we are all your children. May God bless you and keep you well, Dorai. Tomorrow
I will show you the tea that you planted. Hundreds of people have a livelihood
because of that tea. It is the rule in the estate that the pluckers take your
name first before they start plucking that tea. It is called Baig Dorai Thotam
(garden). Your name will never be forgotten as long as that tea remains,
I was in
Lower Sheikalmudi Estate, in 2007, twenty years since I had been there last, as
the Manager. Now I was visiting my old haunts, living my dream of enjoying the
Anamallais without worrying about YPH (Yield per hectare) or tea prices. We
arrived one evening and stayed in the Manager’s bungalow where we had lived,
and which was now a guest house; of sorts. It still had the same curtains that
we had installed twenty years ago, and you could tell. But nostalgia is a cure
for many things and so we loved spending a couple of nights in our old home without
worrying about how run down it looked.
day we took a picnic lunch (flat masala omlettes, rolled in rotis with some
pickle on the side) and walked up the hill to Manjaparai. Once we climbed down
the hill from the bungalow, the climb is about four to five kilometers; never
very steep but always rising. As you continue upwards, it can get quite taxing
on a body used to sitting in chairs more than anything else. As you climb up
out of the tea, you enter first the scrub jungle, very thick with all kinds of
shrubbery including some very potent stinging nettles called Anaimarti. All my
old memories came flooding back. My two friends, Raman & Raman, who worked
on the estate and were my companions on my hikes and built hides for me to
watch wildlife, were thrilled that I could still recognize the plants. Raman
the younger cut a stout stick for me which is something that I used to like to
keep as a climbing aid. Today I needed it more than simply wanting it. We
walked through a path that Raman cut in the undergrowth with his pruning knife.
As I walked, I remembered that this was the habitat of the Hamadryad or King
hannah) which is an endangered species. Interestingly though
it has ‘cobra’ in its name, it is not a cobra and is the only member of its
genus. It is the longest poisonous snake in the world and can grow to as long
as 18-19 feet. This snake preys on other snakes, is extremely fast but shy and
so you are unlikely to see it unless you stumble on its nest. King cobras are the only species
of snake to build nests for their young, which they guard ferociously. Nesting
females may attack without provocation. When it
is angry it rears up one third of its body which makes it as tall as a man and
so the snake can actually look you in the eye. That can be terrifying to say
the least. The Hamadryad has an enormous amount of venom, enough to kill twenty
people or one elephant. But as I said, it is shy and so you hardly ever have
any instances of people being bitten by them. The venom is neurotoxic and depending
on the quantity injected into you, can kill in minutes.
out of the brush eventually, having been bitten liberally by elephant ticks
(the price to pay for climbing to Manjaparai) on to the base of the rock called
Manjaparai (Yellow Rock) because of the color of a lichen that grows on this
rock. There is a small stream that flows through a slight depression in it and
at one point forms a shallow pool. This is the drinking pool that Sambhar and
Gaur come to drink in. When we reached there that afternoon, we also found some
old elephant dung strewn around the pool, but no fresh sign of any elephant.
Walking up the hill, we surprised a basking cobra (Naga Naga) and then startled
a Sambar doe that was resting in a thicket. She exploded out of the bush and
galloped down a slope that was so steep that I would have hesitated to walk
down it too fast. It was in the tree that grew out of the rock near the pool, that
I’d had a platform (machan) constructed to watch animals from. I would pick a
full-moon night with clear skies to sit in my machan. A clear night is much colder,
but the full moon gives enough light to see without a torch. Nights on this
platform were very cold but the sight of the sunset and its rising next morning
was well worth the discomfort of the cold.
I would get up into the tree early so as not to disturb any game. One of the Ramans would sit up with me. The other one would see us to the place and leave and return early the following morning to collect us. It was not safe to stay on the ground during the night unless you had a fire. But the fire would drive all the game away and so we had this arrangement. Let me tell you about the sounds of the forest you would hear if you were to sit with me on the machan. The first call as the sun went down was always the jungle fowl going up to roost. First the cocks would crow – kakkaak, kaa kak?? – with a question mark at the end.Then the hens would sometimes cackle as they flew up to their roosts. There were no peacocks in the Anamallais in the 1980’s as it was too wet for them. But when I returned there in 2007, I saw peacocks. This shows that in the twenty years that I had been away, rainfall had reduced enough for peacocks to migrate up the mountain range from the plains and start living there. Not a good sign at all, the decline in rainfall. It will be interesting to check the meteorological data.
they settled in, the nightjars would start flitting on silent wings, catching nocturnal
insects in flight as they came out of their hiding places. It is a fascinating
sight to watch the nightjars as they took their interceptor flights. The
nightjars sit in an open place (on a small rock or in the middle of the path)
and make their characteristic call chut-chut-chut-churrrrrrrrrrrr. They repeat
this call endlessly, sitting absolutely still but watching the world very
closely. As soon as the nightjar sees a poor unsuspecting insect going about
its business, it simply erupts into the air and the world insect population is
reduced by one. 100% kill rate. Amazing birds.
there would be silence for a while as the jungle settled for the night. As the
first light of the moon started to strengthen, a pair of Spotted Owlets would
come out of their roosting places, where they had been hiding both from the sun
as well as from the crows who harass them mercilessly if they see them in the
open. They hunt in pairs. They fly out onto the flat branch that was their take
off perch, one followed by the other. They would sit there for a while and talk
to each other, perhaps discussing strategy. They are the most demonstrative birds
that I have seen and to see them cuddling up to and nuzzling each other is extremely
endearing. Then he would glide away in one direction and she in another. You must
see an owl in flight to understand the meaning of grace. Suddenly you hear the
dhank-dhank of the Sambar. This is the alarm call telling the other tenants of
the jungle that one of the two big cats that live in this forest, the tiger and
the leopard, is around. The Sambar is the most reliable of the sentinels and
call only when they see these predators. Chital (none in these forests) also
call and so do Barking Deer (plenty in the Anamallais). But both tend to be
very skittish and will call on seeing many other things including shadows. Being
on everyone’s dinner menu, does something to your perspective.
one whose alarm call must be taken seriously is the Langur; in this case the
Nilgiri Langur and not the Grey Langur of the plains. They always have a sentinel
watching from the highest perch that he can find, always on the lookout for big
cats. But at night, the Langur are among the first to go to the treetops where
they spend the night, safely out of harm’s way. Langur are at the top of the
leopard’s dietary preference and so no wonder they prefer to be where the
leopard is not subjected to any temptation. The Sambhar has fallen silent. This
means that he can no longer see the tiger or leopard.
you look at the deep shadows, one of the shadows moves and comes out into the
open which is illuminated brightly by the moon. You can see the shine of the
black coat and the white socks. You hear the snort as the bull clears his nose.
The Gaur are here. As he gives the all-clear the cows and calves come out and
all of them move to the shallow pool to drink. There is not enough water for
all of them to drink together so they will remain there for as long as it takes
for the pool to keep filling as they keep emptying it.
presence of one herbivore is a sign to the others that the situation is safe.
It is essential of course for us to keep silent, breathing softly and staying
completely still. It is amazing how highly developed the senses of animals are,
whose life literally depends on this. Make the slightest movement or sound and
they vanish as if they had never been there. Raman seems carved in stone. I
recall all my early childhood training in jungle craft and silently thank Uncle
Rama and Nawab Nazir Yar Jung for teaching me to take care of myself and to
reconstruct the story of the forest from the signs. Nobody could have had or
wished for better teachers. Nawabsab spent many years in the Anamallais as a
tea planter and he was my inspiration to join planting. A decision that I have
always been very pleased about. Thanks to my decade long career as a planter, I
learnt many valuable skills and life lessons and had the privilege of collecting
some of the most beautiful memories and friends of my life. Raman and I sit in
complete silence and watch the animals which are less than twenty meters away.
put out blocks of rock salt (salt licks) and some of the animals move away
towards the salt lick and eventually even sit down to chew the cud around the
salt lick. I have seen Sambar pick their way between resting gaur to get to the
salt, all in perfect harmony with each other. As the night passes, we can hear
elephants feeding in the forest bordering Manjaparai but that night they decide
not to come out into the open. The night is now almost completely silent. All
the grazing and hunting has been done. Now the whole world is resting. The time
is 3 am according to the glow of my watch dial. The night is very, very cold. A
breeze has started which blows unhindered up the slope of Manjaparai. The bison
(gaur) herd has moved off back into the forest. There is nothing in sight.
