1. What Prompted Me to Write My Reminiscences?
This is the age of memoirs and reminiscences. It has become a fad for many to write and publish stories about themselves, their life and (more often) their achievements (than their failures!).
There are three types of memoirs writers. In the first category are the celebrities at the international or global level, like the former American President Bill Clinton or the Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf, or even the famous economist Alan Greenspan. The second category constitutes the big achievers (like some of the Nobel laureates, eminent scientists, famous novelists, etc) whose lives and works are exemplary and inspirational to the lesser mortals. Then comes the last category, which constitutes the Toms, Dicks and Harrys - the commoners who are little or not known and who have never contributed much to their profession or to the world around them. But they think and claim that they also have done something worthwhile in their life (perhaps not to the extent the ‘achievers’ have done) to tell others and boast about! They also, apparently, have a message, though trivial, to pass on to others. Rightfully, I would categorize myself belonging to the last group.
I have still not answered the question why I chose to write my reminiscences. There are a couple of reasons: In a way the urge to write my professional experiences was instilled in me in early 1971 when I was working in Tanzania. A newly recruited young Nigerian Planner, a colleague of mine in the Government Town Planning Department, Tanzania, was the first person who appreciated my work done during 3½ years of my stay there and suggested that I should write about my professional experiences, at an appropriate time, for the benefit of the planning profession. Later, in the eighties, during my long years in the Gambia, many of my friends and colleagues wished that I should write on my unique and varied experiences in the countries, especially in the Gambia, where I worked. But somehow I took it as a passing suggestion and never a serious matter for me to think or act upon. Perhaps time was not ripe for it then. It was almost during the end of my GTZ assignment in Nepal that I wrote an article on ‘Planning Blunders’ - touching on my work and experiences in Tanzania, Zambia and Guyana - which eventually triggered my ambition and interest to write the whole story of my life. First, I thought of writing a book on Planning, purely based on my professional work and experience; but then I realized it would be much more interesting and varied to cover my professional and personal life in all the seven countries I lived and worked; namely India, Tanzania, Zambia, Guyana, The Gambia, Malawi and Nepal. The main impetus behind and inspiration for the book, however, is my best friend and well-wisher Dr. Ernst Reichenbach, about whom you will read a lot in the second half of this book.
Though I toyed with the idea of writing the book immediately after my return from Nepal to India in late 2001, actual work on it was started only on 1st April (April Fools Day) in 2005. (Indeed, some have asked me whether I was trying to fool others and myself through my book! I don’t know; I have to wait and see). The writing had been a slow or rather extremely slow process. Nearly two-thirds of the stuff - especially the first half of the book - had to be extracted from my memories of people, places and incidents. I never had a habit of writing personal diaries in my life. All I had was my personal files, consisting mostly of official documents related to my appointment, job, etc, etc, and correspondence on personal and family affairs in each of the seven countries. Unfortunately, I never kept copies of the works I did in India, Tanzania, Zambia (except my PhD thesis) and even Guyana. Somehow I have retained the reports on the works I did in the Gambia, Malawi and Nepal and they have served me to write those chapters in detail (sometimes too detailed to the extent of boring!) Being preoccupied with my sick daughter and ailing mother, I had very little time and patience to think of the past and write. The progress, as expected, was very minimal. On an average I could write only less than a page a day. Very often, I was on the verge of stopping my writing with the thought of who would be interested to read all my ‘trash’. Still, upon the insistence and persuasion of my friends and support of my family, I continued and brought the whole ‘life story’ to a conclusion, very coincidentally, on another all fool’s day, ie 1st April 2008. It took full three years to write nearly 800 normal A4 size pages of the reminiscences!
Unfortunately, I haven’t read the memoirs of so-called celebrities, achievers or even common folk. I have only read biographies, including one or two autobiographies. But behind all of them, I have noticed that much time and effort had been spent; and, more than that, there were personalities, people and even compelling forces which had a greater influence and motivation for the authors of those life-stories to embark upon those ventures. When I finished my writing I had the immense satisfaction that, whether it gets published (in India or abroad) or not, I had achieved something. Probably it may not be interesting to many or even for a few, but it is a record of what I went through, did, achieved, missed, failed or even blundered in my life and profession. And above all it depicts what I am and where I am finally, more or less at the last lap of the life’s journey! It is not my intention to hammer out any message, as I have nothing much or special to give to others as advice. It is only to narrate how I happened to land in some countries, the varied professional opportunities which came my way in those countries and how I handled them, either successfully or unsuccessfully; the personalities, especially friends, and the situations I had to interact with; the societies and their cultures with which I and my family had to adjust and live; and the rich experience and profound knowledge I gained from all those different exposures.
