Chandigarh was not new to me. I had spent a couple of days there in 1961 along with my entire batch. We had been taken there from the National Academy on an instructional tour to see the developments that were taking place in the country. Bhakra Nangal Project and Chandigarh were more or less symbols of the emerging new India. The then Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru used to be proud of them and would call Bhakra Dam a new temple of India
Chandigarh was the first city built from the scratch in a planned manner. The government had engaged the famous Swiss architect Le Corbusier for planning the city and designing its public buildings. Chandigarh at that time had been designated as the capital of Punjab – Haryana was yet to be born.
I am still fascinated by Chandigarh. Over the last 40 years or so it has developed into a very livable city. Corbusier planned a low-rise city with lots of green, divided into sectors. Each sector was made self-sufficient with shopping, schools, health centres, etc. They were, as they say, also “introvert” having only four accesses into them from the main roads. The city’s biggies were accommodated in first few sectors close to the scene of official action whereas the foot soldiers were kept at a distance. It was said Corbusier wanted decision makers to be cool and hence were kept close to the Shiwaliks.
DR. MS Randhawa, an ICS officer who was a trained botanist was appointed chairman of the committee to plan greening of the city. He designed landscapes and extensive gardens along the arterial roads. The famous Dr. Zakir Hussain Rose Garden was his gift to the city. He also had got trees of different flowering species planted in each sector. It used to be said he had ensured that right through the year one or the other sector would be in bloom. In Sector 11, the sector next to the one where I used to live, he had had jacarandas planted and in March-April the place used to be awash with purple. No wonder Chandigarh soon came to be known as the “City Beautiful”. Unfortunately, the extensions that were seen coming up were not as green and beautiful as the original Corbusier’s city, though some of the houses I had occasion to visit were indeed architecturally beautiful.
I had gone on deputation to Chandigarh to the Post Graduate Institute of Medical Education & Research, PGIMER for short, in 1975. It was a beautifully built up complex with a super-speciality hospital – a rarity in those days. It had an energetic and dedicated Director in Late Dr. PN Chuttani. A perennial bachelor, his life was devoted to the Institute. Because of his contacts his name was something to reckon with in the northern states. Apart from being a well-known Gastroenterologist, he had the sharpest of minds I have ever come across. His capacity to catch even the most complicated problems of establishment, a subject not many technical people are fond of, was remarkable. He had spread himself around northern India and had developed personal relation with chief ministers of all the northern states. It was in his office that I met YS Parmar, the then chief minister of Himachal Pradesh and Farukh Abdullah. The other two chief ministers, Bansi Lal of Haryana and Zail Singh of Punjab I somehow missed and I have been none the worse for it
I had gone there as in-charge of the Administrative Wing with the designation as Deputy Director, Administration. Although the Institute was raised in the same manner as Delhi’s All India Institute of Medical Sciences, it somehow could never capture the latter’s all-India character. Having been located in Punjab it remained largely as a regional institute catering to the needs of the northern states of Punjab, Haryana, Himachal Pradesh and Kashmir, but with some outstanding faculty and medicine-men.
Initially I was allotted a room in the sprawling guest house that the Institute had behind the Administrative Block in Sector 12. It had three bedrooms in two floors and a sprawling lawn in front. A British visitor was in another room. We used to meet on the dinner table. Once he heard what he thought was a weird kind of noise and asked me about it. It was nothing other than a few jackals howling. The Institute had a sizeable forest which it had left undisturbed and there were jackals as also other wild animals.
I was later allotted a semi-detached bungalow very close to the Guest House which was more than adequate for me. Dr. Chuttani offered me a bigger outfit in Sector 24 but I didn’t need it. The one that was allotted to me had a front and back lawn with a huge sapota (cheeku) tree that would routinely bear fruits. It has somehow become part of the Chandigarh culture to plant and nurture flowering and fruiting trees in the open space around the houses.
I think that is precisely why the Institute had a fantastic man as its horticulturist. Shyam Lal as he was known would tend to the Institute gardens pick out the rose plants as soon as budding commenced for exhibitions in December at Delhi. The institute won several prizes every year all because of the dedication and the pride he had in his work. He was a constant presence on the Institute gardens whether they were in its public or private spaces.
