The story begins in 2001…
Yours truly got a call just a couple of hours after midnight from a friend. You never feel good getting a call before dawn, unless you’re in your prime teenage. The phone ring is always eerie (mobile phones were not in the range of entry-level job holders then), if you’ve just hit the best part of the sleep. And it was a male friend. Nothing friendly about the call, no greetings exchanged. A shock: “Did you hear about what happened at the palace?” Now you don’t expect a Royal palace to be a topic of ice breaker, that too, at such a time.
That’s enough to dispel thoughts about your friend being lunatic, because he’s a fellow journalist. Journalism is a serious business. A year into journalism – that too in the country’s best read English daily – makes you feel that you have to be an expert on whatever happens in the known universe (although I was primarily supposed to be know-all in Sports). The news was sketchy and we did not really figure out at the moment that we were talking of a massacre. The sleep, that had started only a few hours ago was nowhere in sight. After all, it was an issue about the Royals. And then you think, you were near the place of incident (Thamel), only a few hours ago. “How did I miss something then?”, a question makes rounds in your head. No answers.
More phone calls in the coming hours and complete silence on state-run TV and radio, tells you a story. A story you never imagined. The whole family – the chair, the heir and those who were probably not in the power scheme – is gone, brutally massacred. Not even hopes left. “How can that happen?”, you ask yourself. Family members ask you, sitting in front of TV, before dawn – because they too think journalists should know all – “What exactly happened?” No answers again.
In such situation, the numbness grows, and it did. A walk to nearest street after sunrise and you see people confused, some shocked. They are speaking to each other. The tone is still hush-hush. Most newspapers haven’t reported it. The ones who have, have only hinted at some violence at the palace. And you think, if I was the editor of the paper, maybe I would’ve been told everything by the sources high-up. Maybe, or maybe not! Wishes are not horses, not for real.
The rumor (till then no official confirmation) had it that the Crown Prince gunned down nine family members, including King Birendra, in a fit of rage. Rage? How bad? No answers yet.
Difficult to understand why it happened. Even more difficult to have a meal. “Wasn’t the Crown Prince supposed to watch the Grand rehearsal of preparation for the National Games in the evening today?”, you ask yourself. The Games are to start tomorrow, after a grand opening. I’ve already been given two more fellow reporters by my boss, to cover the whole Games. After all, the Crown Prince is (or was, already) the patron of National Sports Council.
The best place at such times, you think, should be a newsroom. That’s where the information should be. You take off for the office. It’s a Saturday. Traffic is less but people on the streets are more in number. On the way, you also see some teary eyed women, who probably never saw the glorified Royals, except in pictures or on TV. The calmness of all this is disturbing. Very disturbing. Everybody knows what has happened, but they fear what will happen next.
The work unlike usual:
Stupidity has its own measures. Even when it’s immeasurable. After a round of tea (or perhaps, more) with fellow workers at the office, I tell the News Editor (the second-in-command after the Editor), “Looks like National Games won’t happen!”
What an announcement! Very intelligent stuff…
Before I even realize the magnitude of my stupidity, he shakes his head and tells me, “Can you help us doing other stuff then?” Humbled with his magnanimity, yours truly agrees. And since he does not ‘understand’ power or politics – being in Sports – mutually both agree that he does stories on those who were not in the power scheme. Prince Nirajan and Princess Shruti – The unfulfilled dreams, or rather, those who’d been slain unnecessarily, shamelessly.
And yes, lest we forget, the National Games have been shelved for now (only to be held some 8 years later).
The work begins, so does the prohibitory orders from the democratically elected government (called curfew). The King is changed over the days. And the official line is: Prince Dipendra, under the influence of drink and drugs killed everyone in his sight at a family dinner at the palace with an automatic weapon. Dressed in military fatigues, Dipendra killed his father, King Birendra (who had ushered in an era of democracy), his mother, brother and sister and five other relatives before gunning down himself.
The times are such; there aren’t many takers for the official version.
However, yours truly gets busy with the work, trying to make telephone calls to people associated with the innocent two. With the curfew in place, it’s difficult to meet them, and they would not believe you on phone. Why should they? They say they feared their own lives. They perhaps did.
