It was 1984. The second and last formal employment of my career was in the tea plantations in the Anamallai Hills in Coimbatore District of Tamilnadu. I worked there for seven years, one of the most enjoyable and instructive periods of my life. Fires and estates are companions. Not surprising given the combination of people who smoke and don’t always bother to put out their cigarettes, and forests with semi deciduous trees that regularly carpet the floor with their leaves every summer. A forest fire is easy to start. One cigarette butt is enough. But if it catches, then it can’t be put out until there’s nothing left to burn. In the end, all that is left is ash. We used to take a lot of preventive steps including clearing fire boundaries where we would clear a wide swathe of ground of all undergrowth and leaves and keep it swept clean so that even if a fire started it could be contained. We had also constructed water tanks and dammed streams to create small reservoirs, which would be useful if we needed water in a hurry to put out a fire. These reservoirs were also very useful as watering holes for wildlife in the summer and a source of endless delight for me to watch animals as they came down to drink.
One day late in the afternoon someone came running to the office (days without mobile phones or walky-talky radios) and said that a fire had started in the Murugalli coffee area. In the plantations, emergencies were everyone’s affair. News would go to all those who could be informed, and they all rushed to the aid of the estate which had the problem. All who could go would go, regardless of whose estate it was.
As soon as the runner caught his breath, I put him on the back of my motorcycle to guide me and we were off. When I reached the place, I realized that this was a fairly large forest fire. There were about thirty of our workers and two supervisors who had been working in the area. I marshaled them all and got them to clear a belt and start a counter fire. The idea was to burn an area across the direction of the fire and clear it of all inflammable material so that when the main fire reached this place it would simply starve to death. We started the counter fires and once the dry stuff was burnt, we beat out the flames with green leafy branches that we had previously cut and kept at hand. The main fire was moving very fast as it was being pushed by a tail wind. As it came up to us it was our task to ensure that it did not jump the cleared boundary. Every time a flame jumped the fire boundary, we beat it to death. There was no water available where we were, otherwise, we would have also wet as much area as possible as a preventive measure. The story didn’t end here but for this article, this is enough.
The whole logic of fighting forest fires is about preventing them from starting. And if they do start, then trying to prevent them from growing. If this is not done, then once a fire grows beyond a certain size, nothing can put it out until everything that can burn has been burnt. The fire will die only when everyone and everything is dead. And all that is left is ash.
Today, as I reflect on global politics as well as its local reflection in my country, I am reminded of forest fires and my own experience of fighting one in the Anamallais. It appears that none of the leaders either on the global stage or the even more critical local ones, has ever seen or fought a forest fire. That is why they so blithely ignite and stoke the fires of hatred. Racial hatred, communal hatred and religious hatred. They know not what they do but regardless, we, every single one of us, will burn if we allow this to go on unchallenged and unanswered. Fire can’t be fought with fire. It must be fought with something that is cool and which is not inflammable. So also, hatred can’t be fought with hatred, but with love. Loving someone who hates you is not easy. It seems impossible. But the alternative is to burn in the same fire.
In human relations terms, ignorance is combustible. It is the substance that is used to ignite the fire of hatred and to stoke it by demonizing the object of hate. The real purpose is to sow discord and terror, so that we are all reduced to the same level, joined only in our fear of one another rooted in ignorance. Then we become malleable and controllable through fear. This is done by first focusing on the differences in our diversity and then teaching us that these differences are things to hate. In a society like ours which is based on caste differences that discriminate against other people based on their ethnicity (race), to get people to hate someone for something as ridiculous as what they eat, drink, wear or worship is very easy. We already live in a society where we are taught that some of us are superior to others for no fault of ours or theirs. It is just that we were born into this or that caste and so that not only makes us superior, but it means that we get to look down on others and consider them to be dirty, sub-human, unworthy of associating with and to always be treated with contempt. Since this entire edifice is built on an accident of birth, it means that it is permanent and there is nothing that anyone can do to change that. That leads to the logical progression of despising and hating the person and the entire group that he/she belongs to, because that makes me feel superior and good, once again free of cost.
To continue to feel good, all I need to do is to perpetuate this lie from generation to generation and ensure that the hatred and contempt stays alive. For this there are some requirements; deny anything good that the target population may have done, no matter how clear and substantial the evidence. Mock and disparage their identity, beliefs, culture and customs and demonize them by interpreting them in negative ways. Re-write history in a way that removes all evidence of their contribution to the nation and world and replace that with cherry-picked or manufactured stories of their ‘sins’. Pick a time period that is ancient enough to ensure that nobody from the time is alive to defend themselves and do all this so aggressively that those who are alive today, are intimidated enough to remain silent and watch their heritage being trashed. The idea is to eventually have a situation where even the memory of the contributions of those people is lost and all sense of self-esteem is taken from them. It is an age-old tactic, the only thing remarkable about which is that it still works.
