Foundation to a Chateau in the Sky

Your living is determined not so much by what life brings to you as by the attitude you bring to life; not so much by what happens to you as by the way your mind looks at what happens
Kahlil Gibran

In the beginning twists, turns, depths and drops weren’t in the agenda of droplets just oozed out of a fountain. They were yet to be formed in to a brook which is the adolescence of a fountain. Yet it hasn’t formed in to a river and for that mammoth task it got to flow countless miles. The characteristic beauty we admire in a river is being dictated by the terrain it flows through and not primarily by the water it carries. Nature is such!

Traces of this dogma could be observed in human life. Humans let destiny chisel their lives, because it is effortless and less-burdensome. This is because many aren’t result-oriented. So their lives flow inertly taking whatever courses and shapes the eventful life dictates. Like a driftwood in a sea with no shore in mind, they adrift. But there is a minority goes the other way around chiselling their destinies. This is indeed a mammoth task as it demands lifelong discipline to the core and perseverance under countless drawbacks. It is somewhat like a river planning its course as it pleases.

I have found an iconic figure who chiselled his own life as he pleases. Our very first meeting revealed a determined self-believer with-in Zeyan Mohamed Hashim. He was supervising one of his customary gem and mineral exhibitions in Santa Barbara California. Zeyan beamed at me as known for ages when introduced myself. Looking fresh under the Californian summer he nodded with a broad smile indicating he was expecting me. He encouraged me to join the throng of viewers before interviewing him. “See me through my gems’’ he said philosophically.

He displayed no symptoms of lethargy when mobbed by the viewers who showered him with questions. Wide array of cut-outs and photos depicting Sri Lankan gems and various stages in gem mining made the exhibition an educational event rather than a commercial one. I saw a pragmatic man within him. Looking at the crowd he commented he wasn’t there to lecture like a preacher, but to aggravate their enthusiasm, so they would deepen their passion in gems in their leisure. It was fascinating to watch the wide eyed viewers staring at his rare gems and minerals.

He wasn’t interested when asked his background but well focused and resourceful when asked anything related to gems and minerals. What matters here is gems and not me, he said gravely leaving no further space for me to dig in. History of Sri Lankan gems goes deeper than one could imagine, he said. “Why me?’’, he asked looking in to my eyes still smiling. “Theme of the exhibition is gems and not me.’’

Our brief conversation had revealed an exponent of gems within the ever-smiling man.
Present gem mining exhibits the hallmarks of indigenous methods used by the pristine Sri Lankan minors; he said standing next to his cut-outs. The mining, lapidary methods and the trade tools haven’t changed much so far. This indicates Sri Lankan mining society favour the inherited indigenous knowhow than the up-to-date technology. His in-depth knowledge in gems and the country of his origin was spellbinding. Owe-stunning elaborations he produced of Sri Lanka’s pristine records in relation with gems were jaw dropping. I raised my eyebrows when heard the biblical King Solomon was said to have procured a stunning ruby for his queen Sheba from Sri Lanka, previously known as Ceylon. Traveller and explorer Marco Polo (1293 AD) wrote about the ruby that once graced the Ruwanweliseya Dagoba (a sacred Buddhist relic chamber) built in the 2nd century at Anuradhapura, an ancient Sri Lankan capital of North Central Sri Lanka. According to Mahavansa, the chronicle of Sri Lanka, the lord Buddha himself is said to have come to Sri Lanka from India to settle a dispute between two kings, Chulodara and Mahodara, over a throne of gems. Even the mighty kings had waged war for gems, he said seriously. Rattling armour for gems indicates how invaluable they were.

My outside investigations revealed a keen collector of gems and minerals within Zeyan. He had all the rights to do so for being a descendent of a Sri Lankan ancestry of renowned gem traders. The once nondescript boy who collected pebbles from the Mahaweli riverbed had turned in to a committed collector of gems and minerals. His could be one of the most significant collections of its kind in the world.

