-Sagar Shrestha for The Zerone
-Photographs: Courtesy of Binay Poudyal
When you enter his office, you will find all elements of rewards and achievements on the walls, photos of a young man in front of a computer that looks much like the first Macintosh or the IBM, in front of a robot, with renowned personalities, certificate of veneration, and everything a boy aspiring to become an inventor could dream of. A small and elegant CPU, the size of a radio sits on his desk that can be easily mistaken for a router or a switch board. Muni Bahadur Sakya is in his seventies today. His voice is soft and compassionate just like his countenance. He welcomes us in and after a few minutes of awkward introductions followed by silence, we ask him about his company in 1985, uncertain about the propriety of such a question for a conversation starter. He starts from much earlier though, actually his school days, identifying himself as a science enthusiast.
At school, he had been a curious boy. The news of Yuri Gagarin in space would fill him with delight to such an extent that he made a telescope out of the lenses of his grandfather’s glasses, 1 meter focal length, he adds, to gaze deeper into the sky. “I could see the moons of Jupiter”, he whispers with probably the same delight. Physics was his favorite subject of all that brought him to Tri Chandra College to pursue intermediate in science. In 1962, he went to Calcutta, India to study Radio Electronics Engineering. “I learnt so many things”, he says. Quite obvious though, that he should, but the flavor lies in the great joy with which he expresses this sentence, hinting that learning has been the most joyous thing in his life. Back in Nepal, he was hired in Radio Nepal, Khumaltar. There, he worked in collaboration with British Engineers.
In 1970, Sakya went to England to study Communications Engineering. He says he studied all throughout the time he stayed, never getting distracted by the allures of Europe. It is expectable to hear such idealistic endeavors from a man of his stature, quite difficult to realize that they are idealistic only because very few dare to confront them. He was among the very few, and fewer yet who were apt enough to understand the booming technology — computers. He was provided with scholarship to a training program in France where he worked with mainframes. Excited by the power of such machines, the first thing he did when he returned to Nepal, was to build a computer of his own, the first microcomputer to be made by a Nepali in Nepal.
The year was 1978, the basic things needed to build a computer had been brought along. SCAMP micro processor, a hex keyboard, a CRT TV, 1KB RAM and few other chips for input and output interfaces. A video card for output interface and a power supply for the computer were built by himself. And, in the same room where we are having this conversation, he was there, alone, 35 years earlier, putting the chips together painstakingly. Day and night and night and day, 3 hours of sleep for so many days in a row, facing the same brick wall. You are led to imagine Wozniak in his garage, at around the same time in United States struggling to assemble the first Apple computer.
In 1979, shortly after Sakya released the first micro computer of Nepal and of south Asia, he was interviewed by Radio Nepal. A Chinese newspaper covered the news and was published in 88 countries throughout the world. “I was a hero in 88 countries”, he recalls. He demonstrated his computer to an educated audience in South Asian Regional Conference and in TU. “I want you to be patient for half an hour because I am going to show you something. I assure you that you will not regret the time you spent waiting.” With these words he began typing a program to generate random numbers. He explained the significance of the program and explained how computer was the future of our world.
Following the news spreading worldwide, leading researchers from the United States arrived at his doorstep to request him to join the research with them. “Where there is a will, there is a way”, he quotes. A saying we have known since childhood. A saying that has been clichéd for so long so much that it sounds almost meaningless today. But maybe meaningless to only those who never had the willingness strong enough to realize how several ways come unfolding before them.
Beginning in 1980 to 1983, during research and development in the US, he took leading role in the development of computer hardwares. One of the most important developments was a floppy disk of 900KB at a time when Apple had a floppy disk of only 80KB. Working at the frontier of computer science wasn’t satisfying for him. He started thinking about Nepal, and the sense of responsibility grew stronger with every thought. “I felt a ‘call’ to Nepal”, he says. And, it is as true as it is poetic. When finally he decided to return, his colleagues tried persuading him to stay reminding him of the condition of Nepal and even comparing it with that of India. But that only hardened his decision.
