There are two things which even the best upbringing and education cannot provide: a remedy for madness and a gene for quick adaptation.
Following centuries of rule by monarchs, minorities, capitalists and colonialists, both India in 1947 and South Africa in 1994 spluttered into an uneasy democracy. But not before countless deaths and lots of talking. In a few days of nervous expectation, aeons of adapted social systems were transformed. It was like an infant running a marathon before learning how to walk.
It was madness before adaptation.
Decades after the illusion of freedom, these countries are still plagued by the pains of poor adaptation: corruption, overarching socialism, nepotism and state-supported ethnic strife.
Unlike Singapore, Taiwan and South Korea which implemented economic and people-centreed growth policies, India is no economic Asian Tiger – and South Africa has become the whimper of a wounded lamb rather than the roar of an African lion.
These may be the consequence of gullible voters, disenabling laws, poor economic policies and weak leadership. But these afflictions are also the result of flawed constitutions, overflowing with idealism and abundant promises, rather than the promise of abundance.
If you journey to central Gujarat State in rural India, you may find a stream running into the Punar River in the small city of Navsari. Looking down from the bridge, it is easy to transport oneself to a similar bridge at the lower end of African Street in Grahamstown. Stray dogs and livestock wandering unattended near filth lined banks. A mix of litter and sewage compete for the limited flow space. Close by, the omnipresent sweat of politics and power compete for elusive jobs and resources.
The late Dr Issy Katzeff explained how all humans suffer from mental illness; delusions, mania, depression, schizophrenia and even belief (accepting the existence of something without proof). ‘It’s just the intensity and duration that vary between people,’ he would say. And 19th century Darwin proposed it is not the strongest or most intelligent of the species which survives, but the most adaptable.
My particular madness before adaptation surfaces on international journeys. For some reason, I cannot use the bar fridge facilities in hotel rooms. The idea of a small packet of jelly beans costing more than the average daily wage of a South African worker is disruptive. It makes me manic. I cannot use hotel laundry services either – they cause me delusions; after converting to local currency, the washing and ironing of a few clothes can cost the same as providing basic foodstuffs to feed a family for a month.
On a trip to India to negotiate a product supply contract, I was met at New Delhi airport by Darpak Bhaduri*. Bhaduri and his father Mitu* owned one of the largest mineral supply companies in India. It was a complex transaction involving shipping, bulk handling and foreign exchange contracts. Asian hospitality is legendary. One is made to feel quite special.
‘Everything is paid – you not worrying,’ said Mr. Bhaduri. I was whisked away in air-conditioned luxury to their manufacturing operation, and then flown first class to the Kolkata headquarters. When I wanted to make a hotel reservation, my hosts would have none of it. They booked me at their expense into the Hyatt Regency Hotel, a palatial five-star oasis in the midst of poverty and squalour. The opulent service was 24/7, and the room stocked with the finest imported snacks and drinks – and of course, the ubiquitous laundry request list.
The madness set in almost immediately. I drank the complimentary bottled water only and requested some washing powder from the housekeeper. Just before bedtime, I would hand-wash my clothes and place them near the air-conditioning vent to dry. The following morning suits and shirts would be hung up in the bathroom. The shower was switched on and after a few minutes of steaming, the garments were wrinkle-free.
Some sightseeing, a Premier League cricket match, wining and dining interrupted the stress of several days of difficult negotiations. The younger Mr Bhaduri would translate for his father who spoke Bengali, peppered with the occasional common technical term. Before responding in English, heated discussions would ensue between son and father. A few translated words could take several minutes of interpretation and intense analysis.
We had deadlocked on price and value, which a child arguing for pocket-money can understand completely.
Exasperated, Mitu Bhaduri mumbled something to his son who turned to me “Mr Ron, we are not understanding – is problem with hotel, because checking bill seems you dislike snacks and drinks from room?”
“Not at all, I responded, your hospitality is most generous, but I have a brain problem and cannot waste your money on these pricey items.”
Darpak smiled nervously and bobbed his head. “In fact, I continued, there are no laundry bills either – I am troubled with the charges for laundry service, so clothes are washed in the bathroom sink.”
Darpak Bhaduri’s bobbing head froze. He seemed stunned whilst translating to his father. Several moments of whispering passed. Had the madness which Dr Katzeff told me about insulted my hosts?
A curious thing then occurred. Both father and son placed their hands in a Mudra praying position and faced me. ‘Mr Ron, our greatest apologies. You have humbled yourself in front of us as a washer woman of the lowest caste. This is of highest regard. You are now like our beloved Bapuji (Mahatma Gandhi) and as such, there is no further negotiation. You will tell us the price as our brother and we accept this price with your grace.’
The rest of the stay was spent in the sheer delight of a family reunion. I was invited to the Bhaduri home and introduced to the family. We ate with our fingers, chewed paan and my son became their son and my wife became their sister. Darpak renamed me ‘Uncle’ and a local lady with similar proportions to my wife was found to accompany us on a shopping spree for fine garments to take back to South Africa.
Charles Darwin died in 1882, just before the social engineers took his theories to both heart and state. Since then, our leaders have intensely legislated the adaptation of nature to suit humans. Was it madness or a spectacular triumph?
Today, there are 7.5 billion hominids on planet Earth (and six weightless souls in space), with a life expectancy 40 years greater than in the 19th century.
In Makana’s summer heat, officials in a bankrupt municipality earnestly discuss the 75% unemployment rate in air-conditioned offices. What more can they regulate to adapt nature? A newly-formed committee of MBAs will report.
Oh, how human we animals are?
(*not their real names)
- Ron Weissenberg is an international citizen and Grahamstown resident who started his first business at age 7. He is a Certified Director (SA) and mentors people and their enterprises.