For he was a man

For he was a man

My house in Kwakwani, Rio Berbice (1979-83)

I started my corporate career in Guyana with the Guyana Mining Enterprise in Kwakwani, on the Rio Berbice. Kwakwani was a small mining town, hanging on the bank of the Berbice River trying not to get pushed into its deep and dark waters by an aggressively advancing forest. Living in the middle of the Amazonian rain forest with no family and only a Scarlet Macaw and sundry chickens, turkeys and a series of wild animals as pets may not be the normal youngster’s dream job, but it was mine. I lived on Staff Hill, in a small bungalow with three bedrooms, a living/dining room and kitchen and a veranda on two sides. Facing the bungalow was an orange orchard that ended in the brooding mass of the wall of the rain forest. Behind and surrounding the bungalow was a large open field ending in the wall of the rain forest once again. Living in the middle of the rain forest meant just that; you had the forest surrounding you.

Me in my hammock in my yard, with the orange orchard and forest visible

I would sit on my veranda in the evenings after the sun had gone down and I had had my dinner. In the days and places without TV or mobile phones, you had time to relax, watch the world go by and simply be in sync with your surroundings. The forest is not a silent place. Forests breathe and speak and are visibly and audibly alive. Even if you don’t know their language – and it differs from place to place – you can still hear them. I could hear Macaws talking to each other as they headed home. They pair for life and have great conversations. Lesson: conversation is essential to a good marriage. Then there are the smells. The smell of the first rain after the dry season. The smell of the markings on trees of territorial creatures which are meant to warn away potential threats. The smell of vegetation, growing or decomposing. When you sit quietly in a forest and let it talk to you, it does. Gently and gradually. Naturally, it takes a little while because first our ears must stop buzzing with the residue of our own noisy, raucous sounds of so-called civilization. They try to drown out everything that the forest is trying to tell you. But if you are patient and give it some time, then gradually the buzzing fades away and you start to hear the breeze rustling in the leaves. You hear water dropping from the top levels onto the canopy below. You hear the occasional ripe fruit or dry branch fall to the floor, to become either food or manure. You learn to tell the difference between a sound made by a living creature – which may be potentially dangerous or useful – and the sound of something that is not a living creature. The forest speaks to you in the voices of the Howler Monkeys announcing that the dawn has broken and, in the evening, that the night has fallen, and they are signing off for the day. Toucans, Parakeets and Macaws talking to each other as they fly, feed and roost. It speaks to you in the rustle of the oncoming deluge which you can hear advancing towards you, not threatening but announcing its progress so that you can take shelter. The wind rustling the treetops sometimes sounds like the waves of the ocean. You will hear all this, and more will happen if you give it some time, are observant, and are willing to learn. I was thrilled to be there. There was nowhere else that I would rather be.

Nick and I on the Kwakwani Trail in Prime Minister Sam Hind’s car (1997)

My first boss, Mr. James Nicholas Adams (Nick Adams) was the Administrative Manager of Kwakwani and I was his Assistant Manager. Nick was my manager but even more he was my mentor and guide. Although he was technically in charge of the whole operation, he let me run it the way I wanted and that was a tremendous learning opportunity for me. Nick had a unique way of teaching by delegating responsibility and then periodically calling me to do a participative analysis of my own performance. He would then reinforce the strengths and achievements and encourage me to draw lessons from my mistakes. I remember my first ever appraisal in 1980. Nick gave me the form and told me to fill it in myself. I was shocked because I thought appraising was something that the boss did of your work. But Nick said, ‘You know what you did better than I do. So, write it up.’ I returned with what I thought were my achievements and then Nick and I had a long chat about them. Thanks to my Indian cultural upbringing, Nick ended up adding several things that I had left out feeling that they didn’t really count. I still have that form with Nick’s signature on it, decades later.

In Kwakwani, I was the youngest member of the Management Team, sometimes by decades. As the Assistant Administrative Manager, it was part of my responsibility to look after the logistics in the entire mining town. There were department heads over whom I had no formal authority, but whose cooperation I needed to get anything done. Some were twice my age and Guyanese and members of the PNC (People’s National Congress – the ruling party in Guyana), while I was a young foreigner. I learnt, very practically, that the best way to make progress was to develop a relationship based on sincerity as that would be the only thing that you could count on, especially in hard times. I remember how Nick Adams used to put it. He’d say, “A relationship is like a bank account. You only have in it, what you put in. And when you need to draw on it, you only have as much as you put in.” That is one of the lessons I learnt in my life and which has stayed with me all these years. That is one of the many lessons that I owe to Nick. Another was in hospitality and consideration. The first time it happened I was astonished. Then it became a regular feature. One weekend Nick called me and asked me to go over to his place. When I walked over, I saw that he had a pen full of live chickens (about 10-12 in all) and a knife. He said to me, “Ya-waar, can you please slaughter these in your way? I will put them in the freezer so that we are sure we give you these when you come over to our place to eat.” Nick and his lovely wife Kathleen knew that I was Muslim and would eat only meat that was slaughtered according to the rules of Halal. So, they made sure that not only was what they gave me Halal but that I would have total confidence in that. What better way than to let me do it myself? 

One of Nick’s biggest strengths was his communication; both its clarity and wisdom. I recall an amusing but very instructive incident which illustrates the challenges we faced and how Nick dealt with them. Guyana had recently become independent and was ruled by the PNC (People’s National Congress) which was socialist/communist. The President of Guyana was the very powerful and iconic, Linden Forbes Sampson Burnham (1923 – 1985). Communism/socialism was the prevalent ideology. We addressed each other as ‘Comrade’. I was Comrade (written Cde.) Baig. Bauxite mining was the major economic activity in Guyana and just before I landed there in 1979, the government had nationalized the bauxite mining and calcining operation. One inevitable and tragic result was that people were appointed and promoted more for ideological loyalty than for professional competence. Another result was that the Guyana Mine Workers Union became very strong. Guymine (used to be called Guybau) had 5000 workers and all were members of the GMWU. The Union was run by its General Secretary, Stephen Louis, a huge big man with a voice to match.

One effect of the nationalization and heightened union activity was frequent work stoppages on all kinds of frivolous matters. Then we would meet to discuss Terms of Resumption and arrive at a settlement. The meetings were contests of will, to see who would break down first. The meetings were very important because if we couldn’t arrive at a settlement the issue would go to Arbitration before the Minister of Mines whose other role was as the President of the Union. The typical Terms of Resumption meeting would go straight through for anything ranging from 24 – 72 hours, with short breaks of usually an hour or two to stretch our legs and eat something. Naturally patience was tough to maintain, and tempers would get frayed. This incident relates to one such meeting.

I can’t recall what the issue was, for which the Union had called for a Tools Down. We started the meeting at 8.00 pm and it continued through the night into the next morning. We took a break of about 2 hours to take a shower and have breakfast. Then back in the meeting until 8.00 pm that night. Then a break for dinner and back again through the night. Stephen Louis was holding forth at full strength, his voice resonating and bouncing off the ceiling and walls; my first experience of surround sound. The only option we had was to listen. Our team had Nick as its head and me and another young man from IR (Industrial Relations), who we shall call Jacob (not his real name). Late that night, well past midnight, Jacob’s patience snapped. Stephen Louis had been going on and on about the ideological differences between socialist and capitalist ideologies and why the socialist ideology to which the PNC and the GMWU were committed was superior. Jacob said, ‘Man! Stephen, talk sense man.’ It was as if he had shot Stephen in the head. Stephen stopped in mid-sentence. Turned slowly to face Jacob and said, ‘Boy! (pronounced Bye) Jaykie, waya seh! Talk sense. Like me na takin sense? Ya tink a-we takin nansense? All dis time we bina trying to come to a settlemen and dis Bye seh we bina talkin nansense? Eh!’

The situation was as close to sitting on a powder keg with the fuse burning as I care to remember. In another two seconds, the Union would have walked out and hours and hours of work would have gone down the drain. We would have had to begin again with the additional problem of dealing with bruised egos as a result of good old Jaykie’s comment. That’s when I saw how quick thinking and experience makes a difference. Nick called out, ‘Hol-an, Hol-an man Stephen. De Bye na seh, Leh we talk sense. He seh, Leh we talk dallar and cents. Leh we talk moe-ney! Leh we do dat man. Nof-of dis ideology thing. Leh we decide and go to bed.’

