Welcome to “Cloverdale In Conversation,” a monthly feature with a local personality. This month, Manobhiram “Manu” Nellutla is our guest. Manu moved here a few years ago and has fallen in love with the city and the area.
Manu recently wrote a book called, “Janya Bharata: The War,” which tells a story related to the Kurukshetra War (as told in the famous Sanskrit epic the “Mahabharata”) from the point of view of common people. (The book was featured in the “Reporter” in April.)
Born and raised in India, Manu worked in Rwanda for several years before coming to Canada. He is a published author and has even given a TEDx talk in Abbotsford. Manu chats about his life in India and Rwanda, coming to Canada, and Cloverdale.
Malin Jordan: Tell me a little bit about yourself, where you grew up, that kinda thing.
Manu Nellutla: I was born in India. Hyderabad. I grew up there. I did a bachelor’s and master’s in physiotherapy in Mangalore. I was the youngest in my university when I finished my bachelor’s at 21. After my bachelors, I worked for a year and half as a lecturer. I worked as a tutor while finishing my master’s in physiotherapy. I got married to this wonderful woman. After my master’s, I worked as an assistant professor. I also ran my own clinics to support the local community. My first son was born in India in 2006.
MJ: And that was all in Hyderabad?
MN: No, I spent seven years doing my education in Mangalore. Before that, I spent two years in Orissa, which is south of Calcutta. And then after marriage, worked in Hanamkonda, another small city close to Hyderabad.
MJ: You’ve moved around a lot in your life.
MN: My life has been one of motion. I started in a boarding school when I was young. Studied in three different states in India which have its own culture and language. So that gave me an opportunity to meet people from across different aspects of culture. And then in 2007, we moved to Rwanda.
MJ: That must’ve been quite the jump.
MN: My parents were there. My father was already working. He was insisting, “Why don’t you work in Rwanda?” But I thought, “No, I have a job as a professor here.,” and I was not feeling comfortable leaving my job and clinics to work in a underdeveloped country like Rwanda. It wasn’t until after my first son arrived in 2006 that an official offer came in from the University of Rwanda and I thought, “Why not? Let’s try this.” And my father was like, “Hey, I can play with my grandson.”
MJ: It was all about your son. Nothing to do with you.
MN: Yes! All about him (laughs). I was away from home in my childhood, boarding school, and I thought this could be a good opportunity for my family to be with my parents and for us to explore a new country. “Let’s see how this goes.” That decision was a game changer for me. Life-changing.
MJ: I bet it was. What can you tell me about this new adventure?
MN: It was an adventure, an adventure in a new country. Of course, once we got there and we started working there, things change.
The Rwandans suffered through the Rwandan Genocide against Tutsis in 1994. You can imagine almost a million were killed in 100 days. Killed! So you can imagine the amount of disabled because of amputations and injuries during the genocide. But physiotherapy, as a treatment, was only slowly being introduced. So I started in that department (at university) and slowly realized that I made a good decision to move to Rwanda. And not just for the sake of the work, it’s the essence of the work that you would do.
Eventually, I became the head of the physiotherapy department and began connecting with department heads at other universities in Europe and North America to try and get other scholars to go there and support teaching.
MJ: So there was a real need for therapists to help rehabilitate people?
MN: Absolutely. The department was helping out by training new physiotherapists, but it was only a diploma program. We started a bachelor’s program and created a bridging program for diploma graduates to attain their bachelor’s.
MJ: You helped set that up?
MN: Yes, along with my Rwandan colleagues, but physiotherapy was just part of the rehabilitation program. There wasn’t any prosthetics and orthotics training to create artificial limbs, everything we used was imported. So, with help from some European governments and universities, help from Handicap International, and some NGOs, we created a new curriculum for a new prosthetics and orthotics department. I headed that for the first few years.
MJ: You must be pretty proud to have helped start that.
MN: Oh, yeah, I’m very happy about that. Then we created an occupational therapy department. So these were my babies, you can say, that I was able to support.
MJ: Pretty significant babies.
MN: Yes, I’m happy with the way they grew. Even now, I hear from staff and students. They still connect with me. They thank me. They appreciate the work that was done. I went there for a job, but left there in 2013 with a sense of accomplishment and a sense of giving.
MJ: You fell in love with the people.
MN: Yes, exactly. The people and the culture and the land.
