose of sedative to put him to sleep. In short, the man had been extremely frightened by someone or something.
I went to see him and he told me the story, which I present to you without comment.
He said to me, “Dorai, I had finished my work for the day on your car and decided to take the short cut through the tea field down the hillside instead of the main road. It was a full moon night and the footpath was clearly visible in the moonlight. As I started down the path, I suddenly heard a heavy snort behind me, like a cow sometimes makes as it is grazing. I looked back over my shoulder and saw a huge man with flaming red eyes and huge teeth. I turned and ran and then I fell down and fainted.” Some people who were going past on the main road below heard the sound of his running and then saw him fall. They picked him up and took him to the hospital. There was some suspicion that perhaps he’d hit the bottle, but the doctor denied that and said that he did not show any sign of having been inebriated. He was just very badly terrified and completely hysterical with fear.
I lived in that bungalow for two years and went in and out at all hours, but never saw a thing. That is what led to the rumor that Karpuswamy was the guard on the bungalow and guarded me. In the plantations such rumors add to your mystique and reputation. In any case, I could do nothing to refute it.
A year later, another incident added some more grist to the mill.
There was a supervisor who was very corrupt, so I dismissed him. He was naturally very upset and angry with me and threatened me with many things. He did not say any of this to me directly of course, but various rumors started floating that he would do black magic against me. Black magic is quite prevalent in India and in the plantations and many people claimed either to do it or had been its victims. When these stories got to me, I said, “If anyone does anything against me, it will turn against him. I worship AllahY and nothing can happen to me without His will. I ask Him to protect me.” That put a stop to all the talk that came to me.
Then one day, I was walking in the field with my Field Officer Mr. O. T. Varghese, a wonderful elderly man who taught me a lot about tea planting. Suddenly a tea plucker woman came running to us, wailing all the while and fell at my feet. She was wailing, “Only you can save me. Have mercy on my husband……” and so on. I was taken aback to say the least. After a while, Mr. Varghese and I managed to get some sense out of her. Mr. Varghese told me that she was the wife of the dismissed supervisor. She told us that her husband had gone to a black magic expert in their village and asked him to put a spell on me to kill me. However, the spell backfired on him and now he was dying and was in hospital, where they had brought him the previous evening. She begged me to go with her and see her husband.
I agreed, though I thought to myself that this was a jolly good thing and served him right for his efforts. After all, his wife had not tried to stop him from his nefarious activity and if he had succeeded, his wife would have been sitting pretty with him and not running to my aid. Anyway, Mr. Varghese and I reached the hospital and I asked the doctor about the patient.
He said to me that there was nothing wrong with him except that he was in a state of very high excitement and terror and had not slept for more than 72 hours. His heart was racing and the doctor was fearful that if he continued in this way for a few more hours it was entirely likely that he would have a heart attack. I entered the room after getting this information. As soon as I entered, the man literally fell off the bed and put his head on my feet. Weeping, he cried, “Dorai, please forgive me. I tried to do something bad to you, but it has come to me. I have children Dorai and they will become orphans if I die. Please forgive me Dorai and take this thing away from me.” It was the strangest experience that I have ever had in my life. I told him to get up and pulled him up by his arm and put him back on the bed. Then I asked for some water and recited Sura Al Fatiha (the first chapter in the Qur’an) and the Al Muwaddathian, the last two chapters and blew on the water and told him to drink it. I told his wife to give him what was left of the water later in the evening. Then I left. The doctor told me later that shortly thereafter the man slept and the next morning he was discharged.
I started working in India in the Anamallai Hills, part of the Western Ghats as they tapered down all the way into the tip of the subcontinent. Before that I had worked for five years in bauxite mining in Guyana, South America and lived on the bank of Rio Berbice, in the middle of the Amazonian rain forest. But that is another story.
The area that contained the tea plantations was part of the Indira Gandhi National Park. The park is home to an amazing variety of wildlife which thanks to the difficult terrain, plethora of leeches, and shortage of motorable roads is still safe from the depredations of ‘brave’ hunters buzzing around in their Jeeps and shooting animals blinded and frozen in their searchlight beams. In the Anamallais if you want to hunt (it is illegal to shoot anything in the National Park, but there are those who are not bothered about what is legal and what is not) you must be prepared to walk in the forest, up and down some very steep hills, be bitten by leeches and have a very good chance at becoming history at the feet of an elephant.
However, if you are not interested in hunting and killing animals, you have all the same pleasures and thrills with the animal healthy and alive at the end of it. I want to see and photograph animals, not kill them. I have hunted enough in my youth and lost interest in killing things as my connection with nature strengthened. I was looking for an opportunity to just spend time in the environment that I loved. My job as an Assistant Manager in Sheikalmudi Estate, my first posting with a princely salary of ₹850 per month, gave me all that I could have wished for.
Sheikalmudi borders the Parambikulam forest. This extends from the shore of the Parambikulam Reservoir (created by damming the Parambikulam River) up the steep mountainside all the way to the top. Sheikalmudi is the crown on that mountain’s head, manicured tea planted after cutting the rain forest, more than a century ago by British colonial planters. Where the tea ends, starts the rain forest of the Western Ghats. Anamallais is the second rainiest place on the planet. In the early part of the century it used to get more than three-hundred centimeters of rain annually and consequently it rained almost six months of the year. Even when I joined in 1983, we frequently saw spells of more than a week at a stretch, when it rained continuously day and night without any easing of the volume of water. I was horrified the first time I saw this. I was used to rain in Hyderabad, where we get about thirty centimeters annually. And to the rain in Guyana, where because of the Trade Winds which brought the rain, it rained on most days in the evenings for a little while and then cleared up.
