Diamonds Beneath His Feet

February 21, 2014

     Sagar (L) and I (R) at Rani Studios

   Sagar (L) and I (R) at Rani Studios

Narayan Das, was a young man with big dreams. Narayan arrived in Beani Bazar with his Olympus SLR camera to make his dream come true. He was single and he was hungry. He had heard that Sylhet was wealthy with foreigners and their money. He had heard that these foreigners were Bangladeshis who lived abroad in the Middle East, UK and USA and every few years they visited their towns and villages. He heard that many of these overseas Bangladeshis were single males and during their trips many would find a bride and get married.

So armed with this information, his camera and several thousand Takas he decided to seek his El Dorado in the northeast of Bangladesh. He arrived in the mid 1980’s and decided to set-up shop in Beani Bazar as a photographer.

Initially he rented a pokey little shop on a side street off the main road and he slept in his shop to save on rent for accommodation. Narayan laid out his services by taking passport photos, family portraits and hired his skills as a wedding photographer.

Even though he got his business going with relative ease he faced a challenge purely because of his religious belief. Narayan was a follower of Hinduism in a predominantly Muslim country. Even though there were Hindu families in Beani Bazar many of them had fled during the 1947 partition of India, Pakistan and East Pakistan (the latter was to become Bangladesh in 1971).

With the departure of British rule in India, borders were drawn based broadly on religious grounds. The two major groups of Muslims were geographically located in the West and in the East of the Indian sub-continent. These demarcations were arbitrarily drawn up by a lawyer – Sir Cyril Radcliffe from England within five weeks of arriving in India, and without a clue about the sensitivities of the people’s lives and lands he carved up. Even to this day those borderlines cause violence and death on an unprecedented scale; with border crossing deaths between Bangladesh and India. Sectarian violence in Kashmir, border disputes between India and China. Denial of the legitimacy of Rohingya’s as legal citizens of Myanmar (formerly Burma) by their own government, accusing them of being illegal Bangladeshi migrants.

Bangladesh in the mid-80’s was only fifteen years old as a fledgling nation. During the war of independence in 1971 more people who followed Hinduism fled to India voluntarily and forcibly as some Muslims took the opportunity to force Hindus off their lands either killing them or driving them out. As such Hindus were still seen as second-class citizens in a country for which they too fought for independence against the occupying Pakistani forces.

Even though Beani Bazar was a more tolerant part of Bangladesh there were occasions when some Muslims would treat Narayan derogatorily. This handicap for Narayan did not deter him and he persisted with his business. He found other Hindu families in the surrounding villages with whom he became friends. However he made closer links with Muslim businessmen and local bigwigs.

As his business flourished there were other competitors who set up shop in town, however Narayan’s business went from strength to strength. So much so he brought two of his younger brothers from Chittagong to help him grow the business. He moved into larger premises on the main trunk road running through the town and decided to rent a house in one of the surrounding villages.

He stumbled upon my dad’s place where there was a small empty house that he rented. My dad’s property was deep in the village of Shupatola, it was surrounded by a six feet wall and very peaceful. Narayan’s Rani Studios became our family photographer and also our family’s videographer. He named the business Rani in honour of his mother.

With success the call came for Narayan to get married which he did dutifully according to his parent’s wishes by finding a bride in Chittagong who moved to be with him. His children were born in the house he rented from my dad.

Over the years he opened two further photo and video studios in Beani Bazar town, he invested in his own photo processing machines as well as video editing facilities. He invested in agricultural land and was saving towards purchasing land in Shupatola to build his own house.

Eventually his immediate younger brother Ashok married and brought his wife over too. His third brother moved to Kolkata and his youngest brother and sister joined him in Beani Bazar. When Narayan's sister Mita got married she cried not only for leaving her family but for going away forever from my dad's place. For her our place had become her home and even to this day loves coming back to visit.

Initially Narayan’s view was to stay for a couple of years on property, however that stay was to become more than a quarter of a century. They became part of our family and the caretaker of my dad’s property. His youngest brother Sagar Das became my brother’s best friend in Bangladesh. Whenever my parents or I would return to Bangladesh Narayan would lay on a feast and invite us to his house to dinner. His shop became my hangout spot in town where copious amounts of tea was drunk (see picture below).

Sagar upon finishing high school joined his brother into the family business as did Narayan’s son Diph. In 2010 Narayan purchased a plot of land in Shupatola and by 2012 he had moved out of our property. He had further expanded his business in another town twenty five miles away, which was being run by his nephew.

The story of Narayan is my own experience of the book Acres of Diamonds, instead of seeking his fortune in faraway lands Narayan found his success and realised his dreams in the country of his birth.

Speak and Let Your Voice Grace the Airwaves

January 25, 2014

  Sergei being awarded the Best Speaker ribbon by Ellie

Sergei being awarded the Best Speaker ribbon by Ellie

Life challenges us in many different ways. These can come from anywhere and anytime, some people refer to them as curve-balls others call them lemons. Some people make the proverbial lemonade and others are crushed unable to overcome those challenges.

