Mad­ness Be­fore Adap­ta­tion... the Hu­man MBA


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 fives­tar 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 com- pli­men­tary 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 air­con­di­tion­ing 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 un­der­stand- ing - 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 new­ly­formed 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.

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