Now here was rain and more rain and more rain. Yet in all this rain, we went to work at 6.00 am every morning. Heavy canvas raincoat, waterproof jungle hat, shorts, stockings and wellingtons. We rode our motorcycles down treacherous hill pathways, slippery in the rain and covered with fog as sometimes a cloud decided to rest on its journey across the sky. It was very cold because we were between 3500 to 4000 feet high and so in the first ten minutes, you lost all feeling in your legs, below your knees.
Walls of the bungalow would have mildew growing on them in damp patches. Small leaks would develop in the roof and their yield would be received in sundry pots and pans placed under them. This would create its own music. Little frogs would emerge from every crevice and would hop all around the house. In the night, they would find some resting place and add their voices to the night chorus of frogs and insects in the garden, that would rise and fall like an animal breathing. But sometimes the rain would be so heavy that all you could hear was the rain on the galvanized iron sheet roof. This sound would drown out every other sound. Within the first week of the beginning of the monsoon, all telephone lines would be down. Power supply would become extremely erratic. And more often than not, landslides would block roads. So being cut off from everyone for several days was a common phenomenon. When there came the occasional storm – every year we used to have at least two or three – all these problems would get magnified.
Candle light dinners with a roaring fire in the fireplace were the fringe benefit of this weather. That and in my case, a lot of chess by the fire. The year I got married, 1985, there was a storm in which twelve-hundred trees fell on my estate alone, taking down with them all power and telephone lines. There were two major landslides and we were cut off from the world for a total of fifteen days. It rained almost continuously for this period and my poor wife had a wet introduction to the new life ahead of her. But typical for us both, we enjoyed this time, playing chess by the fireside. She started by not knowing chess at all and I taught her the game. By the end of our enforced seclusion she was beating me. Now take it as her learning ability or the quality of my game, but being rained-in has its benefits.
I have always looked for challenges. Anything that comes easily does not excite me. My learning, that it is the extraordinary goal that inspires extraordinary effort is very personal to me. In the plantation industry I was constantly focused on setting new records. And over the years I was able to do this in all aspects of tea and rubber planting. I set the record in yield per hectare, in work tasks in various cultivation activities, and in the price of the manufactured product. I reclaimed swamp land and planted cardamom and set up bee hives and produced cardamom flavored honey. I reclaimed illegally cultivated land bordering our tea and planted tea in it adding over 50 hectares of land to the estate. I planted vanilla under rubber and successfully pollinated and harvested the vanilla bean; to my knowledge the first time this had been done in South India. When I say, ‘I’, I mean my team. I had one of the best in the world, each of them close friends who worked with me with total devotion and dedication and who I was very proud to call my own. I trained several of them, when they came to me as probationers and while not all were equally happy during the training, as I am a hard task master, every one of them was thankful for what they received and have remained lifelong friends.
1983-86 were boom years for tea in South India. Anything that was produced would sell. The biggest buyers were the Russians who bought on the rupee trade agreements between the governments of both countries. Anything that could be manufactured in South India was bought by the Russians. Sadly, quality went out the window. Some people, including myself, were able to see the writing on the wall and tried to get manufacturers to focus on quality and to get out of the commodity market and instead create brand. That, however, meant investing in brand building and hard work in maintaining quality standards. Since people were making money, nobody was interested in listening to anything that meant more work or investment. Eventually, the inevitable happened. Russia collapsed and so did their buying trend and it almost took the South Indian tea industry down with it. Some companies shut down. Others were more fortunate. But the whole industry faced some very hard times.
Interestingly, success seems to breed fear of failure. This is a paradox, since success should really build confidence. It does that too, but what seems to happen over the years is that we become progressively more afraid of losing what we have created and our ability to take risks decreases. This to me explains why entrepreneurs who have built large organizations are so afraid to allow others to take the same kind of risks that they took when they were alone and creating the company. Somehow, as they succeed, people who build organizations seem to forget the real lessons of their experience:
That it was speed of reaction and the ability to take risks that gave them the competitive advantage.
That it was the willingness to put themselves on the line, which built their credibility.
That it was staying in touch with customers that helped them anticipate trends.
This fear of taking risk seems to extend even more to their own children, a phenomenon that we see in many family owned companies where the old, often senile, patriarch rules supreme and holds the strings of power. That is also why such organizations finally break-up, usually with a lot of rancor, as the rebellion against authority comes to a head and the son has no alternative but to break away. This fear of failure has many respectable names: Consolidation of gains, Stability, Creating Permanence and so on.
What is forgotten is that life is about change and positive change is growth. That growth is not looking inwards with a satisfied glow at what exists, but always to seek what might be. And that all growth is essentially characterized by a lack of stability, living with impermanence and spending what you have, to fuel what you aspire to create. This is forgotten, not by chance or accident. It is forgotten deliberately, albeit sometimes unconsciously. And it is done to deal with the fear of failure if one continues to take risk.
So, what is the alternative?
In my view, the alternative is to practice change even when there is no need for it.
Some organizations create think-tanks whose job is to conceptualize hypothetical threat situations and suggest solutions. One can use this or any other method, but it is a very good idea to spend some time and energy in anticipating the future and preparing for it. I personally make it a point to do this kind of reflective observation every so often. The important thing is to make this an ongoing process, no matter how you do it. Anticipating change is the first step to creating game changers that will put you in the driving seat. That is the only guarantee of permanence in a world where permanence is against nature. Any other route in my view only guarantees stagnation of ideas, sanctification of monumental stupidity, and calcification of the mind.