My dad also got injured when he was working there. And then I realized that there wasn’t any proper occupational health and safety legislation. So I reached out to the Ministry of Labour to advocate for change and I ended up leading a team which helped draft the first legislation. So it’s kind of like WorkSafeBC.
MJ: So you helped set up WorkSafe, Rwanda?
MN: I supported it and helped get the ball rolling. The first draft of the legislation was created by the team. I wasn’t leading, but I was supporting. There also wasn’t anyone to teach occupational health and safety in the country. So I took it upon myself to create a certificate course.
MJ: Wow! What else did you do there?
MN: (Laughs) Well, I created a unique program where we introduced ergonomics in schools for kids so that as they grow, they already understand it, thus trying to prevent future musculoskeletal injuries among next generation workforce. At that time of introducing this program, only Israel and Rwanda have done this.
MJ: What about your personal life?
MN: My wife is from a north-western state of India called Gujarat. As mentioned earlier my first son was born in India and my second son was born in Rwanda when we were living in Kigali—just before we came to Canada.
MJ: When did you come here?
MN: We moved here in 2013. Rwanda was awesome. I wouldn’t have left, but my kids were growing up and I wanted my kids to have access to more than I could provide at the time. And I wasn’t a citizen of Rwanda. All my cousins live here. My sister lives in Seattle. So I thought, “Let’s come this side.” That’s why I moved to Canada.
MJ: How old are your kids?
MN: 16 and 12. One of them is going into Grade 8 and the other Grade 12. Two teenagers; lots of gray hair (laughs).
MJ: What was it like when you first arrived?
MN: For me, I would call it a dream come true for immigrants. I landed on Friday and on Monday I was offered a job.
MJ: That was fast.
MN: Because they already interviewed me. I just sent an email on the Friday that I was actually in Canada and I was offered the job by Monday.
MJ: And did you take it?
MN: Yeah, of course. I started working for the Manufacturing Safety Alliance of B.C., which was in Chilliwack. It’s a health and safety association for all manufacturers in B.C. I started as a safety advisor.
MJ: So you hit the ground running. But what about physiotherapy?
MN: The process to get certified would not allow me to work in the field immediately. My wife was a physiotherapist too and we soon realized that we have to write all these exams. There was a wait period of few months for your credentials to be acknowledged and prepare for a theory exam and then another period of around an year for a practical exam. So, though we were both trained physiotherapists, who actually trained other physiotherapists, but we weren’t allowed to work without taking those exams.
MJ: Were you expecting things to be smoother?
MN: Yes and no. I knew about the exams, that’s why I applied for a different job, but I thought we’d be able to write the exams and get working at some point.
MJ: How did work go in the initial few years you were here?
MN: I worked in Chilliwack as a safety advisor. Then over time, I became COO of the Manufacturing Safety Alliance of B.C., over a six-year span.
MJ: That must’ve made you feel pretty good, to get that sense of accomplishment.
MN: Absolutely. Apart from growing in a new career, the accomplishment of actually supporting the industry was satisfying as well.
Then an opportunity came up with the Actsafe Safety Association. This is a health and safety association for the motion picture industry, television, entertainment, arts, and events. I was CEO for three years before joining Amazon early in January this year.
MJ: I wrote about your book earlier this year. Anything you want to say about Janya Bharata that we may not have gone over in April?
MN: I was very happy, when you interviewed me then, that you knew about the Mahabharata and that you read Bhagavad Gita. It made it much easier for me to explain my book to you and much easier to talk about what was behind the story. I am also glad to be recognized by B.C. Book World and the book Janya Bharata: The War is now available in Surrey Library. I am looking forward to the day, when I may stumble upon my book in the library.
MJ: You mentioned TEDx. How’d you get into that?
MN: I came across this posting, on Facebook or something, that TEDx was looking for speakers and I have a unique story that I wanted to share. As an immigrant, who lived in a developing country, I realized there are things we can learn in Canada from a country like Rwanda. We always think developing countries can learn from us, but what about the other way around?
So I pitched my idea and it was accepted.
MJ: When are you going to bring a TEDx talk to Cloverdale?
MN: (Laughs) Whenever there is an opportunity!
MJ: Anything you’d like to add about your life or Cloverdale or anything?
MN: When we first explored Cloverdale as a place to move to, we realised it has such quick access to everywhere, local markets, beaches, the mountains, USA. It’s quite central. I love it here. I love Cloverdale. It’s so rich in culture because of all the different people who have work and live here, but it has a small-town feel.