I swear, I saw relief on Stephen Loius’s face. He say, ‘Ah! Ya, leh we do da.’ And we did. We finished as the day was breaking and as we left the room, Stephen came up behind Jacob, affectionately grabbed him by the back of his neck and said, ‘De man Nick don save yar aas. You know waya seh, eh! And I know wa I hear! But Nick don save a-we. If not, dis meeting was gonna go on for noder two days. Watch ya tongue Bye. It can geh you into trouble. And you won’ have Nick to bail you out next time.’ That is where I learnt human relations. In a very tough environment but where even our antagonists took time out to unofficially mentor youngsters.

My last story about Nick. I heard this story from his son Owen Shaka Abubakr Adams. When Nick was a young man, and lived in Linden, Demarara, he received a summons from a court in Corentyn which is at the northern border of Guyana, with Suriname; a distance of about 400 kilometers. To go there in those days (1950’s?) must have been an expedition. Nick had no idea why he had been summoned. But he went. When he arrived at the court, his name was called, and the judge asked him to come forward. As Nick was walking down the aisle, he heard a woman’s voice, ‘He is not the man.’ Nick turned to see a young woman with a baby.

The judge told the lady, ‘Look carefully at him. This is Nick Adams. Is he the man?’ The lady said, ‘He is not the man. This is someone else.’

When Nick asked, the judge said to him, ‘A man by your name, got this lady pregnant and now that she has a baby, he has disappeared. Anyway, this is not your problem, so you can go home.’

Nick said to the judge, ‘Your Honor, I would like to request you to please arrange for the maintenance of this child to be deducted from my salary.’

The judge was astonished. ‘Do you know this lady?’

Nick said, ‘No, Your Honor, I don’t. I am seeing her for the first time today.’ ‘Then why are you offering to pay for the maintenance of the child?’ asked the judge. ‘It is not your responsibility. This matter doesn’t concern you.’

Nick replied, ‘But the child needs to eat, Your Honor. Someone must pay for that. I am willing to do that.’

For the next 18 years, Nick Adams paid maintenance for a child that was not his own. He saw the mother, that one time in court and never saw the mother or child again. But month after month, year after year for 18 years, Nick Adams paid for a child because he had compassion in his heart.

His Rabb was no less compassionate. So many decades later, maybe even 60 years later, Nick Adams who was by then suffering from cancer, one week before his death, accepted Islam along with his wife and sister in law.

The happiest ending; or I should say, the happiest latest story, to my Guyana times was when I got the news in 2011 that Nick Adams and his wife Kathleen had accepted Islam. Nick was terminally ill with cancer at the time and died a couple of weeks later. I hope one day to meet my friend once again in Jannah. He died sinless and pure and I ask Allahﷻ for His Mercy and Grace for my dear friend to whom I owe so much. 

Become a rock in the foundation

Become a rock in the foundation

I want to begin by saying that today I am truly proud that my nation, India, is still a democracy and that we the people of India are people with courage and the willingness to stand up for each other. Frankly, going by our recent history and the rapid polarization of our society and proliferation of hate speech and hate politics, I never thought I would see the day when Hindus, Sikhs and Christians would stand shoulder to shoulder with their Muslim brothers and sisters to protect them and their rights. Truly it is said that injustice can’t be removed until those who are not affected by it are willing to stand up against it. Injustice to one is injustice to all. The people of India have demonstrated that they are willing to stand against injustice even when it doesn’t affect some of them directly. The biggest and most powerful message in all this is that it is our youth, students in our universities who have taken the lead and shown us the way to go. This message is primarily addressed to them, to students, to youth, to the millennials and their children. Because the future is theirs. They inherited the world that we, my generation, created. They are the victims of our follies, greed, shortsightedness and ignorance. But all power to them, they decided to take their future in their own hands and break the vicious cycle that we bequeathed to them. They did what we (at least I) never dreamt that they would do. The best that we can do is to stand with them, so that when history is written it will at least be said that we tried to clean the mess we made.

The first thing to understand is that this CAA+NRC is the best thing that could have happened to India at this stage. We had become a rapidly polarized, fascist, extremist society with the voices of the ‘silent’ majority conspicuous by their silence while the strident and raucous screech of hate speech was echoing off the walls of our collective conscience. Then came the law; CAA and the threat of NRC to disenfranchise those who are already dehumanized and demonized. Liberals felt bad about this. But the problem with all Liberals anywhere is that they have no clear cause; no point of focus for their energy, intellect and emotion. They are just a bunch of ‘nice people’. That is no good because in today’s politics and especially in hate politics which feeds fascism, they are rendered totally ineffective. CAA+NRC gave them a focus, a rallying point, a goal to achieve. It suddenly made speaking out worthwhile. And we are seeing the result.

If you study the South African freedom struggle you will see that it is only when Apartheid became law with all its draconian elements that the struggle started. Whites have always discriminated against people of color from the time Allahﷻ gave color to some and took it away from others. But how many ‘freedom’ struggles do you see against that? Except when there are laws created to legitimize and legalize the crime that is Apartheid. That is what has happened today. The BJP/RSS gave us, the People of India, a goal. And that goal is to abolish this and all such laws, to abolish hatred, to abolish all those who preach hatred. Never lose sight of that. Never allow anyone to divide you ever again, or you will sink back into the cesspit and your oppressors will rule the roost. Remember, that they will never make the same mistake again. This is your chance. This is your only chance. This is your last chance before the abyss of darkness.

This is like a staring match. Whoever blinks or looks away first, loses. If you never tried a staring match, try it. You will see that as time passes it gets more and more tough. Your eyes start to water, then burn and it is so easy to look away or blink. But remember that it is also getting tougher for the other person. So, you don’t have to be the toughest in the world. You just have to be tougher than your opponent. In this case, only if civil society is relentless and opposition parties join in will something happen. Force the hands of the opposition parties. You voted for them. This is collection time. Don’t let any sit on the fence. They must choose between you or the BJP. Meet their leaders. Demand that they meet you. No games. Let them declare that they are against CAA+NRC. Many opposition leaders have done so. Force those who have not done so yet, to do so right away. Don’t rest and don’t let them rest until they declare that they will not implement the NRC in their states. These are YOUR states. Not THEIR states. They and all our politicians must be made to realize that they are elected representatives of the people, who remain where they are at the whim of the people. They are not hereditary monarchs, though they like to act like that. Remind them.

The rulers have initiated the NPR which is the first step. They will implement NRC at an appropriate time later. Make no mistake about that.

Another very important thing: Get the police who are trying to break up the peaceful protests, violently, to understand that you are fighting for them also. When they beat you, they are beating the only friends they have in the land. Tell them (let your posters say that and say this in your speeches; address them directly) that when the NRC is implemented, it is their families, brothers and sisters and uncles and aunts who will also have to stand in line and if they have no papers, they will also go to detention camps. Just because someone in their family is a cop, won’t save them.

A screenshot of a cell phone  Description automatically generated

Final important thing and maybe the most important: Keep repeating the fact that the people who this NRC will harm the most are the Hindu majority. It is their tax money which will be (is being) used to build the camps. It is their taxes which will feed the detainees forever, because they can’t be deported anywhere. The disruption to the economy and the loss of jobs, investment, production, services and peace that is happening is harming them the most because they are the majority. The myth of a Muslim Mukt India where every Hindu will be a king is rubbish. Total nonsense which is taking the lives and livelihoods of Hindus and Muslims alike. Emphasize this.The most critical thing to do is to keep the protests going for the next four years and ensure that hate mongers lose the general election. Meanwhile they’ll up the stakes and become more draconian and tighten the screws to try to break all resistance. No mercy will be shown because they want to make an example of whoever resists to discourage and break the spirit of others. Your main challenge will be to convince the wealthy that they’re in a life-threatening situation and need to invest in their own safety. They need to change their lifestyles and need to spend on funding the fight for freedom instead of their holidays, weddings and gana parties. That’s the biggest challenge.

Don’t look to your elders for leadership. They’re the reason you’re in this mess. They have no clue what to do. All our traditional leaders have failed. They’re a part of the cancer. You need new leaders who are untainted by the diseases of deliberate ignorance, cowardice, selfishness, corruption and greed. There may be exceptions among your elders, but exceptions prove the rule. So, don’t waste your time with them. If you follow them, they’ll squander your lives, and energy to save their own skins. You’ll get nothing from them that can be of any use to you.