The single biggest and most critical requirement of success in my view is the desire to be the best. No matter what you may do – if you want to succeed, you need to be passionate about what you do and want to be the best at it. This is something that I have been aware of in myself all my life. I always wanted to be the best at whatever I did. Read the most, get the best results at school, train my dog so that it would win in tracking and show championships, school my horse so that he would win in dressage competitions every time, climb the biggest mountain I could find, do what nobody had done before, go where nobody had gone before me. Always trying to excel in whatever I put my hand to. I never saw any thrill in simply doing more of the same. I always wanted to do something new. And that’s a very cool way to live.
It is not that I succeeded on every occasion. But I made a serious effort every time. And when I failed, I used the other technique that I had learnt early in life; to analyze failure, face the brutal reality, and acknowledge ownership. No justification of mistakes. No blaming others. Take the responsibility for my own actions. See what went wrong and why. See what I need to do to ensure that this particular mistake never happens again. The pin and hole principle in engineering; fool proofing the system so that it becomes impossible to make a mistake. Not leaving the issue to individual discretion but creating a system to ensure that the correct procedure is followed every time. These are two principles that I have always tried to follow in my life: try to be the best and own up to mistakes.
A third principle that I have always tried to follow is to actively seek feedback. And then to listen to it without defensiveness. No justification or argument with the person giving the feedback, always remembering that my intention is inside my heart. What we intended to convey is less important than what we did convey. What the other person sees is the action, not the intention. And if the action did not convey the intention, then the action failed and must change, because for us all, perception is reality.
Being passionate about what you do is absolutely essential for anyone who wants to be the best in their work. For me, this has never been a matter of choice but something that I have always held as inevitable. If I do something, then it must be the best that I can possibly do. Nothing less. I discovered that if I am in a profession or job where I can’t really find it in myself to be passionate about it, then I need to change the job. And I did. Happiness is not doing less. It is to do the most that we can do. To maximize contribution. And that can only come through loving what you do. I am deliberately using a term which is not often used in a work context, love. People who don’t love their work are stressed. People who love their work automatically get a sense of meaning from it and believe it is worthwhile. The more they do, the happier they are. They get stressed not with work, but with not having enough of it.
Just to close the point, a working person spends roughly thirty to thirty-five years doing what we call work. If we take a lifespan of seventy years and subtract the years spent in childhood and education, work life is almost seventy percent of a person’s lifespan. To spend this doing something that does not give fulfillment, satisfaction and a sense of achievement, but is something that is routine, boring and even unpleasant, is a very stupid way to live your life. Unfortunately, that is how many people do lead their lives. In dead end jobs with no value addition to themselves or to the organizations they work for. That is why work produces stress.
Berty Suares, my dearest friend
Life in the Anamallais passed like a dream. Berty Suares was the Assistant Manager on the neighboring estate, Malakiparai. And Sandy (Sundeep Singh) was on Uralikal. Both dear friends. They would come over to my place and we would spend Sunday picnicking on the bank of the Aliyar River where on a bend in the river that passed through our cardamom plantation, I had built a natural swimming pool. I deepened the stream bed and deposited the sand from there on the near bank, thereby creating a very neat ‘beach.’ Sitting on this beach under the deep shade of the trees after a swim in the pool was a heavenly experience. Add to it, eating cardamom flavored honey straight from the comb, taken from the many hives that I had set up in the cardamom fields for pollination. The flavor comes from the pollen of the flowers which the bees take to make the honey. Depending on where you set up your hives or where the bees go to find pollen, honey can have as many flavors as there are flowers. While we lazed about at noon, our lunch would be brought down to us and we would all eat together. The joys of being a planter in the days when we had people who knew how to enjoy that life.
If you walked down the river for a couple of kilometers you would come to the Parambikulam Dam backwaters into which this river flowed. I had built another pool there at the bottom of a waterfall, thanks to a stream that flowed through Murugalli Estate. We used to keep a boat in the dam to go fishing on the lake. There was a thickly wooded island in the lake about half a kilometer from the shore on which one could go and spend the whole day, swimming and lazing in the shade; a very welcome occupation, free from all stress. The only sounds that you would hear would be the wailing call of the Rufus Backed Hawk Eagle and the Fishing Eagle. In the evenings, Jungle Fowl called the hour. If you stayed beyond sunset, the only danger was that you could encounter bison (Gaur) as you walked home. That encounter was not something to look forward to as I discovered one day. Mercifully, I was walking softly and the wind was in my face, so the Gaur was as startled as I was. He snorted, spun on his heel, and vanished, crashing through the undergrowth. I was very fortunate.
The more time I spent with myself, the clearer it became that it is important to be ‘friends’ with yourself. The more you are self-aware and comfortable internally, the more you can enjoy the world outside. When you are not aware of what is happening to you inside or are unhappy with decisions you have taken, or with your own internal processes, the unhappier you are likely to be with your surroundings. The normal tendency is to blame the outer world, but if one looks within, it is possible to find the solution. One rider however, that you will find only if you seek and only if you have the courage to recognize what you see. That is where sometimes the matter remains unresolved. Not because there is no solution. But because we are unwilling to accept the solution or to implement it.
Time for another dip, then climb into the hammock and gently swing in the breeze that comes blowing over the water. Those were the days……………………
The Adhaan for Tahajjud was just called. I know Tahajjud is very important but sometimes I’m lazy. Nothing will happen if I don’t go. No punishment. There’s no punishment here for anything. Except if you tell lies or do anything dishonest or immoral. Then the punishment is expulsion. And that is something that none of us want. We love being here too much.
I get out of bed and make the bed. That’s one of the non-negotiable rules here. We always make our beds and line up our shoes beside them. On that subject, we clean our own dorms and toilets and bathrooms and our own classrooms. We do that because this is our home and you keep your home clean. Nothing remarkable about that, though visitors usually look very surprised. One asked me if I didn’t feel bad to be made to do this. I replied, “Nobody makes me bathe but I do. It’s just like that.” Keeping yourself clean includes keeping your environment clean. It’s as simple as that.
