Nepali Times Asian Paints
Ke gardeko?

Those were the last words King Birendra spoke as he collapsed in the billiard room on Friday, 1 June. Shock, rather than pain, was writ large on his face. More than the shock of being shot, it was the shock of knowing who had just shot him.

What have you done, he murmured, as he slowly slumped to the floor. Nepalis will also want an answer to that haunting question as they agonise over what happened that night. As individual citizens, and as a nation, we will have to come to terms with this unspeakable slaughter and move on with our lives in the days ahead. We will soon know what happened, we will be told in excruciating detail of the exact sequence in which the royals were slain, we will get the forensic and ballistic evidence, we will hear clinical descriptions of how many bullets, and about the nature of the fatal wounds. There may even be hints as to motive.

But no one is going to be able to explain what was going on in the head of this young man, and what psychological or chemically-induced rage made him convert what he may have seen as a personal dead-end into a dead-end for his family and a kingdom that he would have inherited. Nepalis will ponder this cataclysmic event and what it means for the direction our society, culture and polity are headed in. An unimaginable tragedy like this isn't just a lesson in morality, it turns our beliefs and value system on its head. Where does insanity end and evil begin? An entire generation of Nepalis alive today will carry this as a burden on its collective conscience. There are no answers: just a numbing sense of the senselessness of it all. And finally, it will only be the inexorable passage of time that will give us the distance from this moment.

Some of us will try to find solace in the Ramayana and Gita and look for parallels, but we will not find anything there that approaches the magnitude of this crime: the cold blooded murder of parents, the slaughter of siblings and relatives. Even our holy books didn't foresee senseless carnage on such a wild scale-not among the warlike gods of our pantheon, not among lesser mortals. But the Gita does have a message that is relevant: how to gain wisdom from suffering. The epic battles of Kurukshetra, the jealousies, greed and vanity that afflicted our gods bring them down to a human level so that we can recognise our own failings in them. The Gita explores the limits of an individual's free will, the dilemmas of reconciling conflict when both sides are convinced they are right, it seeks an explanation for the suffering of innocents and responsibility of the rich and powerful towards the weak and the voiceless. Our holy books, like Greek tragedies, bestow upon readers a sense of relief by catharsis. They give us a glimpse of the abyss, so we do not take the plunge.

With time the conspiracy theories will also lose their scornful and cynical edge. But like theories of the third gunman behind the grassy knoll in the JFK assassination, or the bombing of Rajiv Gandhi, they will never really go away. Our future school text books will tell of an epochal slaughter of royals in the year 2001 that dramatically changed the course of Nepal's history. But decades hence there will still be rumours.

The fact that our democratic institutions have withstood this crisis more or less intact is an indication that despite our deep sense of insecurity and loss of self-esteem, our multi-party setup is much stronger than we might have thought. Our pluralistic democracy, free press, our civil-military relations, the government-palace combine took a major battering, but the institutions of democracy showed a hidden resilience. Let us not underestimate the power of our democracy to survive and adapt

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)