Book Review

The life and times of the former royal family

- Rupa Joshi, Kathmandu

May 31, 2019-


If you’ve been waiting for a ‘tell-all’ book that will provide a definitive answer to the royal massacre of 2001, you might be tempted to lay your hands on Durbar ko dukhanta (Tragic end of the palace). Written by Sundar Pratap Rana, an ex-armyman who served in the royal palace for 17 years and was the chief aide-de-camp (ADC) for late King Birendra, the title—along with its subtitle ‘Royal family carnage: The way I saw it’—holds promise of the perfect whodunit. But if that’s the sole reason you want to read this book, then you might be disappointed.

The first chapter plunges right into the thick of things—in and around the Billiard Hall of Tribhuvan Sadan in Narayanhiti Palace. But because the author, as he repeatedly admits in the book, did not actually see the shooter, what you get is his response to the unimaginable crisis of trying to rescue the person he was hired to protect, King Birendra. This chapter provides a deeper understanding of the three-day-long utter chaos that ensued after the shooting. In a fluid and simple narrative, Rana takes the reader along the frenzied attempt to save the king, including how they managed to take the badly wounded Birendra out of the room in 80 seconds and drive him from Narayanhiti to the Army Hospital in six minutes flat. It is quite a rollercoaster ride.

But Rana’s fingers do not point to anyone as the shooter. So, at the end of the chapter, the reader might wonder what the rest of the book is about.

Rana comes back to the massacre towards the end of this 307-page book to discuss the various issues that could have led Dipendra to wipe out his family. Throughout the book, there are sprinklings of incidents and insights into the royal family that keep adding to the ‘why’ of the massacre. There are lots of questions that the writer raises. What was it that turned a seemingly positive person into a violent monster? Why didn’t alarms bells ring regarding a security breach in the palace, not from outside, but from within? And why were sophisticated guns left in an individual’s possession and not secured in the palace armoury?

In between the massacre bookends, the book’s other chapters deal more broadly with a couple of themes: the not-so-glamorous life inside the royal palace; the author’s experiences as an army man; and numerous personal incidents and anecdotes about the king and the highly intelligent, naughty, stubborn, sharpshooting, gun-loving Dipendra.

The book flows very smoothly, the narrative weaving in and out of incidents, reflections and introspections, and includes references to photographs and other relevant documents. The language is simple and conversational, not weighed down by big words, and relies a lot on imagery, like a reference to unpruned cherry trees in Narayanhiti as having “unruly branches marching in whichsoever direction.” Rana also drops subtle hints of his personal views on various issues, referring to a rhino hunted down by Dipendra as “the death of an endangered animal” or how he speaks the unspoken by referring to Dipendra “being kept” in a coma.

As the king’s shadow for many years, Rana provides much insight into Birendra’s quiet and patient demeanour and his simple lifestyle that Rana describes as “extraordinary, because of his ordinariness”. He provides examples of how, during his entire association with the king, he only saw Birendra wear two pairs of formal shoes—black and brown—and how the only new clothes he got were gifted by the queen on his birthday and during Dashain. Birendra also preferred a small Terios jeep rather than a large sophisticated SUV. He describes Birendra, as someone who loved to take walks outside the palace, including once in the crowded Durbar Marg Street Festival. The king also apparently had a sweet-tooth and loved doodhmalai.

The book further details how Birendra wanted to resolve the Maoist conflict through dialogue, rather than the use of military force. It talks about his foreign policy, especially the hot-cold relationship with the southern neighbour, including pursuing ‘pilgrimage diplomacy’ like his father Mahendra. Rana also describes the king’s transition from an absolute monarch to a “hands-tied” constitutional one.

As the chapters unfold, Rana lays bare the dysfunction in the royal family, where the children spent more time with their nannies, servants and security people, than in their parents. At one point, Rana says that the king should have paid more attention to his children, especially to Dipendra’s rearing and growth.  He describes a three-day rafting trip down the Trishuli as “the only time (the king) spent two whole enjoyable days with his family.” He provides instances of how the younger brother Nirajan too became difficult to handle, leading to an increasingly strained relationship between the brothers and their sister Shruti. We also get a hint of Queen Aishwarya’s dominating character, especially when it came to matters of Dipendra’s love interests.

For readers like me, uninitiated in the military ways of discipline and hardship, Rana provides a lot of information about his 24-year journey as an army man.  A descendent of a family where every generation had served in the army from the time of King Prithivi Narayan Shah, Rana describes his entry into the army, his training as part of the commando force, and how he excelled in every field, be it parajumping, mountain climbing, marathon running, mountain warfare, sharpshooting or photography. His selection over his seniors to become the king’s ADC filled him with as much pride as did his sense of betrayal when he was “unfairly” relieved of his duties post-massacre by the new king.

The book is Rana’s way of coming to terms with a horrific incident that has haunted him, and the country, for these past 18 years. The guilt of not being able to save the king and queen seems to have gnawed at his soul. Towards the end of the book, he begs forgiveness from the Nepali public. The final catharsis for the author comes when he visits the palace, now turned into a museum. This final chapter, one that I like a lot, is very poignant.

“My heart searched for King Birendra,” Rana writes as he walks from one room to the other and talks about the memories associated with them. His tour takes him to the newly reconstructed Billiard Hall, which has no trace of the bodies, blood or bullet holes, the bullets that took away his beloved king and family. “How soon moss covers history,” says the last line of the book.

Joshi is a communicator based in Kathmandu


Durbar ko dukhanta

Author: Sundar Pratap Rana

Publisher: Kitab

Pages: 307

Price: Rs 600


Published: 01-06-2019 07:00

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