Raman and I are both shivering with our teeth chattering. We silently decide to
descend onto the rock and light a fire. The firewood has already been collected
the previous evening and is at the foot of the tree. We get down to the rock
and Raman sets about creating a very nice and bright bonfire. To enjoy a fire
truly one must first be at freezing point. Then you light the fire and sit in
front of it and toast yourself. That is bliss.
course it destroys your night vision and if you have to suddenly turn and look
into the darkness you are completely blind, but then in our case there is
nothing to see in the darkness and so we both sit before the fire, wrapped in
our blankets and talk of various matters grave enough to be spoken of at 3 am.
It is amazing how people who we may dismiss as illiterate and uneducated (not
that I ever did that), make observations, reflect upon them, and form educated
opinions. A favorite topic with most Indians is politics and the antics of
politicians. We are a very politically savvy people. We understand our
politicians like nobody else. But what beats me is how we always manage to
elect such puerile ones. Like the joke goes, ‘What happens when a politician
drowns in the river?’ ‘It is called pollution.’ ‘What happens when they all
drown?’ ‘It is called a solution.’
and I would discuss the reasons for corruption in our system. Our people, the
vast majority of them are good, simple, and have sincere hearts that have
learned to become helpless. Every conversation ends with the same refrain, ‘Ah!
But what can we do?’ The reality is that if anything can be done, it is only we
who can do it. But this remains an elusive concept. Having put that to rest, we
would watch the fire and simply sit in companionable silence, waiting for dawn.
Raman proves that he is made of gold by pulling out a flask with piping hot tea
and he and I share the tea and wait for the night to pass.
our talk runs out and we doze in spells. The fire starts to go down and every
once in a while, either Raman or I put another log into it. Time passes. We see
the owls that had left the previous evening, return to their perch and they
have a long conversation recounting tales of the hunt. I have no idea whose
story was more impressive, but both seem to have a lot to talk about. The sky
is now starting to lighten. There is a strange blue light and I feel as if I am
looking at the world from the bottom of the ocean. Then an orange tinge starts
at the very bottom of the horizon and gradually grows upwards as if a fire has
been started and is strengthening. And indeed, it has.
final payoff of our trip is at hand. The sun is starting to rise. The sky
catches fire. The flames rise higher. And then the top curve of the ball of
fire appears on the horizon and rises rapidly upwards. The light is now strong.
A new day has been born and I am fortunate enough to witness it. What price can
I place on this privilege? All it took is a little discomfort of sitting half
the night on the top of a tree. I thank Allahﷻ for
showing me His creation.
new day starts with the Nilgiri Whistling Thrush (Whistling Schoolboy bird) and
his liquid melody which he changes at will. We had a nesting pair in the Golden
Showers creeper in our veranda. I used to whistle back, and he would respond.
If I stopped, he would whistle and wait for me to reply. I have no idea what I was
saying in his language, but whatever it was, he seemed to like it. I can’t
describe the joy of beginning every day with that to start me off. On
Manjaparai, I can hear the Yal-Tee-Yams (LTM – Lion-tailed Macaque – Macaca
silenus) announcing that the new day is here. Then as the light strengthens, Jungle
Fowl descend from the trees and the cocks call out their challenge; kak kaak, kaa kak?? – with a question mark at the
end. You don’t normally hear the alarm calls of Sambar or Barking Deer at this time
because the hunters have already hunted and are now resting after their meal.
Langur call, just the communication calls.
You may hear
the elephant herd, if you are downwind of them. First you will smell them. Then
the squeal of the youngsters, feeling their oats early in the morning, usually
butting each other and testing their strength while the matriarch leads them to
the river to drink and bathe. As they walk, you can hear branches breaking as
they feed, stomach rumbles, the low frequency call of the matriarch (you feel the
vibration more than hear it) as she gives some instruction to her family. Even
a trumpet occasionally. Just a honk of the horn. Not the scream of rage as an
elephant thunders down on you at fifty miles an hour with the intention of wiping
you off the face of the earth. That happenedto me once, a week after I joined
as a brand-new Assistant Manager, but I managed to escape. The memory however is still fresh and lives
with me. You can’t hear the hyper-low frequency calls which travel over a hundred
miles, by which herds widely apart, communicate with one another. What do they
wind shifts and their super sensitive sense, gets a whiff of you. Suddenly there
is total silence. You hear nothing. No branches snapping, no squealing, no rumbles,
no trumpeting. Not a dry twig will snap under a foot which has a sole like a
truck tyre bearing a weight of four tons, but which can tread as softly as a feather
when it wants to. If you could see them, you would see ears fanning for sounds,
trunks raised, taking in sniffs of air and blowing them into the mouth to taste
it. Their eyesight is not great but their hearing and smell more than makes up
for that. Add to that a memory that is legendary and the fact that they are in
familiar surroundings and know every patch of forest. Who knows what other
senses they bring to bear to decide whether you present a threat or not? Before
you realize it, the herd has gone, like the mist in the early morning. One
minute they were there, and the next, there is only your memory of an encounter
that will stay with you all your life.
daylight strengthens, birds come alive. They gather at their favorite trees to
feed on berries, and on insects which get flushed by the berry eaters or to
scratch in the dirt at the bottom of the tree for worms, beetles and caterpillars.
Insects have a hard time in life, though they are so critical to everyone else’s
survival. If you stand quietly and watch, you can see the tree divided into zones
in which different species of birds operate. The most popular trees for birds, in
this forest on the Western Ghats is the Banyan (Ficus Benghalensis), especially
when it is in fruit. The tree itself is excellent nesting habitat for birds.
Owls and Parakeets live in its hollows. Hornbills use those hollows to make
their nests. Black Eagles, Changeable Hawk-eagles and other raptors make nests
in the topmost branches. Imperial Pigeons, Green Pigeons, Ring-necked and other
doves, crows, and many others, nest in the Banyan. This is a very productive
tree to watch if you want to photograph birds. All this activity is accompanied
by an absolute cacophony of sound with all the birds talking to one another at
the top of their voices. No birdsong as such. This is feeding time and they are
in a frenzy.
like to talk about the peace of the forest. That is a myth. The forest is a
place of intense activity where to survive you need senses honed to perfection,
total physical fitness, lightning reflexes and total awareness. The price of carelessness
is hunger or death. And all this, every waking, living day and night of your
life. No overweight animals in the forest and no pot bellies. The only exception
are elephants, who thanks to their size and lifestyle of living together in
family groups taking care of one another, can afford to relax. Life in the forest
is all about survival. Whether you are a bird, reptile, mammal, amphibian or
fish, it is all about survival. You must do one of two things and for some, you
must do both; find food and prevent yourself from becoming food. Add to that
finding mates, building nests, raising young and all the while protecting them
and yourself from others who need to kill you to raise their own young and you
have a very lethal and non-peaceful environment. But one in which you feel
alive constantly. No time for depression, boredom or anxiety – all very human
survive in the forest, you must be able to read it like you read a book.
Observe signs, know what they mean and know what to do when you see them. Some
you will see, some you hear, some you smell and to all you pay attention very
carefully. You must know that you are also generating signs, most of the time unconsciously.
And while you are not the natural food for anyone, you can get yourself into
trouble if by your behavior you are seen as a threat, especially to the young
of someone else. This is almost the only reason that people get injured, bitten
or even killed in the forest. The solution is to learn woodcraft. If you know
how to behave in a forest, you can be safe and enjoy yourself in one that is
inhabited by all the potentially dangerous species you can think of. I am
speaking of Indian and Sri Lankan forests. African forests are somewhat different
in this respect. I have walked, camped, even slept in riverbeds in forests in India,
inhabited by tigers, leopards, gaur, wild dogs, elephants and of course snakes
and here I am writing about it all. That is because I learnt what to do and
have a lot of respect for those whose territory, I am in.
forests are different primarily because of lions. African lions are very different
from Indian tigers and leopards and are addicted to junk food. I believe, so
also are African leopards and Spotted Hyenas. So, sleeping in riverbeds in Africa
is not what I would advise. I wouldn’t advise that in India or Sri Lanka either
as a matter of course, but as I said, if you needed to, you could do that here.