Your great strength is that you are alone, unencumbered, unfettered. Rejoice, chart your own path, make mistakes, fall, but get up. Always get up. Alternatively, look to your elders, get infected with their fatal diseases, pick up their baggage, struggle for their ends, and die a futile death, knowing in your last moments that you did it to yourselves. You had a chance, but you blew it away. Your choice. Learn to stand on your own feet. Learn to think. Curse your own stupidity about not reading, especially history, not reflecting or thinking, being addicted to social media and being more interested in cricket and football than in your own future. That’s why your future is a football for others. You and your generation are not innocent either. You’re fools but not evil. So, wake up before it’s too late.

The critical thing is to keep the students on the street long enough to make a difference. It’s a battle of attrition in which the one who can take the loss wins. It’s that simple to define. It will be brutal. No quarter will be given. Don’t fool yourself into thinking that it will be easy or quick. It won’t. You’ve seen nothing yet. But if there’s consistency and perseverance, you students will win. That also I have no doubt about.

Get students across the world enrolled into your cause. Let there be demonstrations in global universities; not once but every week. They live in countries where they can protest without fear. Tell them to let their voices resound across national boundaries and wake up dead consciences. Let questions be asked in Parliaments and Assemblies across the world. Let cases be filed in the International Court of Justice. Let voices be raised in the United Nations. Let international media raise their voice. Let Heads of State who like to talk about justice summon the Indian Ambassadors in their countries and ask them what is going on. Put pressure on Indians abroad to stand up for justice. It is international pressure that won freedom from apartheid in South Africa. CAA+NRC is Apartheid. NPR is the first step towards it.

Let people everywhere understand that these steps to create a fascist, apartheid state based on Hindu supremacy calls for crucial funds to be spent in useless exercises to divide, discriminate against and oppress people instead of on education, production, creating employment opportunities and well-being. That is what the world must know and realize. Remind them that a nation which is embroiled in controversy and turmoil is a dead duck for investment and development. A nation which is spending money on building concentration camps instead of homes for the homeless is not a safe place to invest. Nobody cares about justice. Everybody cares about money. So, speak to them in the language they understand.

The time has come to face the brutal facts but never to lose hope. Take charge of your lives. The one who controls the narrative, wins the debate. Never give up your ethics and values. You must never do what the others do or act or speak in the way they do. They must not drive your narrative. They must not direct your behavior. They’re not your teachers. Think of any great revolution and try to name ten people who participated in it. I bet you, you can’t. But you and I know that it succeeded because there were a lot more than ten people involved. What happened to them? What did they gain? How did they continue to work even though many or most never saw success? It succeeded because they were the foundation stones. Without them it would have failed. If every stone wants to be on the façade there will be no building.

The question is, ‘Do you want the building, or do you want to be on the façade?’

Get ready to go into the ground like the stones in the foundation for the building to be built over you. Nobody will know you lived except the One who created you. And that’s enough.

Or get ready to spend the rest of your lives as slaves. The future is yours, not ours. Make of it whatever you wish, because you are going to live in it. You and your children.

Mentoring is a contact sport

Mentoring is a contact sport

Mentoring is the in-thing today. There seems to be a profusion of those who want to or believe they can mentor others. The interesting thing is the name for the one who wants to be mentored. It is ‘mentee’. I tell anyone who wants to be mentored by me, ‘If you are demented enough to want me as your mentor, you will thenceforth be known as ‘mental’. I say this only partly in jest. Partly because most of the people that I have met in this context live under all sorts of romantic notions about what mentoring is and what the ‘ideal’ mentor should be like. Then, when they encounter someone like me, who may not fit their imaginary model, they are dissatisfied and try to change me to fit their fantasy. Needless to say, that never happens, and we part company.

The best thing in life is to start your career under a hard taskmaster. Anyone can teach you what to do. But hard taskmasters teach you standards. That is the biggest favor that anyone can do for you. Mentoring is perhaps the single most powerful evidence of love that one can wish for. The mentor is sharing his hard-earned life experience to teach you lessons that will help you all your life. And you get to learn those lessons relatively free of cost. I say ‘relatively’ because there is always a token cost to pay, but that goes with the territory and adds value because you can appreciate that you got something worthwhile. I don’t mean the fee you may pay a mentor but the pain of learning.

Uncle Rama & I (with a pillow over my head) taking our siesta

It was 1972 and I was 17 years old. As usual, I was in Sethpally with Uncle Rama on his farmhouse on the bank of the Kadam River. Farmhouse is a fancy word to describe one of the simplest homes that I have ever seen or lived in. In which lived a man who could afford something a thousand times better but didn’t because he didn’t care about material things and loved to live a simple life. The house was rectangular in shape with a central room which was also a passage to go from the veranda in front to the kitchen at the back. This central room had a square table with four chairs around it. It was supposed to be the dining room, but we never ate in it. The table was used as a surface to put anything we wanted handy. To one side in this room was a Westinghouse kerosene refrigerator in which we sometimes made ice cream. On either side of this central room were two equally sized rooms with windows in the outer walls. One looking out to the veranda in front and the other to the side of the house. In the front was a wide veranda that ran the whole length of the house. There was a two feet wide and three feet high parapet wall that enclosed the veranda. It acted as additional seating and a place to rest your feet and lean back in your chair, balancing it on its hind legs. On one side of the dining room door opening into the veranda was a long table with a bench on one side and the parapet wall as the seating, on the other. There were some rope cots on the other side of the veranda. All our meals, and most of our conversation was around this table on the veranda.  

A rare picture of the Sethpally farmhouse

If you walked through the front door, across the dining room you would emerge on the back veranda on one side of which was the kitchen and on the other the bath-room. I am writing that deliberately as two words to emphasize that it was a room in which you bathed only. There was no toilet in it. You bathed in it if you didn’t want to bathe at the well in the fields a good bit away from the house. That was more fun, especially in the summer as you could look across the river to the jungle on the other side or at the low hills of the Sahyadri in the distance. The well had a low parapet wall all around and a paved apron.

I would stand on that apron in my lungi and Shivaiyya or whoever happened to be handy, would draw water out of the well in a bucket and pour it over my head. I would then soap myself thoroughly and my friend (these were Uncle Rama’s servants but were my friends with whom I used to wander around the jungles) would pour another bucket or two of water and my bath was done. The indoor bathroom was for the winter when it tended to get too cold to bathe outdoors. In winter Kishta would heat water and put half a bucket each of cold and hot water in the bath-room and I would mix the two to my liking and bathe indoors.

What about the toilet, you ask? Well, you took water in a lota (a pot-shaped utensil) and headed for wherever you liked where you could commune with nature, undisturbed. Then you dug a small hole in the earth, put two rocks or bricks on either side of it and squatted. After you had made your deposit, all the while enjoying the view, you washed yourself and filled in the hole. Organic manure and urea, great source of nitrogen for whatever was growing there. Hygienic, no smell and nothing you could step in.

Uncle Rama

It was summer and I had been out the whole day. My routine was usually that I would leave the house at first light, having eaten a hearty breakfast of chapatties, eggs and a large mug of tea laced with plenty of sugar (I used to take sugar in my tea in those days) and go across the Kadam River into the forest. I would usually walk but on occasion Shivaiyya would take me in his bullock cart. The bullock cart is the most versatile vehicle known to man and can do everything except climb trees. Of course, it doesn’t have springs or shock absorbers and that is hard on your back and bones, but not when you are 17. On that day, Shivaiyya and I set off in the morning and took a long route that was a huge circle which would bring us back to the river in the evening. Summer days are long and so we had plenty of time. I was carrying a 7.62 Mauser bolt action carbine rifle with a 5-shot magazine and Shivaiyya was carrying a .22 BRNO rifle. Here is some history of these very versatile weapon. https://jggunsmith.wordpress.com/2019/09/30/a-bit-about-brno-22-rifles/ Shivaiyya was my gunbearer, guide and pal, all in one. I usually took two weapons, alternating between the 7.62 (which we called ‘8mm’ for short) and a 12-gauge shotgun, depending on what I planned to look for that day. Hunting was never my priority. My abiding love was and is to simply be in the forest and watch wildlife in action in their natural habitat.

