He arrived in Oman at a time when the only mode of travel to the country from India was through water, water was supplied in goatskin on donkey backs; when there were no air-conditioners, and electricity was supplied through generators. Verapulli Keshavan Madhavanunni, an engineer from Kerala in India, boarded the ship from Mumbai (erstwhile Bombay) and after spending two and a half days on the sea, reached Muscat on the 10th of February, 1974.
It came as a culture shock for Madhavan. Before coming to Muscat he had worked in Mumbai for 6 years, the highly developed well flourished business hub of India; vibrant and one of the busiest in the world- and suddenly, here he was in a vast desertland, with folds of mountains, and unforgiving hot sands, for as far as could meet the eye. Life seemed to come to a complete standstill!
"There were absolutely no buildings. While driving to Muttrah from Muscat we could see sea on one side and hills on the other. The only asphalt road was there from Al Hamariyah to Seeb lined with date palms. It was only the second year of His Majesty Sultan Qaboos Bin Said's rule, and development was begining to unfold.
Day by day, the country ushered into an era of unprecedented prosperity and modernity, and now it all seems to have happened in the flash of an eye," says Madhavan, having witnessed the transition of the country very closely, and from the very beginning.
Having lived a major part of his life in the country, rendering his services to the ever expanding construction sector, the veteran engineer braces himself to bid goodbye to the Sultanate, as he retires in coming months, and leaves his native country India. "Life would never be the same again. I lived the prime of my life here. All my memories associated with the place- this is my true home. It would all have to start again now," he says with a hint of gloom in his tone.
Starting with a small construction company as site engineer, life was quite tough in the beginning, all alone in a foreign country, recounts Madhavan. "The place was completely different from where I had come. Quite primitive in lifestyle, we were provided with tented accomodations made of canvas with table fans. There were no Acs, and the scorching heat made it quite difficult to survive. Water used to be supplied in goatskin on donkey back. Electricity was available only in the capital area, feeded through generators. The city had only 6 kms of asphalt road, and the only inhabited areas were old Muscat, Ruwi, and partially Wadi Kabir. It felt like I had travelled back in time to the medieval age".
For even the most basic of chores like banking and shopping, it meant taking a half day leave, board the company bus, and leave and come back on fixed specific times.
"We used to go shopping weekly in the company assigned bus, from our campsite in Risail, near Seeb, to Muttrah Souq or Ruwi. Before lunch we had to return. For banking we had to apply for half day leave, as it had to be done on working days. All the businesses were based in only the Muttrah and Ruwi areas. The only multi-story structure in the city was the Talib Building in Muttrah, which accomodated the primary business hubs, like banks, and automobile showrooms".
The most difficult part however, recollects Madhavan, was to make calls back home to India. The call had to be booked days in advance, and then there was a wait for hours, for the call to be finally connected; sometimes for than 5 hours. "They had to get the international line. Often the operator used to ask where I had to make the call and when I would say Mumbai, he would say dejectingly, Oh the line was just now connected. We will have to try again. If I was lucky it got connected within half an hour, else it took hours," said Madhavan adding, more often he used to resort to corresponding through letters over phone calls. "Although it used to take 10 days to send the letter, and another 10 to get its reply, but it was far too convenient and saved a great deal of time".
An illustrious journey
After some 9 months he got a break at the prestigious Joannou and Paraskevaides Overseas Ltd (J&P LLC Oman), then named Overseas LLC, where he got the chance to be part of prestigious projects like the villa of His Majesty's late uncle, His Royal Highness Sayyid Tariq bin Taimur Al Said, near Seeb, and many of the MOD projects.
After 6 years in the capital area, he was transferred to Salalah in 1980. There also he was involved in the construction of the villas for Sheik Mustahil, the wali of Dhofar, and Yousuf Bin Alawi, and His Majesty's rest house and palace at Mamurah Gardens, among many others.
Recalling his stint at the construction of His Majesty's grand summer palace, Madhavan said it was one of the most cherished experiences of his life, coming across many astonishing things for the first time in his life. "All the finishing material was procured from abroad, brought through cargo planes of the company directly from the producing countries. For the first time I witnessed the use humidity absorbing plastering material minerlite.