Once he brought a very submissive looking man to me. Shyam Lal introduced him as Nek Chand and said he was developing a remarkable garden using only broken pieces of ceramic which he seemed to have run out of. I asked the Chief Dietician who was all for palming off all the broken crockery from his kitchens. I went to see the garden with Shyam Lal, It was nothing like what it is today. Only a few sections had been created, yet it was nothing of the kind I had seen before. The piece of land that he used was of the Central PWD and he was being asked to vacate it. He was a road inspector of the PWD and as the land was not being put to any use he, using his latent talent and unusual imagination, started working on the figures and put them up in what is now an internationally acknowledged rock garden. The then Minister of Health, Dr. Karan Singh, visiting Chandigarh for the 1975 Komagatamaru Congress session in December, also visited Nek Chand’ garden. He was so impressed that he not only leaned on the Central PWD to allot the plot of land to Nek Chand and also to have the disciplinary proceedings against him withdrawn. Nek Chand was later invited to create similar gardens in France and Germany. Thankfully he received the very well deserved recognition before he passed away in 2015
Incidentally, the guest house that I made a mention of became an improvised jail when Jai Praksh Narain was confined there. Those of the current generation who may not know about him, he was the inspiration behind a movement that was later associated with his name and resulted in Mrs. Indira Gandhi clamping down on the country that infamous “Emergency” of 1975. Under her directions he had been arrested and was brought to Chandigarh. Overnight the height of the compound walls were raised and the ordinary-looking decent gate acquired sinister proportions with only a small opening for people to go in and out. Perhaps the entire exercise was not necessary as Jai Prakash Narain, or JP as he was commonly known as, could not have attempted a jail-break, frail and old as he was. I had met him once at the prompting of the Chief Dietician of the hospital, a very dear friend, at the hospital attached to the Institute when his dysfunction in his kidneys had commenced. I found him an exceedingly handsome old man and a very decent politician – many cuts above all the politicians of that era.
JP was being taken care of by Dr. Rajinder Kalra who was in-charge of the staff clinic and was and continues to be a very good friend. If I recall, he didn’t hold a post-graduate degree but had terrific clinical acumen. One night I requested him to check my mother’s BP. He came with his newly-acquired equipment and was alarmed by the reading. As it was above 300 he checked it several times only to get the same readings. As it was late in the night it was not possible to get any medicines. He used my mother’s medicines in small doses at regular intervals of an hour or so and sat through the night checking the BP every hour. He left only after he had brought the pressure down to 200 or so. I am eternally grateful to him for what he did for my mother that night.
The “City Beautiful” cannot be considered isolated from its beautiful water body. The Sukhna Lake on its outskirts was also the idea of the planner and designer of the town Le Corbusier. The 3 Kms2 Lake is at the foot of the Shiwalik Hills and was created by damming the Sukhna stream (Choe in local lingo). The top of the dam was converted into a beautiful promenade for the health-conscious, something like what one has along the Dal Lake in Srinagar, Kashmir, only the tall mountains are missing from its backdrop. Motorboats are not allowed on the waters and so are food stalls anywhere near it – something the Bhopal authorities would do well to emulate to keep the Lake waters unpolluted. In those days there wouldn’t be much of a crowd on the Promenade but now, one understands, boating and the birds of various kinds, including the migratory ones, attract a large number of visitors.
Incidentally, I met my current “Facebook” friend Vijay Kant Bakshi at the Institute who was working at that time, if I remember, in Pathology Department. Looking for greener pastures, he had applied and got a job in Dubai. That’s when he came and saw me and requested for being accommodated back in the event of his coming back. He had submitted his resignation. I could only assure him of my best efforts. Soon I got a cablegram from him intimating that he was on his way back. He came back and told me that he fainted at the very entry point - the airport in Dubai. The section he was in was not air-conditioned and had a tin roof resulting in the place boiling at the temperature of 510 C. That was Dubai then – far cry from what it is today, having probably the plushiest of airports in the world. He gave up the whole thing as a bad job and came back. Thankfully, the Institute Chief agreed to his re-instatement purely because he had impeccable credentials. After all, he was the topper of School of Art of Chandigarh. Today, he is happily settled and producing, as is his wont, beautiful water-colour landscapes and uploading them on Facebook.
Around three years in a post that hardly posed any challenge was, I thought, too much. In 1978 I opted for coming back to my parent department. But in those three years I made some lifelong friends, association with whom was indeed enriching. Some have passed on but some are still around and contributing to the society in any which way they possibly can.