But in Africa, if you find yourself in such a situation, where there is a possibility
of lions in the vicinity, find yourself a tall tree and climb it as far up as
you can get. Think of yourself as a bag of potato chips or a bar of chocolate
if you like. You get the message? Having said that, there are unfenced resorts
in wildlife parks where you can camp and as long as you are inside your tent or
in your car, you are safe. But if you need to go in the night, because when you
gotta go you gotta go, it presents interesting possibilities. Not my idea of a
holiday for sure.
to our story, it was as if I was watching a flashback movie. As I sat on the
rock, eating my egg roll I remembered all these things as vividly as if I were
watching it happen all over again. Twenty years had passed. The gaur I saw are
all gone. So are the Langur. Their offspring have taken their place. Raman is
there with me, but his hair is now jet black with hair dye. My beard is a
salt-pepper shade with far more salt than pepper. There is change, but the rock
is timeless. So is the forest. Ever changing of course, but strangely, still
the same. Not often is one privileged to go back in time. I finished my meal
and lay down on the rock close to the stream to sleep for a while. Raman &
Raman moved away to either ends of the open space to take up watch positions.
We are old friends and companions. Nothing needs to be said. Each knows what he
should do. I can hear the small stream gurgling as I drift off into the best
sleep that I have had in a very long time.
up as the sun started its final journey to America. Only if it set here could
the Americans have another day. So, we can’t delay it, can we? We gathered our
things and started off back home, this time on a new track past the tea that I
had planted 20 years ago. Today I was very eager to see what had become of it.
Once again, we descended into the dark thickness of the undergrowth at the
bottom of Manjaparai, now a little apprehensive as we can see fresh sign of
elephant. We walk in single file with Raman in the lead and me at the rear with
our friends who are new to this environment in the middle. We walk silently.
Everyone has been given instructions about what to do if we come across
elephants. But nothing as exciting as that happens and we emerge into what has
become known as Baig Dorai Thotam (Baig Dorai’s Garden – the name that
the pluckers gave it). I looked at it with tears in my eyes. It was the most
beautiful sight that I had seen in a long time.
has been extremely well looked after. They had done a height reduction prune to
it and it is now back in plucking. Flat as a table, deep green maintenance
foliage with light green plucking shoots standing proud and tall. Someone
obviously has done an extremely fine job here. I was delighted that I had
decided to come here and visit after so long.
climbed up on another rock on the border of the tea overlooking the thick
evergreen rain forest that the Anamallais are famous for. There is a single
Spathodia in full bloom in the middle of the sea of green, the flame red color
of the flowers standing out like a bonfire. I can see why it is called the
Flame of the Forest. We sit in silence and watch the sun rise somewhere else.
As the night descends, I thank Allahﷻ once
again for giving me this opportunity to come back and see the result of my work
and meet my old friends. I feel privileged and honored.
1984. The second and last formal employment
of my career was in the tea plantations in the Anamallai Hills in Coimbatore
District of Tamilnadu. I worked there for seven years, one of the most
enjoyable and instructive periods of my life. Fires and estates are companions.
Not surprising given the combination of people who smoke and don’t always
bother to put out their cigarettes, and forests with semi deciduous trees that
regularly carpet the floor with their leaves every summer. A forest fire is
easy to start. One cigarette butt is enough. But if it catches, then it can’t
be put out until there’s nothing left to burn. In the end, all that is left is
ash. We used to take a lot of preventive steps including clearing fire
boundaries where we would clear a wide swathe of ground of all undergrowth and
leaves and keep it swept clean so that even if a fire started it could be
contained. We had also constructed water tanks and dammed streams to create
small reservoirs, which would be useful if we needed water in a hurry to put
out a fire. These reservoirs were also very useful as watering holes for
wildlife in the summer and a source of endless delight for me to watch animals
as they came down to drink.
One day late in the afternoon someone came running
to the office (days without mobile phones or walky-talky radios) and said that
a fire had started in the Murugalli coffee area. In the plantations, emergencies
were everyone’s affair. News would go to all those who could be informed, and
they all rushed to the aid of the estate which had the problem. All who could
go would go, regardless of whose estate it was.
As soon as the runner caught his breath, I put him
on the back of my motorcycle to guide me and we were off. When I reached the
place, I realized that this was a fairly large forest fire. There were about
thirty of our workers and two supervisors who had been working in the area. I
marshaled them all and got them to clear a belt and start a counter fire. The
idea was to burn an area across the direction of the fire and clear it of all
inflammable material so that when the main fire reached this place it would
simply starve to death. We started the counter fires and once the dry stuff was
burnt, we beat out the flames with green leafy branches that we had previously
cut and kept at hand. The main fire was moving very fast as it was being pushed
by a tail wind. As it came up to us it was our task to ensure that it did not
jump the cleared boundary. Every time a flame jumped the fire boundary, we beat
it to death. There was no water available where we were, otherwise, we would
have also wet as much area as possible as a preventive measure. The story didn’t
end here but for this article, this is enough.
The whole logic of fighting forest fires is about
preventing them from starting. And if they do start, then trying to prevent
them from growing. If this is not done, then once a fire grows beyond a certain
size, nothing can put it out until everything that can burn has been burnt. The
fire will die only when everyone and everything is dead. And all that is left
Today, as I reflect on global politics as well as
its local reflection in my country, I am reminded of forest fires and my own
experience of fighting one in the Anamallais. It appears that none of the
leaders either on the global stage or the even more critical local ones, has
ever seen or fought a forest fire. That is why they so blithely ignite and
stoke the fires of hatred. Racial hatred, communal hatred and religious hatred.
They know not what they do but regardless, we, every single one of us, will
burn if we allow this to go on unchallenged and unanswered. Fire can’t be
fought with fire. It must be fought with something that is cool and which is not
inflammable. So also, hatred can’t be fought with hatred, but with love. Loving
someone who hates you is not easy. It seems impossible. But the alternative is
to burn in the same fire.
In human relations terms, ignorance is
combustible. It is the substance that is used to ignite the fire of hatred and
to stoke it by demonizing the object of hate. The real purpose is to sow
discord and terror, so that we are all reduced to the same level, joined only
in our fear of one another rooted in ignorance. Then we become malleable and
controllable through fear. This is done by first focusing on the differences in
our diversity and then teaching us that these differences are things to hate. In
a society like ours which is based on caste differences that discriminate
against other people based on their ethnicity (race), to get people to hate
someone for something as ridiculous as what they eat, drink, wear or worship is
very easy. We already live in a society where we are taught that some of us are
superior to others for no fault of ours or theirs. It is just that we were born
into this or that caste and so that not only makes us superior, but it means
that we get to look down on others and consider them to be dirty, sub-human,
unworthy of associating with and to always be treated with contempt. Since this
entire edifice is built on an accident of birth, it means that it is permanent
and there is nothing that anyone can do to change that. That leads to the
logical progression of despising and hating the person and the entire group
that he/she belongs to, because that makes me feel superior and good, once
again free of cost.
continue to feel good, all I need to do is to perpetuate this lie from generation
to generation and ensure that the hatred and contempt stays alive. For this
there are some requirements; deny anything good that the target population may
have done, no matter how clear and substantial the evidence. Mock and disparage
their identity, beliefs, culture and customs and demonize them by interpreting
them in negative ways. Re-write history in a way that removes all evidence of
their contribution to the nation and world and replace that with cherry-picked or
manufactured stories of their ‘sins’. Pick a time period that is ancient enough
to ensure that nobody from the time is alive to defend themselves and do all
this so aggressively that those who are alive today, are intimidated enough to
remain silent and watch their heritage being trashed. The idea is to eventually
have a situation where even the memory of the contributions of those people is
lost and all sense of self-esteem is taken from them. It is an age-old tactic,
the only thing remarkable about which is that it still works.
