O! Teacher stop teaching

O! Teacher stop teaching

Our present methods of teaching which are inflicted on by far the vast majority of children the world over are the single biggest cause for killing the imagination that every child is born with and making them into square blocks which fit our own frightened, constrained and slavish worldview. Those who comply we ‘pass’ and those who challenge it and refuse to succumb, we ‘fail’. The occasional among those we ‘fail’, go on to great fortune. The vast majority disappear, never to be heard from again. Destroyed by the education system they didn’t deserve or ask for.

I recall the story of young Tommy; one of the stories that do the rounds on the internet. It is said that Tommy’s teacher asked the class to write an essay about their dream. Next day all the children brought their essays to class. The teacher read them all. But when she came to Tommy’s essay she was astounded and even angry. She wrote a big 0 at the top of the essay and handed Tommy his book. Naturally poor Tommy’s face fell when he looked at the teacher’s notation. He took back his book and silently walked back to his seat. The teacher saw the look on the little boy’s face and took pity on him. She called him back and said, ‘Tommy, your dream is ridiculous. It is fantasy. It is totally unrealistic. That is why I failed you in the test. However, I will give you another chance. If you re-write this dream and bring it back tomorrow, I will give you some marks.’ Tommy listened in silence, nodded agreement and returned to his seat. The eyes and smirks of all those who had ‘passed’ were on his face. They were the ones with realistic dreams which the teacher liked.

Next day Tommy handed in his essay to the teacher. The teacher scanned through it and was astonished to see that there was no change. She called Tommy to her desk in an injured tone and said, ‘Tommy, didn’t you understand what I told you? I said I would give you marks if you changed your dream. You have done nothing here! So I am sorry I can’t give you any marks.’

Tommy looked at her and said, ‘Teacher, I thought about what you said and decided that I’ll let you keep your marks and I will keep my dream.’

It seems strange to me that if I were asked to define the biggest challenge of the teacher, I would say, ‘It is to teach children how to deal with a world that we know nothing about.’ In such a world, imagination is the key resource that they will need. Without imagination they would be floundering trying to find answers in history or ‘facts’ that they had been taught. But they would never find those answers because they simply aren’t there. Yet the thing that most schools do with amazing efficiency is to kill the child’s imagination as quickly as possible. And sadly, they are very successful in doing so.

Take for example how science is taught. It is taught in a way that is no different from history, for example. It is taught as a ‘fact’ course. Whereas science is not about fact at all but about constant discovery. Science is about constantly discovering how little we know. Science is not about answers but about learning to ask the right questions, learning to analyze data with a willingness to be proved wrong, learning to design experiments to disprove our most dearly loved models, knowing that only if the experiment failed could we say that our model is actually correct. Not forever, but until we come to the next discovery.

Teaching is not about answering questions but about raising questions – opening doors for them in places that they could not imagine. Teaching is about teaching them the tools of learning which will enable them to pursue learning all their lives. Not answer questions – end all discussion and pass exams. That is the reason why the vast majority of children never open a science book once they finish with school. That is the reason why there is a serious global shortage of scientists. The whole approach to teaching must change – from teaching solutions and answers to teaching tools to pursue lifelong learning. Even when we teach what we know – the answers – we need to teach them how we arrived at those answers and then ask them , ‘If you faced this issue, what questions would you ask to find an answer.’ We need to focus far more on derivation, problem solving methodology and analytical skills than on actually arriving at some formula or solution.

The same malaise plagues other subjects as well. In history we concentrate on dates and places far more than on lessons learnt and ways of applying them in today’s society. When was the last time you heard a history teacher ask questions like: ‘What did we learn from the history of the Mughals the reflection of which we can see in today’s society? What can we learn from that period of Indian history which we can apply to our lives today? What can we learn from that period which will help us to find solutions to our problems today? Which problem? What is the solution?’ Instead history question papers will ask you for the date on which the first Battle of Panipath was fought; who was fighting whom; not why; not what that indicated about that society and its implications in today’s society. So, children hate history. We don’t relate what we teach to what is happening currently and how learning what happened then can help people in today’s world.

http://www.math.uakron.edu/~norfolk/why223f03.pdf

Children hate math, algebra even more. But when did we ever hear of a teacher teaching math as a problem-solving tool? Or of teaching algebra as a tool to plan a party? Math enhances ability in reasoning, intelligence, decision making and abstract analysis. But we only teach dry numbers.  Math enables budgeting, judging and assessment of business enterprises; it is the basis behind computer programming, music, art, graphic design, aeronautics – and a million other highly interesting things. But the way we teach math – the majority of students hate it, never use it to any advantage and trash 12 years of learning it as soon as they complete their final exam. So why should you study math at all. See the answers of some students to this question which their professor asked them:

Another very interesting article which turned up on Google on math is here:

http://drkroiss.com/page21.html

Our education system stinks. It is designed to create mechanics – not learned people. That is how one can become an engineer without reading any book other than his course books and without any understanding of anything except the little machine that he works on – as if the rest of the universe doesn’t matter. All the treasure of human thought, ideas, discoveries, experiments, reflections and imagination are closed to him. He doesn’t even know that they exist. He lives a life of stress, doing his best with his very limited understanding of life, trying to reinvent the wheel, to discover solutions which others, far more gifted and learned than he could ever be, have already discovered and written about. But then how would he know about them when he doesn’t read?