2. Who is Expected to Read this Book?
When I started writing the book I was not thinking of any particular section or group of people to whom it should be addressed. I was not thinking (sadly) about the marketability of such a work. My only concern all through was to write, and complete the work I started, in some shape. I never intended the book to be a professional or technical treatise. Therefore, it could very well be read and digested by anybody. However, being a planner (and a trainer), and most of the professional work I did and described in the book are related to the field of planning and training, the book would be interesting to those people who are engaged or involved in Planning - Town and Country Planning, including schools and students of planning. Also, it would be of special interest to those involved or interested in training of municipal personnel, especially at the sub-professional level. It would be of specific interest to the people in those seven countries where I worked to know the type of planning and circumstances in which planning operated in those countries during those bygone years when I worked there. But the fact remains that the general readership of a commoner’s reminiscences (as opposed to that of a celebrity or achiever) is rather limited - all the more if the commoner is a professional in such an obscure field as planning.
3. What Each Chapter Contains - Briefly and Specifically
Each chapter is more or less a chapter of my life. I have, however, for various reasons, avoided dwelling more on my early childhood and school days and began from the time my professional education and subsequent career began. Thus, starting from chapter 1, where I described how I became an engineer and then a planner, my career and life in India (Delhi) and the six countries, namely Tanzania, Zambia, Guyana, The Gambia, Malawi and Nepal, are described in sequence in chapters 2 to 8. Chapter 9 is devoted to my life and experiences in Kerala since my return from abroad and the last chapter is about my present situation and where I have finally ended up.
Each of the country chapters contains a brief description of the country, the people, or society, the organization where I worked, the type of planning prevalent at that time, the various individuals, officials and colleagues with whom I interacted, friends and well-wishers with whom I and my family moved and whose company we enjoyed, and, above all, the type of life I and my family had in those countries. But more than that, the chapters deal with some detail about the opportunities I had, the varied works I did, and the success or failure of my assignments in those countries. Each chapter has also many personal episodes and anecdotes to be revealed and narrated.
Against the background of the family hardship and poor living conditions, Chapter 1 of the book thus begins with early childhood ambitions, which ultimately led to my pursuing a degree course in civil engineering, though I didn’t stick to that profession for long. Very unexpectedly, I happened to tumble upon a post-graduate course in planning to become a planner. My initial predicaments in undergoing the planning course and later acceptance (with reluctance) of planning as a profession are narrated in Chapter 1.
Due to compulsion or circumstances, I became a lecturer in planning in the School of Planning and Architecture in Delhi in September 64. Though I was committed to and liked teaching, I found out that all I could teach was too ‘bookish’ to be realistic. I realized that, without practical experience in planning, which I didn’t get in the School, I was unable to convince and make an impact on students. I, however, had to wait for completion of my three-year contract with the School to look for green pastures elsewhere, finally landing a Planner’s job in Tanzania. All my vivid experiences and my impressions about the School, my family life in Delhi and the search for jobs abroad are lucidly described in Chapter 2.
Chapter 3 is all about Tanzania, the first country I happened to land, live and work in as an expatriate Planner. It was a new world of different types of people, culture, languages and above all a country which offered me unique opportunities and challenges in Planning. The planning exercises were unique and they included quickly conceived general plans for urban areas, planning and creation of ‘Ujamaa’ (co-operative) villages, planning for districts, etc. They were all actual realistic planning projects where I had to use more commonsense approach than the textbook theories I learnt and preached in the planning school. But my main task was in charting out, guiding and conducting a sub-professional planning course for technicians of the Department. Chapter 3 thus gives a detailed account of the life, experiences, challenges and problems I had vis-à-vis the people, society and their culture in the East African country of Tanzania where I lived and worked for more than 3½ years.
