Thursday, April 17, 2008

Home (A Few Miles) Away From Home

So “Asia’s most humiliated man” has been asked to vacate Narayanhity Palace gracefully – or else. Now, we aren’t really sure whether King Gyanendra is going to oblige top vote-getter Dr. Baburam Bhattarai. But we’ve heard enough in recent days suggesting that the monarch might be planning to settle down in ex-royals-packed Rajasthan state down south.
Sikar, being the seat of Crown Princess Himani’s family, sounds plausible as domicile in exile. But not when you start figuring out how long ago the crown princess stopped calling the city home.
The names of other Indian cities have popped up in between. The northern pilgrimage of Benares, for instance, where kings Rana Bahadur and Rajendra Bikram had spent some time in exile. Their fate after returning to Nepal would probably be enough to dissuade King Gyanendra from making that choice.
Gurgaon, on the outskirts of Delhi where president-in-waiting Prachanda once resided, is touted as another destination. But wouldn’t it be so disgustingly conspicuous to trade residences at the highest national level so soon?
No one is suggesting Beijing, where Norodom Sihanouk – that other monarch another generation of Maoists flirted with – called home away from home. (Sihanouk’s third abode, Pyongyang, could have been considered a destination, considering North Korea’s long-established embassy in Nepal. But, then, the Chinese seem to have started turning off the oil pipelines periodically.)
Dubai, London, New York City and all the other places King Gyanendra is said to have business interests could be lucrative destinations. But India is somehow the national fixation. From Dev Shamsher to Mohan Shamsher, fall from grace has invariably entailed a southward hurtle. We seemed to be caught in that rut.
Still, it’s hard to see King Gyanendra settling abroad, if he were to vacate Narayanhity at all. (An audacious qualification, perhaps, considering the redness all around us, but certainly not an improbable one.) New Nepal simply has too many promises for an ex-monarch. And one who intends to mix business with politics for pleasure and much more.
In comments to relatives and confidantes, the monarch has insisted he would stay in the country come what may. Moreover, exile in India makes little sense. An ex-monarch leaves his country only if he is chased out or to avoid persecution. King Gyanendra stood firm when the multitudes on the streets two years ago forced then-US ambassador James F. Moriarty to fear a messy abdication. His Excellency ended up shifting much of the embassy to New Delhi, but couldn’t see the king anywhere near a whirring helicopter.
As for persecution, the threat will always exist. And exile in India wouldn’t offer any cushion. The Indians wouldn’t miss a heartbeat to make an ex-monarch the first subject of that tightened extradition treaty. Considering their record, they could choose to use him as a prod against the Maoists. That would be another reason for an ex-king to stay in Nepal.
A monarchy abolished contains an element of finality, unless you’re a Sihanouk or a Juan Carlos. It would take a leap of faith of worldwide Hindus to pull that off here. Ordinarily, having ascended to the throne twice is a good enough record. Why not burnish it by becoming the first monarch to have been democratically discharged?
King Gyanendra’s New Year’s message forced Maila Baje to ponder a bit deeper. The satisfaction he derived from Nepalis’ emphatic reiteration of their “firm resolve not to compromise the nation’s existence, independence and integrity under any circumstance” could not have gone down well down south. Chastisement in exile is doubly demeaning, a sentiment only Dr. Shashank Koirala, among the newly elected lawmakers, could really share.
Then something else struck Maila Baje. In addition to his royal stock, King Gyanendra shares the blood of a Maithili Brahmin (Rana Bahadur’s consort Kantavati) as well as a lower caste forebear. (Historians can’t seem to agree on the antecedents of Johar Kumari, one of Dhir Shamsher’s wives. But they do know that family elders elevated her status in a formal rice-eating ceremony, thereby ensuring their son Juddha Shamsher’s place on the roll of succession). If unity in diversity still has any meaning, then it runs in King Gyanendra bloodline.
By far, the strongest case for King Gyanendra’s continued presence in the country is provided by the Maoists themselves. He would be welcome to stay as a commoner, Prachanda and Dr. Bhattarai have reiterated since their electoral triumph. Translation: “If we could benefit from all those people around the palace, we certainly wouldn’t mind befriending the man who once lived inside.”