On the evening of June 1,2001, the King and Queen of Nepal, their daughter and younger son were murdered, evidently by their older son, whose own mysterious death ended the slaughter. The King's younger brother succeeded to the throne amidst rumors that he had masterminded the massacre. Years of turmoil followed, from which Nepal is just now beginning to emerge.
For me, Kathmandu's June One massacre was traumatic because it ended three and a half decades of quiet empathy I had felt for a man who had taught me as I was teaching him. In the weeks that followed his death, I collected articles on the tragedy but felt principally disbelief as I read them. It took more than three years before it began to seem to me that it might be healing and helpful to try to characterize Birendra, his life, his death, his role in my life, and what may be his enduring significance in the history of Nepal.
The articles and books I had accumulated included criminal forensic accounts, but these were necessarily speculative because rapid cremations in accord with Hindu custom precluded gathering systematic evidence. With few facts confirmed, suspicion was widespread among foreign commentators that Birendra's successor, his brother Gyanendra, had mass-murdered his way to the throne like Shakespeare's Richard Ill. Other popular narratives evoked Romeo and Juliet, Shakespeare's "star-crossd lovers", in the persons of Crown Prince Dipendra and the beautiful Devyani, of whom Queen Aishwarya reportedly disapproved. Perhaps inevitably, as persons around the world sought explanations, Shakespearean tragedy came to mind. But twenty-first century Kathmandu is not Shakespeare's London or Verona.
Absent from all accounts of the massacre and its aftermath was any substantive appraisal of Birendra and his abruptly terminated twenty-nine year reign, or of the remarkable series of rulers that preceded him. As my personal mourning drew to an end, I realized that while I had no way to contribute to sorting out precisely what happened on the evening of June One, I did have a sense of this event's historical setting.
I had always thought of my relationship with Birendra as confidential. I rarely mentioned him even to close friends, and never spoke publicly about him. I anticipated he would rule throughout my life, and never expected that a time would come when it would be appropriate for me to describe my discussions with Birendra or my thoughts about him. But the ending Birendra's reign produced a new situation, and I returned to my letters and journals with a different focus.
Part of that new focus was supplied three months after the June 1, 2001 massacre in Kathmandu, by the September 11, 2001, terrorist attack on the United States. Again I couldn't immediately respond to unimaginable catastrophe. I did however quickly sense that my personal response to both these tragedies would need to be connected. The ending of Birendra's beneficial reign combined with the post- 9/11 revival of American narcissism turned my thoughts back to questions that once seemed settled, in my life as well as in the public discourse of the United States. The launching of a xenophobic War on Terror convinced me that U.S. awareness of the world's complexity was still feeble. If what I learned from Birendra about U.S. relations with the rest of the world could encourage others to stop and think, perhaps the time had come to relate that story.
I would not today approach the project of tutoring a future ruler of Nepal as I did in the fall of 1967. When I became Birendra's tutor, I was twenty-seven, he was twenty-two. I was also a potential (if not actual) American imperialist, he a potential U.S. ally. U.S. involvement in Vietnam was then just beginning to disrupt the American political scene. Before that academic year ended, President Lyndon Johnson had decided amidst war-born domestic chaos that he couldn't run for re-election. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy were assassinated. The world, and above all the place of the United States in the world, seemed far less well-defined than when we began. My relationship to Birendra had also evolved in ways that called into question much of what I believed about my country and myself. In the ensuing decades, his influence on my thoughts continued to expand. I don't know how much of an effect I had on Birendra. I do know that Birendra shaped my career path, my thinking about the United States, and about the ways nations can beneficially interact. Birendra became part of my life, and to his memory I must dedicate this book.
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