In December 1983, Muni Sakya released the Nepali font, Devnagari. In a seven days long exhibition in Tri Chandra College, he displayed national anthem printed in Nepali on another more advanced microcomputer he developed himself. During 1984/1985, High Tech Pioneer Pvt. Ltd. was established that took building computers and accessories thereof to a commercial level. The CP/M based computers were more sophisticated, purchased by Agriculture development Bank and numerous other institutions in 1985 from his company. It could instantly print out bank statements, certificates and cheques in Nepali. In 1986, he built a voice control system using his computer that could control numerous devices — pump, lights etc., recognizing spoken Nepali words as commands.
In 1995, Shakya built a computer manufacturing plant spending all of his savings. He imported conveyors, automatic soldering machine, ultrasonic cleaner, de-moisterizing oven for the industry. He had great difficulties with the government concerning license and custom. “There is one percent custom tax in cigarettes that kill people and they demanded 15 percent for the machines I bought to build computers”, he expresses his resentment. Our myopic leaders failed to recognize the importance of the unprecedented work and only created hindrance. “There is a budget of 0.1% for science and technology”, he laughs. It is not disagreeable to describe our leaders as uneducated and indifferent given the ease with which every sane person can derive that any country in the world that has prospered has done so through science and technology.
In 2007, he built a supercomputer from a cluster of 16 different computers. The cluster worked on a single terminal increasing the processing speed by a factor of 16. Such computers are crucial for computing big data in weather forecasting, cosmological simulations or financial analysis.
His recent work includes Green computer, the one that was mistaken for a router, that draws only 35 watts of power, almost six times less than that of a normal desktop computer, almost half of the power required by a normal Laptop computer, at half the price of a Laptop computer and with better processing speed. Tele-medicine is yet another technology he has successfully launched to render life saving health-care to the under-privileged, sick, meek and poor people of the remotest part of Western Nepal. It does so by establishing communication between a doctor and a patient. He has voluntarily installed Tele-medicine systems in Kalikot, Dhading and Bajura where there are no hospitals.
“Hard work and patience. And I cannot emphasize them enough to let you know how much of them is required”, he says. Maybe that is what it takes for something far from normal to come out, patience greater than normal, hard work greater than normal. Simple. No tips for tricks and magic, because only a magician knows the pain he has gone through to bring about the magic that deserves a roomful of awestruck audience. He was not a born genius or a super-fast learner. “Everyone has got 24 hours. You need to create your own time”, he advises. It might feel depressing if we have not utilized our time like he does. We cannot take back all those times we spent on trivialities and we may not find ourselves anywhere near the path he has followed. But there is something very important that we should learn from his life. “Be optimistic, always” he says with so much stress on every word as if to make it clear that it is to be taken seriously. Even today he is still learning and working on so many projects with the same energy he had when he made his first computer. At a time when optimism is often mistaken for idealism and even immaturity, where growing old means giving up on your dreams considering them childhood fantasy and unrealistic, the courage to stay optimistic is what separates people like him from the ordinary.
It is tempting to conclude that this is a successful story. Of course, his life is a very successful one. He has built everything he ever dreamed of. When you are inside his museum, you will be overwhelmed by the number of articles lying there. Robots ranging from humanoids to automatic Nepali speaking guide, communication systems, telescope, a spy headphone using laser that translates the vibration of window into sound inside the room, Morse code transceiver, security systems, radiation monitor and so many others that you will be led into thinking if one life is even long enough for all of them. In spite of all of these, there is something that troubles him inside. He has not been completely successful in the dreams he had for Nepal when he made the decision to return from the US. “Nepali le banaeko computer pani chalchha ra?” The self derogatory remarks enjoyed by leaders and citizens alike, that tend to discourage every Nepali living abroad and wanting to return. Unless this stops, unless people like Muni Bahadur Sakya get the recognition, respect and support they deserve, there is very little hope for change.
Currently, Muni Bahadur Sakya runs his own company, High Tech Pioneer Ltd. He still has boundless energy and enthusiasm for what he does and is always open to sharing his experience, knowledge and passion to anyone interested.
You can visit his home cum office in Ghattekulo, Kathmandu to meet him in person and catch a glimpse of his life and all his many achievements. If you request him, he will probably be willing to show you around his laboratory/museum. In any case, it will be an inspiring visit for sure.
A version of this article appears on our Medium Page.
First Published on Jul 16, 2016. Facts may be outdated and/or inaccurate.