Chronicles of memory

Published On: August 10, 2020 09:45 AM NPT By: Kul Chandra Gautam

Satish Prabasi’s “Fragments of Memory: A Nepali National’s Reminiscences” chronicles the situation of Nepal in the 1950s and 60s through the life experiences of a village boy who grew up to be an international development expert.

Satish Prabasi, a Nepali scholar and development professional, has written a fascinating memoir entitled: “Fragments of Memory: A Nepali National’s Reminiscences”. The book chronicles the situation of Nepal in the 1950s and 60s through the life experiences of a village boy who grew up to be an international development expert.

The memoir is partly the author’s nostalgic travelogue across many continents, partly the story of his encounters with bureaucrats and policy makers in different countries as an academic and UN official, and partly his reflections on the current state of the world and his hopes and fears for humanity. 

Prabasi is an enchanting raconteur and his memoir reads like a thriller. As a fellow global citizen of Nepali origin, with many similar experiences, I found his Fragments of Memory intriguing and inspiring. He circles around the world in a journey of many twists and turns, rise and fall, hobnobbing with the world’s great and mighty but also seeking solace in the wilderness of nature, the comfort-zone of his tight-knit family, searching for the meaning of life and reflecting on the evolution of human civilization. It is a fascinating account of what the author considers two centuries of transformation telescoped in one lifetime.

I knew Prabasi when he and I both worked for UNICEF—he in India and China, and I in Indonesia and Laos in the late 1970s and early 1980s. He was senior to me both in age and rank. He and I both admired our UNICEF boss James Grant, and Grant liked us both.

Prabasi had the reputation of being a bright and articulate development professional with sound academic grounding and strong advocacy skills. He was considered one of UNICEF Director Jim Grant’s favorite “blue-eyed boys” and had a meteoric rise in his career. After his stint as UNICEF’s regional planning officer in India, he was promoted to become UNICEF Representative in China—a very important position often reserved for more seasoned and senior officers.

Prabasi’s assignment as head of UNICEF in China attracted extra attention as Grant attached high priority to UNICEF cooperation in China, partly because of China’s global importance, and partly because of Grant’s personal affinity as he was born and raised as a child of a prominent Canadian medical missionary in China.

Knowing UNICEF’s modest financial support was too small to have a big impact in a vast country like China with its own huge resources, long history and tradition. UNICEF had to be highly selective in choosing a few strategic pressure points to have any meaningful impact on the situation of women and children. Prabasi called it “acupuncture programming”.  

In the early 1980s, under Deng Xiaoping’s dynamic leadership, following Chairman Mao Zedong’s brutal and notorious Cultural Revolution, China was quite receptive to learning from the rest of the world—particularly from the development experience ofWestern Europe and North America. Under Grant’s guidance, Prabasi formulated an innovative country program focusing on influencing Chinese policy makers by organizing study visits to universities and think-tanks of the more developed capitalist countries. UNICEF also supportedsome pilot projects in China’s poorest counties and ethnic minority regions where the situation of children was particularly dire.

Prabasi’s “acupuncture programming” approach was well received by his Chinese counterparts. Grant’s frequent visits to China and his access to and influence with the top-most Chinese leaders greatly reinforced Prabasi’s own efforts. 

But then, something went terribly wrong. As Prabasi acknowledges, his third year in China was both momentous and shattering. A combination of family pressure to return to Nepal to look after his ailing mother; some resentment by UNICEF’s old-guard officials who were jealous of his closeness to Grant; and some negative findings in an audit of his management of UNICEF’s Beijing office, led Prabasi to quit his budding career with UNICEF.  

Meeting him after a hiatus of nearly four decades in 2018, I found Prabasisomewhatmellowed, but still full of intellectual vigor, wise and balanced insights on current world affairs, and deep appreciation of the historical evolution of the human condition.

Previously unbeknownst to either of us, we seem to share many common interests, reading habits and activism in support of many progressive causes during our school, college and university days, though these were 10 years apart because of our age difference.

Some of these commonalities included our deep interest in history, love of books and libraries, activism against the Vietnam War, the Apartheid system in South Africa, and distaste of Mao’s Cultural Revolution, as well as our abhorrence of the Hindu caste system, our desire to have a daughter as our first child, deep commitment to gender equality and social justice, and the joy of playing with our grand-children!

As formal schooling was virtually non-existent in rural areas of Nepal during our childhood,Prabasi and I both got a Gurukul-type home-based schooling at first, and both went to Banaras for further education at the age of 10.

Interestingly, we both changed our childhood names during our respective stays in Banaras—in my case inspired by my favorite poet, and in Prabasi’s case as a protest against injustice inflicted on “low caste” Dalits by “upper caste” Hindus. The change of Satish Bhattarai’s Brahman name to the caste-neutral “Prabasi” reminded me of a similarcase of the Nobel Peace Prize laureate Kailash Satyarthi who changed his surname from Sharma to Satyarthi.

Prabasi and I also read and were inspired by such progressive authors as Frantz Fannon, Regis Debray, Celso Furtado, Chinua Achebe, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Jean Paul Sartre and Benjamin Spock—all well-known leftist authors in the 1960s and 70s. We both admired Julius Nyrere’sUjamaa concept of socialism in Tanzania. And weshared Nepal’s saintly bureaucrat Dirgha Raj Koirala and UNICEF’s dynamic Jim Grant as our mentors, besides many other lesser-known common friends.

For me, the most interesting chapters of Prabasi’s memoir are those of his early life in Banaras and his vibrant academic life in the Netherlands.

The Banaras chapter is a window on the dynamics of the life of Nepali emigrés in thatholy city of learning and religious pilgrimage. Many Nepalis went there for education unavailable in their own country. It was also a place where Nepali political activists congregated and joined India’s anti-colonial freedom movement which eventually morphed into anti-Rana regime movement for political change in Nepal.

Prabasi vividly recounts the stories of many Nepalis who went to “Kashi baas” either as political exiles or to seek the ultimate salvation from life. The stories of the Nepali lumpen-proletariat who toiled and suffered in Banaras in search of better economic opportunities lackingin their own impoverished villages in Nepal are particularly poignant.

Prabasi’s life as an academic at the Institute of Development Studies in the Hague—teaching, conducting research and consulting on development issues—was intellectually invigorating. This is where he honed his analytical and advocacy skills that served him well in his future career.

The memoir contains many interesting anecdotes of how Prabasiled student protesters in the early years of the College of Education in Kathmandu daring to challenge the powers that be at the height of the Panchayat regime. He developed strong distaste of the Nepali government bureaucracy when he served in the Ministry of Agriculture and eventually fled the country vowing never to return.

His second inning in Nepal, initially as an entrepreneur who failed and turned into a more successful consultant is fascinating. And so is his extended sojourn in India in his post-retirement phase where he dabbled in learning yoga, meditation and Buddhist studies.

Settled in a quiet neighborhood of New York City, Prabasi now mentors his grand-children and enjoys the solitude of nature while reflecting on how the forces of globalization, changing social norms, political populism and economic inequality are profoundly impacting the state of human civilization.

His study of ancient history has convinced Prabasi that there is a pattern of progress followed by decline in human civilization, and its regeneration again with greater vitality. As we fret about the unprecedented and unpredictable fate of the post-COVID-19 world, let us hope, for the sake of our future generations, that his optimism will prove to be prophetic.


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