In April 1999, in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains, in a sleepy town called Littleton in Colorado, 12 students and a teacher at Columbine High School were killed by two students from the same school in a 16- minute killing spree in the worst school rampage in American history. The killers, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, who had been described by a few of their teachers and friends as “nice and gentle”, subsequently took their own lives.
On 1 June 2001, in the foothills of the Himalaya in a Kathmandu that was getting ready for the night, nine members of the royal family were killed, in a carnage that a dozen witnesses report was carried out singlehandedly by Crown Prince Dipendra. He is thought to have killed himself subsequently.
All Nepal tried to make sense of the bizarre madness, the inexplicability of a son, an heir to the throne, no less, going around summarily executing his entire family within a few furious minutes. Two long months have elapsed since the chilling incident at the Narayanhiti Royal Palace, and the frantic fabrication of conspiracy scenarios has abated somewhat and the national attention is diverted to the ever-pressing problem with the Maoists. The public seems to be coming around to sullen acceptance of what it has been told was the truth.
That is the wrong way to tackle this problem and, even if there is no strident demand from the public, the authorities must live up to their responsibility and try to present more evidence and shed more light on the 1 June episode. If the royal palace, the Parliament and the (new) government of Sher Bahadur Deuba are not mindful of the need to pursue the matter, the cloud over the royal status of King Gyanendra will not lift. And in the long term, this will be to the detriment of both the Nepali monarchy and people.
For the sake of the collective Nepali psyche, therefore, it is necessary to keep the file on the royal massacres open and continue with the investigation. As and when the belief that Dipendra carried out the shooting becomes accepted, another set of questions will begin to trouble the national consciousness. If Dipendra did what they said he did, the questions of “what if” will come to the fore. While sifting of the evidence may well convince the public of Dipendra’s responsibility for the massacre of his family, the questions of “what if” will stay with the country far into the future. It is this aspect, even more than the answer to “who-done-it”, that needs to be tackled for the country to heal in the aftermath of the Narayanhiti murders.
Believers and non-believers
Those who suspect conspiracy, of course, continue to raise sceptical questions such as: with hundreds of palace guards around, with aides de camp attached to every member of the royal family, how come not one of them could intercept and disarm a “highly inebriated” prince? How was this “highly inebriated” prince able to shoot with such alertness and accuracy? How could the right-handed Dipendra have shot himself through the left side of his head? Why was the cremation so hastily carried out? Was it just a series of fantastical coincidences that Prince Gyanendra was away at the time, that his wife Princess Komal was hurt but miraculously managed to survive, that Prince Paras his son escaped totally unhurt, that Princess Himani his daughter-in-law did not attend the dinner? Could parental opposition to the choice of a particular bride ever be sufficient to instigate such ghastly fury? Why did a prince, so cheerfully enjoying a squash tournament only a few hours earlier, go on a killing binge? And so on.
Because the palace authorities have clammed up, and those in government seem disinterested and Parliament have clammed-up and the media has not persevered, a majority of Nepalis persist with these questions and are unwilling to accepts Dipendra’s possible culpability. An increasing number, however, are not so sure and are willing to come half-way and concede that Dipendra may have been the killer. There is also a significant minority that has now come around to the conviction that the crown prince must indeed have been responsible for the murders at the royal palace. Starting with those in the uppermost echelons of the Kathmandu society, this last believers’ category is now roping in people from all walks of life.
Had various confusing factors not intervened to promote the rumours and conspiracy theories about the killing of King Birendra and his clan, the public at large would have accepted quite early what only this believing minority accepts today. With the blame assigned, the natural progression for the public would next have been to tackle the question of “what if”. As it transpired, the Nepali public never got to this stage of questioning, being still stuck with “how” and “why” stage. However, as the months and years roll on, it seems likely that today’s minority of believers will guide the debate on the massacre in the future, and start asking the next set of questions— “what if?”.
What if, on that ill-fated night, Prince Nirajan had gone out with his friends instead? What if King Birendra had been able to return fire with the gun he was reaching for? What if the Rana clans of Juddha Shumshere and Chandra Shumshere were not involved in a historical feud? What if Dipendra had not been given charge of evaluating guns for the Royal Nepali Army? What if the late king and queen had agreed to their son’s marriage to Devyani Rana (Dipendra’s love interest)?
In a way, the “what ifs” are more difficult to answer than the “hows” the “whys”, which demands a higher level of specificity. The “what ifs”, on the other hand, at least at first, are more ticklish—dealing with greater intangibles and more elusive notions, such as parental relationships, the metaphysical dimensions of contemporary society and socio-psychological deconstructions. Of course, the “what ifs” may serve the interests of the status quoists in Nepali society who will want to cover up the palace massacre and move on. However, they do give rise to a more solemn set of questions for the long-term because what it asks and tries to answer invokes, according to situation, our paternal, maternal, filial, social and national sensibilities. These sensibilities go far beyond Prince Dipendra’s individual experience with his family, and apply more universally to a child’s experience with the family, a brother’s relationship with his sister, an uncle’s relationship with his niece or nephew, one’s relationship with one’s inner self…our relationship with our destinies.
It is important to ask these questions and treat them with the seriousness they deserve—if only because they will be asked more often as more Nepalis begin to accept the crown prince’s reported role in the massacre. But, the truth is that while some of the questions will be the right ones, and yet others interesting and necessary, we need to be careful in the way we try to seek answers from them, and be suspicious of those that promise wholesale solutions and appease our sentiments.