He was born in Colombo, the capital of Sri Lanka, as the second child of Abdul Rahuman Mohamed Hashim and Aysha Yoosuf. His late father Abdul Rahuman Mohamed Hashim was a rebel of his own accord. He had sidestepped from his family trade to live with his obsession of boxing which he picked up when schooling. Elders had knitted their eyebrows in dismay when realised young Hashim was perusing a cause where no other had dreamt of in their progeny. That was the period where the Ceylon Prisons Department was looking young blood with fighting spirit as recruits. His parents had no option, but nod sadly when young Hashim cringed joining the Ceylon Prisons Department as a jailor. Actually it wasn’t the khaki uniform he was fond of. He was looking forward a rich pasture for sharpening his rudimentary martial arts skills.

Time turned the healer for the age old feud. Time had forced Hashim to look at the depth of the cleavage created by his rebellious attitude. In the end Hashim realised he couldn’t shun the request of his elders any more. He had no option, but to leave the Prisons Department behind and join the family trade. He returned to the ancestral hometown of Gampola with his family and joined the competitive trade his family was doing for ages. Zeyan started his formal education from Zahira College in Gampola. Instead of returning home after school, he had cultivated a habit of loitering in the sandy beds of river Mahaweli which is the longest river of Sri Lanka looking for pebbles.

His obsession with gems had retarded his education. His lack of interest in formal education had made his parents uneasy. It turned a habit for him to stray in to the sales outlets of gem traders and showering the sales assistants with countless questions to extract the finer points of the trade. Soon young Zeyan was dubbed a window shopper by the city gem circle and a dreamer by his brothers and sisters. Having stretched over his bed and engrossed watching sunrays playing with his multicoloured pebbles stored in empty jam containers was his favourite pastime then.

This was the period he started his own charity inspired by the Islamic teachings. Charity begins at home, he believed. Less privileged are the ones vanquished by the extreme greed and lust, he thought. The idea of doing whatever he could to elevate their lives haunted him. First charity under his sole administration sprung when he was barely seventeen years old and the capital came from his pocket money.

Making boyish excuses by frequently pretending staying couple of days with friends never bothered his parents. The untold truth was he had laboured as a casual worker in remote gem pits to learn the life in the gem trade. He felt no pain labouring in the gem pits under the scorching sun or working prolonging hours immersed in muddy water. What important for him was extracting the first hand knowledge of the trade. Practicality was the essence of learning for him. Total exposure to the gem industry should start from the scratch was his conception. Identifying a mud coated gemstone in a split second was a trade skill he acquired while working in the gem pits. He favoured the hard way in life.

His inertness in education and inclination towards gems had pushed his parents’ to the end of their limit in patience. His genetics were pulsing within him, they would have thought, heavy with disappointment. In the end he was entrusted as an apprentice to the elders who were rich with gemmological knowledge. Young Zeyan had spent many years under the distinguished elders of his family learning gemmology. It was an ulterior methodology practiced by his progeny to secure the finer points and craftsmanship of the trade passed from one generation to another. Gemmology he learned under them was quite contrary to the principals upheld by other school engaged in gem trade in Sri Lanka.

Once picked up the essence, he was passed to the safe hands of his first cousins who were said to be the pioneers of the Sri Lankan gem trade. Seven hard years of working under different gurus had made him an expert in the field.

Embolden with the knowledge and expertise, he had sprung in to action like a phoenix emerged from the ash. Gushing desire to create a world of his own had made him busy as a bee. Zeyan started visiting Palmadulla, Rathnapura (gem town in Singhalese language) and Balangoda areas bustling with gem mining. He associated with all ranks in the mining trade and walked along inhospitable treks to reach mines in the shrub jungles. The young entrepreneur befriended with the small-scale gem miners who were looking for a trustworthy buyer at their easy reach. He started his own business when he was twenty nine years.

