In Nepal, death

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Peering into the mists of a person’s past to find clues to the present may be fruitless. The moment may be stirred by forces which have no kin with what went before. Action may answer the motions of a person’s deepest reaches; or it may be mere outer trembling, like the surface of a lake ruffled by the air. We are like fires in the open. We burn; but who knows how the world’s winds will make us dance? Yet when a terrible thing occurs, and reason is assaulted, people must ask why. And they will ask who; and they will ask who that person was, hoping there to find the satisfaction of reason, within the unknown.

Last week, the king and queen of Nepal, Birendra and Aiswarya, were killed by a machine gun, along with eight other members of the royal family. The Nepalese interior minister claims that the crown prince, Dipendra, was behind the massacre. The family had gathered to discuss Dipendra’s future. The minister says that after a tormented argument over who the prince would marry, caused by the army’s insistence that the prince not wed until he was 35, Dipendra murdered his family in a hail of bullets, before shooting himself. He lay briefly in a coma, perched between death and life, before dying on Sunday. The palace says the deaths were a terrible accident. Some believe the government, envious of the family’s power, is behind the deed.

I knew Dipendra at school. We called him Dippy. I knew his brother Nirajan, who now lies slain. We called him Nij; I taught Nij karate. Dippy always seemed very like an ordinary school boy. Mostly, he gave no sign of the exalted position to which he had been born; certainly, he never hinted that he was capable of savagery. At times, he strayed into areas where decency may have flinched. But these may have been no more than the spiritedness of the youth. To me, Dippy was always kind. When we practised karate together, he never bullied, though I was some years younger than him, and far less skilled. Others found that, too. Everyone liked him.

Eton College, which we attended between the ages of 13 and 18, is perhaps one of the few places where a prince can be accepted as, if not quite ordinary, at least understandable. Eton is full of royalty, of every stripe; its alumni are statesmen, poets, and warriors. The school has produced 18 British prime ministers, artists like Percy Bysshe Shelley and George Orwell, and soldiers like the Duke of Wellington who ended Napoleon’s reign. Princes William and Harry of England went there. During Dippy’s time, there were at least three royals, with varying title to various thrones. Largely they were treated as other boys, though Dippy was allowed a fax machine in his room. He used to go and send instructions to the Nepalese army, of which he was the commander-in-chief. Mostly we were amused by the thought of this jolly 15-year-old, always first in any daredevil scrape, commanding grim men in far jungles. Perhaps there is a clue. Did the jolt from an ordinary, carefree life of play and learning, to a rigid monarchical tradition where expectation weighed so much, affect him? A friend did tell me once he thought Dippy felt isolated and restless in the palace in Nepal, and may have drifted towards the militarism and ceremony that are so much part of royal Nepalese life.

My main memory of Dippy is his Hawaiian shirt. Such flamboyance was a welcome antidote to dry learning. Sometimes, Dippy turned up to karate class so brightly coloured that he hurt the eye. He was also fond of whisky. Once he arrived so drunk, he could barely stand: he talked quickly, and with humour. The drinking may mean something; it may mean nothing at all. We admired him: drinking was forbidden, and any with the daring to outwit the authorities was revered.

Dippy’s outings to Windsor, the local town, were less savoury, though they need not point to a killer. Eton schoolboys often annoyed townspeople, who resented the bastion of privilege, power and history, just adjacent to their homes. Boys who ventured from the 15th century loggias and quadrangles of the school into the less salubrious parts of town, usually in search of a drink or cigarette, were now and again given a wholesome beating by locals. That was nothing odd. Our school uniform made our difference obvious: a black tailcoat, waistcoat, wing collar and starched shirt, relics of the 18th century, stand out, even in England. Boys so dressed are an easy target and in my first year the school wisely relaxed the rules so boys could wear more casual dress during trips to town. Dippy, though, used to wear his school clothes anyway, deliberately inviting trouble. His exploits, singlehandedly defeating tribes of ruffians, became legendary (and doubtless exaggerated) about the school. A violent streak, or a lively sense of adventure and bravado, paying back the beaters in kind?

Mike Town, a housemaster at Eton College, taught Dippy for five years and knew him well. “There was not a hint of wrong behaviour when the prince was here,” Town told Al-Ahram Weekly. “His behaviour was perfectly fine. He was affable, pleasant, with dozens of friends. He worked hard and played hard. But he was responsible, too. I put him in charge of the Karate club.” Town is devastated by the death of his former pupil and friend, and his other pupil, Dippy’s younger brother Nij. I asked him whether he thought Dippy was the killer. Town was silent for a while before answering. “I don’t think so. But who knows what people do under incredible pressure, and extreme circumstances?” Then he went on fiercely, “If it were him, then he must have been under some extraordinary pressure. It was totally out of character.”

With the death of Dipendra, our last chance to know what happened in Nepal’s mountain palace may have gone. Those with an interest in the scraps of power now left to scavenge will spin the story to their needs. Every version will be tainted, every story denied. Rumours and conspiracy theories will flourish. We may never know who killed and why. For my part, I shall mourn the dead, two of whom were my friends, and wonder at the murky circumstances of their loss.

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