Our four huts, the Dorm Parents hut and the common room are all built around a central courtyard with grass and a shady ornamental or fruit tree. Bird feeders and nesting boxes are attached to building gables or placed safely in the tree. Each hut has a veranda on the courtyard side. The whole complex is surrounded by an 8-foot-high Bougainvillea hedge with a chain link center; very secure and impenetrable. There is a gate near the Dorm Parents hut. The whole complex is called a ‘Kraal’ and the fence is the ‘Boma’. There is a gravel pathway around the whole complex inside the hedge to give access to all the huts. It is wide enough to take a vehicle in case of any emergency.
Our dorm common rooms have a Musalla, a large hall very comfortably furnished with bean bags and arm chairs, books lining the walls, low tables, game boards, a pool table and a fridge stocked with fruit juice, flavored milk, yogurt, fruit and nuts. No sugared fizzy drinks and definitely no Coke or Pepsi. In one section there are a couple of terminals and highspeed internet to allow us to do any research that we may need to do. There is also a widescreen TV for us to watch news, sports and any useful programs. Our school has its own TV and Radio station and so we watch our own programs also.
We spend time in our common rooms, either reading by ourselves, discussing our projects, playing one of the indoor games or reading Qur’an in the Musalla. The noise sometimes gets too loud, but we regulate ourselves as much as we can to ensure that we’re not disturbing those who’re trying to read on their own. If it gets too boisterous we go out into the open courtyard and sit on the grass. Except when it’s raining this is the best place to be, you lie on the grass and look up at the stars. When it’s raining, one of the nicest things in to sit inside our classrooms or common rooms and watch the rain falling in the courtyard and dripping off the roof. The grass ensures that the rain doesn’t splash into the room, as does the wide verandah that circles the courtyard into which you walk out from the class or common room before you step on the grass. These verandahs also have chairs and hammocks in them and on a lazy afternoon, there’s nothing more pleasant than to lie in a hammock and let the breeze gently rock you to sleep. The walls of all our Kraal buildings are decorated with African designs, murals and are strikingly colorful. This is the case with all the buildings in the campus, which gives it all a very cheerful atmosphere. This is Africa and that is reflected in every building on the campus. SBA Africa is African.
I head out for the masjid. This a very beautiful part of the day. I love the quiet. The peacocks on campus have not woken up yet and I can see the big male on his habitual perch on the topmost branch of the tall Ficus. The tree is like a magnet for birds when it is in fruit and attracts Green pigeons, Blossom headed parakeets, Mynahs, Hoopoes, King Fishers, Egrets, Pond Herons, several types of doves and of late, Blue rock pigeons. Our resident Pea fowl and Guinea fowl compete furiously and noisily with these birds who I’m sure they see as intruders into their property but the Ficus is generous and there are enough berries for everyone.
On the ground the several species of deer, sheep, goats and hares that are all over our grounds gather under the Ficus to eat what the birds drop. Symbiosis in action. How do we learn about symbiosis? By watching these relationships between animals. We also learn politics this way. How do I know about the birds and what they eat and their lives? We learn about them in our natural history and photography classes under this tree.
All these thoughts are going through my head as I walk to the masjid. I’m in my kurta as I will change into my riding kit after Fajr. Most boys wear our sports uniform, track suit and running shoes. They wear that to the masjid for Tahajjud and Fajr as they go straight to the sports field after Fajr. We all jog around the athletic track for three miles and do various aerobic exercises before we go off to practice the different sports we play. I ride horses and so I don’t go jogging. Those who play cricket and tennis change into their kit after Fajr. The athletics and track event guys have it easier as they are already in their kit. The others must race back to the dorm and from there to the field to get there in time.
Kits are very important as they are an indicator of attention to detail which is a key factor of quality. I remember the dialogue we had with our teacher, sitting under this very tree, when I asked him why we needed to go and change into different clothes for different activities. He takes all questions very seriously and listens carefully and doesn’t try to impose his view on us. In this school if you have a reasonable argument about any policy, the management is willing to listen to you and even change that policy. He told us that when we change into the right clothes, not only are we wearing the clothing that is most suited and evolved and designed to suit the activity but we are also giving ourselves a message about the seriousness of what we are doing.
Here’s the masjid, bright and welcoming. As I enter I leave my shoes in the rack and wonder why we are the only masjid in the world where people don’t throw their shoes in the passage. Everyone puts their shoes in the racks and if the racks are full, usually on Friday because local people also come for Juma, they’re lined up neatly along the racks with a clear pathway down the center for people to walk to the door.
As I enter the masjid I breathe in deeply the beautiful aroma of cleanliness. On Fridays we burn incense, the aroma of which remains for a few days after. Each of us students have masjid duty which includes everything to ensure that anyone who comes to pray, has the best experience of his life. We know that by doing this Allahﷻ will give us a reward for their prayers, so we look forward to our turn which comes once per term. Masjid duty includes calling Adhaan, sometimes leading Salah and even conducting the Juma on occasion. The boys are all taught all these things as these are basic requirements of being a Muslim man. We take all these things very seriously and practice our Qiraat, Adhaan and spend a lot of time over our Juma Khutba when it is our turn to do it. The masjid is a place of much activity which I love to visit often.
It is very quiet and peaceful. In the back there’s a very quiet hum of some of the boys reciting Qur’an, taking care to keep their voice low, so as not to disturb those who are standing in Salah. Consideration for others is a very important value we learn here, not by lectures but by watching our teachers and seniors. We enjoy it when others are considerate of us and, so we know that we must do the same to create a culture of mutual care and concern.