One of the mornings when one of the stories appeared on the paper, a friend calls. Somehow she sounds gloomy and satisfied at the same time (only women can do that): “Did you read a piece on Prince Nirajan in The Kathmandu Post? I feel bad about the man, who had nothing to do with politics, and was killed. I feel worse than the day I heard of the killing.”
“Oh really? Who wrote it?”, yours truly asked, trying to sound inquisitive. You cannot argue with women, much less their instinct.
“Oh Sh*t. It’s you.”
No matter how much journalists boast or remain under an illusion that people know their names by heart, yours truly learnt a lesson that day. It’s the news that people are interested in, and not who wrote it (despite the names being in bold fonts). A journalist is just a finger pointing towards the moon so that people can see it. Once they see it, you’ve done your job and lost your importance.
The official version has come. The people hardly believe it, despite dramatic performance on state-run TV by the speaker of the parliament. The new King is on the throne. Journalists from International media still hire private cars and cabs to run around the city. A few have left already. The ones that are here try to find romanticism in Maoist insurgency. They teach the by-passers how to give a juicy soundbite (the way it suits their stories), while some local journalists make money tagging along with the international ones (and also gain exposure).
Meanwhile, the people who were confused on the first day, are still confused. They are grieving. Men, en masse go and tonsure their head. The barbers for a while have stopped charging for their service. Among many rallies taken out in grief, yours truly also finds a place (peer pressure) and subsequently gives in to tonsuring. A friend tells him the reason for his own tonsure, “Dandruff problem.” It’s June heat. No love lost!
The people, the same people, just a decade ago were asking for the head of the same King. At least they wanted this King, and his family, to leave the place. Now everybody is grieving for him and his family, shaving off their head. Those tears are not fake; those are real.
Fast forward – a few days. The tea-stall chatters are not even centered on the slain family. Everybody is talking of the people who are associated with the rituals following cremation. They talk about how much these professional ritual-doers make. What amount? How much gold? How much of Land? The questions are many.
Tells you, like in politics, in life – nothing is permanent. Even grief. Even the loss. Even the crisis. Even the shock. Had heard earlier – The King is dead: Long live the King. Fitting? Still unable to understand.
The term ‘Mystery’ is amazing. Sounding so similar to history, we might as well realize that most incidents in history remain mystery. And true to its nature, mystery still surrounds the massacre that many may argue started the slide of monarchy. A decade from the day, it’s not present. Very few of us talk about it in a whole day.
Most of us still think that the report brought out, which was basically a summary of interviews (and not a result of investigation), has not done justice to the scale of the incident. It was the worst massacre after Lenin inspired shooting of the Romanovs in Russia 9 decades ago.
The other stakeholders in the state remained busy with themselves. The Maoists, who had just upped the ante a year ago in their bloody battle, were not going to sit down idly. They saw Indian ‘hand’ in the episode. Lack of proper investigation meant conspiracy theories still are rife. Although they sound interesting, none of them are convincing enough. After all, conspiracy theories are meant to be interesting. At the same time, democratically elected government and the lawmakers remained mute. Did they fear their own security? They did not tell us.
But the whole episode definitely removed the aura that the monarchy lived with. Something that was granted to them for past couple of centuries. Neither the King non the Crown Prince post-2001, could live up to the billing of a deity. Suddenly, they were not lord Bishnu’s avatar. Amazing so much can happen in one night. That fateful night, along with a family, a myth was killed. The myth that the lord is taking care of the nation and its citizens. The myth was busted, and we are yet to come to terms with it. That we have to take care of the nation ourselves. It has taken a decade, and we’re still work-in-progress when it comes to that.
A decade on, the ring that rattled yours truly’s sleep that night still haunts him, for we are yet to become our own lords. And he is waiting for another ring, timing notwithstanding, which tells him that everything is well with his nation.
Sadly, the story does not end…
(PS: The above photo was featured in the ‘From Our Own Correspondent’ section of online edition of BBC following the Royal Massacre in 2001)