Many people are born with challenges. Such challenges could lead to vilification and ostracization by society and even loved ones. People born with certain physical challenges are picked on at school and to succeed in life they need to expend far more energy, effort and dedication. To 'never give up' is their motto, to battle on in their lone struggle until they prevail and overcome their adversities.

A fellow Toastmaster at The Canary Wharf Communicators in London inspired me to write this story about his own challenge. A challenge that he was born with, a challenge that he was not aware of until he was aware of himself interacting with others during his high school years. A challenge that he overcame through sheer grit and determination.

This story is about Sergei Romanov a fellow Toastmaster I had the honor of listening to from his first speech through to his ribbon winning impromptu speeches. Speaking for Sergei in English and particularly in a Toastmaster environment was a doubly hard challenge let alone in his native tongue. This was because Sergei was afflicted with a speech impediment, namely a severe case of stuttering.

Sergei is from the city of Zaporizhzhya, Ukraine. A city in southeast of the country and a place that I was not too far from when I was working in Ukraine in 2007. During early spring of that year I was on a project in an iron ore mining plant in the city of Komsomolsk which is approximately 150 miles northwest of Sergei's home city.

Sergei does not remember exactly when he realized he had a stutter, but it was during his high school years that he noticed something was seriously wrong. So aged fifteen he started to research about this affliction, reading every book, article and information he could get his hand on. His stuttering was so strong that even though he knew the words he could not say them. The more he wanted to speak the greater the resistance he encountered within. He felt there was a shadow inside that prevented him from speaking. He was gripped by a further fear that people would find out about his 'shadow'. He kept his 'shadow' hidden and a secret not telling others about it for fear of being bullied.

He saw numerous doctors and specialists for many years, but nothing worked. Official sources told him that stuttering could not be treated. However, he did not give up, he had a strong belief that he could overcome his impediment no matter what.

During his university years he continued to search for a solution until he came across a therapist in Moscow, Russia. Being a student in Zaporizhzhya meant that he could not afford such an expense and making the trip was unrealistic. As a student he worked at several jobs to put himself through his studies, therefore he did not have the airfare and therapists fees needed to fly to Moscow and get treated.

Not one to give up he began applying for jobs in Moscow and with lady luck favoring his persistence he was offered a job in the city. Without thinking twice he took the opportunity and moved to Russia. Two months into his job he had saved enough to pay for the therapist.  The therapy was tough and it required him to learn a new way of speaking using a holistic approach  to change not only his speech but also his whole personality.

The root of the problem for Sergei was the fear that others would find out that he had a speech impediment. Throughout his whole life he has been trying to hide it and pretend the be 'normal'. His biggest challenge was to be open about his secret, to tell people about his 'shadow'.  He was advised by his therapist to tell everyone, literally anyone he knew or met for the first time. He had to state "I'm being treated for stuttering".

For Sergei this was the hardest thing he had ever done, causing panic attacks and anxiety that almost caused him to have a psychological breakdown. However, he knew this was his only chance of overcoming the problem of stuttering. So for one year he took on the therapist's advice and put to practice all of her suggestions and ideas. Apart from speaking slowly he also had to practice two to four hours every day for six months. This involved relaxation, breathing, voice training, reading and tongue twisters among others. He also had to practice speaking in every possible situation; he had to ask ten random people in the street ten random questions, had to call ten random people on the phone from adverts or placements in newspapers. He was asked to speak to as many people as possible in public and the more random the better. He went into shops to buy products only to return them in order to engage in conversation. He went for job interviews without ever intending to take the job. All of this was to help him speak without stuttering and overcome primarily his fear of what others might say or think.

After one year of therapy he had reached a point where he was able to speak without fear, having beaten his internal demons and banished the 'shadow' to the dark recesses of his mind. His life changed forever and he felt a freedom he had not experienced. This divided his life in two, the Sergei before and the Sergei after. He really thought his stuttering had gone for good and he was normal just like any other person who spoke unimpeded. How wrong was he?

In 2009 Sergei moved to England and it all came crashing down. A crack appeared in the dungeon of his mind where the 'shadow' still lurked. He struggled to speak in English without stuttering, all the while his confidence got knocked as people laughed and made jokes of his affliction. At the same time the 'shadow' got stronger and stronger and over the two years since arriving into England it was back in its entirety, beating the drums of doubt and fear inside Sergei's mind.

He visited several London therapists and was told stuttering was officially incurable in Europe. He did not believe them and refused to give in, whilst continually fighting the 'shadow'. He returned back to his Moscow therapist and began another course of speech rehabilitation. This time the psychological battles were easier but vocally harder as it was in English. Sergei flew to Moscow every month for four days of therapy. People he knew would say, "Wow! that's dedication".

The dedication was the easy bit, what knocked his confidence was people's perception of him. He was viewed like an idiot not included in conversations, being insulted and outright ignored. He nearly lost all hope of fixing his stuttering in English, but refused to accept failure. Eventually after four months of travelling back and forth from Moscow he began to see a chink of light in the 'shadow'. To get more practice of speaking in English Sergei approached schools and stuttering clinics in London, none would give him the opportunity. However, he soldiered on and found alternative solutions by joining meetup groups, going for job interviews and giving presentations at work as well as seeking other opportunities to speak in English.