This was the period he started collecting rare gems and minerals. He enriched his collection through the rapport maintained with the miners. Zeyan developed a keen interest in Sri Lankan mineral deposits and started collecting specimens. Cordial relationship maintained with all ranks of the gem trade had hoisted him to a popular buyer in the region. This is a trade harnessed by trust and magnanimity. Gem trade was no more a white coaler profession, he argued. Zeyan pressed himself to learn the trade from scratch believing there is no short-cuts in gem trade. Utilising his pocket money, he bought less expensive gem stones to pacify his growing hunger in gems. Foundation for a lifelong career bloomed with slowly opening petals.

Once established within the country, he started exploring the global market. He had made several visits to France, Italy and Germany to open the European market he craved for. Hard work and perseverance made him a millionaire in five years. By 1990 he made several business trips to USA and Europe. He made it a point visiting Natural History Museums during most of his visits to the west. Busy business life hasn’t bothered, but acceded with his crave for the nature.

Gemmology, trade and extensive travelling played a major role in his life negating a life of his own. There’s no space for a woman in his life as he is married to gems, his family moaned. The most eligible bachelor of Zeyan clan wasn’t aware of a life other than gems. Discouraged traditional marriage brokers employed by the elders stepped back as convincing the groom wasn’t their role. It wasn’t the match brokers, but gems which paved way for his marriage. By knowing their superficial profiles, I assume that the passion of gems could be the cupid who shot the arrow in the end. And that was how he met Hafsah, a gemmology student.

I knew him as a keen art collector. Surprisingly he had diverted his attention toward miniature painting from abstracts and landscapes, which were his favourites. It was jaw-dropping when my eyes caught the Basholi miniature paintings from India were among his rich collection. Reproductions from Sri Lankan cave paintings lined the living room bringing the rich heritage of his country to the west. Bewitching Sigiriya celestials looked at me from the living room as pristine pinups. Iconic sharp primary colours which demanded attention were being substituted by tint and temperature derived colours. “Your taste is changing constantly,’’ I commented looking at his collection of painting. “Never deny the universal order’’ he smiled, looking at me. “We are subjected to constant change. Basically most of the gems were inorganic minerals and are you registering your displeasure for minerals transforming in to gems?’’ He looked at me contended after homing his point. “Change is a part of the process governing the universe but the change should be more towards the betterment, and not the other way around.’’ Apparently minerals had changed in to gems, but he hasn’t despite being a dad to four kids.

Picturesque and cosmopolitan British Columbia had stamped a full stop to the once habitual globe trotter sat facing me. Our conversation revealed previously unknown facets in Zeyan’s life. A committed nature lover hidden within him emerged slowly when our conversation trend towards his busy life style. Some of the prestigious Natural History Museums enjoyed his donations were his Project Stakeholders in educating the world of gems and minerals. That includes the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History in Washington D.C. His personnel collection of gems and minerals took me to a world I have never been before. “How could you part out of your priceless gems and minerals effortlessly ‘’I asked. “Educating the world is a priceless commitment’’ he said. In that context he has found it wasn’t hard donating some of his gems and minerals to a worthy cause. “Enjoyment I reap when watched people viewing my gems displayed in various museums was an invaluable experience. ‘’ he said in a contended voice.

According to him the sublime reason behind nature conservation is protecting the planet earth for the future generation. He sees a similarity in his donations and the aforesaid. Natural History Museums are the forerunners promoting the above conception and he got no hesitation donating his gems and minerals to establishments of such nature. “Conserve the Planet Earth and it will conserve us in return’’ is what he believes. He hasn’t stopped but desires enriching the existing collections of other Natural History Museums to keep his dream alive.

He humbly believes the wealth he accumulated were from the earth. A fare share of our wealth should find its way back to the earth as reimbursement, he commented. Zeyan had recently floated his charity providing infrastructure to less `privileged students to pursue their educational objectives. Education will one day harmonise the global cleavage, he predicted.

“After a certain point, money is meaningless. It ceases to be the goal. The game is what counts’’ quoted Aristotle Onassis. For Zeyan, it is the reimbursement to the earth, for what he amassed from the earth by toiling. So his recoupment is fulfilled.

Agni Mishra