Monday, July 12, 2010

Watching All Those Skeletons Dance

After the abolition of the monarchy, many Nepalis expected a torrent of putrefaction gushing endlessly deep from the bowels of Narayanhity Palace. A few enterprising scribes brought out purported “exposes” they were careful enough to qualify as works of fiction. Beyond that, it has been period of disappointment for thrill seekers.
Two years after the last king vacated the palace, no underground torture chamber has surfaced. There has not been the faintest trace of any grand harem. The elusiveness of the shrines to royal decadence and debauchery is weighing down the most fervent forager. For all its worth, the palace, since it was turned into a museum, has made international news for its monumental drabness – and that, too, for about five minutes. As former royalist minister Prakash Koirala mused the other day, who would have expected the last crown prince to get the kind of public reception he now revels in?
Yet skeletons have been tumbling out of other closets. Nepalis have become more informed of the machinations of the palace bureaucracy, the incivility of the military secretariat and the insecurity posed by a bevy of collateral royals. These days, the Mallas, Thapas and Pandes all have their advocates pushing their own versions of history. Everybody has reputation to destroy. Corrupt parvenus are juxtaposed with ostensibly pedigreed multi-millionaires. Palpalis undermined traditional Gorkhali families. Traitors to the king and country were repeatedly rewarded. The loyal and the honest were continually sidelined. Victim and aggressor alike pose a holier-than-thou pretense that enlivens the narrative.
Perspectives abound from outside as well. Yet they seem to hide more than they reveal. Take the two most gripping examples. The man who helped found the Rastrabadi Swatantra Bidyarthi Mandal continues to tell us of his disenchantment with the Panchayat system. Reborn as a journalist after the referendum, he invited such wrath from the princes that only a clumsy gunman appeared capable of providing the anti-climax. Yet there are elements of Edensque proportions that are missing from the story, especially after our own drug wars got nastier amid the American crackdown in the mid-1970s. Politics alone cannot – and must not be allowed to – explain events that may be actually rooted in the growing exclusivity of economic opportunity.
In another exposition, we learned how King Mahendra’s supposed emissary to Mao Zedong years later got an invite from Indira Gandhi. By that time, the interlocutor, by his own admission, refused the monarch’s advance request for a debriefing. His locus standi does not surface in any appreciable way, given the seriousness of his purported involvement. Nor does it emerge in any way how the man mustered the courage to defy whom conventional wisdom has held to be the most vengeful among our modern monarchs.
Yet the gentleman seems to have possessed rare indispensability. Years ago, Maoist leader Pushpa Kamal Dahal is said to have assured him that the rebels would accept the monarchy if the Chinese specifically asked them to do so. The gentleman’s failure to facilitate dialogue between the two sides brought another revelation. The Americans and Indians had entrenched themselves too deep on opposite sides of the breach at a time when they were publicly touting the convergence of their views.
Maila Baje tends to find the Newar families that have traditionally served the palace – some over several generations – the most reticent when it comes to giving out even off-the-record royal tid-bits. Should that change, we can expect things to reach a new level of spiciness. Until then, let’s appreciate the skeletons we get to their barest bones – mindful of the ambiguities and obfuscations accompanying the cracks and crevices.