Nepali Times
1 June as cultural crisis


Nothing in their cultural ideologies and practices prepared Nepalis for the royal massacre of 1 June. Their inability to unpack its enormity has unleashed an unprecedented flood of grief, anger and disbelief. True, examples of regicide can be found in many cultures, in literature as well as history, but such an extreme example does not exist anywhere. How can they accept the fact that their amiable, smiling crown prince gunned down almost his entire family before ending his own life? In the west, when such traumatic events occur, counseling and the "talking cure" provide succour to the affected.

How will the collective psyche of the Nepali populace heal?
Cultural sources-legends, myths, literature, scriptures-have failed to help comprehend and interpret the enormity of the carnage. People have refused to attribute it to an act of individual will and agency. Instead, they have sought to rationalise it by looking for a grander conspiracy and geopolitical design that would measure up to the immensity of the event. In keeping with his orthodox Marxism, Baburam Bhattarai, in his Kantipur opinion piece, refuses to entertain a personal intention behind the killings. In trying to find meaning in global and regional geopolitics, he conflates motive with consequence. All events are historical, but some events in history may not neatly fit into an orthodox interpretation of a doctrine.

To accept that the immediate motive for the incident was personal challenges the very foundations of Nepali culture and society. As much as the murders in the royal palace will have geopolitical consequences in the region, the personal motive of a crown prince going berserk for unacceptable love has no less cultural significance. In both life and literature, romantic love has almost always been maligned as the private obsession of an individual. It is dismissed as eccentric, the whim of transient youth, a passing hormonal urge, a mysterious, villainous affliction incomprehensible to family and society, a momentary passion equivalent to madness, the sooner whose storm passes by with minimum damage to caste, clan, race, blood and hierarchy, the better. South Asian society has immortalised love in its lore and legends-Laila-Majnu, Siri-Farhad, Hir-Ranjha-where lovers suffer in anguished isolation or annihilate themselves. But it also refuses to legitimise romantic love by recognising its humanity and respecting its life-affirming worth. People in Nepal are angry because they cannot accept that the carnage at their revered palace was just such a waste of human lives.

For commentators on culture, however, accepting that the motive behind the killings was personal carries tremendous significance. To say that young people have always fallen in love despite prohibitions is to state the obvious. But to explain that after the advent of parliamentary democracy ten years ago, Nepal sought to legitimise the expression of emotions and ideas, private or public, without restriction, is to indicate the emergence of a new public and cultural ethos in Nepal. A civil society founded on democratic cultural values and principles was gradually taking root in the feudal Nepali soil. Differences of opinion were sought to be resolved through discussion and dialogue instead of silent or violent dictates. Indeed, people insisted on speaking openly about differences in identities and ideas, and living with them. Nepali intellectuals, writers, and activists sought to make discourses about difference a vehicle to comprehend personal and political events. With the telecommunications revolution, chatting about everything from love to gender to poverty travelled far and wide among Nepalis and played a major role in easing the leap from feudalism to democracy. There was an urgency in the words of writers, artists and intellectuals, as if to spare the nation the trauma of some unforeseen tragedy. Their failure to do so then now fuels the anger.

Similar misfortunes have befallen other societies that have struggled in our postcolonial times through the contradictory desires of tradition and modernity, cultures caught between the feudalism of caste and parental dictates, and the democracy of informed personal choice, commitment to love, equality and happiness, between fanatic adherence to dogma, and commitment to resolving and living with differences. At first glance, Friday night's carnage symbolises the utter cynicism of Nepali urban society-it seems to offer no lessons, yield no meaning. In its confusion between tradition and modernity, the Nepali ruling class has lost its bearing in both. But we need to read this event politically, culturally and morally.

The royalty has irrevocably been stripped of its divinity and made worldly, flesh and blood mortals with virtues and failings. Opening the palace to investigation by outsiders has further demystified the divine aura that hung around it for centuries. From now, Nepalis themselves will have to ensure the safety of their royal family, rather than letting the palace live in its complacent divinity charted by astrology. It appears that even the Maoists need the monarchy-unlike the majority Han in China, or Slav dominance in the former Soviet Union, Nepal is perhaps too diverse, geopolitically too complex, to hold its own. This new vulnerability of the palace has also placed greater responsibility on Nepali civil society, which cannot afford any more to be complacent and dependant in the sphere of governance. To leave the nation's fate to the survival of the monarchy is to play with the nation's existence. Nepali civil society needs to take on a more active role in consolidating democratic culture and polity, and tell politicians they need to behave not like the unruly children of a divine father, but like responsible adults empowered by, and accountable to, the people.

The incident also shows that a society cannot have a democratic polity while remaining culturally feudal. Families need to start resolving differences through dialogue -and learn to live with disagree-ment. Had the process of the crown prince's marriage been made public, perhaps this tragedy could have been avoided. The airing of diverse opinions would have illuminated knotty issues. The emerging public culture would have made it clear that caste and clan systems have outlived their time and that Nepal can no longer afford sacrifices in the name of caste and clan purity. Caste and clan were never unadulterated in the first place-they were constructed, invented to specific ends.

The royal massacre has triggered an unprecedented moral crisis among Nepalis. Yes, the susceptibility to rumours and conspiracy theories regarding anything royal had their origin in the total ban on information from the palace to the populace, which seems to have reached its high point on 1 June. In the past, constant intrigue among Nepal's courtiers to advance factional political ambitions fuelled the bazaar of rumours. Rumours and conspiracy theories were the only way common people could make sense of their total helplessness as political subjects. But the current insistence on conspiracy theories is rooted in something much more serious and fundamental. Friday night's events represent a radical negation of family values-the eldest son of a family committing regicide, parricide, matricide, fratricide, sororicide, and, finally, suicide. How can one accept that it has occurred among the royals, whom people looked up to as models of godly behaviour, protectors of dharma? Isn't the eldest son responsible for looking after his parents, here on earth as a caretaker and afterwards, performing annual shradha for their salvation?

Nepalis all over the world find their long-held belief systems and cultural practices radically challenged. Hence the refusal to accept the straightforward truth and the search for conventional, palatable explanations. The traumatised collective psyche of Nepalis will take a while to heal, and open discussion of these matters and transparency are the only way the healing can begin.

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)