In the case of Columbine High, for example, Cassie Bernall, the 17-year-old junior and a “born again Christian is reportedly believed to have replied “Yes” when asked if she believed in God. She was subsequently shot. We were all provoked to ask then if she could have saved her life by replying “No” instead. Which again elicits a series of questions. Would Cassie have lived if she had chosen not to find her religion all over again and possibly avert inciting the killers’ ridicule? Would Cassie have lived if she were not a Christian in the first place, possibly precluding the need to even respond to that fateful question? What if the two student killers had a predilection not for Doom, but for Ludo or Chinese checkers? What if Marilyn Manson (the rock star whose music is said to have triggered the killers’ dark side) had by an accident of circumstance become a firefighter instead? Who should the blame be put on? On America’s culture of violence? On diabolical computer games like Doom? On the Internet where Eric and Dylan had learnt how to make bombs? What if the Internet had not been invented by the US military?
Who should the blame be put on in Nepal? On Nepali parents, do not have sufficient empathy with their children’s sensitivities, the departed royal couple epitomising the condition of the modernising upper classes? On royalty as a whole, that demands too much from its members? On drugs and alcohol that have seeped into the lives of Nepal’s youth? On a culture that is still beset with looking at a child’s aspirations in the light of family or caste expectations and requirements?
In times like these, even as a delayed reaction, it is normal to begin to manufacture a succession of “if only” and “what might have been” questions. What if Dipendra had been so drunk as to have been totally comatose that night? What if Princess Shruti had used her judo skills to interrupt a prince gone berserk? What if members of the royal family did not have unhindered access to arms? What if, Devyani Rana had not been born? How would things have been different, if at all?
It is not that These questions in themselves have no value. However, to dwell on them hysterically will yield responses and outcomes that are so infinite that we would get lost. It will create a situation where blame begins to disperse so rapidly that it eventually becomes meaningless. Killers become victims and victims become killers in ever-spiralling permutations.
Even if this is primarily a sociological issue, science might come in handy in trying to take the nation forward from these crisis-ridden times. Chaos theory is predicated on the notion that we live in largely unpredictable, irreducible, nonlinear, iterative and turbulent world—what the composer Gustav Mahler called the “ceaseless motion and incomprehensible bustle of life”. Trying to model reality and find causal connection between remote events and action is therefore futile. We can begin to appreciate the futility of trying to chart the “butterfly effect”—the notion that, taken to the extreme, a single butterfly moving innocuously in the air in Amazon produces tiny wind currents which when causally linked to a series of other events could lead to a hurricane in the Colombo. But just how do we begin to identify the butterfly and the eggs that created them? What if ten butterflies had decided not to take up the journey on that particular day? Would there still be a hurricane?
Causalities are boundless and indeterminate. As we try to scramble for larger solutions—more security at Naryanhiti, restrictions on access to arms for members of the royal family, an examination of the child-parent relationship, the dissection of polemics on sibling rivalry, the anachronism of “clans” and “castes” in modern times—let us not lead each other into pretending that outcomes can be so easily linked and then predicted and controlled. The nature of the universe and the interplay of politics, drugs, love, community, human conscience, poverty, insanity—cannot be explained by linking all the situations in a cause-and effect linearity. Trying to connect and reconnect all these infinite variables will invariably yield incoherent outcomes.
The tendency to try to come to terms with this hostile reality, to respond emotionally to a maddening act through the many “what ifs” is itself a natural one—to get absorbed by and preoccupied with it, is not. Robert Louis Stevenson had said: “Life is monstrous, infinite, illogical, abrupt and poignant.” When left to stray, the human sensibility tends to seek hidden arrangements in everything, but in doing so we lose perspective. The collective will and capacity of the Nepali people to move forward will languish if they continue to, as the academic Elaine Showalter says, “look for magic-bullet answers to the complexities of modern life”.
Nepali society needs to recover from the whirlpool of conspiracies and contradictions, sadness and anger. Do we want this incident to take away more from us than it already has? Any fixation in trying to establish the late Prince Dipendra’s motivations and, worse, causally link them to the infinite number of possibilities is akin to trying to find the pattern of a falling leaf or a bat out of hell or trying to determine the relationship between a child’s cry in Namche Bazaar and an avalanche on Nuptse’s flanks. In hunting for societal scapegoats for Dipendra’s alleged macabre act—whether in collective trends or individuals—we will only be labouring under confusion and dealing in dubious metaphors that lead ultimately to piles and piles of hypotheses and schemes that will soon enough crumble. In particular, such flights of fancy can be ill-afforded by a country presently beset with a serious Maoist insurgency, political instability, economic pessimism and such massive depletion of its emotional and mental stamina.
The process of national introspection is of course positive and cathartic, and the plea is not that questions not be asked—it is simply that we resist from reaching for short-cut answers to difficult issues. All the pundits, the psychoanalysts, the psychologists, the social commentators, novelists, and Bollywood producers (the actor Dev Anand, who would make a film on the royal bloodbath) and all well-wishers of Nepal must first look into the assumptions on which they begin to look for answers and to plot their narratives. There should be no trivialising of the tragedy that has befallen the people of Nepal. The analysts should not try and feed fodder to our dark side by dwelling on the “what ifs”, and to recognise the limitations of what can be explained, controlled and predicted and what cannot be. The universe is not a pendulum that sticks to its arc, and we must resist the temptation to claim to know all the answers to the complexities of life.