As I stand getting ready to start my Salah, I can’t help but be impressed by the rapt concentration on the faces of some of my friends. It’s as if they’re in a different world which I suppose they really are as they’re connected to their Rabb and are standing in His presence, oblivious to the world around them. I envy them and ask Allahﷻ to bless them and make me like they are. It’s my dream that one day I reach a state of perfection in my Salah where I can concentrate like some of my friends. In the masjid I can see most of our teachers also in Salah or reading Qur’an. This is one of the best things about our school, that our teachers are our role models. There’s a huge emphasis here on practicing our core values and everyone does it without compulsion. We see how this helps us all to create a wonderful, caring environment which we all appreciate and enjoy. And we know that this can’t happen if even one of us doesn’t pull his weight. It’s peer pressure which is the most powerful force to encourage us to do our bit. And we all do it. Can’t let the side down, you see!
Fajr Adhaan is called and after praying Sunnah we line up for Fardh. The Imam says, “Allahu Akbar.” My heart misses a beat because I recognize the voice of Shaikh Saad Al Ghamdi, whose style of recitation I’m trying to learn. And here he is in person and I’m praying behind him. What good fortune for me! I bet there’s not another school in the world which can boast of this. But our school regularly has scholars, religious and otherwise, who come to spend time in our Retreat Village and share their experience, knowledge and time with us. Imagine the thrill of being taught a subject by the author of the books on that subject which we’ve been reading!! Or like today, to listen to Qur’an being recited by a Qari whose recitation we follow and learn from. Or to be coached in sports by those stars who others only see on the TV screen.
After the Salah and Fajr Reminder, we leave the masjid for the sports field. I head off to my Kraal to get into my riding kit. Two of my friends join me to change into their cricket whites. The chatter of the boys running off to their dorms or sports field is matched by the rising cacophony of the birds in the Ficus and many other fruit trees on our campus. Loudest among them is the mournful, scream of the male peacock as he announces to the world that he’s finally awake.
My ride was lovely as always. My mount, Fascination is a Thoroughbred mare and my dearest friend. She is the most intelligent thing on four legs and many times more intelligent than those on two legs. I love and trust her with my life and I know she feels the same. I talk to her and she understands me.
My riding class begins with mucking out her stable, grooming and saddling her and leading her out into the schooling area. Then we do our morning routine of exercising to warm us both up first. Then schooling for dressage, alternating with going over the course in the show jumping arena every other day. Fascination is a natural jumper and loves to go over the obstacles. The dressage movements come to her naturally and she is so experienced in them now that even if I fall asleep on her back she’d do them all perfectly on her own.
After I finish my hour of riding, I take her back to her stable, rub her down to dry the sweat, then take her to have a drink at the trough, taking care to see that she doesn’t drink too much water. Then I give her grain feed and throw fresh hay in her stable for her to lie on and fresh hay in her feeding trough. Finally, I give her, her daily treat of green Lucerne and a couple of carrots or an apple which she loves. She shows her appreciation by pushing her nose into my chest and making her soft neighing sounds.
Horse riding builds balance, boosts your courage, builds the muscles of your core, back and thighs. It corrects and gives you a great posture, heightened sensitivity and makes you a considerate and compassionate person. It teaches you how to communicate and that communication is different from speaking. Communicating is about understanding the other first and then about helping them to understand you.
A horse is the best judge of character that I know and senses fear, lack of compassion and hesitancy and reacts accordingly. Treat a horse with respect and love and it will take care of you, fight for you and give his life for you. Treat him or her badly and it will throw you at the first opportunity. Good horse riding is not about forcing the horse to do something it doesn’t want to do by applying the whip. It’s about helping the horse to see why doing what you want it to do is the most pleasurable thing for it to do. Once the relationship is built and mutual trust is established, the horse will do whatever you want without any hesitation. But building relationships is about spending time, communicating and taking care of the horse. This is where the daily grooming comes in. It’s not about cleaning the stable but about paying your dues to build the relationship with your mount. If you haven’t got it already, all this is part of our leadership education.
Riding is not only for fun, but our second class for the day. The first is always connecting to Allahﷻ in the masjid.
Back to the dorm after riding, quick shower, change into our school uniform and off to the dining hall for breakfast. Choice of oatmeal or mixed grains porridge, eggs, milk, coffee, tea, fruit. We can all eat as much as we like but no wastage. So, we learn to take small portions and go back if we’re still hungry. Our dorm parents eat with us and are there to see that everyone eats well. We have various versions of this menu, but the basic principle, that it should be wholesome, filling and nutritious, remains the same.
We all eat together. That’s one of our school’s policies. School staff eat with everyone. This includes maids, guards, gardeners, drivers, everyone. Naturally this depends on their work schedule but whoever is free to eat at regular meal times eats with us. And everyone eats the same food. No differentiation between staff, management, teachers or us. We know many of the staff personally. We address them as aunty or uncle, not by first name and they treat us like their own children. Many staff children stay and study with us. Some are on concessional fee; others on scholarship. But as far as we are concerned there’s no difference between us and them in anything.
How do I know all this? Because my Dad is a driver and my Mom is a housekeeper and I’m on a full scholarship. But I’m my House Prefect and Head of the Dressage team. Everyone is treated with equal dignity and respect in this school. The only way you get extra respect is by your behavior, your sports wins and your academics. That also is different here. In sports, while we compete with each other, we get points for showing consideration to others, politeness, helping one another and good citizenship (sportsmanship). Dog-eat-dog, is not in our school because we’re not dogs. In academics we routinely help one another, study together, share knowledge and teach one another. We don’t get comparative class ranks i.e. there’s no First in Class academically, but there is in terms of demonstrating Good Citizenship, Integrity, Truthfulness (not carrying tales), Loyalty, Friendship and Trusteeship. We take our values very seriously in this school. Lying is considered the root of all evil and that’s one thing that you can get expelled for. Sounds strange today because lying is almost a part of our popular culture, but not here.