From Tanzania I (and my family) moved to the neighbouring Central African country of Zambia, where I worked in the Government Planning Department for nearly 10 years. The story of Zambia is different from that of Tanzania. It was (probably not now) a land of plenty and an expatriates’ paradise. One of my main tasks for some time was to scrutinize and review the consultants’ work on master plans, layout plans and infrastructure plans. But the most significant work I was involved in was the mammoth regional planning exercise for one of the provinces of Zambia, which took two years of my time and efforts. It was a colossal study which produced volumes of data, analysis, projections, plans and so on, but finally ended up on the dusty shelves of offices and institutions without being implemented. The narration of the exercise and the lessons I learnt through that exercise are extensively documented in Chapter 4. A similar grandiose project on National Urban Strategy for Zambia which I embarked upon is also described in the same chapter. Work (specific on Zambia) under the guidance of my Polish friend mentioned in chapter. Zambia was also a place where my whole family had an enjoyable life in the company of close friends - Indians and foreigners - in spite of the political disturbances and economical downturn which Zambia experienced towards the end of the seventies. But the most significant achievement in Zambia was the PhD work (specific on Zambia) I did and submitted to the University of Warsaw in 1978. Zambia further proved to be the stepping stone for me to enter the international job market, where I ended up in a UN assignment in the faraway land of Guyana on the South American continent!
The Guyana chapter of my life was very short - as short as my UN assignment was - less than two years. A planning project in the Ministry of Housing, Government of Guyana, assisted and run by the UNCHS (HABITAT) based in Nairobi, Kenya, was almost reaching its end, when I joined in September 1980 in the capacity of an urban planning adviser. My assignment was mainly to assist the Town Planning Department of the Ministry of Housing to prepare the Master Plan for Guyana’s capital, Georgetown. The department had a good team of indigenous young planners and other allied professionals, but little experience in planning. The Georgetown plan, as it turned out, was a monumental work by 10 professionals lasting 18 months, which produced voluminous reports. The details of the plan preparation, my vain attempts to establish a planning course and the life I and my family had in that strange country are described in Chapter 5.
By a twist of destiny, I moved from Guyana to The Gambia in West Africa. I was offered a British Commonwealth assignment as Adviser to the Ministry of Local Government and Lands of The Gambia, initially for a period of two years, but subsequently extended to two more years. During the span of those four years, I am happy to note that I could do commendable work not only in the Ministry but also its two crucial Departments - Department of Physical Planning and Department of Housing and Building Control Services. Chapter 6 gives a detailed and somewhat exhaustive narration of the works I did at that time, especially about the two fully-fledged sub-professional courses - one for Physically Planning Assistants and another for Housing and Building Technicians - for the two departments mentioned above, all with the assistance of one GTZ Project in the Ministry of Local Government and Lands, with which I was associated from September 1986 till December 1991, when I left The Gambia. The project gave me a golden opportunity to work on very significant tasks, such as reorganization of the Ministry, drafting of new laws, regulations and guidelines in Planning, land administration and Surveying - all part of the project’s outputs. My family had a wonderful time with the extremely cordial Gambians, other friends and the peaceful environment in that country. On the whole, in retrospect, I have to confess that I had the best part of my life - professional and personal - in The Gambia. Inevitably, Chapter 6 is also the longest chapter of this book, where I have included too many incidents, anecdotes and stories about my nice fellow Gambian colleagues, the German team leader and other expatriate friends whom I met there (and who still keep in touch with me).
Fortunately, before the closure of the GTZ project in The Gambia, I got a job as the UN Chief Technical Adviser to the UNDP-UNCHS Project on Planning Monitoring in Malawi. Malawi had a national physical plan, few district plans and town plans for all urban areas and rural centres - a remarkable achievement for a small country. The aim of the project was to establish a monitoring system to oversee the implementation of those plans. The Project lasted only for 20 months from December 1991 to August 93. The unique experience in Malawi and the hassles with the UN system there vis-à-vis the brief but enjoyable life I and my family had in such a short time are depicted in Chapter 7.
With the completion of my UN assignment in Malawi and no other job offers on the cards, I had to return to my homeland. Fortunately, in early 1997, I got an invitation from the GTZ project UDLE in Kathmandu, Nepal. I was invited to evaluate an institution (UDTC) which the project was funding for some time. I made two more visits as a short-term training consultant to that project which subsequently paved the way for my appointment as full-time Training Adviser to that project in early 1999. The main objective of the assignment was to train the various cadres of municipalities, especially at the sub-professional level, in long-term courses such as urban planning, community development, financial management and solid waste management, etc. Chapter 8 depicts in detail how, with the help of the UDLE family and others, I managed to conduct nearly 10 training programmes in different training institutions, the challenging experiences I had and the wonderful life I and my family had in the two and a half years in Nepal.
