Saubhagya Shah: A Tribute

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I met Saubhagya for the first time in New York. We had both been invited to an event at the Asia Society—a group of Nepali activists had come for a conference, and we were there to hear them speak. Unlike most Nepalis, Saubhagya seemed deeply unhappy in America. Perhaps it had to do with his recent divorce from his American wife. Or perhaps it had to do with the fact that he was always deeply attached to his homeland, and was now adrift after his Ph.D in a foreign country.

Soon after this, we both returned to Nepal. Dr. Saubhagya Shah had a Ph.D in cultural anthropology from Harvard. I had just finished my Masters degree in anthropology from the New School for Social Research in New York. Naturally, we found we had things to talk about. What surprised me about Saubhagya was that he never complained about the state of the country, as many people who returned from the US did. He seemed comfortable in the institutional confines of TU, where he told me he was starting a program. I marveled at his patience and his willingness to engage with local institutions. After one telling encounter with TU, I had fled the environs of that particular academic institution and never gone back again. What happened to me was this--In a burst of nationalistic fervor after my undergraduate studies in the USA, I had decided not to return to America but get an MA in English Literature at TU instead. I sat through a particularly pointless and strangely error-filled entrance exam, received the second highest marks, then received a phone call from a Nepali Congress affiliated student party member informing me that I had passed the exams and could now join the program—conditional upon payment of a certain amount of rupees. Basically, they wanted a bribe. This was a completely repugnant idea to me, and I never went back again.

The only person who could persuade me to return to TU was Dr. Saubhagya Shah. He told me that he had started a program at TU called the Program on Conflict, Peace and Development Studies. He had been administering for the past two years, and would I like to come and teach the students about gender and postmodernity? I was skeptical. I wondered what Saubhagya, who was also consulting for the World Bank with smart people like Lynn Bennett on the groundbreaking “Unequal Citizens” research, was doing at TU. I asked him if it was possible for him to survive in this institution rife with politicking and where academics seem to be the last priority. Saubhagya agreed with me that it indeed would have been quite difficult for him to be part of the main university at Kirtipur. The department he had started was affiliated with the main university, but located in a separate place from TU. This way, he said, he was able to work autonomously, yet still with institutional legitimacy. He said that the program was partially supported by the Norwegians, and so far it had been very successful in recruiting students. Would I like to come and see what they had been doing?

What was a man with a Harvard Ph.D doing at TU? I had to find out.

Saubhagya was sitting in a small room when I found the building in a small lane in New Baneshwor. He was chatting with one of his colleagues, and we spent about half an hour laughing and joking casually. He made fun of his Luddite tendencies. He had a Facebook page but he didn’t know how to use it, he said. What I remember about the moment was how unassuming he was about his achievement. Only in hindsight would I realize what he had done. He had dared to put his
own life aside, and gone in to improve a national institution that most people of his caliber would not waste their time with. Saubhagya could have gone to any academic institution of his choosing. And yet here he was, sitting in the small office, very much at home, discussing the latest assignment with his teachers and his students.

The civil conflict had just been over for a year, and people were still jittery after over a decade of human rights violations, disappearances, extra-judicial killings, and other violations. And yet here was a program which brought together the very people who had fought the war on opposite sides in the same classroom.

Saubhagya had made it appear like I was giving a relaxed series of talks on gender and feminism, and on postmodernity. In the long classroom, I suddenly found myself face to face with police and Army officers, young students, exchange students from Sri Lanka, and human rights activists. Somehow, through his unassuming and easy manner, he had managed to bring together the very proponents of the war face to face with each other—and encouraged them to learn about peace and development. The prospect of talking to these folks, some of them older Army and police officers, daunted me. However, I plunged right into my notes and before I knew it, we were not just talking about the history of feminism in the West, but also about all the human rights violations against women in the recent civil conflict.

I don’t know what students took from my lessons in Louis Althusser and Gramci. I felt a little flustered at times from what appeared to me a wide gap between my lectures on post-modern theory and what the students wanted to learn about peace and development. Perhaps I wasn’t the right teacher. Perhaps post-modern theory wasn’t the right topic. I voiced these concerns to Saubhagya. Wasn’t postmodern theory a little over the top for Army soldiers and social activists who wanted concrete information, not theoretical abstractions? But Saubhagya was always quite firm about it—that despite the lack of formal graduate education for many of his students, he seemed to have the rather relaxed approach and deep conviction that they would eventually be able to understand what I was talking about. And indeed, that it was important for them to be exposed to these theories that circulated in Ivy League universities. I would see the wisdom of his approach later, when old students started to stop me on the streets and remind me of what I had taught them. One was an Army officer who was now off to Congo, and he said he still remembered everything I had talked about.