Here lying is treated as a crime and is publishable by expulsion. So, no matter what you did, it’s safer to own up than to lie about it or try to hide it. If you own up, you are asked what you learnt from what you did. Then depending on what it was, you may be put on a watch list, be assigned to speak to a counselor, be helped to get over your issue, be gated for some time, given extra PT or something like that. No corporal punishment whatsoever in our school. As I said earlier peer pressure is the biggest motivator. Our fellow students don’t let us do wrong things.
There’s enormous focus and emphasis on student safety above anything else. We all have 24 x 7 access to a Help Line where you can ask for any help of any kind, physical, emotional, spiritual, material and report any misbehavior, harassment or offence committed by anyone against anyone else. Complete confidentiality, immunity and protection for the one reporting is guaranteed. We need to give our name and ID number and narrate what happened. No anonymous complaints are entertained, so that nobody can falsely accuse anyone. We can ask to meet the Ombudsperson and report face to face or do it on the phone. Action is guaranteed before the end of the day. For emergencies, it is instantaneous. We’ve never had an emergency, but I know this from the drills we do, every term.
Breakfast done we head for class – the academic classes, that is. This period lasts until lunch which means from 0930 am to 1230 pm. While we’re in class we’re free to go and pick up a snack from the snack station; there’s one in every common area; or to go to the loo any time we want. Nobody comes looking for you unless you disappear for a long time and when they do, only to make sure you’re alright. But nobody has ever disappeared like that, as long as I can remember because nobody wants to miss class. Our learning is highly interactive, we’re moving around all the time. Our classrooms are designed to bring the outside, inside. So, they all open into courtyards with grass and shade trees. We can go out and sit on the grass to do our projects and work together in small groups. There’s no formal break time because there’s no need for it. We also don’t have bells or buzzers to announce the end of a class. Time keeping is our responsibility and we do it. After all, how hard is it? Bells are so undignified and prison-like. We are a school, not a jail
Our classes are multi-age group. In my class I have children between 8-12 years old. That’s because our school doesn’t segregate us by date of manufacture and believes that humans learn best in multi-age groups, like we do in our families. As they say in Africa, “It takes the whole village to raise a child.” That’s what we practice in our school. We take care of each other in class and teach each other. That’s the best way to learn they say, and I agree. We have at least two teachers in every class of about 20 students. No class is ever more than 25 students. In many classes we have 3 or sometimes 4 teachers, depending on what we’re studying. Two are our class teachers. A third may be the subject teacher who has come to talk to us about whatever we’re studying. We also have external experts who come to our school to talk to us, take classes, help with projects and take us on excursions and study trips.
We don’t study discrete subjects. We do projects. Let me tell you how it is done. In my class, this term we’re doing Mountains. We begin by brainstorming on the question, “What would you like to know about mountains?” There’s no rule about what you can ask. I said that I wanted to know the weight of Kilimanjaro. Nobody looked at me like I was crazy. We truly believe and practice the adage, “The only stupid question is the one that wasn’t asked.”
We all ask our questions. The teachers add their own. Then these are all organized into buckets of subjects e.g. History, Geography, Economics, Biology, Islamic sciences etc. Then we all work in smaller groups and try to answer our own questions. To do that we read, research the net and libraries (our own and open source), meet experts and seek their opinion, conduct experiments and constantly share our learning with the whole class. We publish a daily bulletin of our ongoing project. For each bucket subject we seek a time and go to the room which houses the teacher and resources for that role topic. To understand the effect that mountains and mountain ranges have had on history we go to the history classroom. To understand the effect of mountain ranges on rainfall and regional climate we go to the geography room. Each of these rooms is a treasure house of information about that subject. There we listen to lectures, watch films, look at working models and permanent exhibits of whatever we’re studying. Then we compile our learning and build our project. Most of that work we do in the evenings when we study or have discussions on our own. Usually in our dorm common rooms.
At the end of each day we write our Learning Journal in which we write what we learned that day. In that journal there is a full page for the questions you asked that day. Every week prizes are given for the best question asked that week. What’s the criterion? A question that nobody could answer immediately. I got that for my Kilimanjaro question. But then with that prize comes a challenge; find the answer. You are allowed to collaborate, use any resource you like and when you find out the answer, there’s a prize for you and all those who helped you. That’s what gets us really engaged in our learning. We do our own research in the evening in the student led session and present it in our class the next day. More about that later.
There is a huge focus on the spirit of enquiry, creativity, seeking knowledge and trying to truly understand it. Just quoting someone else’s answer is not acceptable. You’re asked for your opinion and the reasons for that opinion. And most importantly, you’re listened to with respect and seriousness, even when what you’re saying may sound crazy. We are never asked to memorize anything. We can refer to notes, books or other resources. We’re not allowed personal screens in class or on campus, so no smart phones or tablets. But we have high speed internet and terminals in class which we can use for research. Shaikh Google is at our service. At first, I found this ban on social media screens, irritating but now I have become so fond of reading, even addicted to it, that I love books. We’re allowed Kindle if we prefer to use that, but I like to hold a paper book and turn pages as I read. Sorry trees!! I hope all the books I read are made of recycled paper. Should be. Why not?