Blue bull (Nilgai) male

As it was, we were running out of meat and Uncle Rama told me to get a young Chital (Axis or Spotted deer – Axis axis) or Blue bull (Nilgai – Boselaphus tragocamelus) if I could, so I took the carbine. The .22 BRNO was for any small game like hare, duck or jungle fowl which if shot with the carbine would simply disintegrate and be worthless for the table. I carried the carbine as our first priority was the bigger animal, which if we shot anything else, would be disturbed with the sound and run away. The .22 was for the way back or at least for after I had shot the main quarry for the day.

It was a very hot day in the summer. Summer in the Sahyadri can be extremely hot with temperatures in excess of 45 Celsius. The deciduous forest in the foothills leading to the Kadam River is mostly teak, with a sprinkling of other species. In some places there were large clumps of bamboo. All these shed their leaves in summer and so the forest floor is carpeted with dry leaves. That makes moving noiselessly impossible. As you walk the leaves crumble loudly and make a racket loud enough to wake the dead. I walked ahead of Shivaiyya who sometimes guided me from behind. Either he would speak in a very low voice, just a word or two to ask me to either be careful or to turn one way or another. Or he would click his tongue or whistle if there was some animal or bird that he had seen but which I had missed. That didn’t happen very often, as I was very alert and trained in woodcraft by the greatest experts that I have ever known; Nawab Nazir Yar Jung and Uncle Rama (Mr. Venkat Rama Reddy).

From them I learned above all, respect for the forest and all those who live in it. Respect is the most important thing to learn, because it enables you to appreciate your surroundings. That means that you are not careless but take care to ensure that you don’t cause any damage to anything animate or inanimate. When you act like that, you automatically keep yourself safe. The second thing I learned was about the animals and plants of the place. I learned the names of plants and trees, what they are used for, where they grow, the seasons in which they change, what that indicates for us. I learned about their flowers and fruit and what they can be used for. For example, I learned about the Mahua flower, which is used to distill alcohol, and which is fleshy and sweet, and so when the Mahua is flowering, it attracts every bird and monkey in the vicinity. As they feed on the flower, they drop as much or more than they eat. That attracts bears, deer, Gaur and where they exist, elephants. In the Sahyadri there are no elephants but everything else is there.

Leopard hunting Langur in the trees

There are Banyan trees and other fig species which are a magnet for birds of all feather. There is the Beedi leaf tree, the Katha tree (Katha is made from its bark – that’s the brown stuff in Paan). There’s Strangler Fig, Lantana with its thick intertwined branches with small vicious thorns that are impenetrable. But beneath them, they form the ideal habitat for small animals and birds; mainly Grey Jungle Fowl and Wild boar. It is a funny sight to see Grey Jungle Fowl jumping up to reach the Lantana berries. When there are a few of them doing that, it is almost like a ballet with one going up and another down. Under the Lantana is a nice dry, secure world for Jungle Fowl to live and nest in. Wild boars are the only danger there, as they also lie up during the day under Lantana bushes. Leopards and Jackals go in after them sometimes but for the most part, the Lantana is a good guard of those who seek its shelter. There are clumps of Bamboo which attracts browsers like Sambar, Nilgai, Chital and Bison (Gaur). They love young shoots of Bamboo.

Teetar (Partridge)

That day, I was walking ahead with the 8mm carbine and Shivaiyya was behind me with the .22 BRNO. We were going through some thick bush and I could see the open light of a clearing ahead. Forest clearings are usually productive as animals and birds feed in them, so I crept up very slowly towards it. As I came near, I could see that the land sloped away from me down into a dry naala (stream bed) with a large tree, felled in a storm, resting on the side of its crown. And on the top end of it was perched a large male peacock. It was not my plan to shoot anything before I could bag a Chital or Nilgai but the peacock was too much of a temptation. However, I was carrying the wrong weapon for it, so I signaled to Shivaiyya to come forward and give me the .22 BRNO. Unfortunately, he couldn’t see the peacock and I couldn’t warn him to stay silent, so as I took the .22 rifle from him, he stepped on a dry stick which snapped like a pistol shot. The peacock took off in a loud beating of wings and sailed off down the slope, long gone before I could bring the rifle up to take him down. A flying peacock is a beautiful sight and so I contented myself with enjoying that. And then to my frustration, a sounder of wild boar broke cover from one end of the clearing and trotted off, across it into the bush on the other side. I could only watch them go as I once again had the wrong weapon. Such is life sometimes. Teaches you the importance of preparation. Even where I had a legitimate excuse for not being prepared, it was a lesson to learn that excuses don’t change reality. A loss doesn’t turn to gain because you have a legitimate excuse.

By then it was almost midday and extremely hot. It was also a time when nothing moved as all animals would be lying up in shade, wherever they could find it. Shivaiyya and I also decided to rest for a couple of hours. We found a clump of bamboo halfway up the slope from a tributary of the Kadam River and sat in the patchy shade it provided. I had discovered that if you consciously decide to be one with your surroundings, you stop feeling hot. Don’t ask me for the physics of it. Maybe it is just in the mind, but who cares as long as it happens, right? When you simply sit and breathe deeply and relax you go into a sort of meditative, somnolent state which is very tranquil and peaceful. When you emerge from it, you are rejuvenated. As I sat there (I didn’t lie down as bamboo clumps are famous for snakes and ants), I did what I always do in such situations; listen to all the sounds around me and try to identify them. There are two benefits of this. For one, it is very interesting and adds to your knowledge about the forest and its denizens. And secondly it gives you information about who is about. That can be very important, especially if it is something you are looking for or something you want to avoid.

That day, the loudest sound I could hear, coming at me from all around, nature’s surround sound experience, was the Cicadas. They make a sound which is so loud that it can deafen you. This is what https://animals.howstuffworks.com/insects/question733.htm says about how Cicadas ‘sing’. “The apparatus used by cicadas for singing is complex. The organs that produce sound are called tymbals. Tymbals are a pair of ribbed membranes at the base of the abdomen. The cicada sings by contracting the internal tymbal muscles. This causes the membranes to buckle inward, producing a distinct sound. When these muscles relax, the tymbals pop back to their original position. Scientists still don’t fully understand how this apparatus produces such extreme volume.”

Common Hawk Cuckoo

If I tuned out the Cicadas, which was not as simple as it sounds but can be done, I could hear the Brain-fever bird (Common Hawk Cuckoo – (Hierococcyx varius) whose call sounds like someone saying, ‘Brain fever’ in an ever-increasing pitch.https://youtu.be/bPqi5BcfETM

Shivaiyya and I ate our lunch. Chapattis and flat omelets with lots of onions and mango pickle. Washed down with lukewarm, sweet tea. Then both of us went into suspended animation, waiting for the sun to go down and the day to cool. About two hours later, when the sun was way past its zenith and on the way down to America, we gathered up our stuff and started our long way back home. I love walking at this time, as the long dusk comes on. It is much cooler than the day and animals start moving to go to water and then to graze or hunt as the case may be. If you walk in the forest at this time, as also at dawn, the chances of seeing game are very good. I walked ahead with the 8mm carbine and Shivaiyya came behind me with the .22 rifle and our tiffin carrier and water bottle slung on his shoulder.

We walked for perhaps three miles on a narrow winding footpath, made primarily by wildlife going down to the Kadam River to drink. Even in the hottest weather, the river had some pools in shady loops of its course which were visited by animals from all over the forest. There was no other water anywhere close, except the backwater of the Kadam Dam which was miles away. So, these pools were a very good place to see wildlife. The path took a dip and then went up a slight incline and over the top, down to the riverside. I was in the bottom of the dip walking up the incline when in the gathering dusk, I suddenly saw a Chital stag come up the path from the other side and crest the rise. The wind was blowing in my face, so he had no idea that I was on the same path as he was. I can’t say who was more surprised, but I snapped the carbine to my shoulder and fired. The shot hit him in the center of his chest. I saw the dust fly out of his hide. He snorted loudly and spun around and disappeared.