again, what is the solution? For a solution we must find and implement if we
are not all to be consumed in the forest fire that we lighted or allowed to be
lighted while we watched. The first part of the solution is to reject every
ideology that teaches that you are either superior or inferior because of the
accident of birth. All such ideologies of being the ‘chosen of god’, are an
insult to humanity and God. All such ideologies are false, dangerous and
destructive and must be trashed. For the record as far as my own religion, Islam
is concerned, let me quote from the sermon of the Prophet Muhammad(S) during
his last Hajj where he said, “All mankind is from Adam and Eve, an Arab has
no superiority over a non-Arab nor does a non-Arab have any superiority over an
Arab. A white (person) has no superiority over a black, nor does a black
(person) have any superiority over a white; except by piety and good action.” Now that is clear enough and needs no
elaboration. We are all equal in our humanity and the only measure of goodness
is the goodness we spread around us.
part of the solution is to give names and faces to the labels that we are
confronted with. Labels seeking to create the ‘Other’ in our minds. Labels that
if we don’t question and see them for what they are, make it possible for us to
reject others. Labels are distant, disembodied and impersonal. That makes it
possible to hate those to whom they apply. Names are known and personal; faces
are recognizable. They make us stop to consider what we think, say or do about
those people. Let me illustrate with my own example, how a name changes the
complexion of a label.
I am Muslim.
But when I hear the label ‘Agnostic/Atheist’, I see Aunty Mohini and Uncle
Rama’s faces. The two people who were my mentors in childhood and youth and
role models, lifelong. They enabled me to discover myself and opened my heart
and mind to appreciate others. When I hear the label Sikh, I see the faces of
Gurcharan, Gurveen Kaur, Anup and Sandy. When I hear the label Hindu, I see the
faces of AMM Arunachalam, Renuka & Aditya Mishra, Purba & Sanjoy Sanyal,
Nikoo Rawlley, Arun Menon and Gudducha (Jaikant Chaturvedi). When I hear the label
Christian, I see the faces of Berty & Jenny Suares, Thambi Kurien, Ranjan
Solomon, Norman & Lorraine Wood. When I hear the label Buddhist, I see the
faces of Rose, Ivo and Alvito Baretto. When I hear the label Jew, I see the
faces of Kathy, Dennis Goodman, David and Jeffrey Solomon. When I hear the
label Christian Missionary, I see the faces of David and Miriam Ramse and
Thurston Riehl. When I hear the label Parsi, I see the faces of Jehangir
Ghadiali, Naushi and Mehru Tarapore. When I think of communal riots, I think of
Uncle Raman Kumar who came with a police escort through the curfew to give us
food grains. I think of Norman Lindie in Guyana who shielded me with his own
body from a man who had come to attack me with a knife. I think of Peter
Ramsingh, who was my constant companion in our innumerable camping trips through
the rain forests, up and down the Berbice River. These are by no means the only
people I know under these ‘categories’. There are many, many more. This is only
to make my point that when you have a face to a label, it becomes personal. With
each of them, I have many pleasant memories associated. Of happy times, helping
one another, just being with one another and enjoying each other’s company and
difference. So, deal with people, not labels.
of becoming personal is that I have a frame of reference when I hear or read something
hateful about the ‘category’ which in my mind and life experience is
represented by a name and face of a friend. I find it impossible to hate
anyone, but even if this were not the case, I would have cause to stop and reflect,
if I have a frame of reference against which to compare what I am being asked
to believe. Without that and given the unique human tendency to believe the negative
more easily than the positive, rumor becomes real and the lie becomes the
truth. Today the problem is that thanks to our highly urbanized and apparently
self-sufficient (but really isolationist) way of life, we manage to live in the
same apartment building for decades without even knowing the name of our neighbor,
let alone anything more. Our civic spaces are disappearing. Hence civilized interaction and dialogue. Even
schools are ‘segregated’. Not officially but children don’t seem to have
friends, except among their own kind. Racist language is rampant and normal.
Discrimination seems to be the order of the day. Even the question of a child going
to the home of a friend, not from his/her religion or ethnicity, to spend an overnight
or weekend with their family, doesn’t arise. Our conversation mentions other people,
their religion and culture, but always in disparaging words. Never with respect
and appreciation. Our world view has become totally color blind – black and
white. We don’t even see the racist overtone in the term, Black & White. We
have lost our frame of reference. We are blind, waiting to be led down the road
of someone else’s choosing.
change. This is the fire-break that we must build. The essential fire
prevention strategy if we want to protect ourselves from annihilation. We must
open our eyes and ears, homes and hearts, to others. We must stop ‘Othering’ each
other. We must learn to observe with respect and without being judgmental. We
must learn to appreciate difference and not reduce all difference to good (like
me) and bad (different from me). It is variety that adds color to the scenery.
Variety is another name for difference. We must consciously examine the
assumptions that we have become used to and treat as ‘The Truth’. We must face
the fact that they are baseless assumptions, rooted in bigotry. As Reza Aslan put
it very aptly, ‘Religion doesn’t make people bigots. People are bigots and
they use religion to justify their ideology.’ The question each one of us
needs to ask is, ‘Am I a bigot?’ I can imagine that in today’s world, the answer
may well be, ‘Yes’, in all cases with a difference only in degree. As a starting
point, I would say that it is enough to ask this question and then ask another
one, even more painful. ‘Am I willing to do anything to change this?’ That is
when we can start thinking of what we must do.
must we do?
conversations. At home, in the workplace, especially in our schools and in
public. It is ‘domestic legends’ which shape our worldview from a very early
age. We need to reflect on how we were conditioned and become conscious of how
we are conditioning our children. Most conditioning is unconscious and extremely
powerful and very difficult to undo, unless we make a serious effort. Monitoring
conversations will give us diagnostic evidence of the degree of change we need
to make. It is important to do this objectively with a no-praise-no-blame
mindset. The idea is to see how serious the terminal disease which afflicts us is
and see what we need to do, to cure it. For terminal it is. Hatred is fire. All
fires burn and the result is always ash.
need to create civic spaces to meet in and practice being civilized. We need to
develop the skills to speak about each other, our beliefs, culture, customs and
traditions with respect. We must visit each other, participate in each other’s
lives and do it with respect and without being judgmental. We must ask
questions, respectfully and strongly oppose all mockery of people different
from us, even if and especially when it is done in the name of ‘humor’.
Laughing at someone is not humorous. Reject outright anyone who preaches hatred
or mocks others; whether that is your priest or preacher, teacher or political
leader, uncle or mother. We need to become open-minded enough to try to
understand the reason why other people do things differently from us and not
only accept that but appreciate it as another way of life which has an equal right
to exist. We must deal with the fear that if we do this, we will need to ‘convert’
to their way. We won’t. What will happen though is that our minds and hearts will
expand, which is a very good thing for all minds and hearts. Even ours. We will
become more understanding, accepting, respectful and impervious to manipulation
by those who wish to fill our hearts with hatred for others, so that we become
tools in their hands to achieve their own ends.
It was a
very hot day in May, 1991. Very dry, at the peak of summer with the monsoon
another month away. I was driving through Thirunelveli District on my way back
from Madurai where I had gone to attend a Labour Court hearing. These were the
days before car air-conditioning in India, so the car was a moving oven.
Suddenly the moving oven stopped moving. A tyre was punctured. My driver
Santiago pulled over to the side. I got out of the car as it was simply too hot
to sit inside. Santiago didn’t need any help, he said, so I looked around. I
saw that we had stopped by some fields which in the monsoon would be planted
with rice, but which at this time were simply baked, dry clay fractured into
pieces according to whatever natural law was at work. There was not a blade of
grass or anything green in sight. Except that is, for two small Neem trees,
which had been planted by the roadside. Beside the trees, with its back to them
and facing the field was a mud hut. It must have been about twenty feet long
and had a grass thatch roof. Between the trees, which were at either end of the
hut, the ground had been swept clean and sprinkled with sand. Under each tree,
in the scant shade was a stone bench. It was really a stone fence post laid
flat on two short raisers about two feet in height. I was intrigued to say the
least about how this whole thing was obviously planned and prepared. Who would
bother to make this seating arrangement and why?
