Dor Bahadur Bista, The Unforgettable
Writing one article every Tuesday for more than 1.5 decades has been fun and experience at the same time. Often, though, TRN sends a topic to write on and the free-wheeling and dealing habit has to come into a nice frame. This week the frame has a title: the legendary scholar – Professor Dor Bahadur Bista. While writing or speaking on social, cultural and anthropological issues Bista’s memory has never faded, nor forgotten. With the kind of personal relation the writer had with the great scholar, it is a bit of a nostalgic feeling, too.
The many faces of the ‘lost’ Professor Bista can never be erased from the memory of those who knew him personally and heard him speak on any topic related to society and culture. Celebrating his 92nd anniversary in absentia is not much of a fun as the so well-read and heard scholar is no more with us. Nobody knows whatever happened to this mature and very careful scholar suddenly right after he left his friend’s house the night before at Nepalgunj. The sudden disappearance of Bista not only created an unexpected vacuum in the anthropological academia, it came as an incident giving birth to a host of theories. The writer’s first personal impression came when he built the CNAS building and began research activities not much heard before. He was in search of young and energetic, committed scholars to man the centre and would accept the candidates after carefully reading the credentials and the faces.
In the late 1970s TU planned to have a department of Anthropology at Kirtipur in the early 80s. Then VC Jagat Mohan Adhikari was particularly interest to do this. As a result, few young researchers and lecturers were sent abroad under several scholarship programmes. This writer became a Fulbright nominee and completed his PhD from the University of California. Similarly, Krishna Bhattachan, Dilli Dahal and Nabin Rana were also selected to do their degrees in Anthropology and Sociology. There were few already at work with the government. Upon the return, Prof. Bista encouraged the writer to change the department from Culture to Anthropology/Sociology. Once in 1986 Bista was annoyed when a power-crane was used to lift one person offering ‘double’ promotion at the cost of this writer, a senior lecturer with PhD and all other qualification needed for the job. Prof. Bista, the Chief of Anthropology, could only witness the worst part of selection and sympathised with this writer. For the new person in question, Bista’s Bahunbaad and Fate had worked in TU over and over again.
Actually in the second half of his active academic life, Prof. Bista took a U-turn in his attitude toward Nepal’s age old hierarchical caste system. Even his ‘high caste’ colleagues in the university and outside in the bureaucracy were more than stunned when Bista hit hard on the harder ever mindset of hardline Hindu high castes’ supremacy in all aspects of Nepali life. He associated the mindset with a fitting term ‘fatalism’ where hard work and less gain was on the fate of the poor and lowly births whom the ‘shastras’ would not recognise as virtual human beings worthy of anything than serving the high. The ones leaning on cozy chairs both in this phenomenal and the world beyond were the real humans enjoying life within the divine frame of creation although they needed the rest for fixing and maintenance. Bista couldn’t help speak out loud and clear against it.
The book, a good thesis of Bista’s own experience and understanding of the Hindu, dominated mindset of a large section of Nepalis, found a great market beyond Nepal, in the English speaking world of the donors and benefactors. At home, it came as a torch in the janajati academic front where Bahunbad or fatalism has always been considered the biggest hurdle ever for progress and prosperity. Bista might have betrayed the high castes by telling what he wished to; he certainly amused and invigorated the anti-Hindu sentiment that had emerged in the post 1979 (opinion poll) era. The party-less Panchayat had one strong and unmovable leg too short and weak to move with the same strength, vigour and wider popular support. Bista had done the operation wrong. With few other notes regarding the origin of the Shah dynasty in earlier writings, Bista had been unpopular but with the new book he had played a qualified villain to some. The book became the first and last of his thesis.
In order to further prove his theoretical perspective in real life situation Bista chose Chaudhabisa, a remote and typical rural setting off Khalanga, Jumla, in Karnali. How a hidden rural setting can provide evidences of development lag was perhaps in his mind and work schedule. But that was not to happen. He became a victim of some hither to unknown mysterious situation and disappeared forever. Readers both at home and abroad desperately waited for a second volume of Fatalism. But Bista met a fate he never believed to exist or could be stalking on his way.
The writer, along with then VC of TU Prof. Madhav Sharma made small effort to visit the site while on a tour of Jumla but situation didn’t allow doing so. In a meeting not long back than the fateful day he faced, Bista told this writer, ‘see, I am already close to 70, it is for you young folks to continue what I started. This is a mission that needs a bit longer work.’ Prof. Gunnar Halland a noted anthropologist from the University of Berge, who was together when Bista said this, appreciated him for what he had done to make the traditional Nepali thought pattern understandable to the western world. He also wished Prof. Bista well in his continued and deeper insight and understanding of Nepali people and culture for the benefit of the readers and researchers. Halland, like this scribe, was the coordinator of the project that brought TU and Bergen close together in a long term research and education project.
Finally, losing Prof. Dor Bahadur Bista (as if forever) has been a sad experience for those who committed to make anthropology and sociology as an integral part of our university system. Hundreds, even thousands of graduates, now working in different fields remember him as a hero who could tell the ruler of the land who could be their potential ancestors on the face.
With classics like the People of Nepal and its Nepali child ‘Sabai Jaatko Fulbari’ and more importantly Fatalism and Development and with his straightforward viewpoints Bista could have annoyed some and amused many but he was enemy to none. This is the reason why his academic children and successors feel pleased to call him the father of Nepali anthropology. And, with the contributions he made, and the direction he offered in the field, he truly was.
(Former Dean of Humanities & Social Sciences, TU and Fulbright scholar from University of California, Khatry writes on cultural issues)