Procured from the UK, specialised technicians from Greece were brought in to train the masons for its application. The glass was imported from Belgium and Germany, and the marble and granite from Switzerland," he said describing the splendid glory of the royal palace.
During this course, he also worked for various constructions based projects with the Royal Air Force Oman, and Sohar Development Office. He also supervised the construction of Salalah airport, and roadway from Nizwa to Thumraith.
In 1990, he joined Galfar Engineering & Contracting, where he worked till very recently. The respect of the industry he gained through his successful track record, earned him a chance work on several projects in coordination with the PDO. The veteran engineer coniders his biggest achievement to be the construction of accomodation for 1500 people within 4 months during his stint at the LNG project in 1998. "The project usually took near a year in those days to be completed, but we coordinnated and functioned smoothly, and made the project a reality in an unbelievable time-period at that time".
Very much appreciated for the effort, the hexagenarian engineer says the biggest challenge was timely procurement of material and labour for the project, which was underway at Sehrawal, 400 kms from Muscat, adding that planning was the toughest part in those days. "We had to plan well in advance; at least for 6 months, which required a strong forsight requiring the consideration of various factors like weather, availability of labour, and order placement specifying the exact date by which the material was required".
Many warm memories
Madhavan remembers Oman as a great country of extraordinary people. Boasting proudly of having travelled the entire stretch of the country by road, he has an accumulation of many sweet memories kindled by the warm nature and hospitability of the local people.
Madhavan reminisces one such incident where he was rescued by an Omani from in the midst of the desert when his car broke down, and fruther helped by the ROP, to help him make it on time, enroute the Soghra desalination plant, which was being constructed under his supervision. "I regularly used to frequent the interior areas to oversee the progress of the projects. Once on the way to Soghra alongwith my assistant, after a very long journey after Sinaou, the vehicle's clutch failed and we were despeartely left in the middle of nowhere.
There were no communication facilities like today, and the nearest police checkpost was10 kms away. We didnt know what to do. Fortunately an Omani in his pick up truck was passing and stopped seeing us. He took us to the ROP post, where the commanding officer made us very comfortable, arranged food for us and immediately sent communication to our company. Moreover realising that it might take time, he ordered his assistant to take us to a nearby camp, and in the meanwhile had the vehicle towed and repaired in no time for us, so that we continued back on our journey within 3 hours".
The engineer added many times, while on trips, he would be subjected to surprise feasts by the locals. Having travelled the entire country by car; from Muscat to Salalah, and Masera to Kasab, Salalah is the most reverred place for Madhavan. "Oman is a very beautifull country. With its blue beaches and golden sands, the place is heaven of natural beauty. I liked Salalah the most due to its lush vegetation and climatic conditions very similar to my hometown Kerala. Jabl Akhdar with its green mountains and cold climate is another place which I loved visiting, especially during the harsh summers".
Recalling the good old days, Madhavan said catching a glimpse of His Majesty, The Sultan was very common.
"The rule was to park the car away from the road and stand out of the car, when His Majesty's entourage passed. We used to wish him and he would always acknowledge waving back at the people. In Salalah, often he used to move without any security even. While the Momourah palace construction we used to see him so commonly and frequently," he fondly remembered.
As the time draws near to finally bid adieu to his home of 40 years, the veteran grows weary over the prospect of having start the life completely anew again back at home. "Life goes by in flash. It seems only as yesterday I had come to this beautiful country. And here it is that finally I have to leave the country for good. All that would be left are the good old memories," old Madhavan heaves a sigh, staring out of the window.
By the stars...
Madhavanunni has strict belief in astrology. Any and every task he has ever indulged in was done by consulting an astrologist. He even set out for Oman only once the astro-guru declared the position of the stars to be favorable for the journey.
It took a lot of convincing for Madhvan to get his parent's consent for the trip. Hailing from a Brahmin family, his parents would not allow him to set sail, as according to Hindu mythology, it was grave sin to leave the shores of ones country.