Sunday, June 14, 2020

O The People we meet...

I’ve traveled a lot and encountered people in different parts of the world. Each encounter in some ways has shaped my worldview. Recently, the ongoing racial protests and incidents made me reflect on some of those experiences. I am sharing three experiences from the time I was in the corporate world. They date back 30 years. The faces in these memories are hazy, the names altered and in two cases I am not sure of the exact dates. But I think they are relevant today so hopefully it will be worth the few minutes you take to read them.

1992. Or maybe 1993. I had landed at the Cairo airport in Egypt. I found that a nationwide strike had been called and that my meetings would be delayed. I was young and reckless. So, instead of hunkering in my hotel, I found a driver willing to take me to Alexandria and set off for the three-hour drive. In the heat of the summer, we were driving through the Sahara Desert when our car broke down The highways were deserted because of the strike but finally, an old farmer in a beaten pickup truck trundled along and towed us to a nearby village. The only mechanic in the village agreed to look at our car and we found that our oil pump had blown with no hope for an early replacement part.

I was seated outside the shop, nervously considering my options, when I saw a large bearded Arab driving up in a truck. He looked angry and was gesticulating wildly. I was overcome by my stereotypical fears. The man got out of the truck, looked at me and directed foul invective at me. I was scared. But wait ... how did I know these were curses? And I realized I was being showered with extreme profanities in Punjabi (a language spoken in the North West of India and one that boasts some incredibly creative curse words). The man charged at me... and then hugged me. He drove us to Alexandria and then back to Cairo. I learnt he had worked in Dubai and shared his apartment with two Sikhs (people from Punjab in India). They had become very close and taught him Punjabi (apparently the curse words were all they taught him). And when he heard there was an Indian stuck in a nearby village he wanted to help. Simply because of those two Sikh workers, who years ago had lived with him. I remember ruefully shaking my head about my invocation of stereotypical images when the bearded Arab in this remote village was coming at me. This was a wonderfully genuine man but of a different race and religion. He was simply repaying a favor he felt he owed his two foreign roommates. Something, if I had been in his place, I hope I would have done too.

April 27, 1993. Sometime in the late afternoon I landed at Lusaka’s International Airport in Zambia. Peter, a massive man with a broad smile, was driving the car I had arranged for my visit. He could not stop talking about the young Zambian Football team. They had beaten Italy in the Olympics a few years ago and were hoping to qualify for their first ever World Cup. The team was on its way to Senegal to play an important match. I listened politely and then checked in to my hotel, telling Peter to come in early the next day. I woke up early, dressed and went down to the lobby. Peter was late. I glanced around and noticed an air of gloom. I ignored the newspapers and the TVs in the lobby (stupid mistake for an international business traveler, but I was young). I was thinking of ways to get in touch with Peter (no cell phones then) when I saw him drive up. The smiling man of yesterday looked sad and angry. The plane carrying the Zambian National Football team had crashed. The whole team was dead. He cursed everyone. The Government....God and the bad luck that plagued his country. The smiling man of yesterday was openly crying and desolate because his beloved team was no more. Something I may have done if my favorite cricket team had met a similar fate. And I realized that this giant man of a different skin color and race was just like me.

Sometime in late 1991. I think. I was a young MBA who had been asked to develop a market for paper products in Bangladesh. I had done well, and sales were good. That morning, my documentation person came up to me and showed me an order we had just executed. A shipment of paper had left our factory and was headed to a company in Dhaka. Everything seemed in order – there was a confirmed letter of credit that had been opened by the customer -till I looked at the sale price. I had accidentally offered the product at a significantly lower price – we would make a loss on this order and I had never been authorized to give that sort of a discount. I could be in trouble.

The proprietor of the printing press was Mr. Khan. I met him on my first ever visit to Bangladesh. That first visit was initially stressful. My parents and their parents had lived through the catastrophic partition of India – when the Muslim majority areas of British India were partitioned into West and East Pakistan (later Bangladesh). The ensuing violence killed millions sowing deep discords between Indians and Pakistanis and stories about the evil on the ‘other side’ widely circulated in my childhood (unfortunately they do so today too). I remember feeling nervous as I walked to my appointments in the narrow lanes of Dhaka (Bangladesh’s capital). Ultimately, business was business and I put on a smile and met with potential customers. And found they were welcoming and .... just like any other person I dealt with. But Mr. Khan was special. An older man, well educated and pious. He was a hard negotiator and our meetings stretched long. In many of my meetings he would excuse himself to offer the ‘Salat’ – the five daily Muslim prayers. He always made sure that during that time I had a hot cup of tea and special home-made cookies. His entire demeanor radiated piety and goodness. Over the next few visits, I was invited to his house for meals and chatted with him on politics and life. Nevertheless, when I called him, I braced myself for protests and pushback when I told him I had invoiced him incorrectly. He listened graciously. Then without any questions he said he understood and if I sent him a revised invoice, he would ensure we received the correct payment. And I dodged a bullet in my young corporate career.

A few weeks later I was in Bangladesh and met Mr. Khan for tea. I proffered my thanks for his graciousness. He patted my shoulder. “I’ve lived a long life through good and bad times. I hope I never have to explain to Allah that I cheated someone or took advantage of another person’s honest mistake.” This older man, from another country, and another religion, lived a life that I aspired to. It was humbling.

Looking back at my childhood, I grew up in a less connected world where the internet did not constantly provide us information. People we grew up with were homogeneous and rumors hard to disprove. And these generated suspicions about people who were different from me. This was the world I had grown up in when I started travelling the world. And I met many people from different continents, nations, and races. A funny thing happened along the way. I found these people were not different at all. In all parts of the world I found good people. People who just wanted to do an honest day’s work and take care of their families. People who wanted to live their lives with dignity and respect. People who said similar things and aspired to the same joys. And yes, people who would never expect to get killed because of their race or religion or caste. In today’s hyper-connected world this should be self-evident but every day I shake my head in amazement. At the fact that we need demonstrations and protests to gain acceptance for what should be obvious – that we are all ONE. Perhaps, more people need to get that hug from that Egyptian man (and his two Sikh roommates I never knew) or share the pain experienced by Peter in Zambia or encounter the spiritual simplicity of Mr. Khan. We’ll all be better for it.