Once again, what is the solution? For a solution we must find and implement if we are not all to be consumed in the forest fire that we lighted or allowed to be lighted while we watched. The first part of the solution is to reject every ideology that teaches that you are either superior or inferior because of the accident of birth. All such ideologies of being the ‘chosen of god’, are an insult to humanity and God. All such ideologies are false, dangerous and destructive and must be trashed. For the record as far as my own religion, Islam is concerned, let me quote from the sermon of the Prophet Muhammad(S) during his last Hajj where he said, “All mankind is from Adam and Eve, an Arab has no superiority over a non-Arab nor does a non-Arab have any superiority over an Arab. A white (person) has no superiority over a black, nor does a black (person) have any superiority over a white; except by piety and good action.” Now that is clear enough and needs no elaboration. We are all equal in our humanity and the only measure of goodness is the goodness we spread around us.
The second part of the solution is to give names and faces to the labels that we are confronted with. Labels seeking to create the ‘Other’ in our minds. Labels that if we don’t question and see them for what they are, make it possible for us to reject others. Labels are distant, disembodied and impersonal. That makes it possible to hate those to whom they apply. Names are known and personal; faces are recognizable. They make us stop to consider what we think, say or do about those people. Let me illustrate with my own example, how a name changes the complexion of a label.
I am Muslim. But when I hear the label ‘Agnostic/Atheist’, I see Aunty Mohini and Uncle Rama’s faces. The two people who were my mentors in childhood and youth and role models, lifelong. They enabled me to discover myself and opened my heart and mind to appreciate others. When I hear the label Sikh, I see the faces of Gurcharan, Gurveen Kaur, Anup and Sandy. When I hear the label Hindu, I see the faces of AMM Arunachalam, Renuka & Aditya Mishra, Purba & Sanjoy Sanyal, Nikoo Rawlley, Arun Menon and Gudducha (Jaikant Chaturvedi). When I hear the label Christian, I see the faces of Berty & Jenny Suares, Thambi Kurien, Ranjan Solomon, Norman & Lorraine Wood. When I hear the label Buddhist, I see the faces of Rose, Ivo and Alvito Baretto. When I hear the label Jew, I see the faces of Kathy, Dennis Goodman, David and Jeffrey Solomon. When I hear the label Christian Missionary, I see the faces of David and Miriam Ramse and Thurston Riehl. When I hear the label Parsi, I see the faces of Jehangir Ghadiali, Naushi and Mehru Tarapore. When I think of communal riots, I think of Uncle Raman Kumar who came with a police escort through the curfew to give us food grains. I think of Norman Lindie in Guyana who shielded me with his own body from a man who had come to attack me with a knife. I think of Peter Ramsingh, who was my constant companion in our innumerable camping trips through the rain forests, up and down the Berbice River. These are by no means the only people I know under these ‘categories’. There are many, many more. This is only to make my point that when you have a face to a label, it becomes personal. With each of them, I have many pleasant memories associated. Of happy times, helping one another, just being with one another and enjoying each other’s company and difference. So, deal with people, not labels.
The benefit of becoming personal is that I have a frame of reference when I hear or read something hateful about the ‘category’ which in my mind and life experience is represented by a name and face of a friend. I find it impossible to hate anyone, but even if this were not the case, I would have cause to stop and reflect, if I have a frame of reference against which to compare what I am being asked to believe. Without that and given the unique human tendency to believe the negative more easily than the positive, rumor becomes real and the lie becomes the truth. Today the problem is that thanks to our highly urbanized and apparently self-sufficient (but really isolationist) way of life, we manage to live in the same apartment building for decades without even knowing the name of our neighbor, let alone anything more. Our civic spaces are disappearing. Hence civilized interaction and dialogue. Even schools are ‘segregated’. Not officially but children don’t seem to have friends, except among their own kind. Racist language is rampant and normal. Discrimination seems to be the order of the day. Even the question of a child going to the home of a friend, not from his/her religion or ethnicity, to spend an overnight or weekend with their family, doesn’t arise. Our conversation mentions other people, their religion and culture, but always in disparaging words. Never with respect and appreciation. Our world view has become totally color blind – black and white. We don’t even see the racist overtone in the term, Black & White. We have lost our frame of reference. We are blind, waiting to be led down the road of someone else’s choosing.
This must change. This is the fire-break that we must build. The essential fire prevention strategy if we want to protect ourselves from annihilation. We must open our eyes and ears, homes and hearts, to others. We must stop ‘Othering’ each other. We must learn to observe with respect and without being judgmental. We must learn to appreciate difference and not reduce all difference to good (like me) and bad (different from me). It is variety that adds color to the scenery. Variety is another name for difference. We must consciously examine the assumptions that we have become used to and treat as ‘The Truth’. We must face the fact that they are baseless assumptions, rooted in bigotry. As Reza Aslan put it very aptly, ‘Religion doesn’t make people bigots. People are bigots and they use religion to justify their ideology.’ The question each one of us needs to ask is, ‘Am I a bigot?’ I can imagine that in today’s world, the answer may well be, ‘Yes’, in all cases with a difference only in degree. As a starting point, I would say that it is enough to ask this question and then ask another one, even more painful. ‘Am I willing to do anything to change this?’ That is when we can start thinking of what we must do.
