What I've been reading
I remember reading about the massacre in Nepal in 2001, in which the crown prince killed most of his family before turning the gun on himself. It was a shocking story, but most of the accounts I read had little to say beyond the fact that it happened. Willesee and Whittaker, two Sydney-based journalists, read about the story and decided there was a book in it. They went to Nepal in 2002 to study the situation, and this book is the result. It's not a great book, but it is an entertaining one, and it gives us a very interesting look into Nepalese culture and history without providing many answers as to why the crown prince did what he did (and, to be fair, answers are probably not forthcoming, as I'll get to below).
The best part of the book, ironically, doesn't have much to do with the massacre itself, or even the examination of Dipendra, the prince, and his life leading up to it. Willesee and Whittaker first talk to several people about the massacre, including the royal astrologer, some of the aides-de-camp, and a journalist who has agitated for democratic reform for years. They also get into the Maoist rebellion that began in 1996 and was still going on when the book was published, interviewing a soldier who originally believed in the cause but became disillusioned with it. Necessarily, they get into Nepalese history, and they do a good job with it, too. Two major families, the Shahs and the Ranas, dominate recent Nepalese history, and the authors give us a good overview of how the royal family - the Shah - allowed the upstart Ranas to gain control over them in the middle of the nineteenth century, a situation that lasted a century. As the Ranas married into the royal family, everyone in the ruling sector of society is related, which makes family politics, which often reflect national politics, often volatile. In the 1950s, King Tribhuvan regained power from his Rana prime minister, but the Ranas remained very powerful in the country. This part of the book, that tracks the history of the royal dynasty and its many branches, is the most interesting part of the book.
In Part Two, the authors concentrate on Crown Prince Dipendra (who was born about a month after I was in 1971), and the book starts to weaken a bit. It's not that Dipendra isn't a fascinating character, it's just that the scope of the book narrows to focus on the family, and we start to lose the context of greater Nepalese society. Willesee and Whittaker never completely forget that this book is about a country as much as it is about its crazed prince, but they do narrow down their examination to Dipendra, and he's just not as interesting as the bigger picture. He rebelled against his parents, King Birendra and Queen Aishwarya, but kids tend to rebel. He fell in love with Devyani Rana, one of his (distant) cousins, but his domineering mother disapproved of the union. Royalty, of course, is all about producing heirs, so as Dipendra moved through his 20s without marrying, people began to worry. The story of Dipendra, as gripping as it is because we know how it ends, is a fairly standard story of a prince trying to be independent in a country that honors tradition over all. It's a sad story, to be sure, but we never really sympathize with Dipendra, for a variety of reasons. Perhaps it's because we're just waiting for him to kill everyone. Perhaps it's because we, as a Western audience, simply can't deal with the crushing burden of tradition, which dictated that he could not just marry whomever he wanted. We can't even understand why Aishwarya objected so strongly to Devyani. It went back to the 1880s, when an ancestor of Devyani, Khadga Shamsher Rana, led a palace coup against his uncle the prime minister. This ancestor was later accused of plotting against his brother, the new prime minister, and he was exiled with his wife - his junior wife. Yes, Nepalese men back then could have more than one wife, but the junior wives were often considered mere concubines. Devyani was descended from this junior wife, and although her more recent ancestry was still extremely wealthy, they had lost all their titles, and were therefore seen as beneath the royal family. Yes, an obscure caste problem from a century earlier made the queen reject Dipendra's choice for a wife, and that led, pretty directly, to her murder. It's difficult for us to accept that, but in a society like Nepal's, it was very important.
When the authors get to the massacre on 1 June 2001, the book becomes even a bit weaker. Again, the events are fascinating enough, and they do a good job recreating the scene, but they introduce several new characters who end up getting killed, and it's hard to keep track of them. Dipendra ended up killing his father, mother, sister, brother, uncle, two aunts, a great aunt, and an uncle-in-law. Plus, of course, himself. Willesee and Whittaker narrate these events with somewhat bloodless efficiency, which is perhaps the best way to do it because it's so horrifying, but it still leads to a fairly rote recitation. We don't know much about the ancillary relatives Dipendra kills, and we can never know why, for instance, he spared one cousin who was trying to block him from killing several younger female cousins. The events, of course, are shocking enough, so I'm not sure what the authors could have done with them, but it feels like they could have perhaps done a bit better giving us more information about the victims beyond Dipendra's immediate family. It would have made for a longer book, sure, but in this section of the book, we're getting so many names that it's tough to keep track of them. It's frustrating.
The aftermath of the killings is bizarre, too. Once Dipendra killed his father, he automatically became king and was therefore above the law. He didn't die right away, so while surgeons were working on him and futilely trying to save his life, the regent (and future king), Birendra's brother Gyanendra, was in a bit of a bind. What if Dipendra miraculously survived? He couldn't be prosecuted for his crimes, because he would be technically a god. It became a moot point a few days later, but the authors make the point that Dipendra was so beloved by the populace that even today, many people blame the massacre on anyone but him.
Although the book doesn't end well (in the way it's written, not in the subject matter, which we knew going in would not end well), it's still a fascinating examination of a culture about which most of us know little. Nepal is a strongly traditional nation struggling to adapt to the modern world, and that's the best part of Willesee and Whittaker's book. There's a goddess who possesses a pre-pubescent girl and decides whether it's auspicious for the king to ascend the throne. There's a royal astrologer who determines whether the heir to the throne will have a good life. There are Maoist rebels fighting with machine guns in villages where people marry their children off at eight or nine years old. There's a modern man, the authors' translator, who is secretly engaged because his family won't accept his girlfriend, who is from a different caste and religion than he is. Willesee and Whittaker fail to get inside Dipendra's head. Not many people want to talk about their relationship with the Crown Prince, and it's almost impossible to psychoanalyze a dead man. However, the authors do a nice job examining the society in which Dipendra lived and died, and from that we can gain a better understanding as to why he shot up his family. The actual events of 1 June 2001 are the weakest parts of the book, but the rest of it helps make up for that. It's a sad book, but a very interesting one.