It was perhaps this generosity of mission, the hope and possibility that he could pass on a Harvard education to his students, half of whom were struggling still with writing a two-page essay, that may have led him to work too hard. People who knew him more intimately said he wasn’t taking care of himself. Although Saubhagya lived with his mother and brothers, he was working so hard that at times he forgot to eat his meals. Also troublesome was his heart murmur, which
he shared with me about. A heart murmur could be life-threatening. He had to monitor it closely. One day I saw him outside the program office with a very dark face. The next day, he was hospitalized from the collapse of his heart, and he had to be revived artificially. His work took priority over his private life, and his private relationships also suffered, as a result.

In some ways, I wonder if Saubhagya was trying to get his life’s work out of the way because he knew, instinctively, that he was one of those people who would die too early. When he did go, he left behind not only a flourishing program which taught people from all walks of life about the possibility of peace after war, but he also left behind a whole body of clearly articulated writings, research and other works that would remain the foundation for many others who would come after
him. 

Many of Saubhagya’s work remains unfinished. In particular, Saubhagya was working on a paper about reservations for the Karnali district, a work which remains unfinished but very important for the mid-Western people of Nepal. Who will carry on this work? It will take years to train another man with the same caliber and same commitment to his country to finish this mission.

Saubhagya led an extraordinary life. He was born in Jumla, one of the poorest district of Nepal, and yet his name indicated he was related to the Thakuri clan of the royal family. He was educated in Budanilkantha School, the best school of Nepal, then received a scholarship to travel and study in Harvard. Unlike many other Budanilkantha students who come from remote parts of Nepal, receive scholarships to study in the USA and then never return to their home country—Saubhagya came back. I don’t know the statistics, but I have a feeling Saubhagya was a unique case of return.

Some people read pro-monarchial sentiments in his well-written articles and tried to discredit his entire body of work based on that misreading. But if you go back and read what he wrote, you will see that his democratic sentiments are very clear, and that his greatest concern was for the nation.

In his memorial, his friends, all fighting back bewilderment and loss and tears, remembered him as not the smartest boy of the class—that one was somebody else—but somebody who loved to read books and discuss them. Other friends who knew him through other groups at different times said he loved to sing Deuda songs from his region. In the Budanilkantha boys’ world, losing a classmate is like losing a family member. This is how the men in that room, all balding and with
paunches, reacted. The interesting thing about Saubhagya was that he was neither balding nor had a paunch. He still maintained the fit look of a man in his mid-thirties, a look helped along by a regular regimen of running and exercise—perhaps a concession to his American education. Just before his death, he had been about to go out running. In that sense, as well, he had been a man out of sync with his contemporaries—when most of his friends were working in jobs, raising their own children, and clearly in the midst of comfortable middle aged existences, Saubhagya was building a new institution and trying to shape a new kind of citizen.

In that stunned communal grief, we all had a strange sense of losing our moorings. As his classmate grasped at straws, trying to make sense of it, there was this sudden void that occurs when people die too young, leaving too much behind. The knowledge of death doesn’t mix too well with a great legacy. And this is what we fumbled with, as if we were all saying: what happens now?

During his mourning period, I went to his house with some friends. The house past Ring Road was modest, and purchased by Saubhagya through his consultancy fees. The group who came there was diverse—family members, students, colleagues from Jumla who he was collaborating with on writing the paper on reservations for the Karnali district, friends of his from Budanilkantha who had now reached prestigious heights in their chosen professions. When his mother, who was past eighty, cried with such unbearable grief, it occurred to me that not only was her grief due to the fact that he was her very loved son, but that indeed
he had been a very special person that would be impossible to replace. His sisters wished he hadn’t been so private about his other lives outside the home—they wished, they said, that they had known his friends earlier.

His mother died a few months later. I am certain the grief killed her. For everyone present, there was a great sense of loss. His family had lost the most loved elder brother in their midst. His friends had lost a fun loving man who left too early. And Nepal had lost a man who had contributed tremendously to scholarship, knowledge and institution-building of the Nepali nation.

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