We’re supposed to read at least three books per term. These can be on any subject, related or not to our course. Every week on Thursday evening we have a Learning Sharing session where we present the lessons learned from our extracurricular reading. This is also good public speaking and presentation skills practice, which is one of the objectives for doing it. These sessions are very well attended and we get a lot of support from our school mates and staff. My own average is at least six books a term. And I’m far from alone in this. Children here love to read and discuss what they read.
Our discussions, I dare say, would do credit to much older gatherings. We discuss ideas, not people. We discuss strategies for change. We don’t complain. We look for ways to influence. We get frustrated sometimes. We go to our Dorm Parents or teachers to talk about anything we don’t understand fully. They listen, smile and point us to sources for research. Or ask us questions to nudge us to think in ways and about matters we may not have thought of. Sometimes when I’m feeling lazy, I wish they’d simply give us the answer, but I know the enquiry method is far more interesting and beneficial. And of course, many times they don’t know the answer, but that’s fine. That’s why we always share whatever we learn.
And, I must tell you, this summer vacation, we’re going to climb Kilimanjaro.
Our midday break is from 12.30 pm until 2.30 pm for Dhuhr and lunch. Lunch today was as good as it always is. Fresh vegetables in a Caesar salad, freshly baked bread, hot from the oven, jacket potatoes with a dollop of sour cream, a thick slice of juicy roast mutton haunch with boiled carrots and beans. And of course, you can go for seconds. Fruit for dessert. We stay far away from sugar which is addictive and harmful. We have ice cream freshly made with the fruit of the season with natural fruit sugar being the sweetener.
Then we begin our afternoon session. Some of us have swimming coaching, others go to their hobby clubs, Moot Court, Shadow Parliament, special project work, hospital duty, kitchen duty, vocational skill class or the farm.
Two days a week we work in the school farm. We grow all our food on-site. Our poultry farm gives us eggs, chickens, turkeys and ducks. The sheep, rabbit and goat farm gives us mutton and goat milk. The greenhouses give us most of our vegetables, mushrooms and some fruits. Other vegetables and fruit are grown in the open. Our bees give us honey. We plant flowers close to them and don’t use any pesticide anywhere on the property and so the bees are safe. Our dairy and processing plant produces milk, cream, butter, yogurt, buttermilk and cheese and loads of dung which we use to produce biogas with which we cook our food.
The waste from the biogas plant along with all the organic kitchen waste, leaf litter from the gardens, grass cuttings from lawn mowers, litter from the stables and so on, goes to our organic manure plant to produce, you guessed it, organic manure and vermicompost. So also, the poultry litter from the poultry sheds which is changed annually. We harvest fish from our fish farm tanks which are connected to the lake around which are the villas of the Retreat Village. Our fields produce wheat, barley and maize and the fruit and spice orchard gives us oranges, bananas, papayas, lemons, lime, pepper, cardamom and other spices. What we don’t use in the school kitchens is sold in our Department Store at a concessional price to cover costs and generate a modest profit. We harvest rain water and recycle waste water which we then use to irrigate our orchard, farm and all the greenery in SBA Africa by drip irrigation. Our electricity comes from the solar panels on all our roofs which is sufficient for all our lighting and heating needs.
The farm makes a small profit annually but that’s not why we have it. We have it for three reasons:
So that all of us can eat pure, pesticide free, organically produced, fresh food
So that we can train local people in better farming techniques
So that we, students and teachers, reestablish our connection with the earth.
That’s why everyone participates in the farm in one way or another, as they say, from the Chairman to the Coachman and woman. We each of us know how to grow things, take care of animals, milk cows, tend to sheep, goats and poultry, catch and clean fish, slaughter and dress a chicken, rabbit or sheep and then convert it into a mouthwatering curry or roast. Sometimes people wonder why we need so much land for a school. I say to them, it’s to teach is leadership, stewardship, connect us to the land and show is the signs of Allahﷻ, daily. Give us enough land and we’ll feed the world.
Our motto is:
If it can be done, learn how to do it. If it can’t be done, discover a way to do it.
It’s ploughing time and we use two very large and strong bulls to pull the plough. A tractor can do this job faster, but you can’t contemplate life, tell your story or ask really intelligent questions to a tractor, can you? You say, “But can you do that to a bull?” I say to you, “Try it and see.” Do the bulls answer you? No, they don’t. But understanding begins with framing good questions in a way that the answer appears from within them. That happens when you’re riding a horse, walking a dog or walking behind a plough; not when you are driving a machine. Moreover, we want the children to learn farming and for that tractors are not safe. And bulls? They love the children and take care of them. While indulging in this philosophic mood, you must remain aware enough to ensure that your furrow is straight. And most importantly, tie the tails of the bulls to the plough or to each other if you don’t wish to have a face full of usually urine soaked bull tail tassel, when he swings it to drive away the flies.
Do you know the smell of freshly ploughed earth? Do you know the feel of fertile loamy soil in your hand? Can you tell, by crumbling a lump of compost in your hand, if it’s ready to be applied in the field? Do you know the companionship of Pond Herons and Egrets, Mynahs, Bee Eaters, Crows and in our case, free range chickens which follow your plough and pick up insects which get exposed?
A Rat Snake just showed up and is now moving rapidly across the field to get into the grass on the edge before he’s spotted. Do you know what to do when a Rat Snake comes out of a hole and moves away from you towards the edge of the field? You do nothing except wishing it well while hoping that the Brown Snake Eagle doesn’t see him while he’s still in the open. That’s not the only enemy he has. There is a family of Mongoose which would happily make his acquaintance as would the big Barn Owl, at this moment, dozing in his favorite hollow in the Ficus. I wish him health and safety because Rat Snakes eat rats which are the bane of our lives, on the farm. We don’t use poison because it doesn’t stop with the rat but goes up the food chain and kills anything that eats the rat and onwards. Rat Snakes are our friends and family and we protect them. All snakes and all life. We don’t kill anything because everything has value and a place in the overall scheme of things. We are only one cog in the wheel of life. Not its owner or the reason for its existence.