I was thrilled that my day was going to be successful after all and I would come home with some meat. Shivaiyya and I ran up the incline, expecting to see the Chital stag lying on the ground. I was in a hurry also because according to Islamic food laws, I had to slaughter the stag in the ritual way before it died, if I was to be able to eat the meat. But to my utter surprise and intense disappointment, there was no sign of the animal. It had simply vanished. Shivaiyya and I searched high and low in the rapidly falling dark to no avail. I knew I had hit him. There was some blood on the path, but it was light pink and frothy meaning that it had been hit through the lungs. His heart was intact and obviously no major bone was broken and his spine was also undamaged. The problem is that when an animal is shot with a high velocity rifle firing a solid bullet straight through the chest, it is entirely likely that the bullet goes through the animal, damages internal organs but does not break any bones. That means that often, given the massive flush of adrenaline in the animal, it could run for several hundred meters before it falls due to blood loss. There have been cases of large animals running for a couple of miles and some that perhaps lived for more than two days, before they eventually succumbed to the wound. A very painful way to die. Placing the shot is therefore very critical to successful hunting. In my surprise and hurry, that was the mistake I made.

By then it was completely dark and there was no chance of our finding the stag. Shivaiyya and I wound our way home, sad that we were returning empty handed. Uncle Rama would understand what had happened, I was sure. I was not thrilled about returning with a story instead of a quarry, but that was how life was sometimes. Or so I thought. I had no idea of the turn events would take to make that night one of the most memorable of my life.

We crossed the Kadam River, which was almost totally dry near the house, with a small trickle against the far bank which we could easily jump across without even wetting our feet. A far cry from the raging torrent filling the entire bed from bank to bank that it would become in the monsoon. As I climbed up the slope leading to the house, Uncle Rama was on the veranda and he called out in greeting to me, “Yawar baba, welcome back. Kya maray (what did you shoot)? I heard the shot.”

“I shot a Chital stag.”

“Shabaash (congratulations). Kaan hai (where is it)?”

“I lost it,” I said. And told him the whole story.

He listened in silence and said, “You are telling me that you wounded an animal and left it to die and you came home?”

“It got dark Uncle Rama. I couldn’t see anything. What could I do?”

“I am sorry, that doesn’t work. You never leave a wounded animal. You shoot straight and kill the animal outright or you follow up and finish it off. You never, ever leave an animal to die in pain because you couldn’t shoot straight.”

Well, I thought that was a bit hard, but he was the Boss, so I didn’t say anything. He said, “Right, now wash up and have your dinner and then go and get that Chital back.”

I was not sure that I had heard him right. It was almost 9 pm. By the time I’d had my dinner it would be 10 pm. He was telling me to go out into a forest with dangerous wild animals in the middle of the night to find and bring back an animal that I had wounded. Was I going to obey?

I don’t think the alternative even occurred to me. He was my mentor, I loved him very much and he loved me like his son. So, if he told me to do something, I did it, no question about it. I washed up. Kishta put the food on the table. Shivaiyya went to the back of the house to eat in the kitchen. When we had both eaten, I picked up the 8mm carbine. Uncle Rama said to me, “Don’t take that. Take the 12-bore shotgun. And take these (he gave me 4 buckshot cartridges). In the night you will only get to shoot at close range. No time to fool around with a rifle. Use this. At close range it will stop an elephant.” There was so much love (tough love alright) but love in this action of making me go into a dangerous environment but ensuring that I had everything I needed to be safe and survive. The fact that he even ordered me to go was a credit to me, that he trusted in my ability to take care of myself and treated me like a responsible adult and not just an irresponsible teenager.

Talk about mentoring? Here is mentoring for you. Teach, equip and trust. To trust means to give responsibility. Which was more ‘dangerous’? Me, taking care of myself or Uncle Rama having to explain to my parents that he had sent me out in the forest in the night and that is why I had been eaten by a tiger or bitten by a cobra? He knew that, yet he took a risk because he trusted me and needed to teach me a lesson that a gun was not a toy. Hunting was not about having fun killing animals. It was about behaving responsibly, taking ownership for your actions and accepting accountability, which means that if you make a mistake, you pay for it.

Indian Nightjar

Shivaiyya and I left. There was a full moon, so the forest was a landscape of light and shadows. As we crossed the Kadam River bed I could hear the call of the Indian Nightjar (Caprimulgus asiaticus) https://youtu.be/CMzA8S2EJUc You can hear the call on this link. It sounds almost mechanical, as if made by a machine. A churrring that ends in clicks. Nightjars are nocturnal birds that get active when night falls and feed on beetles and other insects. They sit motionless on the ground on pathways or clearings and fly up in complete silence to catch the unwary insect which flies past. In the day, they roost in trees or rocky outcrops trusting to their beautiful camouflage to keep them safe. We came out of the riverbed and climbed the far bank and took the path leading to Shivaiyya’s village.

Shivaiyya was a realist (or was he acting on Uncle Rama’s secret orders – to this day I have no idea). He said to me, “Dora let us sleep in my village and go out with the dogs in the morning before the sun rises. We will get the stag then. Trying to find him in the night without dogs to follow the scent is impossible. Getting the dogs to go into the forest in the night is impossible. What do you say?” I learnt early in life, never to argue with elders who have more experience. So, I agreed. We walked the half mile to his village. His village was a haphazard collection of mud huts with untidy grass thatch roofs. The hut had one door and no windows, and the women usually cooked inside the hut. The fuel was dried cow-dung cakes. The Gonds, Shivaiyya’s tribe, had a large herd of scrub cattle whose main produce, believe it or not, was dung. Not milk. The cattle would be taken out to graze in the forest daily by little boys who would walk behind them and collect the dung they dropped. This would be mixed with grass, dry leaves and other debris and shaped into flat, round cakes which were sun dried on any handy surface in the village. When dry, they would be stacked indoors to keep them out of the rain and used as fuel. If dried properly, they made an almost smokeless fire. But that is only if they were totally dry. Otherwise the hut was full of smoke. In the night, the hut was not only home to the family but to two dogs, one goat and a young calf that was too young to be left outside with the other cattle.

It was into this hut that Shivaiyya, very kindly, invited me to sleep. I politely declined and asked him to put the rope cot that he offered me, outside the hut and said that I preferred to sleep in the open. He was not happy with that, as the forest was home to tigers, leopards and bears. But I was happier taking my chances with them than with sleeping inside the hut with its smoke and multiple smells. The smoke inside the hut was protection against mosquitos but my view was ditto about that as about tigers, leopards and bears. I lay on the rope net, covered myself with the goat-hair blanket that Shivaiyya used for himself, kept my shotgun handy and lay on my back looking at the sky. By this time, the moon had set, and the stars were out in their splendor. You must lie on your back in a forest without any ambient light and look up at the sky to understand the true magnificence of the night sky. As I lay there, I thought to myself that I was probably seeing things that didn’t exist. I mean, that the star that I may be looking at, could have ‘died’ millions of years ago, but I was ‘seeing’ it because its light reached me only now. Quite a sobering thought, if you ask me.

One of my great delights when spending a night in the jungle is to listen to the sounds as the time changes from morning to night and back from night to morning. During the day, especially during the hot months, the jungle is mostly a silent place, except for the cicadas and the Brain-fever bird; between the two of them it is actually possible to go crazy. But as the sun goes down and the day cools, the jungle comes alive and starts preparing for the night. Peacocks announce that it is time to start heading for the roosting places. The very loud mewing scream of the peacock has to be the most irritating sound in the world, but in the jungle, it seems completely in sync and not irritating at all. Jungle cocks – Gray Jungle Fowl in the Sahyadris and South India and Red Jungle Fowl in the North – then add their voices with their characteristic calls that end in a question – Cuk-coooo-ko-kuk? When one calls, another answers him. The hens are silent and leave it to the men to announce to the world that the day is coming to an end. Teetar (Partridge) then start to call and answer one another as they head towards their roosting places. Duck and (in season) geese flights start landing on the lake as they seek safety in the water. They stay on the water all night where nothing from the land can get at them. Geese are great talkers and you hear them before you see them as they come in their classic arrowhead formations and land on the lake, feet first, setting up little ski tracks on the surface before they settle their keels into the water.