I sat on
one of the benches to see what would happen. In a little while a young boy came
out of the hut with a brass water pot and a steel tumbler and poured me a
tumbler full of tepid water. I had many thoughts about the origin of the water
and its hygiene but didn’t want to interfere with whatever was at work here. So,
I accepted the water and drank it. The boy went to Santiago and poured some water
for him also. Then he set the pot down and sat with Santiago to provide him
with moral support in changing the tyre of the car. A couple of minutes later,
his mother called him. He took his pot and departed, only to emerge with two
glass tumblers of tea. His mother came out as he finished giving the tea to me
and Santiago, with a plate of Murku – the twisted savory snack that is very
popular all over Tamilnadu and South India. I thanked her and took one, thinking
all the time that the mystery had been solved. We had been fortunate enough to
break down near a tea-shop and so we were now being served.
finished our tea and the tyre was changed. I got up and asked the boy how much
money I owed them for the tea and snack. He looked at me in surprise and said, ‘Onnum
illayingay.’ (Nothing, Sir.) He used the respectful form of address which given
the difference in our ages, our mutual social positions and the culture of Thirunelveli
was natural. I thanked him but told him to ask his mother. He went into the hut
and the lady came out, her head covered with the tail of her sari (pallu) and said,
‘This is not a shop Sir. Your car broke down, so I thought that maybe you would
like a cup of tea and made it for you. That is all. There is nothing to pay.
You are our guest.’ I didn’t know what to say. There was nothing in my
experience to handle this, except unless I went back almost 30 years earlier to
my time with Gond tribals in Adilabad, where I also encountered such generosity
of spirit from people who had nothing. In this case, it was Diwali next day. So,
I took out Rs. 100 and folded the note and put it in the pocket of the youngster
and said, ‘This is for Diwali sweets for you.’ His mother tried to object but I
said to her, ‘I am like his elder brother. Please allow me to give him a gift
for Diwali.’ She smiled and nodded. And we left. This happened in 1991. This is
2019. The memory is alive.
and sophistication seem to build walls and teach us to despise one another. These
people were among the poorest in the world, deprived, discriminated against, so-called
lower caste. Yet their hearts were full of compassion, generosity and
abundance. What is the secret? It is to see another human being as a human
being. Shorn of our titles and labels. Just another human being. This is what
we need to learn and teach. This is the secret of putting out fires and of
survival. This is our lifeline.
Mutual respect are what I call my three Cardinal Principles of happy marriages.
Please notice that I am not using the word ‘love’. Love comes out of these
three things. What is called love is usually physical desire. The shape or size
of someone’s body is not the inspiration for love; it can be the inspiration
for infatuation and lust but not love. For love to happen, the lasting kind
that is, the kind that grows with age and the longer you spend time together,
you need truthfulness, caring and concern for one another – putting the needs
of the other before your own; and mutual respect. Without respect there can’t
be any love. One needs to respect one’s spouse, appreciate their strengths,
make them your role model, icon and be proud of them and proud that they are
your spouse. That kindles love in the heart which grows with time because the
reasons for respect also grow with time. Physical attraction reduces with age.
It is programmed to do so. Nobody grows more beautiful with age. You mature
with age, grow wiser, more mellow, more patient and forbearing and more worthy
of respect. The love that comes out of that also grows with age.
Truth is to express feelings as
they are and not to have any pretensions. Caring is to treat the other with
concern because you know that with you s/he has no barriers or safety nets.
Respect is to acknowledge the value of the trust that is placed in you in
allowing you into that inner most of places in the heart in which nobody else
has been allowed before. To treat that privilege with the respect it deserves
and never to abuse it for any reason.
Is there a formula to be happy in a
Marry someone you believe is worthy of emulation;
someone you can look up to and learn to forgive them. The formula of an unhappy
marriage is to marry someone who you believe you can change. That is a sure
recipe for disaster. When you marry someone who you think needs to be changed
you are accepting that they are not good enough as it is. Also, in most cases
you would not have asked them if they want to change and that too to your
preferred model. And then you will lo and behold that they have other ideas
about changing and your marriage will be the casualty.
The second part of the formula is to be forgiving. We need to forgive one another. What tends to happen in many marriages is that we expect the other person to forgive us, but we hold them to standards that we are ourselves unable to live up to and become curiously blind to this unreasonable stance. That doesn’t work. Good to remember the saying, ‘Sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander.’
One thing that people should consider while
choosing one’s partner is compatibility of core values. Core values means both
are pulling in the same direction even with their different personalities,
styles of working and interests. Minimizes contradictions in bringing up
children in the domain of values.
Share in each other’s lives. Take interest in what
the other does. Don’t be nosey but learn and add value. Conversation is both
the key to a happy marriage and a metre to judge its health. Marriages that are
getting sick start to lose conversation. When there is nothing left to talk about
after 10 minutes and when your idea of spending time with your spouse is to sit
in front of the TV or stare at your phone in the same room, then you can safely
say that your marriage is falling sick. In happy marriages there is a desire
for the company of the other. Not for the company of others. You hurry home
because your spouse is there. You don’t hit home and bounce off to the club to
sit with your cronies or to some other place to be with other friends. You want
to spend time with your spouse not because otherwise s/he will complain but
because you genuinely want to do it. Because your spouse is your best friend.
How do you make a marriage work?
By working at it. We use this term, ‘Make a marriage work’, but we forget that a lot of it is actually ‘work’. It takes effort, time and energy, is measurable and produces results. Making breakfast for your wife is work. Offering to do her errands is work. Taking the trouble to look nice when your husband comes home instead of like animated laundry is work. Going to the airport to meet his flight is work. You get the drift? Doing what does not come naturally or doing something that is important for the other even if you don’t like doing it, is work. And all of it produces results in terms of appreciation and love.
If you find that you can’t love your spouse any more, be honest and speak to them about it. See what can be changed and what must be accepted. But don’t go seeking solace elsewhere. That is dishonest, dishonorable, despicable and cowardly. If things are at a stage where it is impossible to live together, part company with grace. Not cheat behind their backs, pretending that everything is fine. Those who collude with other’s spouses and carry on relationships with married men and women are slimy invertebrates which must crawl back under the flat rock they came out from under and not despoil human society with their presence. I never cease to marvel at people who allow another marriage to be destroyed by their cheating, but who would be up in arms if their wife or husband did the same. “Just because you have a good excuse does not make a wrong thing right.”
As I say, ‘If I wanted to marry a nag, I would
have married a horse. At least it would have carried me from place to place.’
Nag is a gender-neutral term. There are male and female nags, and both are
equally painful. Finally, companionable silence is also an indicator of a good
marriage. You don’t have to be talking all the time. It is the quality of the
companionship, the quality of the silence. You will know it without anyone having
to explain, let me assure you. But pay attention to it if there is tension or
boredom in it.
How can you try and make an unhappy
marriage a happy one?
This is a tough one because there is a pre-clause
to it. Once you satisfy that pre-clause then it is very easy. The pre-clause
is, ‘DO YOU REALLY WANT IT TO HAPPEN?’ Now that may sound like a strange thing
to ask but I have seen in many years of counseling that all the failures that I
saw were because the partners did not really want to make it work. They were
not sincere and were merely going through the moves with the idea of satisfying
themselves or others that ‘they made the effort’. Now that is a lie because
they never made an effort. They acted a drama with a precluded ending.
Once you are sincere about turning things around
then you need to sit down and write down all that you like about your spouse.
After all there were things about them that you liked enough to marry them.
What were they? Then when you have that list, you write down the problem areas.
Look in the mirror for one of the major ones. Usually that works like magic.
Marriages go bad most often because we don’t appreciate the good enough and are
not thankful for what they have. I often ask couples, ‘How many times a day do
you thank your wife/husband? How many times a day do you hug or kiss them? How
many times a day do you tell them that you love them?’ No, that is not a
Western idea nor is it from Bollywood. Humans are not mind readers and even
those that are, need to be told if you love them. After all, most spouses don’t
hesitate to inform them about the opposite. So, why not this?
Is the idea of a soul mate just a myth – or
is it simple communication between people?