Sergei then came across Toastmasters and joined The Canary Wharf Communicators in April 2013. He joined a further two more clubs. I had the opportunity to watch Sergei give his first speech and to say it was "moving" would be an understatement. He has so far completed ten speeches, five in each of the two manuals with Toastmasters, namely the Competent Communicator and the Competent Leader.

I asked Sergei what else he is doing to help himself. His words are;

"Complete dedication. There are only two rules; every time you open your mouth you practice your speech and you open your mouth as often as possible".

For Sergei his story has not finished yet and every challenge he overcomes a greater person he will become.

The Welsh Kitesurfer

October 13, 2013

                                  Chapel Croft B&B in Biddulph Moor

                                Chapel Croft B&B in Biddulph Moor

It was summer 2003 and I was working on a construction project in a small English town called Biddulph in Staffordshire. I was commuting weekly driving up at the crack of dawn on a Monday and driving back down to London on a Friday afternoon. Fortunately I love driving and even to this day if I hear of a road trip my ears prick up and my eyes light up. So the commute by car was not a chore but a pleasure.

Whilst up in Biddulph me and a fellow consultant were staying at a bed and breakfast on Biddulph Moor called Chapel Croft. The town was so small there were no hotels let alone any of the international brands. The nearest big city was Stoke-On-Trent and the drive there did not appeal to us at all. The little B&B was tucked away among farms and cottages leading up to the Moor. Paddocks and pastures lined the route and there was one country pub that became our dining venue for the three-month duration we were there. The landscape and scenery could have been akin to the Yorkshire Moors straight out of Emily Bronte's Wuthering Heights. The drive up to the B&B would take us past farms with quintessentially English names such as Dingle Brook Farm, Thorn Tree Farm and Three Nooks Farm among others. The lane names led me to think J.R.R. Tolkien probably spent time here to get inspiration for The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings. Names such as 'Over-the-Hill' and 'Under-the-Hill' as well as 'Dingle Lane' were everywhere you turned.

Our landlady was a retiree and she would prepare a cooked breakfast for us every day of toast, eggs, beans, mushrooms, tomatoes and anything else you fancied. I avoided the Black Pudding but occasionally would indulge in some cooked meat. I was on a strict diet at the time as I was training for the London Marathon in April 2004. My colleague lovingly named the lady Mrs. Miggins attributed to her grandmotherly demeanor and loving, caring attitude towards us and another guest who were a fixture at her farmhouse.

The third guest was a young engineer who was a client staff member on the construction project. He would also commute by car every week from the Welsh coastal town of Llandudno (pronounced "chlan-DUD-no"). He was in his late twenties and an avid kite surfer. He would join us at breakfast and then in the evenings on some nights for dinner. He would tell us no matter what the weather he would be out in his wet-suit kitesurfing the cold turbulent waters off the Welsh coast.

I would relay to him my love of running, as he would see me run along the top of Biddulph Moor every morning at 6am in training for the marathon. Come rain or shine I would be out there, we both called each other mad but became good friends due to our passions. Over the course of my time there I came to understand that he was not too happy with being an engineer. He had studied at Bangor University which was about twenty miles from Llandudno and even though enjoyed engineering he did not feel satisfied or fulfilled.

At the time I was studying for my coaching certification with The Coaching Academy and I wanted a live client (pro bono) to coach over a period of time. My young engineer friend willingly accepted and we began a program of eight coaching sessions. The key model that I used was the GROW coaching technique which essentially helps the individual find their own answers. The GROW acronym stands for:

  1. Goal - this is whereby the individual determines the goal in mind. I used other questions to concrete his answers and what those goals meant to him.
  2. Reality - this is to understand their current reality in relation to their goal, i.e. to determine a starting point.
  3. Options - this is the fun bit, where I asked my friend to list out all the possibilities if anything was achievable.
  4. Will - this is whereby I got him to commit to some form of action, i.e. I got a commitment from him to take the first step towards realizing his goal, No matter how small he needed to take the first step.

Over the course of eight weeks we would meet and I would coach him two or three times a week to ensure he did not falter and was on the path to achieving his goal.

About three weeks before the end of my engagement I turn up on site and my engineer friend has a surprise for me. He states that with my help he was going to bring his goal forward by six months. I inquired further and was told that he was leaving the job and going to fulfill firstly his goal that I had worked with him on and then his lifelong dream.

Sure enough at around the time I left he disappeared west to Llandudno and that was the last I saw of him. So what was his goal and his lifelong dream?

Well his goal was to be a professional kitesurfer and his dream was to have a kitesurfing business teaching people how to kitesurf, own a shop that sold kitesurfing gear and make the sport available to a wider audience.

That was my first real life encounter of someone having the gumption to take that leap of faith and follow their dreams. The great thing about going for your goals and dreams, it's never too late.