That is why we have idiotic product design because the designer has no concept of relating his design to the actual user. He is thinking in terms of his narrow area of knowledge, not of the vast area of application. That is why Haleem makers in India use washing machines as kitchen mixers. Saves them a lot of labor stirring the pot when they can have the pot stir itself. Ask the washing machine designer what he was thinking of when he designed the machine except dirty clothes? But great opportunity does not lie in customer demand. It lies in areas that the customer didn’t even know he needed.

The biggest problem with teachers is that they teach. That is the root cause of all ignorance. That is why I titled this essay, ‘O! Teacher, stop teaching.’ Start discovering, learning, enjoying. Start appreciating that the child is the best thing that happened to you and every single day try to become the best thing that happens to him or her. Teachers must never teach. They must be like ushers in a vast museum, walking quietly with their students tiptoeing behind them, opening one door after another – letting them take a peek – and then handing them the key to the door so that they can come back in their own time and explore in detail. The teacher then takes them to another door for another peek and another key. See?? Imagine how exciting that is for the child!  The teacher’s job is to give them the keys.

Teaching is about asking questions – and teaching them to ask questions. The teacher who gives answers has failed. So never do that. Teaching is about keeping the excitement of learning alive all lifelong. Teaching is about taking the hand of a 4-year-old and leading the whole group to a tree. Then sit down under the tree and tell them, ‘Let me see who can get me a perfect leaf of this tree.’ Actually, do this and see the fun. When they all come back, brimming with joy at their perfect finds – ask them if all the leaves are the same, even though they came from the same tree? Let them marvel at the fact that they are all leaves from the same tree, but each is different. Ask them, ‘Why do you think this happens? What is Allahﷻ saying to us?’

Then pull out a seed of the tree you are sitting under from your pocket. No, it didn’t grow there, you prepared for the class, remember? Then show them the seed and let them all (every one of them) hold the seed in his hand and explore it, texture, shape, color and so on. Give them crayons and paper and let them draw the seed. Give them a few more so that everyone has his own seed. When they have drawn the seed, tell them, ‘Now look at this tree. Do you realise that this tree was inside this seed? Can you draw the tree inside your seed?’ Let them do that. Every drawing must be made much of and draw breaths of amazement from you – and indeed, if you have ever taught in this way, you will realise that being amazed is the default setting. It is only when we kill the imagination of children that they become like us.

Then tell them about genetics – yes to four-year olds – and explain how the tree was inside the seed until Allahﷻ ordered it to come out. Explain the whole process of germination and growth. Draw lessons from each step and show them the glory of Allahﷻ.  Of course, that will make your own role as teacher much harder but also much more fun. To be on top of the game you have to read and prepare @ 4:1 – Four hours of preparation to one hour of teaching. The kids will come back with answers to the questions you planted in their minds. You will need patience and tact and wisdom to deal with some of them. But you will have the joy of learning, of having doors opened for you where you didn’t know there were doors. Teaching is about learning. I learnt some of the best lessons in my life from someone who was knee high to a jack rabbit.

As a dear friend of mine, also a teacher put it: What a teacher must inculcate is a sense of responsibility, self-discipline and a sense of the sacred. These are not easy to teach in a world that speaks/teaches rights at the cost of responsibility, obedience and self-indulgence instead of self-discipline and debunking/cynicism in place of respect for the sacred. These are values that were important, are important and will be important in any age.

Teaching is not a job. Anyone who considers it a job must do one of two things: re-think their vocation or become a cigarette salesman. That is a job. Selling cigarettes to people to hasten their demise. Teaching must be a passion. A teacher is someone who simply can’t imagine doing anything else. A teacher is someone who will teach not only for free but also if they had to pay for it. Only then can you light the lamp of the love of learning in the hearts of others. Teaching is to light the lamp of knowledge and dispel the darkness of ignorance. Do you, Mr. Teacher, consider what you are doing in these terms? I often ask people to think of a role model and then ask for how many of them it is a parent or a teacher. I have never had more than 10% of the population, across nationalities, races and genders, raising their hands. That means that for 90% of people their role model is neither a parent nor a teacher. What a tragedy, seeing that these two roles have the maximum face time with children. Yet they seem to do their roles in such an uninspiring and dull way – if not in a positively harmful way – that most children are glad to be away from them as much as possible.

I ask teachers to consider this. Every morning a strange thing happens at the gate of your school. Parents come and hand over their most precious assets to you without asking for any guarantees for anything; for you to do with them, as you please for the next 6 – 8 hours. Are you conscious of this responsibility in quite this way and do you plan for those 6 – 8 to become the best 6 – 8 hours of that child for that day? Do you actively plan this? What would you say if the teacher, who you send your child to, planned to make those hours the best hours of your child’s life? Do you believe this is worth doing? If not, what are you doing here?