Soul mates are made, not born. And they are made
over time. Sometimes a fairly long time. Then you see them sitting together and
smiling at things that only they understand. Or looks that have meaning only
for each other. Or speaking in a language that only the other understands.
Phrases that they use only for each other and which may even be gibberish to others,
but which touch their hearts. This is the stage when every time you look at her
you fall in love all over again, 30 years into your marriage. And laughing.
Laughing is important. Laughing together at the same things. Showing each other
things so as to add to the joy by sharing.
What kind of initiatives and actions
dictate a happy marriage?
Back to the basics: Truth, caring, mutual respect.
Every action or initiative must pass this test. Are you being truthful? Is her
need coming before your own? And are you showing the respect you feel? I
remember that my grandmother used to serve my grandfather his meals. Every
meal. She would put food on his plate, refill it, offer him the choicest pieces
of meat, watch to see what he needed and give it to him before he asked for it.
She would eat every meal with him, without exception in a house that was a
mansion with several servants. But no servant was ever allowed to give my
grandfather anything directly. They brought the tray to my grandmother and she
served him. All this she did with such a look of love and devotion on her face
that I can see clearly in my mind even today 50 years later and more than 30
years since both of them died. Why did she do this? Just because she liked to do
it. It really is that simple.
He fully reciprocated this. He never did anything
without asking for her advice. He never went anywhere without her. He wore what
she gave him. She had complete control of his money. He never touched it. He never
asked her for any account with a level of trust seldom seen today, even though
it was his money, so to speak. He never raised his voice to her for anything.
He never even looked at her except with love. He never made fun of her and she
never made fun of him. Both laughed together. He was passionate about chess and
played chess every evening with his brother and cousin who all lived together
in the same house which my great grandfather built. She never played chess in
her life. Different interests but the real interest was in each other. She was
his whole life in every sense of the word. In Tamil there is a word for wife –
Samsaram. It is the same word for the world. That is how it was for my
grandparents. They were each other’s world. Complete in themselves, content
with each other, reflected in every moment of their lives.
He loved her and she loved him, and it showed. She
died first. He died three months later of a broken heart. But they left
memories for their children and grandchildren about how to be married and how
to treat your spouse.
How much involvement should parents and in
laws have in a marriage?
None whatsoever. This is the single most potent
recipe for disaster. Parents should be involved in their own marriages. Once
your children are married, they are not children any more. Leave them alone and
let them work out their problems. They are adults and that is why they got
married. The problem with many parents (mostly mothers) especially in our
society (Indian) is that they are most anxious about getting their children
married and then they start feeling insignificant and so become competitors
with their own daughters in law. Remember that if you become your daughter in
law’s competitor, you lose if you lose and you lose if you win. Both ways you
lose. So, get out of the way. Leave them alone. Visit them for 2 days, not
more, every six months – every year is even better. Don’t talk for more than 5
minutes on the phone. Don’t chat on Skype or Yahoo or WhatsApp or anything
else. Don’t ask personal questions. And above all, don’t ask, ‘Are you happy?’
I have yet to see a marriage survive the attention of parents and parents in
At the same time, I would advise young couples
also to take steps to kindly discourage this involvement if you see it
happening. If you are old enough to get married, you are old enough to solve your
own problems. If you are running to your parents with your problems, then put
on your diapers. You are not ready for marriage. If your Mom calls and asks
you, ‘So what did he say when you told him such and such?’ Tell your Mom, ‘Mom,
sorry I won’t tell you what he told me.’ Smile and say it but say it clearly.
Spend time with your spouse, not with your mother. I am not asking you to
neglect your mother or father but remember that your spouse has first call on
your time, once you get married.
How does one make compromises?
They are not called ‘compromises’. They are called
‘adjustments’. It is not the semantics of it but the attitudes that language
indicates and dictates. We make compromises when forced to do so. We make
adjustments to things so that we can enjoy them more. One of the things that
most young couples don’t bargain for is the aspects of sharing ownership, time
and privacy that marriage brings with it. Nobody told them about it, and they
didn’t think about it when they had stars in their eyes. Honeymoons are in
hotels and sharing a hotel room is different from sharing your own bedroom and
your own cupboard. Changing from ‘I’ to ‘We’ is often a difficult process.
Having said that, decide on what is important to
you. Don’t make compromises on issues of principle. Explain to your spouse why
you won’t compromise, and wise partners will respect that. But issues which are
important to the other and which you can live with changing, change. Remember
the point about concern for the other? It is good to remember that everything
is not a test of your masculinity or femininity. By ‘giving in’ to something
you don’t lose face; you win hearts. Do it unless it is something that goes
against your fundamental values.
It is a very good idea to have some frank sharing of
thoughts on what is important to you, before getting married. If you didn’t do
it then, do it now. It will be more difficult but then that is what you chose. When
your spouse is talking, simply listen. Don’t justify, agree, disagree or argue.
Just listen respectfully and then decide what you love, what you can live with,
what you can change in yourself and what you need to talk to the other person
about. Most couples, in the courtship stage are too busy on appearing their
best and get into a pretense mode that has no relation to what they are really
like. Acting can’t be sustained and the mask comes off sooner than later with predictable
results. Speak to each other frankly and then decide if you want to get
married. During this conversation speak clearly and tell them what the
non-negotiables for you are. Don’t try to be politically correct or polite or
whatever and hide or play down things that you really feel strongly about.
Maybe it is something to do with practicing your religious beliefs, or about
family values or that your Mom will live with you or that the cat shares your
bed or whatever. No matter what it is, if it is important, then say it. That is
far more positive and far less painful than having your spouse discover it
later. Some things may seem ‘silly’ to you but if they are important enough for
the other person then they will cause you serious trouble if you don’t respect
When does one know that a marriage is not
working? And when should people do something about it?
A marriage is ultimately an agreement between two
people to live together for mutual benefit. When you find that there is no
mutual benefit and that the living together is causing more grief than joy then
you know that it is not working. Then you must ask yourself the questions:
Am I willing to make it work?
What will it take to make it work?
Am I willing to do what it takes?
If the answer
to all of them is in the affirmative, then get on with it and work. If not,
then it is time to call it a day. The important thing to do even if you decide
to divorce is to remember the first three rules: Truthfulness, concern for the
other and mutual respect. Ensure that you don’t do anything that is not
scrupulously honest and completely above board. Show concern and ensure that
the other person does not leave with any bad feeling. The divorce is bad
enough. Don’t add negative baggage to it. Show respect for each other. You
deserve it and your marriage deserves it. Part company if you must but do it in
a way that is respectful and honorable.
How to make efforts to making a marriage
work – for the man and woman?
It is essential to differentiate between Core Responsibilities
and other things. In my view it is the Core Responsibility of the man to work
and earn a living and take care of the financial responsibilities of the
family. It is Core Responsibility of the
woman to make the home a place of beauty, grace and harmony and to focus on the
upbringing of the children. I know this may sound old fashioned to some but
just take a look at what the result of the Yuppy and Puppy culture is, and you
will come back to the basics soon enough. Having taken care of the Core
Responsibility, naturally the man must help around the home, take care of
children, water the garden, wash the car, mow the lawn, take out the garbage
and not sit in front of the TV with his feet propped up and a bowl of popcorn
at his elbow – or whatever passes as its equivalent in your culture.
Similarly once the Mom has taken care of her Core
Responsibility then it is good if she waters the garden, washes the car, mows
the lawn, takes out the garbage and does not sit in front of the TV with her
feet propped up and a bowl of popcorn at her elbow – or whatever passes as its
equivalent in your culture. I am sure you understand what I mean. Dividing
responsibilities is a very good idea. Do it whichever way you like but do it.
Role clarity is essential in a happy marriage and role conflict causes the
maximum stress on it. It is essential for one of the spouses to be dedicated to
the upbringing of children; teaching them life skills, manners, tools of
thinking, decision making and teaching them core values of life. Today in the
Yuppy and Puppy cultures the idea of bringing up children is to feed them,
ensure that they are washed and dried and entertained. That is what you do with
the dog. Not with your child. Children need a jolly sight more than food, clothing
and shelter if you want to develop a human being who will be your legacy to the
world. I believe you need to dedicate yourself to that because it is important.
