The Death Of Vishnu

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The docile palace guards, trained more for fawning servitude than martial prowess, had no way of knowing that the Friday-night comings and goings of Nepal's huffy Crown Prince Dipendra, 29, would turn out to be the prelude to a dynastic catastrophe. When the Crown Prince and his cousin Prince Paras, 27, arrived at the palace for the royal family's regular Friday dinner, they were dressed casually in khaki slacks and polo shirts and had already had a few drinks. The two were notorious prowlers of the Kathmandu night-life circuit, regulars at the X-Zone nightclub and the Bakery Cafe, where they were at the center of a swirl of hip kids and young adults whose preferred mode of transportation is a Lexus SUV and whose favored intoxicant is locally processed hashish. By the time the night was over, the two would become central figures in the succession to a throne traditionally occupied by a reincarnation of the Hindu god Vishnu. Until Friday, King Birendra, the Crown Prince's father, was the god's avatar.

Nepal is defiantly individualistic, to the point of setting its clocks 15 minutes ahead of neighboring India's and practicing a syncretic, resolutely devout brand of Hinduism. But it has always been a bit of an international afterthought. Sandwiched between subcontinental superpower India and Chinese-occupied media-darling Tibet, Nepal has developed such a muddled identity that it now comes across as merely a staging ground for Everest expeditions and a destination where stoned Western hippies can score killer brownies.

As for the Nepalese, particularly those who live in the capital, Kathmandu, the bewildering influx of Westerners combined with a new generation of Nepalese who party like Westerners has left them wondering what will become of the formerly elder-respecting, ancestor- worshipping, opposite-sex-avoiding youth. Traditionalists and monarchists lay blame for the nascent dissolution on the liberalism engendered by a 10-year-old democracy that has already seen 10 Prime Ministers. King Birendra ruled Nepal as an absolute monarch until 1990, when he was forced by violent protests to step down in favor of a constitutional monarchy. But critics have assailed the new democratic values, saying they encourage people to do whatever feels right, regardless of the consequences: dump the Prime Minister, take a bribe, kiss your partner before marriage. Indeed, corruption scandals plague the current government of Girija Prasad Koirala. If the monarchy were still absolute, the critics griped, then the traditional values would prevail.

Yet the crime that now stands as the most heinous and shocking in Nepalese history was perpetrated in the innermost sanctum of that monarchy. At about 9 p.m. Friday, the mustachioed Crown Prince took his place at the teak dining table in a room that could accommodate 50 people, its pink walls hung with temple and landscape paintings. After pouring himself another drink, he began arguing with his parents, shouting at his mother, Queen Aiswarya, who didn't approve of the Crown Prince's romance with longtime paramour Devyani Rana, 23, the daughter of a former Foreign Minister of Nepal. The Crown Prince was furious that his family wanted him to marry Priyanka Shaha, a princess of royal blood. His sister Shruti scolded him to "stop slurring your words! You're the future King."

According to a high-ranking official, the Crown Prince then retired to his sleeping quarters, where he changed into camouflage fatigues and equipped himself with an American M-16 rifle and a revolver. Using a private corridor to return to the dining room, he barged in, firing a burst that killed his parents and shooting 12 others in the room. Among those fatally injured were the Crown Prince's younger brother, Nirajan, and his sister Shruti. He then turned the revolver on himself, firing a .38-cal. slug up through his temple, the bullet exiting the other side. The shooting spree took less than 30 seconds.

When palace aides dashed into the room, they found that the King's head had been blown nearly in half, and the Queen's body was unrecognizable save for the sari she had been wearing. Eight of the victims, including the King, were declared dead on arrival at the Royal Nepal Army Hospital. Five of the six wounded were listed in critical condition. But Shruti had been prophetic when she had admonished Dipendra. The next morning, in a coma and sustained by life-support systems and respirators, the Prince who killed the King was enthroned as King. The Privy Council declared that his uncle, the King's brother Prince Gyanendra, the father of Prince Paras, would serve as regent.

The Crown Prince and Paras had become increasingly close in the past few months, and the two shared a disregard for what they saw as plebeian laws. Nicknamed the Killer Prince, Paras was involved in at least four hit-and-run fatalities and several incidents of discharging firearms in public places. Despite a public outcry last year, the King refused to revoke Paras' royal immunity from prosecution. The facts that Paras and his family emerged from the shooting spree virtually unscathed, and that it is his branch of the family that will benefit the most, have prompted much public frustration. Indeed, if the Crown Prince dies, as his critical condition presages, Paras' father--the current regent--is next in the line of succession, which means Paras would become Crown Prince and, eventually, King.

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