Tigress relaxing – her 3 cubs were in the grass and hesitant to come into the road

As the darkness sets in, the first animal calls come in. The Chital stag barks to let the world know that he has seen a leopard or a tiger. However, some young Chital are easily spooked and also tend to give the alarm call if they see a dog or a man. Chital usually follow Langur who have a symbiotic relationship with each other. Langur feed on top of trees and Chital eat what they drop from the top of leaves and fruit. I am not sure if there are any formal studies to support my observation of the relationship between Chital and Langur, but I have almost always seen them together, especially in the semi deciduous forests of the Sahyadris. More importantly, Langur always have a lookout whose only job is to sit in the topmost branches and watch for predators and give the alarm if he sees one. They take turns in doing this so that everyone in the troop gets to feed. Langur calls – Ghoonk, Ghoonk – are more reliable and Chital take them very seriously as the Langur lends perspective to the Chital’s pedestrian life. The most reliable of all alarm calls, though, is the deep belling of the Sambar. When the Sambar tells you that he has seen a tiger, you can take his word for it. What’s more, the Sambar will keep belling – Dhank, Dhank, Dhank – as long as the tiger is in view. If you have some experience, you can locate the tiger and tell which direction he is moving in, simply by listening to the Sambar calling. As the night passed, I dozed, being far more interested in listening to the sounds of the jungle than in sleeping. Sambar belled on the hill; a sure sign that a tiger was about. But that was a long way off from where I was, so nothing for me to be concerned about. In the forest sound carries a long way, especially if it is from a higher elevation. The night fell silent. I dozed and then it was daybreak.

Grey Jungle Fowl

Mornings are equally magical in the jungle. The first calls are usually the Gray Jungle Fowl roosters, checking to see if it is really dawn. They do their more serious calling later when they come down from the trees, find a tree stump or rock and stand on it and call out a challenge to any other roosters in the vicinity. But the first calls are while it is still dark. The Langur wakes up and adds a hoot or two. The next are the Peacocks greeting the strengthening light. The Nightjars make the last of their –chukoorrrrr – calls as they settle in for their ‘night’. You may hear an owl or two. By now the light is better and Partridge start calling and Peacocks and Jungle Fowl add their calls to them. Chital and Sambar are generally silent now as most predators have settled in for their rest. If the occasional tiger is still getting to his layby, you may hear the Sambar who sees him, announcing his progress. Morning comes quickly in these parts and by about 5.30 am it is clear light. The duck and geese flights start as soon as the light starts to get stronger, headed for the fields of cultivated land where they feed all day with one goose always as a lookout. They take turns so that everyone in the flock gets to eat but when on sentry duty, they don’t slack in the slightest. A threat to life is a great motivator.

Shivaiyya came out of his hut by the time I’d completed my ablutions with sweet, milky tea, which we both drank in silent companionship. When we had finished and the light was stronger, he whistled to his dogs and we set off to find the Chital. These are the famous Indian ‘pie’ dogs. Small curs, with a very highly developed sense of smell, and a lot of wisdom living in the jungle where they are the favorite food of leopards. So only the clever ones live. We took the dogs to where I’d first shot at the Chital and they tracked it into a ravine where he had fallen and died the previous night. Not too far from where we had been looking for him but not having the dog’s sense of smell, we had no chance of finding him in the dark. As I had thought, my shot went straight through his lungs and out of the back. As it did not break any major bone, the animal ran away and there was also not much of a blood trail. It died eventually, but after running almost 200 yards and falling into the small ravine.

Such were my lessons in responsibility learned. Lessons about being responsible for my actions; for the consequences of my actions and of being ready to pay the price thereof. Much that I am grateful to Uncle Rama for. What remains most vivid in my memory is the way in which he taught me, even the painful lessons. Firm, but full of love and with a lot of respect.

Attitude

Attitude

Attitude can’t be enforced – it must be inspired

“Can we change their attitude?”

“No.”

“Can they change their own attitude?”

“Yes.”

“So, what is our goal? To change their attitude, or to convince them that they need to change it themselves?”

“That is challenging, difficult, will take sweat and tears……….do I really want to even try it?”

“Ah! We are now at the root of the problem and it is: Do I want to change my own attitude?”

Attitude is at the root of everything. Attitude decides whether we will succeed or fail. Whether when in difficulty, even that which seems to be life threatening, if we will survive or perish. Attitude decides if when hit by life (or by someone) we stay down or get up. And how many times we get up. And what the result of getting up every time we fall, will be. Attitude, not wealth, dictates happiness. If you don’t believe me, watch slum children leaping into pools of rainwater after the first rains. Do they look happy? Then go and watch your children, who will most likely be complaining about the rain. And ask yourself, “Who has more wealth?” I know that is a dumb question, but then to decide to remain dumb is an attitude issue. To decide to remain blind, even though we have eyes is an attitude issue. To witness a crime in progress and to decide to take a video to post on Instagram, instead of taking action to prevent the crime or to help the victim, is a matter of attitude. Cherophobia (the fear of being ‘too happy’ because you feel that if you allow yourself to feel happy, then disaster will strike), is a matter of attitude. Satisfaction, gratitude, ambition, courage, compassion are all attitudes. So also, are their opposites. And each one has an impact on our life.

The first Kural in Thirukkural is:

Agara mudhala ezhuthellam aadhi
bhagavan mudhatrey ulagu

(As Agara – A – is the first letter of the alphabet, so also God is before all creation)

In the same way, attitude comes before all situations and circumstances and decides how they will affect us. Incidentally, another A-word; affect. Let me tell you some stories to illustrate what I mean.

It was 1987 and I was doing a course at XLRI, Jamshedpur. One evening my friends decided to show me the sights around Jamshedpur. As we drove in the Hindustan Ambassador car, which was provided for us, the road suddenly deteriorated. My friend announced, “This is where Jamshedpur ends, and Bihar begins.” We continued onwards, headed towards Dimna lake and bird sanctuary. This is a lake made by Tata Steel and provides drinking water to Jamshedpur. On the way we stopped at a traffic light. The road was a patchwork of potholes joined together by bits of tarmac to prove that once upon a time when the world was young, it had been surfaced with bitumen. As I was contemplating life and its trials, a young boy came coasting down the slope on his bicycle a bit oblivious to his situation and hit a pothole, bounced out of it and yelled, ‘Wah! Kya khadda hai!’ (Wow! What a pothole!). Today I am writing this on July 13, 2019, 32 years later, but the incident is fresh in my memory. I remind myself that nothing changed for that kid or for me. The road, the potholes, the responsibility of the government, the use of taxes, you name it, everything remained the same. Yet that kid decided to be happy. So, when he hit a pothole, he appreciated the pothole instead of complaining. A matter of attitude.

In my view the best thing about attitude is that it is entirely in my control. Nobody can give it to me or take it from me or change it for me or do anything at all with my attitude. I, and only I, can have whatever attitude I want to. So only I, can decide if I want to be sad, glad, bad, mad or whatever. That means that until I want to change it, nobody can help me and if I want to change it, nobody can stop me. That is power.

In 1978, soon after I finished graduation with a BA in history, political science and Urdu literature, I boarded a flight for Guyana where my father was on a one-year assignment, with the Guyana Mining Enterprise hospital in Linden. It was a long flight and a long story. I flew from Hyderabad to Bombay to London to New York to Miami to Georgetown which took more than 24 hours. I flew in a SE 210 Caravelle, Boeing 707, McDonnell Douglas DC-10, and Boeing 707 once again. I flew on Indian Airlines, British Airways, Pan Am (Pan American World Airways), Delta and BWIA. And at the end of it all, more than 24 hours after I left Hyderabad, I arrived literally at the other end of the world, without my baggage. My baggage apparently had other travel plans and I have no idea which country it was destined for. But for me that meant that not only did I get to lose all my worldly possessions but also the proof of my education, my degree certificate, which I had kept in my checked-in baggage for safety.  

Guyana memories

I should have been devastated. I wasn’t. It took me about ten minutes to come to terms with the fact that I was walking with all my worldly assets, the shirt on my back. I found this was a very liberating idea. In Guyana I got a job, lived and worked in a small mining town in the middle of the rainforest. My experience of the five years that I spent there was far from negative. It was one of the most enjoyable and rewarding periods of my life during which I made lifelong friendships, had many unique experiences, and learnt a huge amount about human relations and conflict management which has stood me in good stead throughout my career, now many decades later. I will talk about those days in context in the articles and podcasts that will come later but want to say that all this happened because of the way I approached the challenge.