 When a child asks a question, ‘Mr. Great Crocodile, what does this mean?’ You say, ‘You tell me.’ And then let him go away and search. You watch what he is doing, give him a hint or two but never make it easy for him. If it looks like he is getting too close to an easy answer, bowl a googly. Ask a question which will lead him to dig deeper.’ Then when he comes to you with his answer, listen very carefully and be prepared to be astonished. Don’t put any limits or boundaries on what he can or can’t say, what he can or can’t question. Then listen very carefully and take notes. That will do wonders for his confidence as well as for your own learning.

 And another thing – abolish exams. Or at least have only open book exams. Exams are the worst evil that ever happened to learning. They are the final nail in the coffin which ensures that the child hates learning forever. Just ask yourself how testing the memory of the child for random recall in a specific timeframe is a measure of his knowledge? Has this happened to you that a child couldn’t think of an answer though it was on the tip of his mind, until he had handed in his paper and the exam bell had rung. And then, five minutes after the bell rang, the answer dropped off the tip of his mind into his consciousness. Does that child know or not know? But does that child pass or fail your exam? If that happens to be a final, qualifying exam, then does it shut the doors on his dreams or not? Now you know why some poor kids commit suicide? Exams, as we conduct them are evil.

Tests as we do them are perceived as threats. They are threats. The human brain responds to threats in the most primitive way by shutting down everything except reflexes. When a threat is perceived, the reptilian part of the brain takes over and the neocortex shuts down. That is why in martial arts we learn to force ourselves to continue to think, while allowing the training to take over reactions. The thinking gives us the strategic edge in a conflict. Pilots are also taught to ‘go back to the manual’ in case there is an emergency. That means, not to allow the reptilian reflex to take over and to do all the checks that the manual prescribes, because only that has a chance to save the situation.

Yet in exams, we first shut down the brains of our students and then force them to perform in an atmosphere of high threat perception and pass or fail them for a life in which there is mostly no threat. At least not when they are reading history, for god’s sake!! Exams are a sign of our own laziness. We test random memory because that is the easiest thing to test. Not because that makes sense, or is a real indicator of learning, understanding and application of knowledge. Reducing it to multiple choice questions, where the child simply ticks a box is the ultimate insult to learning. That is done because the tabulation of marks can thereby be done by a machine and teachers are not burdened with even reading answers. How much worse can this get?

Do test. We must test because we need to measure the results of our effort. Test understanding. Test application of knowledge. Test value addition to what we taught them. Reward new questions that arose from what we taught them. Don’t insult your teaching and destroy the lives of students by testing them in ways that are insane and toxic. Ban exams as we know them. Find other ways of testing. And treat this like the life-threatening emergency that it is.

May you be the one to illuminate the world by igniting minds.

First of all, your own.

Last of the ‘Innocents’

Last of the ‘Innocents’

“First To Log In, First To Log Out

People 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.”

Soon 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.

The 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”

You can read the whole article here: http://bit.ly/2TRpCAz

Not the river I mentioned but another like it, in Yala National Park, Sri Lanka

Dear 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.

Countries where my podcasts are downloaded….what’s with Greenland, eh!!

First 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 salt handy.

In 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. 

Shopping 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.

 Beds 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.

Hmm!! Not bad!! How do I look? Sparrow, a bird with an attitude

Our 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.

Municipal 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.

 In 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 from 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 pleasure.

We 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 home.

I will never forget the sight 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 had done for us when we were little. To do the same for them, was not only our duty but not even something we considered remarkable.

In 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 had 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 had 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.

In that world manners were everything. Manners meant that you showed respect for elders by greeting them first and standing up for them. By anticipating their needs and running to fulfill them. Manners meant that if an elderly person had to carry a chair to a place where he wanted to sit, it was an insult to you and your parents, if you only 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.

Books and more books…. you’re never lonely if you have books

In 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. 

Books 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, P. G. Wodehouse, Enid Blyton, Arthur Hailey, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (Sherlock Holmes), Agatha Christie 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 can be 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.

We had never heard of recycling, but we always wore clothes that had graced 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.

Since 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 – those 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 to pour 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.

We 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.

In 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 fingers 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.

Not 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.

A friend said to me, “I am with you. But how do we get this back?”

Get 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, non-smoking 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.

Walk in the rain. Don’t carry an umbrella or even a hat. Feel the water on your face and 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!

Once 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.

Finally, 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, without it.

Opportunity is what you create

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.

Lion-tailed Macaque

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:

  1.  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.

 

For more, please see my book, ‘It’s my Life’.

Tea Factory, Black magic and Demons

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.

Never a dull moment in the estates.

For more, please see my book, ‘It’s my Life’.

Life Lessons from Tea

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……………………