The anti-climax to my long professional career and highly eventful life (both personal and family) came after my inevitable final return to Kerala, India. For some unavoidable reasons, I opted to come back to my native place - the Palakkad District in Kerala. Having lived nearly half a century away from Kerala, I found it a different world; much different from the one I was used to during my childhood, school and college days. What made it more vivid and significant is that most of the countries I lived and worked in (including Nepal) had that semblance of Kerala I left behind in 1956. It is horrifying to find that the State which was at one time rated as the most advanced State in India in terms of literacy, health care, etc, has now acquired the dubious highest rank in crime, delinquency, alcoholism, suicides, accidents, murder, labour problems, ‘bands’, etc. Touching the above-mentioned issue, Chapter 9 deals in detail with the vicious political situation, dwindling economy, endemic corruption, the mad and dangerous rush towards consumerism and not least the dreadful roads and traffic situation in the State. As a planner, I found the existing planning practices as obsolete and dysfunctional. Though I have emphasized the negative aspects of the State, the intention behind them is a desperate cry for a drastic change, however elusive it may be.
The last chapter of the book, entitled the ‘Epilogue’, is devoted to an analysis of the ‘balance sheet’ of my life, broadly taking stock of what I missed and what I gained. The last chapter also depicts my present ‘frog in the well’ existence in the remote corner of Kerala, but still trying to ‘roll’ on relentlessly in a track different from the ones (professional tracks) I pursued so far and gather whatever little ‘moss’ I could collect in the days ahead!
4. How the Book is Presented
Purposely, the book is written in lucid, flowing and simple language. All hard stuff, especially those related to laws and training programmes, are dumped in the appendices (for the sake of those specifically interested in them), so that a casual reader should not find the stuff too technical or professional to the extent of being bored. Though the individual chapters stand on their own and could be treated as separate entities, they are continuous and it is advisable to read them in sequence to know how the type of my work and life changed gradually, with the passage of time, place and environment.
The family stories, episodes and anecdotes may appear as too trivial or out of context, but I have included them for two reasons: First, they provide a welcome change to the otherwise drab (even boring) narration of my professional work; and second, they give an insight into the type of life I and my family had, in various countries.
All memoirs invariably try to trumpet and glorify the achievements of their authors, and this book is no exception. But I have tried to subdue them considerably. I have given the credit to those who were really behind the success stories, especially those who were instrumental in giving me those opportunities as well as who were part and parcel of my work. I have also emphasized the blunders I did and the failures in my professional and personal life, which have taught me valuable lessons.
All the anecdotes and episodes described in the book are factual, based on my experiences, observations, as well as those reported in the media (newspapers or TV), although some have been slightly dramatized to stress a point or impact on the readers.
I have avoided all slanderous languages or statements not to hurt anybody. Whenever I was in a dilemma, I have used more refined and polite language and I have put the blame on myself rather than on others. I want to stress that whatever has been written about institutions or individuals is not done wilfully or with malicious intention, but it was only part of the incident, event or anecdote described in connection with my work or life. As mentioned on the opening page of the book, I wish to apologize to and seek pardon from anyone who thinks that he has been misrepresented, misquoted or even villified.
5. What I could not do
Though I wished to provide as many illustrations such as maps, photographs and diagrams, I could not include them in this book as most of my collections were lost, damaged or destroyed over the long period of time I spent abroad. I had to seek the help of my good friends with whom I worked in those countries to procure and reproduce the very few illustrations given in the book. This is the biggest drawback of this book.
In my anxiety or eagerness to record and share with the readers all that happened in my professional and personal life, I have written far too many pages to be comfortably read (much to the annoyance of my editors!). It has really become a bulky one, scaring anyone to read the whole lot. But then I think or believe that many (or some) readers would be interested only in selected chapters of the book (eg Keralites might be interested to read mainly the chapter on Kerala, the Gambians would be more interested in Chapter 6 on The Gambia and the Nepalese on Chapter 8 on Nepal, etc). Therefore I made each chapter, in a way, an extended treatise or a ‘mini-book’ by itself. If there should be a revision of these memoirs at a later date (which is very unlikely), an abridged version could be prepared as per the comments and suggestions of the readers.