Farming teaches us Tawakkul (reliance on Allahﷻ). It trains us to be patient. It shows us that if we want a certain result we must make the necessary effort. It demonstrates the importance of nurturing and that to do so, it is not only important to feed, manure and water but also to train, prune and stop. All lessons in leadership of people. It teaches us that despite all the effort we still need the Fadhl (blessing) of Allahﷻ to get the result. Because after all a farmer can prepare the field, dig canals, take steps to harvest rain water, but he can’t make it rain. Or rain just enough. Or rain at the right time. So, he learns to do all that he needs to do and then to stand in the night and beg Allahﷻ for His favor. Farming opens our eyes both to our strengths as well as to our weaknesses. And it inculcates humility. Farming teaches us to be sensitive to the needs of those that cannot speak and so it’s up to us to be ever watchful, recognize the signs and respond without being told to do so. Farming teaches us that the needs of those in our charge always precede our own. So, it’s not remarkable, in the lambing season, to find some of us sitting in the sheep pen waiting for an ewe to give birth, rather than cheering our favorite team playing in the World Cup. To give us company is always ones of our sheep dogs, Border Collies, which we helped to train. They are the best companions that you could wish for and our role models for being sensitive to the needs of others. You may be surprised that I’ve said that a dog is my role model. That’s because the fundamental lesson that we’re taught here is that there are opportunities to learn, all around us, all the time and that we can learn from anything and anyone. Especially from animals. It’s become second nature to all of us to constantly ask in every situation and many times a day, “So what did I learn from this?”
Farming teaches us the importance of preparing the soil before planting. Without proper preparation the best seed won’t germinate. It shows us the value of digging a straight furrow, of preparing irrigation channels and water harvesting, without which the best rain will simply flow away and give no benefit. So, success is not an inevitable result of resources but of preparation. Without preparation the best resources will simply be squandered.
Farming teaches us that what we have in our hand is the seed. If we hang onto it, that’s all we’ll have. But when we plant it properly and nurture it, it yields a harvest. And that the smallest harvest is more than the amount of seed that was planted. Only empty hands can hold. Something must leave your hand before you can receive anything. So also in life, to receive rewards, we must invest. The investment in life which has the highest rate of return, ROI, is the investment we make in others. To help others, to alleviate suffering, eliminate poverty, enable learning and open doors for others that they couldn’t open for themselves. It is to understand that possessions add cost, not value. That true happiness lies in the hearts of others, in their smiles. That there’s more pleasure in giving than in acquiring. In helping someone else than in indulging yourself. No investment, no return. It’s only when we strive to please Allahﷻ that He sends His blessings on us. Our actions must rise towards the heavens for the blessings of Allahﷻ to descend.
That’s why we have our farm.
We break off at 4.30 pm, pray Asr and head off to the dining hall where we have high tea. We have high tea every day. Scones, sandwiches, croissants with fillings, curry puffs; our bakery is excellent. Hot chocolate, tea or coffee. They feed us well in this school.
From 4.30 pm – 6.30 pm we’re free. Most of us head off to the sports fields. But this is not compulsory. If you don’t feel like playing, you needn’t. This is just free time to do whatever you want, including nothing. At 6.30 pm Maghrib Adhaan is called and we head for the masjid. After Maghrib is our second academic class. But this is different from the morning. This session is student led with we Prefects being principally responsible. It’s my responsibility to ensure that all the boys in my house are accounted for and get to whichever class they’re supposed to be in. How do I know which classes they need to be in? I ask them. They plan what they need to learn depending on what project they’re doing. They’re supposed to inform me and the teachers they need so that everything is in readiness for them. That’s the meaning of student centered learning.
Some people are surprised and ask how children can be left to decide what they want to learn. I say to them that in any case, it is children (all learners) who decide what they want to learn. When adults try to force them, not only do they not learn but they get turned off from learning. Adults may have the illusion that they’re achieving something but that’s an illusion.
You may be surprised that I haven’t mentioned Islamic studies as a special subject. It isn’t. We learn and live Islam. Our ethos is Islam. We are taught about the importance of remembering Allahﷻ all the time and of following the Sunnah of Rasoolullahﷺ. Every project we do has a significant amount of Islam in it; laws and rulings applicable to what we are studying, history that relates to it, mentions in the Qur’an and Sunnah, incidents and lessons from the Seerah and stories of the Sahaba and later generations. Our philosophy is that Islam is a practice, not a theory and so it must be practiced, lived and benefited from. It is not something to be studied like a philosophy or theory.
At 9.00 pm we go to the masjid for Isha followed by dinner and bed. It’s lights out at 10.30 pm. We need the sleep because tomorrow is another day, as full as today.
Some final comments before I end; this school is all about inculcating leadership qualities in us. The stress is on service, integrity, honesty, quality, industry and compassion. Concern for others precedes concern for ourselves. A thirst for knowledge is kindled and I hope it will remain with us throughout our lives. Our teachers are our role models and we learn by seeing, doing and experiencing. Ours is a fully boarding school because you need to be here full time to understand the meaning of inculcating values. Happens unconsciously and quietly but very powerfully.
I am nearing the completion of my time here and know that the saddest day will be my graduation day when I will have to leave school. However, I take heart from the number of old students who visit us regularly and hope to join that brotherhood and contribute to the school that gave me so much. I ask Allahﷻ for His help.