Kul Chandra Gautam’s life is an inspirational story of how a school boy in one of the poorest and remotest districts in Nepal went on to become the seniormost Nepali in the United Nations. He achieved this by a lot of hard work, extraordinary perseverance, and never losing sight of his duty to help those in underserved parts of the world, like where he grew up as a boy.
Gautam is a soft-spoken, but hardcore believer in democracy, open society, non-violence and has a strong commitment to social justice. While at UNICEF, he was a dynamo for reform, believing that the UN itself had to change if it wanted to change the world. After devoting his entire career for the welfare of children worldwide, he returned to Nepal in 2008 to contribute to his motherland.
The manuscript of his memoir was cut in two by his publisher, nepa-laya. The first part came out as Lost in Transition: Rebuilding Nepal from the Maoist Mayhem and the Mega Earthquake in 2015. Rubeena Mahato, who reviewed the book for this paper, wrote then: ‘In a brilliant counter-narrative, Gautam destroys the dominant discourse that eulogises the Maoist war as a natural and inevitable uprising of the oppressed, arguing instead that the war cut short Nepal’s march towards democracy and development and pushed us into protracted transition.’
A prequel to that book is being launched next week: Global Citizen from Gulmi: My Journey from the Hills of Nepal to the Halls of the United Nations. This is Gautam’s real memoir that narrates his personal antecedents and experiences as a world citizen which lend both books credibility, and makes him a bête noire of the Stalinist votaries of violence in our midst.
We first catch a glimpse of Kunjarmani Gautam as a young boy, as his grandfather taught him the Devnagari alphabet in Gulmi by writing them down on the ground with a stick. He later changed his name to Kul Chandra Gautam, a favourite poet. The young boy impresses Peace Corps volunteers in Tansen with his self-taught English and prowess at Scrabble.
Gautam then gets a full scholarship to Dartmouth College in the US, but has his first run-in with bureaucracy where ‘people are made to serve the rules rather than rules made to serve the people’. This is 1966, and his passport application goes up the Panchayat government ladder all the way to King Mahendra, only to be rejected.
He finally gets to Dartmouth the next year, overcomes culture shock, excels in class, joins anti-Vietnam war protests on campus, and goes on for graduate studies at the Woodrow Wilson School at Princeton where he admits he was a ‘left-leaning student’. Gautam wants to return to Nepal, but lands a job with UNICEF in Cambodia, beginning a career spanning 35 years. He saw Khmer Rouge atrocities up close, and had to be evacuated from Phnom Penh in a Royal Air Force Hercules to Fort Butterworth as the country descended into the Killing Fields.
Many years later when he hears Maoist leader Baburam Bhattarai (who reminds him of Khieu Samphan) call the Khmer Rouge genocide a ‘Western exaggeration’ he is convinced revolutionaries seldom learn from history. Gautam then works in Laos and Indonesia and finally is sent to Haiti by his UNICEF mentor, James P Grant. Haiti is a lesson in how ruthless dictators like Baby Doc Duvalier can consign their nations to perpetual poverty.
He is posted in Latin America at a time of Liberation Theologists, the Shining Path and Paolo Freire’s theory of conscientização in Brazil. Gautam unrolls Pele as a UNICEF breastfeedingambassador, getting his mother to say: “Of course he is the world’s best football player, I breastfed him.”
Then it is post-Soviet Europe where countries are collapsing into chaos. Gautam helps coordinate relief for Sarajevo, and gets to sleep in Albanian dictator Enver Hoxha’s bed in Tirana.
Grant then posts Gautam to India, where the Nepali overcomes the arrogance of Indian babudom to help locate UNICEF’s regional South Asia office in Kathmandu. He was a ‘Sherpa’ for the historic World Summit for Children of 1990 in New York, negotiating minefields of protocol, egos and geopolitics to get member states to sign the National Plans of Action, which became the model for the MDGs and the SDGs that followed.
He has great admiration for Vaclav Havel, and notes that the Czech President died on the same day as Kim Jong-Il in 2011, and that Nepal’s Communists trooped off to the DPRK embassy in Kathmandu to sign the condolence book. He is ashamed not one Nepali leader paid any tribute to Havel.
Gautam’s other hero is Nelson Mandela, who impressed him in Pretoria with his disregard for pomp and protocol. Unlike some ‘democratic’ Nepali leaders, Madiba never had to show how important he was by displaying trappings of power.
Years later, Gautam sees lessons for Nepal in Mandela’s handling of truth and reconciliationand the dangers of ethnic Bantustans.
Parts of the book about Gautam’s return to Nepal after retirement are extracted from Lost in Transition, where he recounts the efforts to start peace negotiations with UN HQ, Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue, and directly with King Gyanendra and Maoist leaders.
He understands the anger driving the Maoist revolution, but never glamourises it like many Nepali and international pseudo-revolutionaries. He calls it like it is: a needless carnage that derailed Nepal’s march towards democracy and development.
He is scathing about the organisation he once worked for, the United Nations, and the expats in rose-tinted glasses who led its post-conflict peace mission in Nepal. The past few years have proven Kul Chandra Gautam right: the insurgency was not a revolution but a blatant attempt at state capture by misguided figures espousing an obsolete ideology.
Indeed, today’s united Communists have turned out to be worse than the rulers they replaced. The real victims of that ruinous war were the very people who were supposed to be liberated.
Because of his own life struggle and wisdom, every word in Kul Gautam’s book rings true, carrying the immense power of his conviction.