For one thing, I didn’t see it as a ‘challenge = difficulty’, at all. I saw it as the possibility to have great fun and great learning, each day filled with new possibilities. I was in a new country, totally new (alien!!) culture, food, climate, language, working with people who were completely different from me in every way, living in a part of the world that I had never been in and which was as different from my life in Hyderabad as to make it seem like I was on another planet. Yet it turned out to be one of the best periods of my life which I recall very fondly today, more than forty years later. The reason was attitude.

Attitude therefore is how you choose to see what you are faced with. You can choose to appreciate the good in it and enjoy it and to see the difficulties as you look at weights in the gym; something that is tough to lift but can only benefit you if you do. Who makes that choice? You.

Back home in India, I worked in the plantation industry for ten years, managing tea, and rubber plantations with coffee, cardamom, coconut and vanilla thrown in, before striking out into the field of leadership consulting. During my last three years in the company, I was posted as Manager of the company’s operations in Kanyakumari District in Tamilnadu. That comprised of two rubber estates, two factories and a higher secondary school. The challenge there was the labor force, which was highly militant, unionized, communist union (CITU – Marxist) and a history of tension between the management and union. To spice up my life I had an immediate task of introducing Controlled Upward Tapping (CUT) in rubber. This involved the tappers using special tapping knives to tap upwards instead of the normal downward tap. This put a strain on their shoulders and initially it could be uncomfortable, even painful, until they got used to it. The standard response to this was to refuse to do it. That led to tensions and some ugly situations before I got there, including an Assistant Manager having been grievously assaulted. My challenge was to get the workers to accept this method of tapping, which meant that I had to convert their dislike and resistance to liking. To change their attitude from resistance to acceptance.

I spoke to another company in Kerala who were using this technique and had good results. I requested their management to allow me to send my tappers to visit them to see their tapping, meet their tappers and talk to them about the technique. I wanted them to do this freely without any supervision, so I didn’t go with them. I sent them in a bus and arranged for them to have a nice sumptuous meal with their hosts and to be given CUT knives as a take-away gift (for which we paid). I told them to go and see the work, ask any questions that they wanted to ask their compatriots and satisfy themselves that this method was a good method for them to earn more income as well as something which would not be difficult to do after they had gotten used to the new angle of tapping. All this was treated with suspicion to begin with, given the history of management labor relations, but I expected that and didn’t react to it. However, the prospect of a company paid holiday was tempting and unique and so they went. After that, as they say, the rest is history. They returned enthusiastic about trying out the new technique and when they saw that as promised, their yield was better resulting in better earning, there was nothing more for me to do.

What I had been able to do was to get them tuned into the channel that everyone listens to; WiiFM (What’s in it For Me). That is the key to attitude change. Get people to see what’s in the change for them. Help them to see how they will benefit. Naturally they must really benefit. It is not a PR exercise. If there is really no benefit, then you will lose credibility big time if you try to sell it. But it happens often that people don’t see the benefit until you can show it to them. Once they see how they will gain by changing their attitude, it happens easily enough. The challenge is for us to show it to them.

What is essential for the one wanting to bring about attitude change is to put himself into the shoes of the other and see their world through their eyes. I had a very interesting experience in this context. I was doing a series of coaching skills workshops for senior management at ICRISAT in Hyderabad. This required helping people understand the fact that you can never coach anyone effectively if you don’t see their world through their eyes. In other words, you need to put yourself in their shoes. To illustrate this, I took off my shoes and said to the Deputy Director General, the most senior manager who was sitting right in front, “Please get into my shoes.”

He got up very reluctantly and started to take his shoes off. I stopped him when he had taken one shoe off. I asked him, “What are you doing?”

He looked surprised and replied rather testily, “Taking off my shoes.”

I asked, “Why?”

He looked really exasperated and said, “How else can I get into your shoes?” Then it suddenly dawned on him and he almost yelled, “Wah! What an insight!! I can never get into your shoes until I take my own shoes off. Wah! Sahab Wah!”

It is often as simple as that. The lesson is simple but very powerful.

If we want to change people’s attitudes, we need to first change our own. We must own up that we need to see their world as they see and feel it. We must empathize and understand. Then we need to show them how they will benefit from the change. Only then will it happen.

In terms of formal leadership roles, one of the biggest challenges of the commanding officer is to influence positively the attitude of those under his/her command. Many try to use authority. All that they get is outward compliance. Just because someone answers, “Yessah!” with a salute doesn’t mean that he/she truly accepts what you ordered them to do or that they will do it when they are not supervised. We are all aware of the theory, “It is the arm that salutes, not the heart.” That is why I say, “Values can’t be legislated (commanded). They must be inculcated.” And that is the reason attitude is critical. Attitude is what you do because of who you are. Not because of your job, rank or training but because of the truth of your being. That is why attitude inspires far more than any passionate speech or any order from on-high. People don’t care what you say, until they see what you do.

Attitude is what Dr. Kafeel of Gorakhpur had, when though he was not even on duty, he decided to take charge when he was informed that the government hospital where he worked had run out of oxygen and the lives of children who needed oxygen, were at stake. He spent his own funds to buy oxygen and managed to save the lives of over 200 of them. In organizational life, we have many stories to tell of people who decided to take ownership of the situation and in the absence of orders and sometimes even in contravention of them, they did the right thing. Many paid a price for it, but their stand inspires us to this day. The thing to remember is that even if they had succumbed to pressure, they would have paid a price. A price which in real terms, would have been far higher. There is no such thing as a free choice. Every choice has a price tag. We are free to choose between price tags. That is the reason why we need to record and preserve such stories, because they are real, involve real people like us and are beacons of guidance and proof of concept that IT CAN BE DONE.

 What are the attitudes that are critical for us to have? They are three.

Courage: Courage is the first. Courage is the willingness to stand up against opposing danger or force. The greater the opposing force, greater the courage needed. Courage is physical but even more importantly it is moral. Moral courage comes before physical courage and is often its motive force. Moral courage is called upon far more often than physical courage in our lives because the pressure on us is from those who have higher authority, direct or indirect. They don’t necessarily threaten our life or safety, but they threaten our careers. Yet we must have the courage to stand up to their threats, open or implied.

But stand up on what basis? On the basis of truth.

In the words of Martin Luther King Jr., “When the truth must be spoken, silence is culpable.”

Truth: Truth is the unshakable belief that truth comes first and over and above anyone else. The duty of every citizen is to uphold the truth in his/her own life. For this, we are accountable and answerable to society. And though society may not have the tools and structures to demand this accountability in a formal manner, it does enforce it very powerfully by giving or withholding respect and moral authority. Moral authority is the reward for moral courage. Without moral authority you may get rank, but you will never have power. Rank is bestowed. Power is earned. The Establishment bestows rank. People give you power. Without power, the badge of rank is costume jewelry.

Compassion: The ability to see yourself in the suffering of others. In the words ascribed to Benjamin Disraeli, 1st Earl of Beaconsfield, who twice served as Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, “There but for the Grace of God, goes Disraeli.” He reportedly said that on looking at a homeless man in rags. It is not known what he did thereafter, but the statement shows that he saw himself, at least momentarily, in the other less fortunate man. Compassion is not only to see but to do something about that, to alleviate the suffering, lift the oppression and deliver the justice being denied to the other. Compassion, above anything else, differentiates us as humans in the best possible terms. Compassion means that we stand against oppression even when it doesn’t affect us personally. Compassion means that we go out of our way, take the pain and the trouble and if necessary, pay the price to fight for the rights of others. Compassion is a fundamental value, a core strength and a key resource, without which we simply can’t function effectively and honorably. Compassion is the result of courage and commitment to the truth. Compassion wins hearts, inspires cooperation, builds a reputation, enhances influence and is the best protection.

This is the value of these three, interlinked attitudes: courage based on truth, tempered with compassion. Truth gives courage its backbone and compassion ensures that it is applied in a way that is caring, respectful and kind.

Finally, I must reiterate that attitudes can’t be legislated. They must be inculcated. We can’t simply order people, “You must be courageous. You must be truthful. You must be compassionate.” We must show them how, by demonstrating courage, truthfulness and compassion ourselves in our everyday actions. We must remember that people listen with their eyes. They don’t care what we say, until they see what we do.

O! Teacher stop teaching

O! Teacher stop teaching

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

http://drkroiss.com/page21.html

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

First of all, your own.

