The death of a mythI know you remember that morning as vividly as I do. It was my fourteenth birthday and I woke up to the horror of my dad standing over my bed, whispering, “Jyanmara le sabbai lai sidhyayo.” That murderer finished them all.
I know you remember that morning as vividly as I do. It was my fourteenth birthday and I woke up to the horror of my dad standing over my bed, whispering, “Jyanmara le sabbai lai sidhyayo.” That murderer finished them all.
You too scrambled out of bed and huddled around the television, only to find Nepal Television wasn’t broadcasting anymore. That could mean only one thing.
You rushed to your phone and called every one you know, particularly acquaintances in Thamel, Lainchaur and other neighbourhoods around the palace.
Some said they heard gunshots; some heard explosions; others swore that they had seen helicopters flying in and out.
The rest had slept soundly through the night only to be awoken by your frantic questions.
Soon, you realised that the rumors were getting absurd.
“It is a full blown coup.”
“There were masked sharpshooters.”
“All of Kathmandu’s water was poisoned last night.”
Desperate, you went back to the television, hounding Indian news channels. You listened to the same news report over and over again that morning, hoping that they would somehow announce that none of it had happened.
But it had. And every updated news flash hammered the horror home.
The king was dead.
The queen, too.
The crown prince was dying.
The elegant daughter; the shy and noble young prince. All dead. All murdered. By someone. They weren’t
“Don’t drink the water!”
I know you too remember that morning as vividly as I do.
It is hard to forget the day a myth dies.
Growing up, King Birendra was akin to a mythical figure, as important to us as most other religious and historic staples. Sure, all of it was a result of the perfect narrative manufactured by the state.
But to the commoners, the royal family possessed an “other-wordly” aura. I loved my king growing up.
He was smart, well-educated, modern, benevolent, and by god was he good looking! On TV you’d see him shaking hands and hobnobbing with other heads of state and royals and your chest swelled a little in childish pride.
Besides, he was everywhere—in your wallet, in your books, in the classroom, in the libraries and hallways—looking at you with kind eyes and a regal smile, prodding you to walk a little more upright.
Once, when I was still a student with the missionaries, he graced our school’s fiftieth anniversary celebration, and we the students were to form a salutary human cordon as he left the premises.
I still remember the edgy anticipation that lasted all morning; of having this one opportunity to stand at arm’s length from the king.
And it was truly magical. King Birendra himself, as though he’d just crawled out of a ten rupee bank note, was walking amongst us, waving gracefully and smiling just like in the Mahendra Mala text books.
I remember I was fervently shaking in line that morning. It was surreal. Mythical. And in many ways one of the most spiritual experiences I have had.
As a child growing up in the post-Panchayat liberty, King Birendra had come to embody everything that was “good”.
The king’s well-cultivated public image, perfectly shot photo-ops and endearing personality fused to create an ideal image of what it meant to be Nepali.
And though we criticised the chaotic political culture and Kangresis and the Ahmalees squabbling with one another, these failed politicians were merely a reflection of us, the imperfect masses that elected them.
The royal family stayed above the political hullabaloo. In many ways, king Birendra assumed the role, if just figuratively, of the unseen but omnipotent god—watching over the country but never interfering; trusting the people to find the “right way” eventually.
So, would you blame me that I shook like a Pentecostal in rapture when this all-loving avatar of ‘God’ strode between our teenage human cordon?
Did you not adore him like he was divine?
Did you not shave your head in mourning?
Did you not cringe at the sight of Tara Nath Ranabhatt, the most Honourable Speaker, lunging for the purported weapon-of-crime with his bare hands and brandishing it to the world like a moron?
Didn’t you also die a little bit inside?
I did. That evening, watching the rushed funeral procession from a house in Thamel, I watched his lifeless corpse paraded through the city on bare shoulders.
He who, to my bubbling teenage mind, had embodied the supreme “good” had been vanquished. The archetypal hero was dead. Killed by his own son. In his own holy sanctum.
How could good not prevail?
For decades we had elevated the royal family to a mythical plane. We had projected all our dreams and goodness onto the king. We had placed him above the constitution, above the rule of law, above humanity.
When he was murdered so farcically, an intricate illusion was shattered. It rudely woke us from a royal dream that we’d so willingly slumbered into.
In truth, something in our society broke in the course of those chaotic weeks following the royal massacre.
Much of the royal family’s “other-worldly” aura was derived from the fact that they had remained so secretive and exclusive over the past centuries.
When they appeared in public they remained on cue, flawlessly performing their assigned roles.
Royal births were followed by an avalanche of photo-ops and salutations, deaths by elaborate and scripted funerals.
King Tribhuwan passed away in Europe, King Mahendra in the hushed secrecy of Chitwan. But the death of the King I knew was no less public than the stabbing of a Caesar.
Did we not watch his gaping face contorted in pain and streak with tears of unknown sadness?
Tears for our awakening to his “humanness” and not his divinity? And once this illusion was shattered, could it be wrought again?
Could we as a society reach into our collective imaginations and reprogramme and reproject these values from one man to another?
Today, all these years later, you will occasionally see pro-monarchy memes on the internet, but you can’t help suspect that they are trying to cling on to a dream that they have already been rudely awoken from.
Looking back, you now know the pageantry was all a charade. Our reverence manufactured through relentless and systemic brainwashing. But while it lasted, the dream seemed so sweet.
In the fall that followed the massacre, I had trekked with friends over the Chandragiri hills.
In the course of that day we met a weary old farmer in his sixties and the conversation eventually steered towards the massacre.
A terrible grief seemed to come over him, and he asked, “Raja Mahendra bitnu bho?”
We have lived through strange times.