The Hamlet of the Himalayas: A Holy Mess

It happens in the best of families: Someone gets mad and,

before you know it, heads are blown off and body parts are landing in the tea

cups. With the recent disaster at the royal palace in Nepal, the mysterious

East has gotten a little less mysterious, suddenly more like Weehawken, Boise

or Scarsdale. According to the first reports, when Crown Prince Dipendra Bir

Bikram Shah Dev got mad at his mother for denying him the bride of his choice,

he got drunk and lost his temper, or so it seems-once again proving right those

who say that guns don’t kill people, people with guns do.

Of course, it’s hard to know just what his sister and

brother had done to deserve such a final punishment. Perhaps they were smugly

enjoying the conflict between older brother and parent. Siblings can be like

that-always jockeying for a few extra points when the rival is down on the mat,

snickering when the other is most vulnerable. You might think that the prospect

of being king one day, of a life of ease, respect and luxury, might make a

young man glow with warmth and resolve to help his fellow man. But Hamlet

wasn’t a happy camper, either, and palace intrigue and disaster have been the

stuff of legend and literature from the time of the first monarch.

As is usual in such stories of boy-takes-gun-to-his-parents,

those who knew the killer report that Prince Dipendra-”Dippy” to his Eton

friends-was a good boy, a fine student, intelligent with maybe a hint of a

temper. As usual, the neighbors and teachers knew nothing of the thoughts of

the soon-to-be killer. One intriguing clue appeared in a New York Times story. At 18, the heir apparent was excused from

attending chapel at Eton because he was considered a god in his country, and a

god should not be caught worshipping another. It is here that one sees the

potentially deadly collision between the East and West-a problem so serious it

could cause a guy to go off the deep end. In one world he is an ordinary person

who is required to make friends, play sports, study, and in another he is the

manifestation of the holy, born to rule over others. How odd it must feel to be

both a god and a boy, to be tied to a tradition that has prayers, clothes,

attitudes that are completely different from those you are also familiar with,

tempted by, tainted by.

In the front-page picture of the newly appointed King

Gyanendra, Prince Dipendra’s uncle, in a formal procession through the streets

of Katmandu, we see a portly, woeful-looking man sitting on an Oriental rug

with his hands in the position of Eastern prayer. He wears what appears to be

an elaborate jeweled crown topped by a plume of white feathers. But above his

traditional tapered pants, he is wearing a gray tweed jacket like the executive

he is. This jacket, worn on such a solemn occasion, speaks worlds of the uneasy

mash of cultures, the strange, magic customs of a country tucked away in the

Himalayas combining with the everyday rationalism of Bond Street, Wall Street

and Cambridge.

It is possible, as some in Nepal are saying, that King

Gyanendra-who was conveniently out of town the night of the fatal

supper-engineered the massacre, leaving himself the only possible monarch of

this unstable kingdom. Hamlet’s slimy uncle thirsting for throne and queen

comes to mind, along with Richard III, who wanted no child left alive who might

have a claim on his exalted place. There is apparently a throng of would-be

rulers in Nepal right now planning an assault on the palace. Has King Gyanendra

consulted with the witches? They told Macbeth the truth, as he, a

Western-educated man, must know.

But if Prince Dipendra did what he seems to have done, this

passing news event will live and be

elaborated in song, dance and theater as a great love story-tinged, of

course, with tragic and terrible rage. If he wanted to marry a particular

woman, and his mother, known for her autocratic ways, insisted that he marry

someone else, we have here a passion play about a man who wants his own choice

in love-and how very Western that is. This is a clash of values: We believe it

is our God-given right to forge our own romantic and erotic destiny, while for

other peoples such an idea is laughable (if not subversive). No wonder the

Muslim fundamentalists want to keep all Western TV channels dark.

The traditionalists have no interest in Prince Dipendra’s

chosen loved one, but we can imagine what she must be feeling: pride in having

been loved so fiercely; grief at her loss. This is worth an aria, maybe two. It

is not impossible that the thought of losing his loved one drove Prince

Dipendra into such a state of rage that he killed the woman who would deprive

him of his deepest desire, and all around. The mischief-maker here is the idea

of love as choice. As it destroyed the kingdom of Troy, so it destroyed the

kingdom of King Birendra and took his life. It is possible that this Western

idea of free love met in Prince Dipendra’s mind with his sense of himself as a

god entitled to anything he wanted. His fury at being thwarted was unmodulated

by the ordinary disappointments most of us suffer before we are 30. He did not

think of running away with his bride. He did not think of establishing a

kingdom in exile. He did not think of getting a job with a bank in London.

Instead, he erupted like a volcano and, in his rage, killed himself as well,

proving once again that murder and suicide are but two sides of the same coin. Heads

or tails, it’s sometimes a matter of accident which turns up.

But when this kind of rage bursts forth in royal families,

it has political ramifications that are not so pretty. If the Maoists who are

in the mountains come down, death may be

shared democratically. If the country cannot regain its footing as

either a monarchy or a constitutional entity, there will be hell to pay, and

all because a boy learned in the West that he was a mortal being with a heart

of his own that could not bear being broken. He who dares wound a god must die.

Now that our world is practically one, linked by computer,

as New York Times columnist Tom

Friedman often writes, there will be

many more victims of cultural confusion. As the West dominates with its TV and

movies and Big Macs, there will be more and more sons raging at fathers and

forlorn parents who don’t understand why their children are demanding such huge

helpings of personal freedom. This fact alone will provide us with a century’s

worth of dramatic intrigue.