If you don’t agree, use condoms. That is far
better than producing children who are a nuisance at best and a painful reality
in the lives of others, as long as they live.
responsibility is it to make a marriage happy?
Naturally it is the responsibility of both people
like in any agreement. It is important to recognize and accept this
responsibility so that you will then do what it takes to fulfill it. As I
mentioned above, I advocate sitting down and having a dialogue before you get
married about what each one is supposed to do. Say it to each other and agree
on it. Don’t leave it to guesswork and discovery. That leads to
misunderstanding and disappointment. A good marriage is a dream. To make it
come true you must wake up and work. If you expect your wife to cook for your
friends who you will bring home from time to time, say it. And say what time to
time means. If you expect your husband to pick up the food on the way home with
his friends from the restaurant, say so. If you expect your wife to make
breakfast for you and sit with you watching you get outside the eggs and toast,
say so. If you expect your husband to bring the eggs and toast to you in bed
(never really liked the idea of eating without first brushing your teeth), say
so. What I mean is that in marriages, it is often the so-called ‘silly things’
that lead to trouble. So silly or not, say it if it is important to you.
My second Cardinal Principle – Concern, is what is
most important to remember. If you apply the Golden Rule – Do unto them as you
would have them do unto you – you can’t go wrong. The virus that kills marriage
is a two-letter word – ME. To get you must first give. What you have in your
hand is your harvest. What you sow is your seed. To get a harvest you must
first sow the seed. Remember that the harvest is always more than the seed. So,
give and give with grace, with love, with joy. And you will get much more than
you bargained for. Show consideration for your spouse. Do things without being
asked. Be aware of what they like the most and do it. Try to please them. Don’t
play power games. The marriage is not a contest to get the better of the other.
You are not in a race or in a WWF wrestling match or in a competition to see
who is more powerful. Remember that every time you ‘win’ the other person
loses. And losing is something that nobody enjoys. So, at some point they will
get tired of losing and you will have no marriage. And that is the biggest loss
that you brought on to yourself. A marriage is a relay race – long term,
passing the baton to the other at each stage and the team – in this case the
two of you – wins.
In today’s times of
pre-nups, fast track divorces and even websites as matchmakers, what kind of
mindset should people have when getting into a marriage?
Today we live in a world where selfishness is not
a sin anymore. However, changing your mind about an evil does not make it good.
You will get sick even if you fall in love with the virus. People wanting to
get married must learn to think about the other and to consciously give him or
her precedence and preference. If you can’t do this, your marriage will break
down sooner or later. Our lifestyles, the internet, social networking and
talking to people across the world from other cultures, the TV with its unreal,
fantasy world of soap operas, are all designed to destroy marriages. They
promote ideas that are either directly destructive or lead to the killing
fields of marriages. Today in the world of social media, Instagram, Facebook,
Twitter, Snapchat and God-alone-knows-what, there is so much pressure on making
public what must be private that no marriage can survive it. People live in a
fantasy world of pictures which show the best, project an unreal lifestyle and
raise expectations that are impossible to meet. You are not in competition with
the Kardashians or anyone else, so get real. A good marriage is about living in
the real world, not in a world that is neither bold nor beautiful.
Is the 7-year itch
based on statistics or research? In your mind, does it exist?
I don’t think there is any such thing. Looking
outside your marriage for companionship which can then lead to a breakup, is a
sign of intrinsic unhappiness. If you feel it, the thing to do is to deal with
it. Not look outside. The problem with 7-year itches is that every 7 years you
are older and less desirable. Then where will you go?
How important are
children to have a happy marriage? Some couples cannot have children, others
choose not to.
I don’t think children either make a marriage
happy or unhappy. It is more their upbringing that makes the home happy or not.
Children give the parents a common interest but for a marriage if the only
thing in common is the children then something is wrong. On the converse side
children take a lot of time and attention and energy and this can be difficult
to handle for many people. But if the spouses share in the work of bringing up
children and take the trouble to bring them up well, with good manners, values
and attitudes, then they can be a huge asset for the marriage.
What can couples do
to keep the bespoke “spark” in the marriage?
Appreciate each other and express this appreciation
daily. Catch each other doing right. Do things for one another only to see the
smile on the face. Invent your own language which only the two of you
understand. My wife and I used to keep a book on a table in the house in which
we would write things we liked about each other or something nice we wanted to
say to one another. We did say it as well but sometimes writing is easier. Give
flowers and chocolates. Men also like flowers, remember. Second most important
rule: Don’t react to everything that the other says. Take ten deep breaths.
Then forget it. Reactions produce reactions and, in the end, it is taken out of
Finally, never go to bed, mad at each other.
Always make up before you go to bed. Cuddle up together and sleep. Never
quarrel in the bedroom. Never in bed. Make this a rule. If you have a problem,
deal with it in the morning. Usually by the morning it would have solved
Well, depends on what is meant by ‘fighting’. If
it means trying to get the better of each other in an argument and using all
kinds of means to do so then it is definitely not healthy. If it means arguing
as in a friendly fencing match between equal intellects that leads to good
feeling, then it is good. Avoid power games like the plague. Many marriages
turn into daily competitions between the spouses to see who can control the
other. This takes many apparently benign and legitimate forms. But they are all
illegitimate, subversive and destructive to the marriage.
Some people use religion as a means of control and
invoke religious rulings and promise the other brimstone and hellfire for
disobeying some whim or fancy of theirs. In many cases it is people (mostly men
in this case) who have not done anything significant in life and are suffering from
an inferiority complex and can sense that they really don’t command any respect
on their own, who use religion and religious rulings to enforce their will on
the woman. Women use religion to compensate for their own feelings of
inadequacy where they feel that they are not loved or desired as much as they
would like to be. ‘Should’ is the most useless word in the language. If people
did what they should then the world would have been a different place. Both
need to look at the real drivers behind their apparent religious orientation
because it has nothing to do with the Almighty. Power games come in many
packages. Spouses use children as pawns in their games at getting the better of
each other. Others use health concerns, eat more, eat less, joint family rules,
cultural taboos and many other things. All are power games, and all are
How important is
money to keep a marriage happy?
Not important at all. Both financial hardship and
plenty can be a source of bonding or a source of drifting apart. It is mutual
respect and concern for one another that counts. And that is a result of
character, piety, learning, nobility of conduct and deportment, confidence,
trustworthiness, dignity and grace, genuine desire to please one another and to
place the need of the other before and above one’s own. None of these are
things that money can buy or that we need money for. Marriages are happy or
break up for reasons other than money. Money problems are not money problems
even when there are money problems; if you see what I mean.
What are the worst things couples can do to
Lie, betray trust, cheat, play power games. Also
making fun of one another as in mocking. Showing disrespect in the name of
humor. Humor is to laugh with someone, not to laugh at them. Lastly but by no
means the least, by being overly self-focused and showing disregard and no
concern for the other. Honesty is still the best policy in 2019 and will still
be the best policy in 3019 if the world lasts that long.
resort to white lies or tiny lies to keep the peace?
There’s a difference between telling lies and not divulging
all the details. Not divulging all the details, for example about your
friendships before marriage, is not wrong and is a very wise thing to do. The
spouse has no need to know and it is something that does no good to the
marriage no matter how ‘broadminded’ the spouse may be. But to tell a lie is
wrong and goes against the grain of all that I have said above. Incidentally
‘white lies’ is a racially color biased term, like ‘black sheep’, ‘nightmare’,
‘black heart’ and so on; the legacy of English which is originally the white
man’s language. Knight in shining armor can be all black too – black shines
even more than white if you notice.
Having said that, telling ‘the truth’
inappropriately or in a harsh manner does no good either. Being silent is an
option that is worth exploring. For example, if the toast is burnt or the food
has no salt or something is not to your liking there are many ways of saying
it. But you also have the option of remaining silent in honor of all the times
that it was delicious. If the husband comes home cranky it is irritating but
you have the option to remind yourself that a nice cup of tea and talking about
something else is probably more productive than saying, ‘Don’t bring your
office home.’ You would be justified in saying so, but sometimes it is better
to be kind than to be justified. Diplomacy and wisdom are great virtues and
most useful in a marriage. Not rubbing their nose in it is wise. Turn away
gracefully. Don’t watch their discomfiture. Spouses realize that they are wrong
but may not necessarily grovel at your feet and beg forgiveness. It is wise to
leave them alone and not demand groveling. People’s dignity is important to
maintain. Be it a management – union negotiation or a domestic disagreement, it
is important to allow the one who is wrong to ‘save face’. To insist on
humiliating them is to burn bridges to future relationship. Remember that you
are also human and will surely be wrong one day. Don’t create a situation where
the other is waiting for that day to return your favor.