So, what must we do?
Monitor conversations. At home, in the workplace, especially in our schools and in public. It is ‘domestic legends’ which shape our worldview from a very early age. We need to reflect on how we were conditioned and become conscious of how we are conditioning our children. Most conditioning is unconscious and extremely powerful and very difficult to undo, unless we make a serious effort. Monitoring conversations will give us diagnostic evidence of the degree of change we need to make. It is important to do this objectively with a no-praise-no-blame mindset. The idea is to see how serious the terminal disease which afflicts us is and see what we need to do, to cure it. For terminal it is. Hatred is fire. All fires burn and the result is always ash.
Then we need to create civic spaces to meet in and practice being civilized. We need to develop the skills to speak about each other, our beliefs, culture, customs and traditions with respect. We must visit each other, participate in each other’s lives and do it with respect and without being judgmental. We must ask questions, respectfully and strongly oppose all mockery of people different from us, even if and especially when it is done in the name of ‘humor’. Laughing at someone is not humorous. Reject outright anyone who preaches hatred or mocks others; whether that is your priest or preacher, teacher or political leader, uncle or mother. We need to become open-minded enough to try to understand the reason why other people do things differently from us and not only accept that but appreciate it as another way of life which has an equal right to exist. We must deal with the fear that if we do this, we will need to ‘convert’ to their way. We won’t. What will happen though is that our minds and hearts will expand, which is a very good thing for all minds and hearts. Even ours. We will become more understanding, accepting, respectful and impervious to manipulation by those who wish to fill our hearts with hatred for others, so that we become tools in their hands to achieve their own ends.
It was a very hot day in May, 1991. Very dry, at the peak of summer with the monsoon another month away. I was driving through Thirunelveli District on my way back from Madurai where I had gone to attend a Labour Court hearing. These were the days before car air-conditioning in India, so the car was a moving oven. Suddenly the moving oven stopped moving. A tyre was punctured. My driver Santiago pulled over to the side. I got out of the car as it was simply too hot to sit inside. Santiago didn’t need any help, he said, so I looked around. I saw that we had stopped by some fields which in the monsoon would be planted with rice, but which at this time were simply baked, dry clay fractured into pieces according to whatever natural law was at work. There was not a blade of grass or anything green in sight. Except that is, for two small Neem trees, which had been planted by the roadside. Beside the trees, with its back to them and facing the field was a mud hut. It must have been about twenty feet long and had a grass thatch roof. Between the trees, which were at either end of the hut, the ground had been swept clean and sprinkled with sand. Under each tree, in the scant shade was a stone bench. It was really a stone fence post laid flat on two short raisers about two feet in height. I was intrigued to say the least about how this whole thing was obviously planned and prepared. Who would bother to make this seating arrangement and why?
I sat on one of the benches to see what would happen. In a little while a young boy came out of the hut with a brass water pot and a steel tumbler and poured me a tumbler full of tepid water. I had many thoughts about the origin of the water and its hygiene but didn’t want to interfere with whatever was at work here. So, I accepted the water and drank it. The boy went to Santiago and poured some water for him also. Then he set the pot down and sat with Santiago to provide him with moral support in changing the tyre of the car. A couple of minutes later, his mother called him. He took his pot and departed, only to emerge with two glass tumblers of tea. His mother came out as he finished giving the tea to me and Santiago, with a plate of Murku – the twisted savory snack that is very popular all over Tamilnadu and South India. I thanked her and took one, thinking all the time that the mystery had been solved. We had been fortunate enough to break down near a tea-shop and so we were now being served.
We finished our tea and the tyre was changed. I got up and asked the boy how much money I owed them for the tea and snack. He looked at me in surprise and said, ‘Onnum illayingay.’ (Nothing, Sir.) He used the respectful form of address which given the difference in our ages, our mutual social positions and the culture of Thirunelveli was natural. I thanked him but told him to ask his mother. He went into the hut and the lady came out, her head covered with the tail of her sari (pallu) and said, ‘This is not a shop Sir. Your car broke down, so I thought that maybe you would like a cup of tea and made it for you. That is all. There is nothing to pay. You are our guest.’ I didn’t know what to say. There was nothing in my experience to handle this, except unless I went back almost 30 years earlier to my time with Gond tribals in Adilabad, where I also encountered such generosity of spirit from people who had nothing. In this case, it was Diwali next day. So, I took out Rs. 100 and folded the note and put it in the pocket of the youngster and said, ‘This is for Diwali sweets for you.’ His mother tried to object but I said to her, ‘I am like his elder brother. Please allow me to give him a gift for Diwali.’ She smiled and nodded. And we left. This happened in 1991. This is 2019. The memory is alive.
Our education and sophistication seem to build walls and teach us to despise one another. These people were among the poorest in the world, deprived, discriminated against, so-called lower caste. Yet their hearts were full of compassion, generosity and abundance. What is the secret? It is to see another human being as a human being. Shorn of our titles and labels. Just another human being. This is what we need to learn and teach. This is the secret of putting out fires and of survival. This is our lifeline.