The saga of an unsung heroThe story of Kulababu narrates the struggles of an entire generation of professionals.
A hero is a person admired for "his" courage, perseverance and achievements. The choice of gender isn't accidental. The character's masculinity comes from ancient Greek mythologies, legends and folklore about gods and goddesses, giants and pygmies, soldiers and serfs, and geniuses and fools, where superhuman qualities of a "man" made him overpower monsters. An act of heroism is the time-honoured pathway to greatness.
Greatness, however, comes at a price. Sometimes human values fall by the wayside. Cruelty often consumes bravery. Relationships are soured. Driven by the single-mindedness of achieving one's goals—grandiosely defined as "dreams with a deadline"—the purpose and meaning of life are lost. That could be why great seers and sages have prescribed pursuit of goodness as the only passageway to salvation.
Unlike greatness, goodness is easy to discern and almost impossible to describe. It encompasses most humane qualities such as virtue, kindness, humility, compassion, dedication, patience, integrity, uprightness, truth and the ability to stand by one's convictions in the face of seemingly insurmountable adversities and extreme uncertainties. Being good is a commitment and not an achievement.
The challenge of goodness looked so daunting to litterateur BP Koirala that it made him invent a mother-figure Modiaain to prescribe it to a child in his much-celebrated novella. The narrator describes the all-pervasive war of Mahabharata, where heroes cause the devastation while the "heroines" are left to mourn and gather the courage to build anew. The idea of goodness tempers the allure of greatness and helps reduce the damage a person would otherwise inflict upon society with their supposedly heroic deeds.
It is difficult to decide where to put Kulanand Lal Das in this binary of greatness and goodness. Simply Kulababu to his friends, Dr Das to colleagues, Das Sir to legions of students, and revered as Papa-ji by his offspring, he traversed the arenas of offence and defence with the adroitness of a striker in a football team, which he had once been as captain of the Morang College team in the early 1960s. Content with what he had been able to contribute and achieve, he passed on peacefully when in his mid-80s late last week.
The story of Kulababu narrates the struggles of an entire generation of professionals that helped transform the landscape of the country as life expectancy more than doubled, literacy figures multiplied several times, and the serfs of the Shah-Ranas learnt hesitantly to be citizens of a faulty, faltering but correctable Federal Democratic Republic of Nepal. It also encapsulates the contributions of a pioneering generation that played their part in the enhancement of public life without realising the role that they had played in the transformation of society.
The end of Ranarchy in 1951 created an immense opportunity for the advancement of a country that had remained in the proto-feudal stage of masters and slaves for well over a century. Promises of a republican monarchy remained unfulfilled as King Tribhuvan died in 1955, and King Mahendra decided to interpret the overthrow of the Rana regime of his cousins and in-laws as the Shah Restoration.
Despite the autocratic ambitions of King Mahendra and the democratic aspirations of BP Koirala, hope was in the air in the 1950s. New schools were opening up all over the country. The College of Education was established in Kathmandu to train school teachers. A pioneering educator, administrator and diplomat, Narayan Prasad Arjal founded the Morang College in Biratnagar. The founder-principal of the college took an instant liking to the boy from the boondocks who studied hard and played football like a pro.
Meanwhile, optimism died young as King Mahendra strangled Parliament through a royal-military coup, and put almost the entire cabinet behind bars within 18 months of forming a representative government. Kulababu had to temper his aspirations after completing his graduation in education, and he returned to Harinagar High School in Sunsari as its headmaster. Destiny had decided his career path—he was going to be an educator.
Mentors at the College of Education in Kathmandu convinced Kulababu to switch roles and become an instructor of teachers rather than remaining a teacher. After serving at the Primary Teachers Training Centres in Dharan and Palpa, he was selected in the mid-1960s to pursue higher studies under the newly-established Fulbright Programme. He graduated in educational psychology from the University of Northern Iowa in 1969, and remained a pioneer of the discipline by completing his doctorate in the same subject from Patna University.
Early Greek philosophers give illustrative examples of academic pursuits. Socrates examined life, researched its strength and weaknesses, professed specific values, and was ready to debate their relevance and revise his position. He can thus be called a "professor". His learned student Plato chose to study the human condition and prescribe a set of ideals for its redemption. He was a "reader" of social realities. Aristotle read, wrote and preached—a "lecturer" of knowledge. The Nepali word pradhyapak implies an enlightened teacher that includes all these three roles. Kulababu chose Thakur Ram College, Birgunj as his base to remain primarily a pradhyapak.
History records heroic deeds, while the social processes that made them happen are often consigned to public memory. A few may still remember, but the role that students, teachers and lawyers played in keeping the lamp of democracy burning during the dark years of the 1970s is seldom discussed. Political parties remained proscribed since the promulgation of the "partyless" system. The entire line-up of influential party leaders was either in jail or in self-exile.
The Declaration of Emergency in India, Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, Sheikh Mujib's assassination in Bangladesh, Bhutto's hanging in Pakistan and the consequent intensification of geopolitical rivalry in South Asia played their part. Still, it was the activism of university teachers and student unions that had prepared the ground for the announcement of the Referendum. Its results were somewhat disappointing, but monarchists were soon to discover that it's not easy to undo what has been done: People had realised that challenging the status quo was neither a sin nor illegitimate.
Dulling the dull decade of the 1980s, a few institutions began to come up to accommodate democratic and progressive aspirations. Being a frontier town that channelled most of Nepal's trade with the world, Birgunj was largely conservative and conformist. That could be the reason Das Sir became the default person to call upon for all democratic-minded academics from everywhere. He was a teacher's teacher and commanded the respect of scholars across party lines.
When some of his former students wanted to establish a community college affiliated with Tribhuvan University in Gaur in 1984, he gladly accepted to be its founder-principal. He agreed to join the founding team of Hari Khetan Campus in his hometown and later became its principal.
From the Pradhyapak Sangh to Amnesty Nepal and from the Prajatantrik Bichar Manch to Transparency International, there was hardly a local chapter of any worthwhile initiative that didn't invite him to be their poster person in town. In-between greatness and goodness lie the choice of having lived a life of self-fulfilment. May everyone find that golden mean; on that note, Dashain greetings.