Does it help couples when they talk about
their problems? To whom, a stranger or someone they know?
It is helpful for couples to talk about their
problems to someone they respect and whose advice they are willing to listen
to. Usually it is better to talk to strangers as they are perceived to be
fairer and more objective, as they don’t know either party but really it
doesn’t matter as long as it is someone you respect and who you have decided to
listen to, meaning, to obey his or her advice. As I have said earlier, before
you go to talk to anyone, decide if you are going to listen to what they say
even if they don’t agree with you. If you are going to someone with the
expectation that they must agree with you and support your stance no matter
what it is, then don’t waste your and their time. No self-respecting, honest
arbitrator with any dignity will agree to be biased in favor of one party or
the other. If they do, then they are not fit for the position.
In conclusion I would like to say that a marriage
can be as good or as bad as you would like to make it. It is literally in your
I started my career in Guyana, working as the Assistant Administrative Manager for GUYMINE’s Berbice Operations, in Kwakwani, in 1979. This was a little mining town in the middle of the Amazonian rain forest on the bank of the Berbice River. I spent five years there, living on my own, learning lessons of life about working across boundaries of race, culture and religion. With my love of the forest and wildlife, Guyana was heaven. But I knew that since all promotions at that time had a big political overtone, there was no way that I, a foreigner, would ever have a serious career in Guyana.
When I returned to India and joined the plantation industry, I was serious about making a career as a planter and about reaching the top of my company on the basis of merit and results. So, I put my heart and soul into the job. What helped also was that the surroundings were something that I loved. I started working in the Anamallai Hills, part of the Western Ghats as they tapered down all the way into the tip of the subcontinent. The area that contained the tea plantations was part of the bigger 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 in their Jeeps and searchlights. 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 risks without the benefit of some wild meat at the end of it. But that is how I was. I wanted to see and photograph animals, not kill them. I had hunted enough in my youth and had 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, 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. 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.
Lower Sheikalmudi Estate bungalow
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 always look for challenges. Anything that comes easy 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.
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. Naturally, 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, of course, the inevitable happened. USSR 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 really hard times.
But then vision is to be able to see that which doesn’t exist. Anticipation is the key which is not difficult to achieve if you do some scenario planning.
There are two kinds of correctional institutions. One is called prison. The other one is, but is called marriage. One has a specific term you must serve. The other one is for life. In one you get paid to be there. In the other, you pay to be there. Both specialize in trying to make you something which you don’t want to be but which the powers that be have decided, that you must become. You have two choices in both. Fight to the bitter end. Or succumb. There are those who are stupid and those who are smart. The stupid ones’ fight and fight until they can’t fight any longer. If they are lucky, they die fighting. If not, they gradually weaken and end their days in forced submission, their hearts aflame and fluttering like caged birds, yearning to be free, even if it is by death. The smart ones decide early enough that prisoners that fight can never win. They system is stacked against them. So, either they escape. Or they learn to like the smell.
The worst, most degrading, most toxic thing in a marriage is to live under the cloud that you are not good enough. Many children live this life during childhood but with the consolation that they didn’t ask for the parents they got. But what is the consolation for the adults who get into such a situation voluntarily? Living this life is a constant barrage against your self-esteem which can have only one end – bitterness and hatred. But it is amazing how few of those who have power, realize this.
That is why I called it a ‘correctional institution’.
It appears when you look at some marriages that the only reason one person married the other was to change them into something that was compatible to their imaginary model. I say ‘imaginary’ because I have yet to come across a spouse who had a model which was both positive and negative. All models that spice want their spice to become are all- positive as defined by them. That is like wanting a ‘white Christmas’, in the Sahara Desert. It is by nature and definition impossible. Trying to do something which is impossible, is to set yourself up for failure. The results are always, without exception, catastrophic. Yet we continue to do this, generation after generation.
Why does this happen?
I believe it is for two reasons; arrogance and ingratitude.
Arrogance because one of the spouses considers themselves to be superior to the other and makes it their life goal to ‘improve’ them and bring them on par with themselves, and so make them worthy of being their spouse. What they forget is that they married someone they liked. They forget what they liked. They are only conscious of what they discovered after the honeymoon; that which comes with the packing and which they didn’t realize because they didn’t read the fine print of the Creator. So, they set about trying to change that. To do that, they must necessarily be dissatisfied with what they have because it is dissatisfaction with status quo that drives every improvement or correction initiative. They thus condemn themselves to ignoring the good that is also in the package because they are so focused on the ‘bad’. That they have cursed their own life, they are oblivious to. That they have become the curse in the life of the spouse, they don’t care because they consider themselves to be a blessing and not a curse. And since they are neither interested in ‘customer feedback’ nor are inmates of correctional institutions empowered to give feedback, the opinion of the subject of their attention is immaterial.
Ingratitude because every person has both positive and negative qualities in them. This hardly needs reiterating but it is so often forgotten or ignored that I must state it upfront. Imagining that something in the spouse is negative because you don’t like it, is arrogance. Ignoring the positive in them and treating it as something that is your birthright is gross ingratitude. Both these attitudes are damaging for the other because it is as if his/her entire existence is being judged worthy or not on one parameter alone – does it please the other person. Before the 18th century that used to be called ‘slavery’. I would submit therefore that if you find that some of what I have said applies to you, please reassess your marriage and ask yourself if you are in a marriage or running a correctional institution?
To be brutally frank, marriage is actually a ‘honey trap’ that exists for the propagation of the species. It exists for one reason only, that children may have a stable nest in which to grow to fledgling-hood. All the rest is fluff to make it look attractive to those who are going to do the work and pay for it. Anyone who thinks that marriage is for companionship, supporting each other and so on can easily see that all that costs less to do by itself without signing your warrant for lifetime incarceration. A friend, your therapist, a one-time gift, all cost less, have no complications and leave you feeling good and positive. I have yet to see someone unhappy after meeting a friend or giving a gift.
So, children come into the world with two parents to care for them, change nappies, pay their bills, buy them the latest gadgets and set them up in life to believe that the world owes them a living. Children born without two doting parents imagining that their piece of meat is God’s gift to mankind never learn this lesson and live in the world knowing that they must struggle to succeed. Hardship that doesn’t kill you always strengthens. So, those who suffered while growing up always beat the living daylights out of those who lived the sheltered life; just as the tree that grows in the crevice clinging to the rock weathers every storm while the one with a lush canopy and shallow roots, is knocked flat by the first gale. If children were not in the equation, marrying someone and pledging to care for them all your and their lives, subjugating yourself to their demands and considering yourself and your life a success or failure based on their subjective judgment, makes no sense at all.
So, what must you do?
Go look in the mirror and tell yourself that the only one in the world who thinks that you are an unqualified blessing is perhaps your mother and that too, perhaps. Tell yourself that you married your spouse because you liked them, not because you found them when they lost their way to their shrink. They didn’t come to be changed. They came to be friends, to share their lives, to slog their butts off to keep you in the style to which you have become accustomed. Surely that deserves a ‘thank you’? Look at their good side. The side you married them for. Get a selective memory that doesn’t stockpile all the garbage that every human relationship generates. Remember the good. Get amnesia about the bad. Ask not what your spouse can do for you. Ask what you can do for your spouse. Thank you, President Kennedy. And finally remind yourself that your spouse is human and whatever he or she came with or without is what any other human would come with or without. If you don’t believe me, ask Elizabeth Taylor. And if you don’t like what human beings come with, marry a gorilla.
Does that sound crazy? You bet it is. So, pray that your spouse remains crazy and never gets cured or he will wake up to the fact that your correctional institution has no walls or gates.