Learning how to learn

Learning how to learn

Alvin Toffler, the author of ‘Future Shock’ said something very interesting. He said, “The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn.” I want to begin with this quote as I consider it perhaps the most important for us to reflect on. I would disagree with only one thing in this quote; I wouldn’t say, ‘The illiterate of the 21st century’; I would say, ‘The illiterate of any time are those who cannot learn, unlearn and relearn.’

I say, ‘Pain is inevitable. Learning from it is optional. Repetition is the price of not learning.’

Learning and even more relearning, is a key survival skill as well as the single most important skill that any person can learn and continue to remain adept in, if he wants to be and remain successful throughout his life. I will tell you in a minute why I say that relearning is even more important. But first something about learning.

Learning is not exclusive to humans. Every living thing learns. Plants learn, animals, birds, reptiles, amphibians, fish, all learn. And they use that learning to change their behavior, techniques to hunt prey or evade predators, get access to the best pastures, times to flower, fruit, procreate and so on. All adaptation is a result of species learning.

Learning is the result of a fundamental quality and that is curiosity. Sadly, that is almost the first thing that our traditional so-called education destroys. The second is imagination. Both are critical to learning but our schooling is not concerned about learning. Only about memorizing and regurgitating. Anyway, that is another matter. To return to curiosity, we learn when we actively choose to be curious. To be curious is to accept that we don’t know. Curiosity is a quality. It is not content specific. A curious person is curious about everything and so is constantly learning. Curiosity is about asking questions. To ask why and how, even more than what. I recall an incident that happened with me in 1983 which taught me a very big lesson about the importance and value of curiosity.

The tea I planted in the Anamallais

I had just joined tea planting in South India as an Assistant Manager in Sheikalmudi Estate in the Anamallais, when my uncle Hasanuddin Ahmed and my aunt, Husnara Aunty decided to visit me. I was delighted both to have someone from my family visit me and also because they were both very dear to me. After they arrived and we’d had a cup of tea, served very stylishly by my butler, Bastian, we went for a short walk down the path leading out from the bungalow. The path, like all paths in tea was lined with tea bushes. As we walked along, Hasan uncle asked me to explain the tea cultivation and manufacturing process. I was very happy to show off my new-found knowledge and gave him a quick account of it all, from plucking to final packing. He listened attentively and then plucked two or three tea shoots and asked me, “If you simply boil these, what happens?” I was stumped. I had no idea. I had never done such a thing.

What struck me like a thump on the head was that this simple question had never occurred to me. “What happens if you simply boil green tea leaves?” I was living in the middle of tea fields and didn’t know the answer to his simple question. The reason was not lack of intelligence or opportunity to learn. It was simply a lack of curiosity. I lay that at the feet of schooling which tells us just to accept whatever we are told and never to ask anything outside of that boundary. I am sure my teachers had never boiled green tea leaves to see what happens to them or what the brew would taste like. Naturally there would be many who would scoff at the ‘stupid’ question. “Why would you even want to do such a thing?” they would ask. None of them would understand that it had nothing to do with boiling tea leaves but with asking questions outside the boundary of the known. Needless to say, I picked a few shoots, boiled them and discovered that they tasted like boiled green leaves and not like tea. But that is not the point. The point is that I learned the value of curiosity and that helped me throughout my life ever since. One example of that was that when I went to rubber planting and manufacture in 1991, I saw that processed rubber was hung to dry in large sheds and they relied on cross ventilation to do the job. That was erratic to say the least and any delay in drying resulted in fungus formation on the rubber sheets which reduced their quality and price.

So, I asked a question. What happens if we install withering fans from a tea factory in a rubber drying shed? Nobody had an answer. It had never been done though many of the major rubber planting companies also had tea estates and used those fans in the tea estates, but nobody had thought of using them in rubber. That didn’t mean that I was a genius. It just meant that I had asked a question which anyone could have asked but didn’t. We promptly ordered a couple of old fans and installed them and loed and beheld that they changed the way rubber sheets were dried. I am not sure who else did this in their factories but if they want to know where the idea came from, it was New Ambadi Estate, when I was the Manager in 1991-93. Learning comes from curiosity and so curiosity should be strongly inculcated and supported. We must create an atmosphere of asking questions and every question, no matter how outlandish or stupid it may sound, should be allowed, respected and valued and the questioner must be encouraged to find its answer.

Which brings me to the question of relearning.   

We humans are not unique in learning. What makes us unique is what we do with learning and that is to take learning from one area, one context, one situation, one part of life and apply it to a completely different time, place and situation. What enables us to do that is conceptualization. Conceptualization is perhaps the absolute essence of learning to the extent that I am prepared to say that the one who doesn’t conceptualize has not learnt. No matter how much experience (happenings) he has, he learns only when and if he conceptualizes. That is why the old adage, “Experience is not what happens to you but what you do with what happens to you.” What you do, refers to conceptualization. In my practice as an Executive Coach and Mentor, this is what I focus on. I ask one simple question: ‘So what?’ Meaning, ‘So what did you learn?’ Sometimes I see shock on the face of my clients when after listening to them pouring out their hearts about their experiences, they hear me ask, ‘So what?’ It even sounds rude. I know that and I use it for its shock value. People don’t think until you shock them. So, I ask, ‘So what?’ and then I ask, ‘So what did you learn?’ Usually, the answer is, ‘Nothing. I am so busy reveling in my own misery, anger, grief or even happiness that I learnt nothing.’ And that is the problem. I don’t learn because I don’t conceptualize and so I gain nothing from that experience in my life.

Why does this happen? It happens because learning is often painful. To learn we need to distance ourselves from the emotional aspects of the experience and view it objectively and extract lessons, some of them, very painful to accept. However, these are often the most valuable. We don’t like to accept them because to do so, we need to accept that we were wrong. But all change begins with accepting the need to change, which is to say, ‘I was wrong.’ Why else would you change? That is the third quality that we need to learn; humility. When one is humble one feels the pain of accepting his mistake but is saved from the consequences of that mistake which are always far more serious and painful.

There is an old teaching story about a learned professor who decided that he needed to do something about his spiritual development. So, he went to a Sufi Master and requested him to accept him as his student. The Master nodded accent and then took up an empty pot and went to the well in his yard. The new student accompanied him. At the well, the Master put the pot on the wall of the well and drew water from the well and poured it into the pot. The pot filled up quickly but the Master kept drawing water and pouring it into the pot. Seeing this the professor was at first surprised, then irritated and then exasperated. Almost in desperation, he blurted out, “That pot is full. It can’t take in anymore! Can’t you see that?” The Master smiled at him, picked up the pot and as he walked back into the house, said, “And that is your case.” The professor realized that what he needed to do was to empty his mind of what he knew, scale down his ego about being a professor and approach the Master as a humble student.

The three critical qualities for learning are therefore, curiosity, conceptualization and humility.

Perseverance is the key

The last one is the willingness to get out of our comfort zone. That is perhaps the most difficult one and that is the reason why even people who have been doing something one way and realize that there is a better way, never try the new way because they are too comfortable in the old way and don’t want to take the pain of the new way. Ask anyone who is trying to improve his drive, in golf or learning public speaking or change the way he or she reacts to irritation. Anyone who has tried to re-train people will swear that training someone who doesn’t know is far easier than re-training someone who knew that tool or trade but did it differently. This is very visible also in the case of speech accents. People who learn a language for the first time, do it correctly and more easily and quickly than those who learned to speak in a particular way and then want to change the way they speak and pronounce words.

The problem is that when we try to learn anything new, our efficiency goes down. Whether it is a new language or a new phone; learning to use it means that for a while you are going to be less efficient. That is painful. When I switched from a Blackberry to a Nokia touchscreen phone, it was misery until I got used to the touchscreen. I used to type on a Blackberry with one thumb. On a touchscreen, it played havoc with my typing for many days. I hated it but had no alternative because Blackberries had become defunct. As they say the rest is history. That is the learning curve. Mentally therefore, if you wish to relearn, focus on two things: remember that it will be painful and that the result will be brilliant. That will help you to get through the area of pain and start benefiting from the new way. That is perseverance. The ability to see what the change will get you while you are going through the pain of learning.

Final recap: Curiosity, Conceptualization, Humility and Perseverance. These are the four key ingredients for the most important skill that we need to have and keep intact and practice all our lives; the ability to learn continuously.